- Damien Hirst
- butterfly wings on household gloss on canvas
- diameter: 213.4cm.; 84in.
- Executed in 2003.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2003
Naples, Museo Archeologico, Damien Hirst: The Agony and the Ecstasy, Selected Works from 1989 to 2004, 2004-05, p. 190, illustrated in colour and pp. 192-93, detail illustrated in colour
With its kaleidoscopic colours and pseudo religious glow, Rapture is one of Damien Hirst's very first butterfly-wing paintings and one of only two such works exhibited in his critically acclaimed show 'Romance in the Age of Uncertainty' staged at White Cube, London, in 2003. Selected and given pre-eminence by the artist in his mid-career retrospective 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' at the Museo Archeologico, Naples, in 2004-05, the seminal Rapture contains the blueprint for some of Hirst's most successful and iconic later works. Set into a paint film of deep crimson gloss, the naturally saturated, exuberant hues of the butterflies' gossamer wings – iridescent and reflecting light – are so mesmerising that standing before this seven-foot masterpiece is analogous to the reverence-inspiring experience of standing below the great Gothic rose stained-glass window set into the front façade of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. As the title of the work suggests, invoking bliss, beatitude and exaltation, Hirst's evocation of the spiritual is intentional. However, unlike other works in the series whose designs are based on the hallowed stained-glass windows of Catholic churches, the geometric square within a circle design of Rapture is in fact based on a mandala, the Hindu and Buddhist charts which symbolically and metaphysically represent the cosmos, sansara and the cycle of life and rebirth. Used as a tool for focusing the mind as an aid to meditation and to help establish a sacred space, mandalas, like stained-glass windows, are designed to induce awe. In the same way, Rapture stuns the viewer into contemplation.
In the context of the 'Romance in the Age of Uncertainty' show, Rapture offered a moment of respite from the pain and pathos of the other works. Examining the spiritual uncertainty at the heart of the human condition, the assembled works collectively dissected and recast the story of Jesus and the Disciples. Twelve cabinets depicting the deaths of the Apostles, some spilling out blood-stained laboratory coils like entrails, were arranged according to the architectural plan of the Catholic Church along the nave. At the base of each cabinet stood the corresponding disciple, represented by a sacrificial cow's head preserved in formaldehyde. The altar was represented by an empty mirrored cabinet, topped with sparkling laboratory glassware and a single white dove, referencing the Holy Trinity, while at the opposite end of the gallery the present work was hung with its pendant, the oval-shaped Devotion, like two rose windows, to provide the necessary meditative and restorative relief.
Due to the incredibly complex composition of Rapture, its appearance changes when viewed from different distances and perspectives. From afar, the individual wings resemble jewel-like tesserae in a mosaic, brimming with turquoise, azurite, amber and yellow sapphires, each intense colour subservient to the chromatic design of the overarching principle. The blue butterflies, with iridescent wings as rich in hue as lapis-lazuli or azurite, reflect the light to such a degree that the surface scintillates and shimmers, so that the two rhombi within the circle appear and disappear as the viewer circumnavigates this shrine to colour. Up close, instead of the lives of the saints or the teachings of the Buddha, it is the individual specimens that become discernible. A panoply of different species – some large some small, some brightly coloured, others mottled – their fragile existence and brief lifespan suddenly become poignant in their enshrinement in household gloss. For Hirst, this moment of realisation contains the oxymoronic beauty of horror, and horror of beauty. In a complex echo of the cyclical existence depicted in the mandala, the caterpillar dies in its chrysalis, and is reborn as a butterfly. This delicate creature dies, but in doing so gives birth to a beautiful object, the work of art. As ever in Hirst's work, beauty is laced with death.
Like a view into a kaleidoscope, Rapture presents us with a simultaneity of order and chaos, a composition which from some viewpoints has a discernible structure but from others fractures into a complex matrix of colour. The 'circle with a centre' structure of the mandala-like composition, which represents one religion's attempt to contain the order of unfathomable existence, is also a recurring pattern found throughout nature, seen in biology, geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy, from the macro to micro, from planets to atoms and our DNA, throughout the fabric of the universe as we know it. In Rapture, Hirst layers and holds in creative tension these conflicting scientific and religious perspectives. Although a scientific world view can give us knowledge of the nature of things – it can verify and prove the facts – it cannot tell us what these mean. Conversely religion, with its attendant moral interpretations, unproven if not unfounded, can grant the world meaning and human beings value. In the 'Romance in the Age of Uncertainty' exhibition in general, and in Rapture in particular, Hirst recasts religious themes, despite the fact that since the Enlightenment any proven rational belief in divine order has been undermined. In doing so, he brings art into the equation and raises the question of whether art can be an antidote to the nihilistic experience of living in an uncertain world.
In interweaving religion, science and art, distinct categories each with its own fervent claim to truth, Hirst creates an object of bewildering beauty which eloquently communicates the conceptual premises at the core of his entire oeuvre. Like a mandala, Rapture reminds us of our relation to the infinite and shimmers with the promise of a life beyond. Yet on closer scrutiny, the preserved dead butterflies remind us of the inevitability of the cycle of life and the certainty of death, the prosaic manifest reality of the biological sciences.