The passage from Mark’s Gospel offers advice to the Christian faithful on how to obtain an eternal afterlife, and (more specifically) how to avoid the punishments of hell.
Mark 9:48 (and also vv.44, 46 in the Vulgate translation and the KJV) mentions the ‘worm [that] dieth not’. The passage makes vivid Christ’s teaching that any body parts (hands, feet, eyes, etc.) that commit sinful acts should be eliminated, because it would be preferable to be maimed rather than go to hell for eternity.
Commonly known as the ‘Sleepless Worm’ on the basis of inscriptions in Greek script that accompany its Byzantine iconography, this ‘worm that dieth not’ may be perceived as a visual representation of the inevitable natural decay to which all living organisms are subjected sooner or later. One of the main promises of Christianity however—a bodily afterlife for those proven worthy—nullifies this natural decay. Those who succeed in entering eternal life will not have to be subjected to the endless work of the dreadful worm.
The biblical passage, with its echoes of Isaiah 66:24, does not offer any descriptive details of the ‘worm’—perhaps adding to the gruesomeness of the image by leaving the listeners to their own devices to imagine it. It was left to artists to create visual images that would reflect the passage. The example of the Sleepless Worm from the Church of Saints Constantine and Helena in Voukolies presents an example of the monumental Byzantine art of Venetian Crete, featuring rows of heads with white undulating lines crawling over them. The intact facial characteristics of the tightly packed heads suggest that the work of the worm has just started. This wall painting therefore serves well as a prelude to the other two works in this exhibition.
It could then be argued that the Byzantine icon in which Saint Sisoes discovers the skeleton of Alexander the Great presents a step further down the line of the worm’s fearful work. Sisoes was a hermit in Egypt, where the tomb of Alexander the Great was also located, a geographic proximity that confirms the actuality of the encounter. Alexander the Great, the Greek king of Macedon, was one of the most-admired generals of all time. In his short lifespan he conquered a remarkable amount of the then-known world, and never lost a battle. Regardless of his great achievements when alive, and his posthumous fame, Saint Sisoes’s encounter with the great ruler’s remains underlines that no achievement in this ephemeral life can prevent the worm that never dies from attacking the bodily vessel of the immortal soul. This iconographic subject, which became popular after the loss of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, is usually accompanied by an inscription in Greek, just like the one seen at the bottom part of the sarcophagus facing the viewer, that conveys Sisoes’s stark realization of the inevitability of death. This encounter invites a reflexion on Mark’s passage by confirming that the only thing one can do in this ephemeral life is to prepare for the next.
If we were to consider Mark Rothko’s painted canvas as the third part of this sequence, it could serve to suggest the empty vastness following the all-consuming labour of the worm. The dominant red colour in this work could well allude to the fire that ‘shall not be quenched’, which is repeated next to the ‘worm that dieth not’ in Mark’s passage. Hence, looking at these artefacts in succession, Rothko’s can serve as a third stage in the gradual visualization of decay: the Byzantine wall painting presents the worm at the launch of its attack; the skeleton in the panel demonstrates the progress of the worm’s tireless effort; and Rothko’s canvas shows the aftermath of the worm’s all-consuming toil, a perfect representation of the inevitability of death that annihilates everything.
As Mark’s passage admonishes, Christianity provided an alternative to inevitable obliteration for those following its teaching faithfully. Viewed in combination with the passage, this artistic ‘trilogy’ could be perceived as a wagging finger counselling us against a false focus on the ephemeral life which cannot possibly defeat death, and which is bound ultimately to succumb to the ‘worm [that] dieth not’.
Bishop, Janet. 2017. Rothko: The Color Field Paintings (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)
Bormpoudakēs, Manolēs (ed.). 1993. Eikones tēs Krētikēs technēs: apo ton Chandaka hos tēn Moscha kai tēn Hagia Petroupolē (Hērakleion: Vikelaia Dēmotikē Vivliothēkē), pp. 345–47
Lymberopoulou, Angeliki (ed.). 2020. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 1, Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
———. and Rembrandt Duits. 2020. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 2, A Catalogue of the Cretan Material (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.,47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.