in ictu oculi

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

in momento in ictu oculi in novissima tuba canet enim et mortui resurgent incorrupti et nos inmutabimur

—1 Corinthians 15:52

One of the side effects of studying literature—of any kind, I suppose, but the Spanish Golden Age in particular will do it—is that you think about death a lot. Last semester my professor shared this painting with us to get across the mood of the Spanish Baroque, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since:

In ictu oculi, Juan de Valdés Leal, c. 1670–2
Hospital de la Caridad, Sevilla

I love it. It’s been my desktop background for months now. Not just because it’s just generally pretty metal to paint a skeleton stepping on the world, towering over symbols of earthly power, and then to put that painting in a hospital to remind all men of their end, because the Spanish Baroque is exactly as extra as I am. But because the Renaissance poets always seemed to have a hidden agenda for their memento mori: we’re all gonna die someday so you might as well have sex with me while you’re young and pretty, querida! (I don’t love Garcilaso de la Vega.) The Baroque isn’t messing around, though. It goes right to the point: none of this matters, “this” being what the world counts. Scepters and tiaras and miters and books and fine robes are vanity. You’ll be bones in the blink of an eye. Dig deep enough and you’re bones already.

Grad school can easily make you lose perspective: teaching distracts from exams distract from research, nothing exists outside your department, who cares if it isn’t canon, time is an illusion, all hours are work hours, health is irrelevant, what exactly is a social life. Like many jobs, it will expand to fill the time you give it. So why would a grad student, or anyone under global capitalism really, want to look at this painting of a skeleton all day? Ha ha, you’re gonna die someday and you will have spent all your time hard at work!

Believe it or not, it helps me keep a sense of humor about things.

My friend Leah had an excellent strategy while wedding planning: does this decision affect the validity of the sacrament? If not, don’t stress about it. Staring at this painting for months on end, I’ve adapted this: does this action or event affect my eternal salvation? If not, don’t stress about it.

Whether or not I pass my comps exams extremely does not affect my eternal salvation. Learning to humble myself before the process kind of does, though—as does supporting my friends along the way, being a good steward of my body and mind, and being of service to the students who have been entrusted to me.

Anyway, you’re gonna die someday, eyes on the prize.

Also, the Spanish Baroque is the best.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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