As I was walking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, I noticed that a large percentage of the paintings on display depicted religious stories or circumstances primarily from Christian dogma. However, one painting in particular defies this conventional pattern, and that painting is The Keeper of the Threshold by Elihu Vedder. Situated directly across from The Supper at Emmaus by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, The Keeper of the Threshold defies the conventional expression of religious scenes. The Keeper of the Threshold” does not center around Christ or His disciples, instead, the main figure is a mystic and mysterious man depicted in a cloud of secrecy. I believe that the Curators of the Carnegie Museum of Art specifically placed these two pieces of religious imagery together to juxtapose the different types of religious practices and figures of worship that have been depicted by artists throughout the centuries.
The main visual center of the Keeper of the Threshold is the man sitting at the center of the image. This man has a well defined body contour and color that stick out from the rest of the piece. Clearly, this man is the actual keeper of the threshold. A “threshold” is a dividing line between two places, a passing point required to cross from one side to the other. The figure in The Keeper of the Threshold possesses a sense of liminality, as he is sitting directly ON the threshold. The slab of stone he is sitting on is clearly the crossing point between some realm to another religious representation, a representation that is smoky and mysterious. We do not clearly know what lies beyond the boarders of the threshold, however, we know it is much different than what is depicted before the threshold.
Additionally, each item that the man interacts with holds some sort of religious or spiritual purpose. First and foremost, it is clear that the man has a Bindi at the center of his forehead. Bindi’s are religious symbols for the expression of the “third eye” and represent the chaos of the cosmos and greater universe. This Bindi links with the moon behind the figure, as the moon in many cultures represents cycles of unending change. The figure holds two key religious artifacts, first a Kris in his right hand, and incense in his left. The Kris is a dagger that holds special and supernatural abilities used to fend off spirits, and has been known to endow the holder with legendary abilities in different folk tails. Incense, on the other hand, is typically burned for purification purposes. It may be necessary to purify the traveler, or to constantly purify the threshold itself.
The image also recalls imagery of Pagan and Gnostic religions, as the man is sitting upon a serpent. Serpents represent wisdom and hidden knowledge, a form of esotericism. This may be a warning not to pass the threshold, or a promise of the revelation of hidden knowledge. Consequently, the man is also sitting upon a slab of stone that has unintelligible characters imprinted upon it. This most likely is another representation of hidden knowledge or a dead language, and can not ultimately be perceived or decoded by the viewer. This gives the painting another form of mysticism.
Elihu Vedder’s painting is a representation of a transitional point in time that is guarded closely by a figure that possesses hidden and secretive knowledge about the next “transitional” zone. This can be seen through the religious imagery employed by the artist, as well as the secretive and cloudy mystique of the painting itself.