Deities of Death and Rebirth
As I was painting The Harrowing of Hell, I gradually learned to think through its arrangement of images. In fact, as a result of my meditations on that work, I learned how to 'think symbolically'. This brought the 'combination iconologue' to light, the first iconologue I was able to isolate and identify. But, the images in The Harrowing are not only 'combined'; equally often they are 'displaced'. Through the 'displacement of theme' iconologue, they are regrouped around a new theme. In particular, figures from different mythologies are regrouped around the Christian theme of 'the Harrowing of Hell'.
The Harrowing of Hell
During his death and resurrection, Christ descended into Hades' pit, and recovered there Christianity's more ancient, indeed forgotten forebearers. In traditonal renderings of the saviour's descensus ad Infernus, it is Adam, Eve, Abraham, and Moses whom he liberates from the Hell-mouth. That is to say, it is various figures from the earlier Hebrew mythology which the saviour thus re-integrates into Christian myth. But, in my unusual rendering of this timeless tale, pagan figures of ever more ancient origin emerge from the spiralling depths, and eventually find their place side by side with Christ.
This painting's final composition was accomplished very late. While living on rue St. Séverin, I spent hours gazing at the unfinished underdrawing, wondering what figures were outlined by the myriad of clouds and demonic forms swirling upward from the depths. Originally, I had sketched seven demons in light sillhouette. But, as a result of my experiences vis à vis the dark feminine, three of these demons had taken on other, unexpected forms. To the left had emerged Kali; beneath her had crystallized the child-god Krishna; and below them uprose the ancient Great Goddess.
Now, other slumbering gods revealed their long-hidden countenances: each of them was masculine, and each of them was from a culture more ancient than Christianity. First came Moses, with the brazen serpent upheld in his grasp. But, for reasons I couldn't quite understand, he acquired Sumerian features. His traditional 'horns'* became the horned headdress of Sumerian Gods, and his bearded visage acquired their braided design and, especially, their 'unseeing stare'.
*Moses' 'horns' are the result of Jerome's mistranslation of the Hebrew verb geren, 'to shine' as 'horned'. Hence, "They saw that Moses' face shone," in Exodus 34:29 was rendered in Latin as "They saw that Moses' face was horned," and represented as such in art forever after.
I had often admired the collection of Sumerian sculptures in the Louvre, and was strangely attracted by their 'epic' proportions - the same 'heaviness' that one feels in the Venus of Willendorf from the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. Hence, her corpulent form and braided tresses, combined with aspects from Malta's Earth Mother sculptures, had come to adorn my rendering of the ancient Goddess. By a similar token, the 'heaviness' of the Sumerian style eventually overtook the figure of Moses. Both of these figures manifest, for me, a more ancient and mysterious 'epic' proportion.
Originally, to the right of Christ was the shattered lid of his ravaged tomb - the 'gates of brass' which the saviour broke asunder to enter the realms of Hades. Gradually, this outline transformed into the huge 'vision serpent' of the Aztecs. I don't know why, but each time I looked at the painting, I kept seeing a serpent rising upward from the depths of Hell. It was only after I had seen Aztec tablets of a 'vision serpent' in the British Museum - standing in awe before this image, uncomprehending and yet inspired - did I draw Quetzlcoatl emerging from the serpent's open mouth.
While drawing this figure, it's symbolic action of 'emergence' took on an increasingly personal meaning for me. After having struggled so long in Vienna, Malta, and Munich, wandering lost and alone, but attempting always to disentangle iconologic from the myriad of images uprising in my visions, dreams, and madness - I felt as if I had finally done so. My journey through the underworld was finally at an end, and now I had 'emerged' with my long sought-after prize. I had learned how to think through arrangements of images. And so, I had realized one of the most difficult tasks awaiting me in my calling as an artist.
Once the figure of Quetzlcoatl was finished, I saw a sudden balance between the masculine and feminine figures in The Harrowing. The Earth Mother was now counter-balanced by Moses, and Kali by Quetzlcoatl. Meanwhile Krishna, as a child-god, had the sexless nature of a child. And so too, I realized, did Christ. As the supreme ascetic, he was sexless; neither masculine nor feminine, but a balanced mixture of the two, appearing exactly between Kali and Quetzlcoatl.
Following this train of thought, the Hermaphroditus suddenly appeared to me at the lower right. Somehow, I felt that this figure, borrowed from the alchemical Rosarium Philosophorum, brought out explicitly the bi-sexual nature of Christ, which Christianity had otherwise suppressed. Finally, due to my new-found interest in Alchemy and its roots going back to ancient Egyptian lore, the last of the seven demons was illuminated. After gazing at length into the shadowy depths, the blackened figure of Osiris, the Egyptian God of the dead, dimly appeared in the lower darkness.
The Dying and Rising God
Only later, as I was working out the colour-scheme for the painting, did I realize one of its hidden intentions: that each of these figures, when juxtaposed with the figure of Christ, illuminated a different, more ancient aspect of the eternal saviour. And so the symbol of Christ, when combined with each of these, deepened into a more archaic meaning. But, more than that, each of these ancient symbols preserved an aspect of the eternally Sacred which Christianity had obscured. All, in fact, were rising upward from the darkened depths of Hell, and seeking to return into luminous union with the Egyptian sun-disc - the 'circle of light' at the apex, the ancient symbol par excellence of the eternally Sacred.
This explained the theme of the picture - the Harrowing of Hell. Each of the demons released from the underworld was actually a more ancient god in disguise. And each of these gods, freed by Christ's harrowing, could emerge once more into the light of our consciousness or be integrated again into our cultural awareness. Their symbols could combine with Christ's to illuminate aspects of the Ancient One otherwise doomed for eternity.
I saw this first with the figure of Moses upholding the brazen serpent. Since he points with one hand to the serpent and with the other to Christ, he evokes John's prophecy in the New Testament: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." (Jn 3:14) Through New Testament passages such as these, the myths of the Old Testament had been integrated into the New. The strange parallels between Hebrew and Christian myths, with similar symbols appearing at their nadir, allowed the early Church Fathers to read Hebrew figures as 'types' of Christ. For example, Matthew wrote,"Even as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the depths of the earth." (Mt 12:40). In this way, Christian myths crossed over with more ancient, Hebrew ones, and their archaic figures became a part of Christianity. But, if this was the case, couldn't parallels with other, more antiquated myths be found? And couldn't their nadir figures, consisting of archaic and pagan symbols, thus merge with Christianity?
Following this clue, I began comparing the other ancient Gods with Christ. This comparison began, not with Moses, but the brazen serpent. The comparison of Christ to the brazen serpent conjured up a whole series of more ancient associations. Since Neolithic times, the serpent was recognized as a symbol of death and rebirth, because it continually shed its skin. As such, it often appeared as an emblem of the ancient Earth Mother, indicating that she, as the earth, continuously cycled between death and rebirth.
Then, during the Bronze Age, the role of the Great Goddess was slowly replaced by her consort. Instead, many masculine Gods - Osiris, Damuzi, Attis, and Adonis - were associated with the ancient serpent, since they repeatedly died and rose again with the cycle of the seasons. Christ, as another dying/rising shepherd-lord, was the last in a long series to be associated with the ancient serpent.
To my great surprise, I gradually recognized that all the gods and goddesses surrounding Christ were ancient deities of death and rebirth. And so, each was connected with the ancient serpent in this way (an emblem accompanying each, and appearing no less than eleven times in the picture). Yet, each of these ancient deities also revealed an aspect of death and rebirth which Christianity had obscured. They revealed the Ancient One in a different light. In the language of The Apocryphon, each image reflected the Ancient One back to itself in a different symbolic form. And so each, in its own unique way, could be entered through to the Ancient One at the apex.
As I worked through the various figures one by one, a startling discovery occured: the ancient logic underlying iconologic suddenly become crystal clear. Momentarily forgetting myths and concentrating on the symbols themselves, I recognized that each sacred symbol in The Harrowing of Hell could be 'combined' with the symbol of Christ. The 'combination' of these two images brought out important similarities and differences between the two. The similarity was that they were both 'dying and rising gods'; they both brought us through death and rebirth into the presence of the Sacred. The difference was the manner in which they died and rose again - the different myth, resulting in a different mythic pathway. To combine images in our thinking, to think through their similarities and differences, allowed us to approach the Sacred along different paths of thought. The Christian saviour, as our own cultural symbol, allowed us to tread mythic paths long-since familiar. Yet, each pagan symbol that we encountered along the way revealed a new turning in the path - an aspect of the Sacred fundamentally unknown to Christianity. Nevertheless, all these different paths led us, ultimately, to the same destination.
I began thinking through the symbols in my painting one by one, comparing each in turn to the central figure of Christ. As the most ancient image of death and rebirth, there appeared, first of all, the archaic Earth Mother emerging from oblivion's depths. Unlike Christ, she revealed the ancient Sacramentum in nature - in the earth's seasonal flux, continually alternating from death to rebirth. As such, if we entered through her image, we would see the earth as sacred. Each time we watched the changing of the seasons, we would witness her annual death and rebirth. Her myth of the seasons' cycle would come to encompass us.
Near her, obscured in dark shadows, was Osiris, the ancient dying/rising God of Egypt, whose crown displays on its brow the uprising 'uraeus' serpent. Like Christ, Osiris died and rose again, then sat enthroned at the end of time as Judge of the dead. And in his myth, there appeared a judgement hall with a balance, much like the one appearing at the end of the Christian Apocalypse. But, rather than weighing our good and evil deeds, this balance weighed the heart of the deceased against the 'feather of truth'. And indeed, on Osiris' crown, we can see one of these 'feathers of truth'. Hence, the ever-dying / rising God of Egypt reveals the Sacred to us in a much different light. Like Christ, his myth tells us that we shall all die and rise again. But, at the end of our life our deeds shall be judged, not by their goodness, but their truth. By acting continuously in accord with the truth, we may cross death's threshold and dwell eternally in the presence of the ancient One.
Beside Osiris stood the alchemical Hermaphroditus who, in the Rosarium Philosophorum, displays a two-fold death and rebirth during the four stages of the opus. As already explained, death and rebirth in alchemy was undertaken to achieve a vision of perfection. We do not die and rise again so as to enter through the image of Christ-judge at the end of time. Rather, we die and rise again to enter instead through the image of the Alchemical-child at the end of the opus. The Hermaphroditus is a variant of that image. It too appears at the end of the opus (with a serpent in its grasp), after a two-fold death and rebirth ending in the union of its sexual opposites. As such, it reveals the ancient Sacramentum as an unio oppositorum.. Christ too, in his androgynous aspect, reveals the ancient One as a union of sexual opposites. But the Hermaphroditus brings out the union of masculine and feminine in the One explicitly.
Kali and Quetzlcoatl, as masculine and feminine opposites entering into the shivite aureola surrounding Christ, are also dying and rising deities. Kali is the Hindu Goddess of time (her name, Kali, is the feminine of the Sanskrit word 'kala', meaning both 'blackness' and 'time'). As 'the Dark One', she symbolizes the Hindu vision of Time, with its eternal round of death and rebirth.
It was only through extended researches into Hindu iconography that the hidden meanings behind her many emblems became clear to me. What she holds in her four hands, I realized, are different emblems manifesting the transitoriness of time. Meanwhile, her calmed features indicate that a stilled point may also be found at time's centre.
In one hand she holds a lasso (kalapasha), the 'noose of time'; it indicates how we in our life are snared by time and attached to worldliness. In another hand she holds the sword (khadga), which cuts us free from those attachments. The sword brings death but can also bring release, through wisdom. In her third hand Kali holds the skull bowl (kapala). The skull reminds us once more of the cycle of death and rebirth, while its form as a begging bowl indicates that this may be overcome through wandering asceticism. Finally, in her fourth hand, Kali holds the trident (trishula). Its three prongs represent the three-fold aspect of Hindu time - its creation (Brahma), continuance (Vishnu), and destruction (Shiva). But, as the trident, these three aspects of time point beyond themselves to a transcendent unity. Kali also wears a garland of skulls (kapalamala), each skull in the chain yet one more death and rebirth linking us into the cycle of existence. And finally, between her swelling breasts rises the cobra (naga), the ancient Hindu symbol of death and rebirth.
Yet, despite the weapons she wields and the destructive emblems adorning her person, Kali is also creative and fertile. Her figure is full; her dark form inviting; her black features radiant. And, transcending this, her features manifest a calm acceptance of all this - an offering of agony and ecstasy, creation and destruction, all equally ordained. Her eyelids are pressed shut in quiet meditation because she has found the still-point at the centre of this ever-turning wheel. As the Goddess of Time, she also manifests its stilled, timeless, and eternal aspect.
As such, where Christ, as the Alpha and Omega, encompasses the complete length of linear time, and offers us release through death, resurrection, and judgement; Kali encompasses the complete revolution of cyclic time, and offers us a different form of release through death, rebirth, and their eventual transcendence in stilled tranquility. When we combine the two symbols in our thinking, their similarities and differences immediately become apparent. They both reveal the eternally Sacred by dying and rising again. But Christ offers us an epiphany at the end of time, whereas Kali opens a doorway in its very middle.
Krishna is also a Hindu god who appears intermittantly in cyclic time. In fact, while Christ is the incarnation of God the Father, the third part of the Christian trinity; Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu, the third part of the Hindu trimurti. In the Sanskrit texts, Krishna is one of Vishnu's avatars, meaning literally, one his 'descents' into cyclic time, so as to preserve its illusion from Shiva's awaited destruction. While Christ, as the Christ-child, descended once-only into linear time, becoming historically 'the one true saviour'; Krishna, as the child-avatar of Vishnu, descends repeatedly into cyclic time, becoming an illusory, ever-recurring saviour who sometimes preserves the cyclic illusion and other times reveals it as none other than maya, 'the veil'.
Meanwhile, other, more striking differences arise from their shared similarities. While Christ was incarnated as an innocent child, Krishna by contrast was a mischievous, trickster-like child. He often confounded his shepherd parents, playing upon his illusory appearance to reveal, ultimately, his true nature - that he was nothing less than the divine ground of the cosmos. Once, the playful child slyly invited a world-usurping king to gaze into his open mouth, and revealed therein the entirety of the cosmos in its ever-swirling cycles of time. The king, shocked and humbled, gave up all further attempts at world domination.
In my painting, Christ rises upward from the harrowing with his hands held open to the sun. Krishna too holds his left hand in a manner that imitates and, indeed, playfully mocks Christ. While, for Christ, his momentary ascent is actually taking place, Krishna hints, in a childishly playful way, that all of this is nothing but illusion.
The last of the seven dying/rising deities is Quetzlcoatl. My study of Aztec iconography revealed this ancient culture to be extremely complex and rich, offering a creative, dream and drug-inspired system of symbols and myths. According to Quetzelcoatl's timeless myth, each time the evening star fell beneath the horizon, the god took a mortal plunge into underworld flames. And, each time the morning star dawned again, he rose again from the dead, rejuvenated and renewed. Among the many symbols manifesting his death and rebirth, the most potent was his association with the plumed serpent. His descent into the underworld was symbolized by the ancient serpent swallowing him whole. And his re-emergence was symbolized, in turn, by his coming-forth from the ancient serpent's open mouth.
The name Quetzlcoatl means 'the feathered serpent'. And in fact, the serpent from which he emerges is plumed, with emerald feathers, a quetzal head, and cut conch-shells adorning its length. Hence, the god appears in my painting, not only in his anthropomorphic aspect as the emerging deity, but also in his zoomorphic aspect as the plumed serpent. The zoomorphic form combines two Aztec animals: the quetzal (parrot) and the coatl (snake). In the Aztec jungles, the brightly feathered quetzal only appeared at dawn or dusk, hunting high up in the mountain trees. Hence, it became a symbol of Quetzlcoatl because, like the god, it could only be glimpsed at dawn or dusk, rising upward in the air. And because the coatl snake continually sloughed its skin, it too became a symbol of the god who continually died and rose again. Finally, the spiralling conch-shells along the serpent's length are a motif from his myth, indicating Quetzlcoatl's mastery over the underworld labyrinth. All these different symbols, revealing different aspects of Quetzlcoatl, combine so as to similarly reveal the god's eternal dying and rising again.
In his anthropomorphic form, Quetzlcoatl bears a crown emblazoned with a skull - an obvious reference to him as Lord of Death. But the entwined serpents on his chest, with their life-giving power, offer an alternative reference to him as the Lord of Life. As well, the twinned-serpents allude to a lost myth where Quetzlcoatl and his twin brother descended to the underworld. The legend of the hero-twins suggests that one aspect of Quetzlcoatl remained in the realm of the dead, while the other surfaced again to the land of the living.
His two hands are held in specific Aztec gestures which bear a striking resemblance to the Hindu abhaya mudra of 'fear not' and the varada mudra of 'boon bestowal'. I interpret these gestures in light of his myth: the underworld journey, though frightening to the extreme (abhaya mudra), offers many unforeseen gifts (varada mudra).
It is clear that Quetzlcoatl's underworld journey, symbolized by his emergence from the mouth of the serpent, finds its mythic parallel in Christ's harrowing of Hell. The Christian saviour emerging from the open tomb is no different from Quetzlcoatl emerging from the serpent's jaws. Both, because of their journey through the underworld, become masters of life and death. But each, in a different manner, experiences death, resurrection, and the revelations it brings.