Gutzon Borglum is not exactly a household name, though the quartet of faces he carved on Mt. Rushmore is familiar to virtually every American. His artistic achievement is probably the most spectacular of its kind ever produced. The lifelike busts of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt stand 60 feet high from a mountain height of 5,725 feet, and can be observed from miles away. The project required the assistance of 400 workers and the blasting away of 450,000 short tons of rock. Granite was the canvas and dynamite the chisel. It took over a dozen years, from 1927 to 1941, for Borglum and his assistants to complete the work. The more than two million tourists who visit the site in the Black Hills of South Dakota annually no doubt scratch their heads and think, “How on earth did human ingenuity manage to carry out such a colossal project while compromising neither beauty nor accuracy?”
Borglum was fascinated with both heroic nationalism—he named his only child Lincoln—and creating artistic works on a gigantic scale. According to his thinking, the massive sculpture was an appropriate way of incarnating the following words of America’s first president: “The preservation of the sacred fire of Liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Liberty was thus carved in stone. And no security guards would be needed, as they are at the Louvre, to prevent theft.
The idea of something being carved in stone indicates rectitude, permanence, immortality, and indestructibility. If something is carved in stone, there can be no argument against it. It cannot be changed. For these reasons, it was fitting that God delivered His Commandments to Moses on stone tablets. However the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” has lost its commanding force in today’s world and is routinely violated, especially with regard to abortion. Abortion is not seen as killing, but rather as a choice that allows the aborting woman to seize control of her destiny. The prohibition against killing babies is no longer generally perceived as “carved in stone.” So how do we realign our national thinking so it once again accords with the Fifth Commandment?
It is a fundamental principle of phenomenology that it is relationship rather than being that initially provokes attention. Beings never appear in isolation, but always within an interconnected network of other beings. Is it possible to evaluate a politician, we wonder, apart from his party affiliation? When we change the relationship, we change our perception and understanding. A candle is holy on an altar, romantic on a piano, eerie in a jack-o-lantern, and elegant on the table. Toys are clutter in the living room, inventory in the warehouse, items at a garage sale, but under the Christmas tree they are gifts. We interpret the figure by its relationship with its ground. Our society has lost the ground against which we can properly evaluate the figure of the unborn child.
Thus, people see the unborn child in relationship with its “owner” and therefore perceive it as an intruder. Or it is seen in relation to a cultural background of convenience and regarded as a burden. Or it is seen in relation to a chosen career and considered to be an enemy of freedom. But what is the background against which we can see the truth of the unborn child?
An artist named Dubian Monsalve has taken a page from Gutzon Borglum. In 2012, he carved in the mountainside near the town of Santo Domingo, Colombia, a figure of the human unborn child within its mother’s womb. The fetus appears to be in the 35th to 40th week of development. Its fingers, toes, and ears are clearly and meticulously articulated. It is a recognizable human being. Monsalve calls his work—which is readily viewable from the highway it borders—“Pregnant Mountain.” For him, it is a tribute to “the woman that gives life, because life is valuable from its conception to its end.”
The scale of “Pregnant Mountain” does not compare in size or propitious location with Mt. Rushmore, but its message has been transmitted to millions of viewers through Facebook and the Internet. It has also become a tourist site. The artist’s immediate concern had been to beseech local farmers not to abandon their land or their beliefs, “not to abandon their identity as Christians and as farmers who feed this country.” Monsalve’s message has reached far more people than he could possibly have expected. In stating that “earth itself gives life,” he is paraphrasing the biblical notion that “all flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6). But he is also indicating that earth is the ground of life, which implies that God is the ground of earth. It is critical to get one’s ground rules straightened out.
In Isaiah 49:16 we read, “I have carved you on the palm of my hand.” Here God’s palm serves as the background by which we properly understand the figure, which is the unborn human child. In this case, in addition to indicating protection, the hand is also the ground that extends the value of dignity to the life that it holds. We see human life rightly, therefore, when we see it in relation to its Creator. Without God, all values are arbitrary.
Monsalve is obviously dealing in symbolism. Nonetheless, it is a symbolism that expresses what is real, which is the aim of every true artist. It also awakens something that is carved in the human heart. Referred to as the Natural Law, it is what makes it possible for us to know, instinctively, that killing innocent human beings is wrong.
Given its unusual background, the unborn child in “Pregnant Mountain” stirs our consciousness and makes us see him in a new way, not as a burden but as something that must be protected. It brings the child to life, so to speak. As Erin McKinnon, writing for Interim (April 2018), has observed, “By deliberately placing this familiar human image in a not-so-familiar view . . . Dubian has widened the angle of society’s lenses, enabling people to discern and contemplate an often overlooked image reflecting the prospect of human life from conception.”
We can thank Dubian Monsalve for reminding us that the sacredness of life is, indeed, carved in stone, and that its corollary Commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” remains eternally viable.