Perhaps, while slaving through your liberal arts education (or simply perusing public television), you wandered into the world of mythology. There, invariably, you found Mithras: the Persian sun-god who, somewhere along his career, killed a fearsome bull and found a following in Rome.
Or, while traveling the world after finally graduating, you watched a toreador taunt a bull (a tradition linked to Mithras’s legend) or even scaled an Aztec pyramid.
Yes, we’ve wandered from Rome to Spain, and resurfaced in Mexico, but what does any of this have to do with art?
When entering The Modern’s lobby, a large canvas on the right wall catches your eye. At its center rises the ruins of an Aztec pyramid – an ancient symbol of transcendence – down which a rivulet of gold paint shimmers. The painting is by German artist Anselm Kiefer, titled Pope Alexander VI: The Golden Bull.
When I first saw this work, I was impressed by its scale as well as the near-geological layers of paint encrusted on the canvas. But I was also perplexed. Kiefer’s pyramid is the infamous Pyramid of the Moon, the site of Aztec human sacrifice. But why did he title his work after a pope who lived more than 500 years ago? And where is the bull?
For many of us, bewilderment can be a common feeling when viewing a piece of modern art for the first time, especially without previous knowledge of a work. In Golden Bull, Kiefer’s meaning lies coded in symbol and allusion. Deciphering it requires a keen detective nose… and a short dive into the past.
In 1356, Charles IV issued a papal Golden Bull. Named for its gold seal, the bull was a decree by the Pope to the Catholic world intended to repress greedy politicians. But over a century later, Pope Alexander VI became the poster-child of the greed Charles hoped to deter.
Alexander was not as much a man of the cloth as a man after his own pocketbook. A friend of the Spanish monarchy, he condoned the massacre and enslavement of the Aztecs – whose culture he deemed barbaric – to serve his quest for gold. He once even boasted he could fill the Sistine Chapel with sacks of gold.
Let’s leave the shores of fact momentarily for the realm of conjecture. Remember the sun-god Mithras? In Mesoamerican cultures, gold was associated with the sun’s brilliance. So could Mithras also be the god of gold? I like to imagine Alexander as Mithras’s stand-in, making the Aztec Empire his bull. Perhaps the golden, blood-like stream down the pyramid represents not only the cost of Aztec sacrifice, but also of Western greed. If so, Kiefer could be making a paradoxical statement about the Old and New World’s search for salvation and their desire for immortality.
Kiefer meant to invoke the Mithras legend – but there can certainly be other interpretations of the work. That's the beauty of modern art. As his own painting mentor – the artist Peter Dreher – once said, art is a field of investigation "without boundaries." Kiefer’s painting, a richly layered work, becomes a sounding board for your own interpretation and conjectures.