On Religious Symbolism in the Art of Damien Hirst

Written by

‘I am going to die and I want to live forever.’[i]
On Religious Symbolism in the Art of Damien Hirst

Inside two large glass vitrines lie two human bodies on autopsy tables. The bodies are covered with blue sheets, such that only the fig-leaf shaped holes strategically placed over their sexes reveal that they are male and female. The characteristic leaf pattern is an obvious reference to the story of Adam andEve.Everything suggests that the two recumbent figures are dead, yet, as if by magic, we sense a slight movement in the draped bodies. Is this a representation of the victory of medical science over the finite human being, or are we witnessing a divine intervention?

Adam and Eve Exposed (2005) is a dramatic and fascinating artwork that engages with many of the issues Damien Hirst has been concerned with throughout his entire artistic career. Ever since he exhibited flies feeding on a putrefying ox head (A Thousand Years, 1990), he has continued to take recourse in grotesque means in order to address the large questions of life and death. Hirst moves elements from life into art, and in this exploration of the transition from life to form, he often tries to stop time and create an ideal state or condition beyond the spacio-temporal manifold. In the impressive work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1990), Hirst took an enormous shark out of its usual environment and sunk it into a large tank of formaldehyde. The many animals submerged in formaldehyde have since become one of Hirst’s trademarks, and they help shed light on his interest in scientific methods. Science – and not least the pharmacy, with its unending search for means of alleviation, happiness and eternal life – has inspired Hirst, and comprises the impetus for many of his key works. Thus Adam and Eve Exposed reveals a relation between his interest in religious metaphors and scientific techniques.

Hirst has in recent years created several exhibitions where religion and religious allegories are core elements. Exhibition titles such as Romance in the Age of Uncertainty (2003), New Religion (2006), Superstition (2007) and In the Darkest Hour There May be Light (2007), indicate an interest in the role of religion today. This interest is reflected in artworks juxtaposing materials and metaphors from his four main fields of interest – religion, love, art and science – yet these also reveal an excellent ability to combine clichéd and dramatic symbols in an innovative and thought-provoking way. In our secularized society, religious motifs have lost much of their original power, nevertheless, these symbols point to an emptiness Hirst is concerned with:

“I’m more interested in religion filling a hole for people. That’s how I look at it now. There’s a hole there in people. In everybody. In me. A hole that needs filling, and religion fills it for some people. And art for others. I don’t think religion is the answer, but it helps. I use art in a similar way to fill that hole. It’s just ways of looking at the world optimistically rather than just as a brutal swamp. Which it is. But, in order to live you have to make more out of it than that. Religion helps, but it’s failed really.”[ii]

Damien Hirst stands within an artistic tradition stretching back as far as Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Since then, Dadaists, Pop Artists, Conceptualists and Appropriation Artists have transformed elements from the everyday world into art. Hirst has also been inspired by Minimalist’s research on formal questions, and his works can additionally be seen as a perpetuation of existentially engaged art exemplified by the British artist Francis Bacon. Hirst frequently places objects and animals in glass vitrines that can be conceived in context with Bacon’s figures in defined, geometric spaces. He freely takes recourse in the works of other artists, and wants to create visual and thematic connections.

“I suppose I want people to think, mainly. In this instance, I wanted people to think about the combination of science and religion, basically. People tend to think of them as two very separate things, one cold and clinical, the other emotional and loving and warm. I wanted to leap over those boundaries and give you something that looks clinical and cold but has all the religious, metaphysical connotations too. It’s the perfect time now because the church is messing up so badly” [iii]

In the 2003 exhibition Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, we find several examples of Hirst’s ability to create powerful connections between the worlds of science and religion. In a series of thirteen cabinets representing the resurrection of Jesus and the deaths of the twelve apostles, pharmaceutically-inspired glass and steel cupboards are combined with objects we recognize as symbols of suffering and death. The Martyrdom of St. Peter is, as the title suggests, a portrait of the apostle Peter. Along the shelves of the vertical glass cupboard are glass receptacles and measuring instruments – a collection of objects from a pharmacy or laboratory. The form is strict and minimalistic, but in contrast to having a formal focus, the allegorical contents and narrative are primary. Between the sterile flasks we also find things that disrupt the clinical impression. If we move up close to the work, we can see that the objects are not placed logically on the shelves but hang upside-down; it seems like the law of gravity is turned off in there, and the cupboard has magical powers. Amongst the measuring instruments and pipettes are recognizable objects from a specific story: a rooster, keys, an upside-down cross, bloody holes in the glass doors; these suggest events which, according to the Bible and tradition, happened in the life of the apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends. We recall the story of how he came to deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Legend has it that when he was to be crucified, he deemed himself unworthy to be killed in the same way as the Saviour, and was therefore crucified upside-down. Hirst’s visual devices are closely linked with the story, and lend the work a portrait character. Yet in contrast to traditional representations of the apostle’s death, the cupboard lacks a human figure. Instead Hirst has installed a mirror at the back of a shelf, and the reflection of ourselves in the cupboard prompts us to reflect on our own relation to the story.

In the same exhibition Hirst presented another series of works referring to the apostles.[iv] The so-called Cancer Chronicles are black single-coloured pictures. Their intense dark surfaces elaborate upon monochrome painting’s internal mystique, and the pictures themselves possess a kind of burlesque beauty. Single-coloured canvases have, throughout Modernism, been ascribed intrinsic power, and functions today as symbols of artistic freedom and the autonomy of art. We can think of Ellsworth Kelly or Ad Reinhardt’s monochrome paintings. But the black colour on Hirst’s surfaces is not made by paint or feelings; it is made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny flies. Because the flies are so small, and the pictures gives the initial impression of having been painted with thick black paint, it takes some time to discover the tiny insects. The encounter is seldom pleasant. Flies are known to spread disease and infection; difficult to eradicate, they challenge our need to control our environment and protect ourselves. Hirst underscores our fear of disease with titles derived from our worst nightmare: Leukaemia, Smallpox, Tuberculosis, Bubonic Plague, Leprosy, Septicemia, Cholera, Typhoid, Syphilis, Malaria, Ebola, Meningitis and AIDS. By creating fly pictures with titles of diseases, and relating them to the suffering of Christ and the martyrdom of the apostles, Hirst forges a connection between their historical suffering and our own personal fears of illness, suffering and death.

The symbols in these works are direct and characterized by clichés. Their contents and drama are not less than what we find in Baroque paintings and sculptures, such as Caravaggio and Bernini’s realistic representations of religious suffering and ecstasy. Aesthetically and formally, Hirst aligns himself to some extent with Pop Artists who seriously acknowledged the position of clichés in art. Even more conspicuous is his affinity with the American artist Jeff Koons, who in 1988, appropriated middle-class aesthetics in his Banality series. The works in that series initiated a heated discussion about the role of aesthetics in contemporary art. Damien Hirst has, perhaps to an even greater extent, managed to address the issue of absurd pictures and bad taste, and turned it into a new form of beauty. A good example of his revitalizing cliché-filled signs is his use of the butterfly. In his first solo exhibition In and Out of Love from 1991, he introduced butterfly larvae fed on sugar-water and flowers, and reared them up to be small flying artworks. Soon, however, they became victims of art, captured in white or pastel-coloured paint, as seen in the sugar-sweet I Feel Love (1994-95). The title alludes to the butterfly as a metaphor for being in love. These small, beautiful insects also have a bonafide place in religious pictorial language. In many cultures they are perceived as symbols of the soul liberated from the bodily prison. In the newer works Aubade Crown of Glory (2006) and Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel – Conception (2006), Hirst lays hold of this symbolism and creates paintings with butterfly wings glued in patterns reminiscent of leaded glass windows in great gothic cathedrals.

Living and dead insects and animals have been used in art before. Richard Serra’s work Habitat was exhibited in Rome in 1966, and consisted of live as well as stuffed animals. Jannis Kounellis displayed live horses in 1969, and Joseph Beuys lived with a coyote at the René Block Gallery in New York for four days in 1974. Notwithstanding, the work Mother and Child (Divided) (1993) has a unique position in newer art history. Just as when Hirst, a few years earlier, submerged a shark in formaldehyde, so also does this work trigger a strong sensation of time standing still. The safe, docile animals are divided down the middle and sunk in four glass tanks of formaldehyde. With a scientist’s respectful accuracy, Hirst shows us innards and intestines, yet leaves the well-known external surface intact. In our encounter with the artwork, we are perhaps disturbed and provoked by the clash between the external and the internal, between illusion and reality. Meanwhile, divided animals have clear Biblical references. In the Old Testament we find numerous stories that include the partitioning of animals. In Jeremiah 34 (18-20), we read that when making a pact, a calf would be cut in two, and the ‘leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land would walk ‘between the pieces of the calf’. This was done to remind those involved of the destiny awaiting them if they broke the pact.[v]

In Mother and Child (Divided), the two animals are not merely divided down the middle, they are also divided from each other and placed in isolated tanks. The brutal separation of the mother and child is contrary to one of the most well-known religious motifs: the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. The mother with her child close to her breast is one of the most celebrated pictures of hope, love and redemption in Western art history. In Hirst work, however, an almost scientific inquiry into death is combined with a challenge to religious symbolism. Not content to brutally slice the animal carcasses, he has torn the child from the mother and incited fear and disorder.

Hirst’s art revolves around the motif of death. This comes patently to expression in the work New Religion - The Fate of Man (2005). The small skull in silver used to belong to a twelve-year old boy. The missing front teeth and the jaw, which reveal that new teeth were on the way, underscore the boy’s young age and amplify the terrifying effect. The skull is a part of the exhibition New Religion (2006), first shown at a church in London. In addition to the skull, the exhibition included several direct and to some extent disturbing pictures and sculptures, such as a crucifix decorated with pills, and a metal heart pierced with needles and scalpels. By placing such direct and provocative artworks in a church, Hirsts poses questions about the role of religion in our day, and presents art and science as strong candidates for taking over religion’s role and filling the void.

The religious connotations in Hirst’s art are conspicuous, both in titles and visual metaphors. He is not afraid to elaborate upon well-known stories, or to engage with clichés. Nevertheless, his works have an enduring relevance that does not dissolve, even after their shocking connections are uncovered. Perhaps the enduring quality in his works is derived from transformation as an artistic means. We recognize it in the various works, the butterflies or the flies transformed into a painting, the cows transformed into floating forms. The recurring transition from life to form can be compared with one of the core aspects of all religions: the unexplainable element of transformation when reason must give way to faith. This is linked with the transition from death to life, from human to divine. Faith in itself, regardless of whether it is related to religion, science or art, is a means of defence against fragility and ephemerality. Damien Hirst uses religious clichés in his art in order to make us aware of the big questions. Religious symbolism is often the catalyst for a natural yet ruthless theatre that amplifies the visual force.


[i] www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize/history/hirst.htm

[ii] Sean O ‘Hagan interview with Damien Hirst, in: Damien Hirt: New Religion, Paul Stolper/Other Criteria,London, 2006, p. 12

[iii] Ibid, p. 5

[iv] Hirst has created several works referring to Jesus last meal with the apostles, among others, The Last Supper, 1999. Read more about it on page 28.

[v] Annushka Shani, ‘Between Fact and Wonder’, in: Damien Hirst: Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, Jay Joplin/White Cube,London, 2003, p. 7.

Address: Strandpromenaden 2, 0252 Oslo

© Astrup Fearnley Museet