Jacob’s dream, a 14-metre long, 6-metre wide and 9-metre tall dream. It stretches across the apse and the vault, along 16 sail vaults, in the Church of Saint Barbara. The technique Spatari uses is the result of his creativity: the figures are cut onto light wooden sheets, which Spatari calls “silhouettes”, and then painted on and used as reliefs suspended in the air like light floating bas-reliefs. Asking Nik Spatari why he has decided to tell the story of Jacob, is like asking him why he is Nik Spatari. Those who know him, are aware of the fact that he has been intrigued, tormented and obsessed by the Bible since he was a child. “It all started during the war – he says – my mother used to receive a Catholic weekly with instalments on the Bible illustrated by Gustavo Dorè”. He was fascinated by the illustrated imagery and he learnt the words off by heart.
Among the biblical figures, there were two he particularly loved: Job, the man who was abandoned by God and by men, and Jacob, the man obsessed by the double: his twin brother, his two wives, two servants, two native countries, two lands. Jacob’s dream is dedicated to Campanella, the utopist of The city of the sun, and to Michelangelo, “the astronaut” as Spatari defines him. The crowd of characters animating the dream are an extraordinary example of anatomical geography; they are men and women of our time, who are telling our history through their muscles, tendons, and the impetus of their limbs. “It is a humanity which is extremely different from the one Michelangelo depicts – the artist says – the bodies are less swollen, more tense, more dynamic. They transmit energy, and perhaps even suffering, feelings that are unknown to the people of the Renaissance”.
Jacob is depicted with the same features as Spatari, the same impressiveness, the same beard, the same melancholy and sweetness in his bending head. “It is Spatari’s painting. People will come here to study it, because Spatari has represented both the fundamental and the complementary colours, all the colours that can be found in nature”. Jacob went through his whole life just like in a film. His birth painted in the first sail vault. According to the Bible, Isaac was seventy years old when Rebekah gave birth to Jacob, who was born holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. This is why he was called Jacob, which means “he overreaches” or “he will overreach”.
And Jacob had to fight against God and men due to his being “second” among men (perhaps this is why Spatari feels so close to this character). “Jacob was second both in birth – after Esau – and second in his father’s heart, because the latter preferred his brother to him. So Jacob was forced to betray his brother with the deception of the lentil soup, which he gave to Esau in exchange for primogeniture (second sail vault). And by deception he obtained Isaac’s blessings instead of Esau. (fourth sail vault). The central part of the vault, which is perhaps the most beautiful part, is about Jacob’s love story, which was told in his biography.
Once again, he had to face the double. He fell in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of Laban, a shepherdess he had once met with her sheep. “Then – the Bible tells us with extreme simplicity – Jacob kissed Rachel, lifted his voice and wept”. Marrying Rachel was not easy for Jacob. Laban forced him to work for seven years, before he could have her; but after seven years he expected Jacob to also marry Rachel’s sister, Leah, who was in love with him. The women were sterile, so he was given both wives’ handmaids in order to have some descendants, hoping that God would eventually give his wives mercy. The plot then thickens with theoretical symbols, also recalling the history of Israel (God will change Jacob’s name to Israel). Jacob was put through a number of tests (he escaped from Laban and then came to an agreement with him; he made peace with Esau; he destroyed the idols), until the climax of the story and of Jacob’s faith. One night, Jacob had to fight against a mysterious creature, in which he saw the face of God.
To quote the Bible, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been preserved”. His life was spared because he had to make Israel glorious (his twelve children would form its patriarchal line), and his favourite son, Joseph, the son of his old age, was to go to Egypt. Only then Jacob would die. The depiction of his death, covering the wall opposite the apse, is one of the most beautiful scenes. It takes place at night (whilst his amazing dream took place at dawn), and Jacob-Spatari is lying on the ground, surrounded by crying women; behind him there is a woman-man, whose hands form a triangle placed in front of his/her enigmatic eyes. This figure represents mystery. Is Jacob really dead?