By Jorge Suarez


This paper aims to describe the life of one of the greatest Colombian artists, who managed to capture with his writing and sculpture important milestones of the homeland history, leaving for future generations a rich legacy. Possessor of a restless mind, inspired by ancient Greece, the Renaissance and Mexican culture, he managed to immortalize in his works the history of Latin America. His depth of look denoted his highest aspirations of freedom and human understanding, this reflected in the works left through several regions of the country.

After a general historical context, we begin with a biographical sketch of the artist, and from one of his artistic productions, we will analyze the influence of his work, as well as the philosophical and hermetic search that this character drew up.

Who was master Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt?

Born on October 23 in Uvital, department of Antioquia (Colombia) in 1919, died in 1995. He was assistant to the sculptor Bernardo Vieco and to the muralist Pedro Nel Gómez, both were influential artistic figures of the time. He served as professor of drawing and sculpture in Colombia and Mexico. In this latter country he studied mural painting and developed a remarkable and recognized artistic activity. Besides his work as a sculptor, he included tasks of photography and painting. He was a diplomatic
in Italy.

Between 1947 and 1948 he settled in Mexico and studied at La Esmeralda, School of Free Art. He traveled to the United States of America in 1959 and then to Europe (1966-1967). He performed various jobs and, finally, took decision on sculpture. He taught drawing and sculpture at the Universidad Obrera, and was founder and professor of the Craft´s School “La Ciudadela” (The Citadel), both in Mexico.

He is considered one of the most important representatives of the modern Colombian symbolic sculpture. His monumental and of great strength works are erected in public places both in Colombia and in Mexico. He cultivated the symbolist style and the symbolic expressionism, working on materials like wood, stone, glass, bronze, cement, tile or fiberglass, among others. He won important art awards including the National Prize of Plastic Arts of Colombia (1972). He is author of two books of autobiographical prose titled Crónicas de la errancia, del amor y de la muerte (1976) and Los pasos del condenado (1988).[1]

Some things we can rescue from his childhood and youth are, on one hand, the high sensitivity and daring observation of nature surrounding his existence. He was easily lost in the wealth of images projected by the magnificence of the mountains that surrounded the development of his life. And on the other hand, a permanent poverty that hurt him to the bone and left a mark on his heart, it left impregnated an imprint of a strong social mission, an unwavering commitment that we will find in all his work. This constant struggle between time and space that it´s overwhelmed and torn by hunger and injustice, and the capture of the sublime in the forms will appear gathered in all his artistic and symbolic proposals.

In his autobiographical Crónicas de la errancia, del amor y de la muerte (1976) (Chronicles of wandering, love and death) he wrote “The miracle of contemplating nature was an immense consolation, a huge compensation. In this simple phrase of my mother I feel now that is contained all my psychological will and all my inner world. It is the combination portrait of landscapes full of life and ones of distress.

Another important passage of the artist’s life was his passing through the catholic seminar; there he was able to recognize that God was not what the Church told, r the seminar was rather a way of lulling the man with the fear of an effective fallacy, the idea of hell. From there, the image of the Christ that will repeat permanently in his sculptures, in some reflecting the pain as own of the unjustly treated peasant and in others as the one with deep knowledge of absolute truth, the awaker of souls, who possesses the knowledge and spreads it, the great Prometheus. In this regard, the Ministry of Culture, in 2012, wrote in the text “Portraits of our people”.

“Thereafter, the symbolic figure of Christ will never abandon Arenas Betancourt. Not simply because of the fear instilled by his grandmother, but because he had already known, in his first age, the image that seemed to be sculpted and rigorously copied from the suffering, bloody and lacerated body of Christ: the Antioquia peasant. The life of the peasant, that later was understood as the life of Latin American peasant, passes necessarily through suffering, abandonment and misery: its particular desert is the mountain.

By 1938, date of his arrival to Medellin, there was a seed planted inside him: the figure of Christ as an example of what later, barely knowing it, would be his Bolivar in Colombia and his Cuauhtémoc in Mexico. But this shall not be understood as a religious code of moralism or religious doctrine: Arenas Betancourt take the figure of Christ as a symbol of his personal experiences, being this his true interest.”[2]«Retratos de nuestras gentes». Ministerio de Cultura de Colombia. Año 2012.

Arenas used to say in his book Los pasos del condenado22 (The setps of the condemned): “I cannot precise when, at what time, all those childhood visions turned into visions of an aesthetic order. I do not know when the vision of God, that my mother insisted on introducing into me, became an artistic vision. I do not know when the vision of all that terrible misery and helplessness became a sublime vision. At what point this cosmic vision of the starry night went into my soul as insight. This is the mystery of an artist childhood.” Again, enlivening his deep humanistic knowledge, described an awakening of the soul that would give his best expression
as an artist.

His rawest mountain experience would be between 1987 and 1988, when a group of common criminals kidnapped him demanding almost 200 million pesos for his release. He was held for nearly 90 days in the heart of the surrounding mountains to Fredonia. One of his last experience was, thus to live under the fear of death in the heart of the mountain. This experience then produce The setps of the condemned (1988) and Memories of Lazarus (1994). It then is a curious coincidence: after a lifetime and work dedicated to death and mountain, to spend many nights feeling stalked by two of them. He dies seven years later.

A little historical context

It is important to give some context to the historical moment that Colombia lived, to understand some of the artist’s inner motivations. Colombia is a country that has long been in wars, and lived for more than forty years ago terrible cultural scourges such as drug trafficking. Our country, through its history of violence, guerrilla groups outside the law and political divisions, has had more deaths than the victims of the Holocaust.

After the Thousand Days’ War in 1903, the Conservative Party took over power, it´s represented, except for a few exceptions, by leaders who have favored the upper classes and had gave great power to the Church.

The 1886´s Constitution centralized the country, and even tough in 1990 great geniuses collaborated on a new constitution based on profound advances in freedom of peoples, nowadays we suffer from one of the highest levels of inequality and poverty in the world, being this centralist vision one of its most important causes.

This fueled two major trends in Rodrigo Arenas: the integration of Church elements, as the Christ modified by a Hellenistic perspective, the criticism of the Church for its dogmatism and the struggle to liberate people from the economic scarcity “determinism”; also to, emulate the great heroes of the various homelands that helped people to not feel subjugated.

He was part of a group of six intellectuals who made their appearances in the magazine Greda, politicians, businessmen and artists who wanted to continue the adventures of their predecessors, the Panidas, inspired by one of the most influential minds that have sprung up in our lands, Fernando Gonzales, the philosopher and on the other hand a sorcerer, as he was named, he sought to make from art and literature a rebellion against the Church and the conceptions of the state, as well as offering alternatives for reflection and humanity in times of war and interwar . Thanks to them is created in 1910 the School of Fine Arts, where the master
Arenas subsequently was formed.

Arenas, the scholar

Large studies in philosophy, history, mythology and Freudian psychology accompanied the artist´s work, an avid reader and eternal lover of the classics and the Renaissance. Thousands of names, texts, gods, and disagreements with the old magic, enclose the stones that so carefully were polished by the artist. Its dense culture led him to the highest levels of society to build cultures visions of his time, but also poured all his humanism in bars and parties in the city center.

Alonso Rios Vanegas, as his apprentice, narrates his encounter with the teacher Arenas, and lets us glimpse the dynamics of his everyday life and his soul, his searches and his deep speeches laden with classical humanism [3]

“The media of that time spoke profusely of an extraordinary man who had built the marvelous sculptural work of The Nude Simon Bolivar of Pereira, the Prometheus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the monument to Jose Maria Cordoba of Rionegro and many extraordinary works elsewhere in Colombia and in the world. But looking at those little pink and delicate hands and that fragile little body seemed to be a man made for other different tasks and not to be the maker of giant sculptures of gods and images.

One could hardly say no to a being with that look and that inner strength. A power that made that everything around was possible under the captivating know of his thought. As an obedient child-I was then just twenty years, I began my work persistently in the sculpture workshop under the direction of his amazing contemplation. From that moment I realized there were not required to be a creator, muscle, or the physical size of the body when in the individual exists the portentous power of ideas and imagination.

His voice was firm, clarion, and who listens to him without looking at him, would imagine
a man of another race and culture. His conversation was pleasant, full of details, of a successful diction, and very, very constantly he showed in his stories a hint of bitterness and dissatisfaction. There were many times in moments of relaxation after working all day, especially on Saturdays, he invited us to a cafe and there, in the heat of liquor, began to tell stories of travels through Europe and Mexico, stopping very especially in some characters of the Renaissance period and Hellenistic Greece, of which he was in love. When talking about
Michelangelo, his little eyes widened immeasurably, reddening his face and the tone of his voice changed intonation, stood up, flailed and flapped his arms excitedly as a windmill to describe the expressive power of his art.

It was normal to hear him talk of the mystique of the classics, the complex life of the
artists, the deep connection between shamans, priests and real artists, they had to spend periods of silence, celibacy, to find the deeper truths underlying the primordial matter”.

In the manner of any moral philosopher at a time of profound need for social and political order, it can be traced in his work two great moments of the Hero journey: war, external and internal shock force to achieve the ultimate expression of freedom.

In the time´s castaway of The setps of the condemned, one of his texts, makes a deeply biographical Freudian psychoanalytic sketch from the perspective of the unrivaled Da Vinci, recalling the study itself that the psychologist-medical made on the Renaissance. The subtlety in the description and admiration suggest that his passionate search for the origin of beauty and art were his daily bread; his words sweat passion and they hint at one of his biggest questions about the rationality of his works and his (unfinished) and social (inspiring and rebellious) symbolic purpose. In this text, one of the issues that most surprised me is a hint of esoteric knowledge about the hermaphrodite in art and in the conception of nature, attributing this item to a previous moment of the differentiated man: “All religions tend to hermaphrodites, to the sexual indifference, to something that exceeds and overcomes this fatal dichotomy. Perhaps the man was still in the original magma and not expressed individually”.[4]Los pasos del condenado. Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt. Colombia, 1988. Arango Editores.

In Journey to the origin of memory, from the same book, he recounts his amazing travels through Europe, Egypt, United States, Asia and Mexico, weaving his stories with compelling definitions of ancient Greece, its architectural, philosophical and mythical riches, and suggests again his intellectual love for reading in this case- Sophocles, Plato, Plotinus, Aeschylus, Euripides, Erich Fromm, Tolstoy and Hemingway, among others, and the descriptions that always are struggling to unite opposites. I felt like be rereading the poetic descriptions of Carl Gustav Jung in his red book when, reaching the depths of his despair, he enters a cave and finds a red stone that allows him later to light the entire meaning of his psychic work, passages deeply hermetic: “After my travels I discovered the real Greece, the eternal; there, sunk like a mole, I looked for light, I looked for the sun and lit the fire, I heard the voices of Aeschylus, the thundering voices of Prometheus. I heard the songs of the Eleusinian poet, who went as a warrior to fight in Marathon and saw from the Greek ships the battle of Salamis. ”

His thinking through one of his works

Arenas has innumerable works of plaster, ebony, bronze or cement, among others. His versatility allowed him to erect at first the stature of Christ, prompted by a close relative, to largely absurd beautiful and impressive monumental works. All of them glimpse his character of unifier of heaven and earth, his deep inner journey that enriched the soul of Antioquia people, returning, perhaps in a supremely important moment, the deep notion of classical humanism.

This is how the master referred about his work:

In my work two elements dominate: images that have been attached to me, and I try to sculpt the release of what is below, this means, and weightlessness in the struggle with matter. My artistic expression is very autobiographical. My whole life has been a journey, and these are releasing trips, which I manifest in art”.[5]Crónicas de la errancia del amor y de la muerte, ensayo autobiográfico, 1976.

I believe in this statement that it´s guessed the depth of this man, his link with our deep and philosophical quest, his heroic journey and his fixation on images portraying its most sublime and sociopolitical beliefs. We also cling to the images that our masters give us, that opens great possibilities for the soul to understand and whose symbolism invites our personalities to honor them in our daily work.

The Fountain: the temptation of the infinite man

This majestic work was installed in 1974 as a gift from the insurance company Suramericana to Medellin city. It has a helicoidal shape in concrete and bronze, with 14 meters in diameter and 14 high.

The fountain is at one of the most important business centers in Medellin, where there are installed some of the most important organizations of the Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño, which has always marked the economic stability of the region and the country.

It is a monumental work, as are most of the ones I know so far of master Rodrigo Arenas. This, especially, is a work that weighs 975 tons and has a total length of 44 meters. It was calculated by Dr. Jaime Muñoz Duque, who won the National Engineering Award in 1971.

The time at when this work was conceived had two great features for the city (Medellin). On one hand, there was a group of thinkers of the postwar period, keen to the political left´s vision, that was in that time taking a stronger force in Latin America, which was vigorously opposed to the strong conservative trend of the moment, a triple bond between the State, the Church and entrepreneurs. On the other, a thriving and trader village with a major flaw: it was in love of its own success and had an ambition of accelerated growth that blinded it, it (the village/people) was losing its values and gradually became a breeding ground for corruption, which would lead to the terrible history of drug trafficking.

Master Arenas managed- like the wittiest of the Italians of the Renaissance- to put in the middle of the biggest economic hub of Colombia, a statue to remind the left, the right, the Church and the Government the eternal true
essence of man, a hermetic action from beginning to end.

Besides the above, we selected this work because it reinforces the Hermetic essence of the character´s heart, that is, his constant search for understanding of the eternal mysteries of the nature of man and earth and his need to pass this
knowledge to his owns. For this he uses the most powerful tool of secrecy, creating symbols through his works, reminiscent of the man of his true sense, in a perfect syncretism among the deepest beliefs of its eastern and Presocratic readings and mythologies of indigenous peoples who settled in Antioch.

It can be seen, at first glance, that the monumental work emerges from water in a spiraled way, bringing awareness to the people of Antioquia of the eternal cosmological visions the emergence of life from the primordial waters and the evolution of it through upward cycles.

It is further noted how from death life arises, the union of opposites, from the base, a skull announces the descendant vision of; but it is not a normal skull, it is a representation of the “Catrinas” or ” Guarnacea´s Skull ” image used in Mexico to denote the entrance to another world. Then, life emerges from death, from the primordial waters; from putrefaction, the nigredo of alchemy, it borns the possibility of eternity, the “Opus Magnun“.

4The second part depicts a woman with a child in her arms, the child that born or comes from death. It is also the symbolic representation of the anima, the mother and the sorceress, the guide, the only one that can engender the manifestation of the sacredness of that primordial child, which it has always kept virgin, pure, the information of the origins; that is why this child is carrying a spirit that crowns him, the corn spirit, the strength of the ancestors that penetrates another woman.

This woman, this feminine aspect, fertilized by the spirit of corn, carries on her head a hair of fire, fiery, pure mind. She carries the ancestral wisdom and from this fire the man arises, the man who is able to touch the stars, the eternity.

The man is catapulted into the fire, he builds his rise based on what he shares of this fiery aspect of the anima. The feeling of weightlessness that manages the statue in this part causes the observer to delight in freedom and aspiration of eternity. It is like this how a “pregnant” woman of the spirit of the earth and its gifts, leads the human to seek heaven.

Begets her, the wise soul, the spirit of free man, the man who can touch the stars, the one who is stealing sky its knowledge, the one which became a cosmic being, winged, wise.

This is the journey of the philosophic man, who wants to touch the stars, who wants to find the way to free himself and knows that much of the secret lies in the union of opposites.


9The farmer, the artist, the traveler, the hero, the warrior of human freedoms, the scholar, the wise-shaman, all get together in this versatile character that today moves me with his work. In these few lines I resume his passionate and permanent effort to close this eternal gap that only those ones who have his rust, lead, dark matter to turn into beautiful work their soul. His Master Opus was inside him, his posthumous work was to feel the weightlessness of the ideas of Plato and Da Vinci as his, but it was also on the desperation of people to understand, in pain, in hunger, because this combination gives this unique touch, and it was this that allowed him to make his mark in the Latin American mind.

To Give birth to a work, as he used to call it, took time, but the methodical, irrational and engaging appeal for possession of that fire will surely burn his entrails but brought him the unifying symbol. So appeared in him the bearer of light, the philosopher’s stone that turned all his force into sculpture.


2 «Retratos de nuestras gentes». Ministerio de Cultura de Colombia. Año 2012.
4 Los pasos del condenado. Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt. Colombia, 1988. Arango Editores.
5 Crónicas de la errancia del amor y de la muerte, ensayo autobiográfico, 1976.