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Dream (Mantis Religiosa)

The period between 1934 and 1936 is widely recognised as a time of great transition in the artistic oeuvre of M.C. Escher. Gradually shifting his focus away from interpretations of Italian landscapes, Escher began to look for something new to incorporate into his work. This quest resulted in an approach that would become one of his best-known specialisms: merging worlds that do not, or simply can not, co-exist and bringing them together in a single image. In the beginning, Escher started playing with the extreme perspective of a spherical mirror, setting the gaze on himself and his surroundings. Two other early examples of his ideas around merging worlds are the prints Still Life with Mirror and Still Life and Street. Later, this desire to create impossible realities would lead to prints such as Other World, Double Planetoid, Gravity, Relativity, Print Gallery, Belvedere and Waterfall. Escher took an intriguing detour from this path with Dream (Mantis Religiosa), which depicts an impossible ‘reality’ that is explicitly labelled by Escher himself as a dream.

The wood engraving shows what looks like a marble sarcophagus of a religious figure. The mitre on his head indicates that the figure is a bishop. On the bishop’s chest sits an enormous praying mantis. Escher places his subjects in a vaulted space that is reminiscent of a church. The image also features a second, separate vault and a third building. The ground on which all of these structures rest suddenly gives way to darkness, suggesting an infinite emptiness.

In a lecture that he was due to give in 1964, but which never took place due to illness, Escher said of the print*:

‘The print Dream combines three distinct elements: first the architecture, a reminiscence of a curious little twelfth-century church in southern Italy. It consisted of loose cross vaults under on overhanging rock. Secondly, the marble sarcophagus with the recumbent figure of a bishop, which l saw in the crypt at Saint Peter’s in Rome. And thirdly, an insect common in southern Italy, a praying mantis. It sat down on the edge of my drawing folder, while l was sketching somewhere in Sicily, long enough to be pictured in detail. My only intention was to suggest an impression of three-dimensionality, of endless depth.’

M.C. Escher, Porta Maria dell’Ospidale, Ravello (Old Church, Ravello), wood engraving, February 1932
M.C. Escher, Grasshopper, wood engraving, March 1935

The elements depicted in this image were thus taken from Escher’s real-life observations. The church is the Porta Maria dell’Ospidale in Ravello, which he first sketched and later immortalised in a print. He encountered the bishop in the Vatican crypt at Saint Peter’s in Rome; the tomb is that of cardinal Pedro da Fonseca (who died in 1422)**. The praying mantis was taken from a sketch made in 1930, after he saw the insect on a visit to Pentedattilo***. A year before this date, Escher had produced a series of prints based on Rome at night, and in 1935 and 1936, he created detailed prints of a grasshopper, scarab beetles and a dragonfly.

At first glance, Dream appears to fit into this series, but that is not the case. In this piece, Escher is side-stepping into a different universe. Although the image combines subjects he observed in real life, the enormous dimensions of the praying mantis, the separate architectural elements, the night-time setting, the ‘floating’ platform and the suggestion of a never-ending space combine to create something that is completely unique. The other-worldly print is reminiscent of surrealism – a movement which was at its zenith in this period and in which dreams play an important role. Escher explores the topic of dreams in his book M.C. Escher: The Graphic Work****:

Is the bishop dreaming of a praying locust, or is the whole conception a dream of the artist?

The theories of Sigmund Freud were a popular source of inspiration in surrealism, with dream interpretation being a particular favourite. While we cannot know for certain, it is possible that Escher was familiar with these concepts. Escher himself raised the question of whether he had dreamt this scene, but never provided an answer. ‘Mantis Religiosa’ is the Greek name for the European praying mantis that Escher depicts in this print. The word ‘mantis’ is Greek for ‘prophet’ or ‘fortune teller’. These semantics suggest a link with Freud’s theory that dreams could predict the future. Escher always emphasised that he did not conceal any messages in his works and that interpretation was up to the viewer – but by combining a bishop and a praying mantis, he does appear to be hinting strongly at irony.

The print is also highly evocative of the threatening, poetic worlds of Giorgio de Chirico, which are centred around empty squares, long shadows, anonymous figures and architectural elements such as arches and pillars. Unlike de Chirico, Escher does not use shadows; his scene is set at night. He creates a minimalist image in which a praying mantis appears to have been disturbed during its nightly ritual. It looks out at the viewer, breaking the fourth wall and adding tension to the piece. Escher’s prints are deliberately open to interpretation and this image is no exception. It is an unsettling, almost sinister piece that stands out as unique in Escher’s body of work.


* and ** The world of M.C. Escher, Nature, science and imagination, North Carolina Museum of Art, 2015, page 114
*** The world of M.C. Escher, Nature, science and imagination, North Carolina Museum of Art, 2015, page 115
**** The 2013 reissue by Taschen GMBH of M.C. Escher: The Graphic Work. Originally published by Royal publishing house J.J. Tijl NV, Zwolle 1959, page 7

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