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Triptych – ‘The Weighing of the Souls’ – by Michael Madden

Triptych – ‘The Weighing of the Souls’ – by Michael Madden

Triptych – ‘The Weighing of the Souls’ – by Michael Madden

Local painter, sculptor, campaigner and Hastings resident, Michael Madden, talks with HOT’s Chandra Masoliver about his remarkable new artwork, a triptych in a carved oak frame.

CM: I love this painting, it’s powerful, sad and very beautiful. The animals look directly at us, as conscious as humans, their halos shining. They are grave, with a medieval stillness, like icons. Why did you paint this picture?

MM: Thanks. It’s about global warming but also about human attitudes to animals in general. I finished it under lockdown and have changed it a bit since.

Some time ago I watched a shocking news feature, in which a British ‘hunter’ shot a lion dead. I couldn’t believe people were allowed to kill endangered wild animals, and according to the Independent they still are:

Britain has a high number of lion-killing men, but some women also like to do it. Although Johnson promised to ban the importation of hunting trophies in his election manifesto, he has since stalled the ban. I think it’s immoral, and that, as Voltaire said, “God is the soul of animals”.

CM: What do you think he meant by that?

MM: I think he meant that we share a larger soul with them. It’s from a short essay he wrote in 1764, questioning the conventional belief of his time, that only humans have souls, and that animals don’t feel or learn. Of course, now we know that mammals feel loss and pain and also dream.

CM: OK, go on….

MM: We humans are just fellow mammals, not Gods and not messengers of Gods. But too few of us see them as our relatives. As Chief Seattle said, if we let wild animals die out, then we will suffer from “a great loneliness of the spirit”.

CM: You obviously feel strongly about this. Why have you called your picture: ‘The Weighing of the Souls’? Also, I don’t understand all the visual references, so could you explain?

MM: I’ve painted it in the form of an early renaissance religious triptych – a bit like an icon, as you say. I don’t have a style; I like to get into the style of different eras. But it is an original work and I’ve given it a certain quality. I’ve chosen to paint it like a ‘Last Judgement’, but with the mammals judging us. So I’ve reversed the Christian iconography to show that animals are just as spiritual, if not more, than we are.

Polar bear – detail from the triptych

The polar bear is weighing a human soul against a feather. It’s an ancient Egyptian idea – if the human soul weighs more or less than the feather, then the soul is damned and goes to the Underworld. In Egyptian and medieval Christian iconography, the human soul was depicted as a tiny human form. I’ve chosen to use the figure of a tiny old king, who is pointlessly offering the polar bear his crown and, hoping to save himself. I also used this reversal in scale to underline how unimportant we are.



Wolf - detail from the triptych

Wolf – detail from the triptych

The side panels feature a wolf and a puma as angels with haloes. According to ancient beliefs, angels are messengers – intermediaries between God and Man. They’re writing down the humans’ sins in books, and the humans are depicted in a lifeboat which they’ve been forced to take because the land is threatened by the global warming disasters they have created – fires, floods, melting icecaps and mountain-caps, tornadoes etc.

Our enormous population and our obsession with human material wealth has upset the miraculous balance of Nature. We have blindly used Nature as a free resource but given nothing back. We mostly turn natural beauty into ugly waste.



CM: What is your hope for the painting?

MM: I just want it it to be seen. It’s not an optimistic picture and it’s moralistic, so I doubt if it could sell to an individual; and it’s over five feet high and really heavy. But I’m planning to have some smaller prints made, which will fold in the way the frame does, and they might sell. If I did sell it to an individual, l’d give a sizeable portion to the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace or Greta Thunberg, because it’s all so urgent.

As James Lovelock says (and David Attenborough), global warming has already passed the tipping point and we have to act immediately to save ourselves and the mammal kingdom. But our economy and political system are still focused on short-term free-market profits, and for less and less people.

It’s like a Bond movie scenario. Brexit will be a disaster, but our government is in the pockets of mad people who do handshakes with billionaires with massive business interests. They are only out for themselves. Mark Zuckerberg for instance is worth over 88 billion dollars, but still wants more, and allows people to put lies on Facebook, which interfere with democracy. We have to take back control from them to stand any chance of saving ourselves and other mammals. But would people give up Facebook? I doubt it.

The good news is that Covid-19 may force an ending to the free market, so I’m a bit more hopeful. The government and the few idiots who seek private power cannot be trusted with our best interests.

CM: If you do sell this painting, wouldn’t you rather it went to where lots of people could see it, rather than a private house?

MM: Definitely. I believe good visual art can change minds. I make political and environmental work as a way of expressing concerns that many people have, but in an original way; but I don’t think I’m special just because I paint. I’ve given it up twice and returned to it twice, because I love it. In fact I find the ‘art world’ ridiculous because some people take themselves so seriously. Of course there are some very good and very humble people out there who do better work than me. I just try to do my best.

CM: How much would you like for it?

Triptych exterior

Triptych exterior

MM: I’ don’t know. It would depend on who made the offer. I’ve never really set out to paint pictures for money, although I’ve sold a few. I made money with murals, decorative schemes, carvings and restoration. Anyway, in 2010, the Designers and Artists Copyright Society published research and found that the average ‘fine artist’ earns £10,000 a year – that’s under the minimum wage. So ‘fine art’ tends to be for the financially free. I’m retired now and I only ever did it in my spare time.

CM: OK thanks for this Michael. Can you suggest any way for readers to help stop the slaughter of lions?

MM: Yes, here’s a petition they can sign:

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Posted 15:38 Monday, Jul 20, 2020 In: Arts News


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  1. Simon Marshall

    This is a powerful work of art and an exceptionally high yield interview. This marvellous triptych should have maximum exposure, not only due to its impressive technical and aesthetic qualities, but also for its essential didactic import. The Weighing of Souls on the Day of Reckoning directly addresses the predicament we find ourselves in and yet steadfastly choose to ignore. This planet is our home and we are its feckless, vandalising inhabitants. Mainstream secular and theistic movements have, to a great extent, lost any sense of reverence. There seems little awareness that there might be something above us and that many others will come after us. Free market capitalism reduces everything to a commodity, or an object to be consumed. Having takes precedence over Being. Should the triptych prove to be right, then there will be poetic justice here, as the animals will be the rightful agents of judgement, for they harmonise with the world and its environment far better than us. Could their Weighing of our Souls herald our imminent eviction?

    Comment by Simon Marshall — Wednesday, Jul 29, 2020 @ 00:45

  2. d bergen

    Michael Madden’s powerful triptych vividly evokes mankind’s assault on the wildlife and environment of our planet, which may well already have reached an irreversible tipping point. This artwork would be appropriate on the masthead of an animal rights or environmental protection organisation.

    Comment by d bergen — Saturday, Jul 25, 2020 @ 22:43

  3. Francis Sheppard

    As usual M.M has is his finger on the pulse. The momentum for climate change is moving as fast as BLM (look up the name of Lily Cole Green Activist)but is not getting as much coverage in the usual established papers as it might do. I wonder why. A more achievable way to introduce change is first focusing on your local MPs local council and councillors in your local area the current local electorate will invariably know what is where what is what the structural size of the area the pockets of like minded supporters which local cells of organised groups can collectively cover to raise awareness of those issues that are important to the local electorate.
    There is a starting point. Support Michael in helping him getting a suitable local venue without the professional art galleries taking a good proportion of donations that could go to the very organisations that have the political influence to drive this urgent global issue to a level where something can be seen to be actually happening.

    Comment by Francis Sheppard — Saturday, Jul 25, 2020 @ 16:29

  4. Kendal Eaton

    I love Michael’s work and especially the medieval satire and its serious comment on current affairs. There is a lot of feeling in this country that echoes this straight-talking sentiment and feeling of powerlessness against our governments. We have been so conditioned through politics to view honesty as unsophisticated and untrustworthy, as if it is too good to every be true anymore. yet we trust racists, sexists and conniving back-stabbers targeting the weakest human beings amongst us, without batting an eyelid or suspecting those better off will be next in line as everyone’s rights are gradually dissolved.

    Maybe we get the governments we deserve for our complacence and compliance and they will finish us off so the animal realm can once again flourish – it is we that do not deserve them for placing the hunters before the very nature we depend upon and have lost our relationship with. human populations are now the target. we are expendable in elite neoliberal policies. we do not sustain the economy, national or global. if millions die, they believe they will be the ones left standing. if this sounds gloomy, wake up. it is an insult to wolves to call current rulers by their name, but they are at our door.

    Comment by Kendal Eaton — Friday, Jul 24, 2020 @ 08:56

  5. Kim Stallwood

    Thank you publishing this story about Michael Madden and his magnificent triptych ‘The Weighing of the Souls’. It’s not easy to create evocative art with a profoundly important social justice message. This work certainly achieves that and it–and he–deserve our appreciation.

    Comment by Kim Stallwood — Thursday, Jul 23, 2020 @ 10:39

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