The Eternal Rise and Fall
After working my way through the seven ancient deities of death and rebirth, I came to see how the symbols in the upper register similarly echoed this theme. Their similarities to Christ bore, by contrast, striking differences. All followed his mythic path of 'the harrowing', but offered more ancient variations on that traditional theme. Among the figures imbedded in the architecture, Quetzlcoatl again appeared, but now in Aztec bas relief. Like Christ, he is emerging from the underworld flames, his hands upheld in offering to the sun. The cross above him is also an Aztec symbol, with obvious Christian associations. But, as I realized while painting it, this Aztec 'cross' is not a cross at all, but an extremely ornate rendering of the 'bicephalic' serpent - a mythological serpent with a head at both ends, facing in opposite directions.
To the right was another, Christian version of the Harrowing theme: a soul, his hands clasped in prayer, rises from purgatorial flames, cleansed and renewed. This particular figure was taken from a distinctly Maltese form of statuary, which may be found at many of its city gates. On my walks through Malta's older villages, I often came across such statues. Later, I added the two-headed eagle of alchemy behind it (the Doppeladler). As the phoenix who rises renewed from the ashes, this alchemical image is also a symbol of death, rebirth, and renewal. But, like the bicephalic serpent of the Aztecs, its two heads face in opposite directions.
Hence, both of these architectural figures restated the theme of Christ's descensus ad infernus, but in Maltese, Aztec, and even Alchemical variations. The crypt with its ornate architecture is also Maltese: a distinctly Mediterranean version of the baroque. In fact, the original ediface stands in the Maltese countryside, an isolated chapel crumbling and in ruins. I came across it during one of my long walks along the fields and cliffs. However, while drawing it, I gradually extended, elongated, and so distorted its lines. Then, I crowned one pillar with the ankh in flames, and the other with the cross in flames. Both restate, briefly, the motif of the Harrowing, except the latter is also a veiled reference to my own family coat of arms: a cross emerging from a bowl of flames.
Finally, at the apex of this composition stands the ram-headed scarabaeus, upholding the solar-disc. My chance encounter with this ancient symbol was a real discovery. I came across it while studying and slowly unravelling the complex arrangement of symbols on an Egyptian coffin (which reposes, at present, in the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge). The Egyptian sun-disc is flanked on either side by uraeus serpents which, once again, face in opposite directions. Intuitively, I added the Christian symbol of the 'Alpha' to one, and the 'Omega' to the other.
As I learned over time, the ram-headed scarabaeus is a unique image, combining two recognizable Egyptian hieroglyphs. The scarab alone was named Khoprer, and it is he who appears each day at dawn to push the sun-disc above the primaeval waters. Meanwhile, the ram alone was called Khnum, and it is he who descends with the sun beneath those same waters each day at dusk.
Yet, in the Egyptian myth of the Creation, this daily event appears in its more timeless aspect. For, in tep zepi, 'the first time', Khoprer elevated the sun above the primaeval waters. This timeless event constituted the mythic moment of the sun's very first rising. By a similar token, Khnum's final descent with the sun is taken to symbolize the very end of time - the Egyptian apocalypse. Hence, by drawing uraeus serpents with the Alpha and Omega, I unknowingly accentuated this idea of Creation and Apocalypse.
Meanwhile, the figure of the ram-headed scarabaeus is unique: by combining the scarab and the ram, it combines the sun's rise and fall into one image, symbolizing the sun's endless cycling - itseternal rise and fall. According to the Egyptian solar myth, the sun journeys on its solar barque through the underworld each night, then emerges once more to sail across the heavens during the day. But, it also has done this since the beginning of time. For this reason, the sun-disc is called 'the barque of a million years' and, on account of its endless rise and fall, symbolizes the eternity of time. According to the later, Osirian variant on this solar myth, those who die and rise again first pass through the judgement hall of Osiris, then rise again with the sun so as to journey on its solar barque for all eternity. They enter through the sun's endless rise and fall, and become one with its eternity.
Thus, according to Egyptian ritual, the sun's rising each morning is a momentary reflection of its first rising at the dawn of time. In that instant, an epiphany transpires, as the sun's eternal rise and fall is momentarily made manifest here and now. Hence, when we compare Christ, with his once-only descent and re-ascent, to the Egyptian sun-disc, with its eternal rise and fall, the Christian symbol suddenly expands into its more timeless aspect. Though Christ journeyed only once through the underworld, the Egyptian sun god undertakes that journey each evening and, indeed, for all eternity. In my painting, the comparision of Christ with the sun-disc is made explicit through his red robes and the shivite aureole which, surrounding Christ, echoes the sun's momentary flash of luminence. Both these stilled images may be entered through in a momentary flash of understanding and its more ancient epiphany.
Going back to the roots of the Christ image in The Harrowing of Hell, I remembered the dream which originally inspired the painting. On that hot summer's night in Malta, I saw a Buddhist monk overwhelmed by evil demons and finally consumed in a momentary flash of flourescent flames. So frightening was that conflagration that it awoke me from my sleep with a sudden shock. In a certain sense, I have tried to preserve that moment 'of awakening' in my painting. By drawing the shivite aureola around Christ (an emblem traditionally associated with the Hindu God Shiva, manifesting both his flashing epiphany and his flames which, in a sudden conflagration, will consume the world at the end of time), I have tried to preserve some indication of the flourescent flames in my original dream: the sudden epiphany that shocked me into wakingness. As well, Christ sits with his legs crossed, an allusion to the Buddha's padmasana or 'lotus-position'. This posture, displaced from the Buddha onto Christ, faintly evokes the Illuminated One's sudden moment of awakening and enlightenment (bodhi).
While the Egyptian sun-disc bears Christian symbols of the Alpha and Omega on its two uraeus serpents, Christ himself bears the Egyptian symbol of the uroboros on his broach. Hence, while the sun-disc bears the Alpha and Omega, as Christian symbols of linear time with its 'beginning' and 'end', Christ bears the uroboros - the primaeval serpent with its tail in its mouth - as an Egyptian symbol of eternity, for it shows that 'the end will be where the beginning is'.
As these underlying relations slowly became clearer to me, I added one final touch to the painting: the ever-expanding rose or lotus flower enhaloing the sun. This particular motif had appeared first in Christ Alchemist, as the alchemical emblem on his chest. Now, through my more recent discoveries, that blossom had exfoliated into a broader vision of the cosmos. As I came to see it, all the sacred symbols in this painting are nothing less than petals edging round a celestial rose - an ever-expanding lotus flower that now encompasses all of the sleeping creation within its folded lids. Each sacred symbol, in its own unique way, offers a fragmentary reflection of that singular wholeness and Holiness that, blazing with light at its centre, animates and awakens the entire cosmos.