In 2007, Damien Hirst set 8,601 pavé diamonds weighing 1,106.18 carats into a platinum cast of a human skull dated to 1720–1810, acquired from a London taxidermist (the work incorporates the original teeth). The result—entitled For the Love of God—is a work of startling, indeed sparkling, ambiguity.
Positioning itself in a long tradition of memento mori artworks, this sculpture serves as a reminder of the transience of life and the mortality of the viewer. Yet it is also made from materials of extreme durability. The letter of James says to the rich, ‘your riches have rotted … your gold and silver have rusted’ (vv.2–3), but Hirst’s platinum and diamond skull is exceptionally resistant to decay. Does it thus achieve a kind of victory over death? Platinum and diamonds are also highly valuable. For this reason the diamond trade has its own special association with violence and death. Is the work a celebration or denigration of wealth? Does it signal the sublimity or the emptiness of earthly riches?
Hirst has said of death, ‘You don’t like it, so you disguise it or you decorate it to make it look like something bearable—to such an extent that it becomes something else’ (Hirst in Burn 2008: 21). But death is relentless, even when hidden beneath a mask of diamonds.
There is a layer of religious ambiguity in the work’s title. ‘For the love of God’ is an expression of exasperation—it has the air of mild blasphemy. But it is an invocation of the divine all the same. Maybe even a prayer.
The deceitfulness of wealth is a regular theme in Scripture. Like Hirst’s diamond skull, the passage from James calls attention to the emptiness of earthly riches in light of the transience of life. Both the biblical text and the sculpture ask where true wealth is found, whether in spiritual or material goods, and by extension, where we should invest our time, attention, and devotion while we live and breathe.
Burn, Gordon. 2008. ‘Conversation’ in Beautiful Inside My Head Forever Sotheby's 15 and 16 September 2008, vol. 1 (London: Sotheby’s)
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.