Eagle Tattoos

Dante wrote a couple of cantos in his Paradiso using the miraculous image of an eagle composed of the gathered starlike souls of just rulers who have passed to the heavenly sphere of Jupiter as his theme, pointedly describing the disrepute of the church at the time of the schism in Western Christianity. For Dante this was the period in which the Roman Church sank to the lowest point of its degeneracy, selling indulgences and killing in the name of Christ, so his eagle is not only the eagle of divine justice, but the image of the Imperial cause, which he hoped would bring the church back in line with the gospel.

The Emperor is customarily represented by a sigil of an eagle; in tarot imagery it’s usually a black, single headed bird upon a shield beside the seated ruler. In the painting I’m giving the man and woman tattoos of Imperial eagles to be sure that their characters are recognized as contemporary interpretations of the trope. Although we no longer have empires we still recognize the eagle as the image of truthful government, which ideally should be representative of divine justice. We see the birds in the coats of arms and emblems of many of our most powerful countries.

About tattoos. Even when they’re interpreted at the lowest level of their significance they’re a very private means of self-expression that can preserve memories of times and places for the lifetime of the person who wears them, although of course too often they’re chosen and applied in a moment of drunkenness or braggadocio. But even very small tattoos can carry deep meanings for the wearer, for example by memorializing the dead, or as mementos of the birth of children.

At their best, because tattoos are usually private art that is covered by clothing, the experience of seeing a really beautifully made large scale piece is layered – it’s not only an image that might impress us for it’s aesthetic merits; not only a glimpse into the personal life of the person wearing it; it’s also a shared private moment in which the revealed flesh of the person is simultaneously naked and clothed in the ink of the image. It’s an interesting example of how secrecy and privacy can make art more meaningful.

About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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