Photographer's Notes
Sacred Vessel, Gallery Sixteen

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I was reluctant to add the "Sacred Vessel" collection of images to the others on this website but have done so at the urging of my wife of nearly 40 years whose judgement I respect.  This series of figure studies was done in celebration of the widely held cross-cultural belief that the body is an arc or vessel that contains the soul and serves as it's instrument in the important work of teaching and learning. Believers say that we take our bodies for granted, but our bodies are sacred, created by the same universal authority that creates the soul. The body is, therefore, deserving of the same reverence.

The Union of Soul and Body

The "marriage" of the soul and body has been observed in a variety of forms throughout history and across many ethnic and cultural traditions. It is seen in art, dance, ritual, religious rite, and myth. As an archetype, it is known to ethnologists as the "Hierosgamos," or the sacred marriage of two deities, or of a single deity with a human spouse.  The soul, which is always seen as divine and eternal and is generally viewed as female, is mated with the impermanent body, and the two become "one flesh, not parted until death."  The body thus becomes the earthly representative of the soul (or deity) in the material world. The biological imperative of sexual union between human beings in the natural world  is viewed as an earthly metaphor that should remind us of our other-worldly origins.

The sprit/body dualism of the Christian world is countered by a subtle, alternate variation in many eastern religious traditions. In Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, the body is created and transformed by the Karma we build up through our choices in our current lives as well as our past lives.  Thus, the image of the body is one expression of our Karma, and Karma's pattern is, in effect, all that survives the physical body from one life to the next. For Buddhists in particular, the division between the material and the ethereal worlds is not as distinct as it may seem to many westerners and non Buddhists.  Both the material and non material are part of the same natural world, one being available to our limited sensorium and the other still present but existing beyond our senses. The thing that survives the death of the body, "Karma," comes from a Sanskrit root word meaning "action." This word is mirrored in the Latin term "Anima" or the thing that animates us, with it's similar associations to the word "psyche," meaning breath or soul in ancient Greek. The female Anima, found in the male (and its male-gendered counterpart, the "Animus," in the female) are those parts of the personality that give rise to action and creativity according to analytic psychology.  We are nothing without Anima.  Indeed, "Soul Loss" is the term given by many tribal peoples to what most of us in the "modern," western world call "depression."

Clothing as an Earthly Possession

A Jainist sect in India renounces the use of clothing for it's monks and nuns in the belief that our clothing ties us to the material world.  We become attached to our clothing in the same way that we become attached to all worldly possessions.  It should be noted that Jainists also believe in the potential divinity of our individual souls, and the ultimate attainment of that divinity comes in part through our renunciation of all worldly things. This concept is mirrored in Christian monasticism, based upon the original teaching by Christ who advised his followers to give up all of their worldly possessions (clothing excepted), and who also said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  The teaching is plain; austerity is the path to God.

For those of us living in the northern latitudes, clothing obviously has many practical advantages which might make it difficult for us to become naked ascetics like the Jainists, even if we wanted to. The important point made by Jainism is about the role that clothing plays in our earthly lives.  This point has not been missed by transpersonal and transcultural psychologists who believe that our clothing has immense, psychological importance.  Just as the soul assumes the cloak of the body to carry out it's earthly work, so the body and soul together assume a "Persona," a kind of mask or cloak that covers the inner self but identifies us to others and helps to integrate us socially. Our clothing, of course,  is part of that mask.  Make no mistake, for the transpersonal psychologist, the Persona is essential and is a legitimate part of the personality. The role that the Persona plays in our earthly lives is itself one of our many earthly possessions, and it is part of what we must give up in death.  In death, the mask falls away and disintegrates with the body, and it is only the pattern of our earthly actions and the imprints left by us in the material world that survives. In the material world our rare nakedness has the potential to humble us before others and reveal a bit more of who we really are in the presence of God.

Admittedly, some of us, myself included, are likely to be more "humbled" than others by our "nakedness," especially as we grow older. If, however, it is our clothing that separates us from one another by what it signals about  our status or by what it conceals about our true nature, then the absence of clothing has the potential to level the playing field and to reveal the natural world as it is - a part of divine creation. When I finally finished preparing the images in Gallery Sixteen, I liked the results, and I was reminded of the verses from Matthew VI, 25-30:

"Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?...... Consider the Lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all of his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Matthew, I believe, was sayng that despite all of the trappings of our lives, we come into life equipped with all that we need to fulfill our's (and God's) purpose. This simple truth is both elegant and beautiful.

The Model

I was fortunate to hire a model, "Nichole," (above left, and at right) who is a committed Yoga practitioner and an accomplished student of the classical Indian dance form known as "Odissi."  As such, I felt that she was especially suited to help interpret the idea of the eternal body/soul and it's sacred qualities. Odissi is a devotional dance in which a portion of the dance is committed to what is known as the "ishta devata vandana."  This segment of the dance invites union with the dancer's unique deity through the use of various body positions and hand mudras. Similarly, Bhakti Yoga is devotional and also invites union with a deity.  The term "Yoga," itself, comes from a Sanskrit root that means "union."  As an archetype or cultural universal, this union is both the "Hierosgamos," mentioned earlier, and also what is called the "Mysterium Coniunctionis" or mystical union of the church (metaphor for the body) with God.

When I interviewed Nichole, I described a number of poses to her that I wanted to photograph.  It was not my intent to specifically image either Yoga or Odissi poses,  but I felt certain that the disciplines of both Yoga and Odissi would find their expression in Nichole's poses regardless of which ones were imaged.  Knowing that Nichole had extensive experience as a model for the Cottonwood Art School I invited her to suggest some of her own poses in addition to mine, and she liked the idea of a collaboration.

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Nichole demonstrates the mudras
(Curtis Photo)