The Sacred Life Journey
Hence, one more aspect of the Ancient Philosophy had now became apparent to me: each of the figures surrounding Christ could be entered through in a momentary epiphany. For each was a sudden manifestation of the ancient Sacramentum, appearing as a God from a different cultural epoch.
In my book, Enter Through the Image, I came to refer to images of this type as Threshold Images. They are so-called because, each time we find ourselves standing before such an image, we are also standing, as it were, before a sacred threshold. Each of these images offers us an 'opening onto the Sacred', a 'doorway to the Divine'. To step across its sacred threshold, and so enter through the image, is to behold the ancient Mysterium beyond it, in a timeless moment of awakening.
But, these same images also appear to us spontaneously as we pass through the different stages of life. Each time we find ourselves up against a certain life-threshold - birth, marriage, death - images of these events arise spontaneously in our dreams. As I slowly realized and will gradually reveal here, these images appear at the nadir of our dreams, to indicate those life-thresholds presently awaiting the dreamer. These oneiric Threshold Images bear a striking resemblance to the images that appear at the nadir of our cultural myths.
Indeed, the myths of countless cultures have taken these dream-images, and ennobled them first through art, then elevated them into timeless symbols of the Sacred. Birth, marriage, death - all of these life-threshold crossings appear once more in sacred images as the Christ-child, the Coronation of the Virgin, or the crucified Christ. Such was the case in our culture. Or, they may appear in other cultures as the Krishna-child, the hieros gamos, or the serpent-swallowed Quetzlcoatl. These different cultural Threshold Images not only offer us images of our own life-threshold crossings, they elevate those threshold crossings into sacred events. And, by successfully entering through such images - in our meditations or in the forward movement through life itself - we momentarily initiate ourselves in an experience of life's underlying holiness.
Through the Mystic Diptych, I had already recognized that Christ may become a symbol of our on-going death and rebirth. Rather than dying and rising again once only at the end of life, Christ on the wheel offers us an image of dying and rising again repeatedly over the entire course of life. As such, this painting manifests the death and rebirth that transpires at each life-threshold crossing. Over the course of life, we repeatedly die to our self, so as to come to birth from within. In my painting of Christ Alchemist, this becomes explicit, as we are offered a vision of 'coming to birth from within'.
But, as The Harrowing of Hell makes clear, the image of Christ may resonate with even more ancient associations. Our saviour is simply the most recent in a series of ancient dying and rising Gods. Like the serpent of most ancient times, each of the deities depicted in The Harrowing dies and rises again, each at the nadir of its own respective myth. As such, each of these deities is also a Threshold Image that offers us, in potential, an image of one of our own life-threshold crossings. And, at the same time, each offers us its unique moment of epiphany.
When I first drew The Harrowing of Hell, I had no idea of the Ancient Philosophy its images evoked. Only gradually, over time, did the meaning of its different images become apparent. The figure of Christ at the centre symbolizes ourselves as we are at present. In Jungian terminology, he symbolizes the ego on its journey to the Self. But the ego, like the ancient serpent, must continually die and rise again if it wishes to progress forward in life, and eventually attain wholeness. At each life-threshold, it must slough off the older personality, and emerge once more with the new.
Meanwhile, something much more deeper persists, and survives each of these transformations - what Jung called the Self, and I have prefered to call our innermost divinity. In the circular sun-disc at the apex of the painting, I found the image indicating our innermost divinity. For the Egyptian sun-disc rises and falls once, twice, and again repeatedly throughout our life, and indeed, for all eternity. As such, it symbolizes our higher Self - that which survives each death and rebirth - the innermost divinity that is eternal and unchanging.
Finally, each of the gods and goddesses accompanying Christ offers us an image of a different life-threshold. As Threshold Images, they not only offer us an image that stands at the nadir of our life-threshold crossings, but depict that life-threshold crossing as a sacred event. By entering through its image, we initiate ourselves into a momentary unveiling of the eternally Sacred. And, by entering through each image in succession, we realize that life, with the crossing of each life threshold, is a gradual unveiling of the Sacred.
For example, when I first drew Kali, it was obviously in response to my encounters with 'the dark feminine' over the course of my life. She symbolized, in Jungian terms, 'the Anima'. But, more importantly, in terms of the ancient life-philosophy, she symbolizes 'the eternal feminine', which is encountered each time we run up against the life-threshold of marriage. And, we are only able to enter through her image if we cross the threshold where the image of her stands.
Which is to say, in the forward movement through life, we must engage her meaningfully, embrace her, and ultimately become wed to her, thus integrating aspects of the Goddess into ourselves - into, that is, our innermost Self. In that moment of epiphany, as we enter through her image, our innermost divinity appears to us through her aspect and in her image. The Sacred at life's source manifests itself to us that moment. And, since life is a gradual unfolding of the Sacred, our innermost divinity manifests itself to us at the moment of crossing each life-threshold.
This is the final aspect of the Ancient Philosophy which the images of myth, art, and dreams revealed to me. For this reason, I was simultaneously amazed and disturbed when I discovered that each of the figures in The Harrowing of Hell stood at a different life-threshold. Although I had drawn each one spontaneously, attempting to delineate the outline only dimly appearing in the mists, the whole composition emerged eventually as a path to life's more sacred unfolding.
The Harrowing of Hell
Beginning, then, with the child-like figure of Krishna situated immediately below Christ, this, I realized, is Jung's archetype of the Puer aeternus - the 'eternal child'. Just as I, as a child playing before the front door of my house, suddenly became conscious of myself; so here, the life-threshold of that 'childhood awakening' appears as a Threshold Image. The moment that I, as a child, became self-aware, I crossed the infantile threshold of 'acquiring my own identity'. The child-image symbolizes our birth and, more than that, the birth of our ego at the age of five, when the ego first became aware of itself as the centre of consciousness. Rendering that experience in terms of Egyptian myth: 'when the sun rose for the first time on the horizon of my perceiving consciousness, henceforth casting its light upun all things.' Images of the Horus-child emerging from the Nile lily, of the Christ-child, or of the more mischievous Krishna - all of these Threshold Images render that momentary awakening into a sacred event. The moment my infantile ego 'came to birth from within,' I crossed over that threshold, entered through its image, and became, for a blessed moment, the Divine Child.
With the figure of Kali, we have here, as I said, an embodiment of 'the dark feminine'. All the moments I have experienced vis à vis women in my life - as a new-born child, her first incarnation in my mother, both the joyful moment of union in her womb and the painful separation brought about at my birth; then, as a young child, her sudden tri-partite appearance in the nakedness of three girls; later, as an adult, her mysterious re-appearance in A., in M., and in a host of others, involving both my painful separation from these as well as the more joyful moments of our union; leading finally to my imaginary embrace with 'the Virgin' in my dream and my actual embrace with F. each night - all of these events allow me to experience within the innermost depths of my being the near-totality of Kali's cruel and compassionate nature. As a result of these experiences, I gradually entered through her image, beholding the Goddess - equally callous, cruel, compassionate, and kind - in all the sacred manifestations of her Being.
In the alchemical figure of the Hermaphroditus, we find the masculine and feminine combined in one image. In Jungian terms, this is the Syzygy - the union of male and female opposites. In ancient Bronze Age cultures, this figure appeared with the hieros gamos, the sacred wedding of god and goddess. In later mythology, the same image appeared whenever the hero embraced his bride at the end of his adventure. In alchemy, it appeared as the Hermaphroditus or Mysterium Coniuntionis; in Eastern tantric art, as the yab-yum or Shiva-shakti - the God and Goddess sexually entwined in the greater awareness of their actual unity. All these figures manifest the Sacred as an unio oppositorum - as the unity of the masculine and feminine in the One. As such, this Threshold Image also stands at the life-threshold of marriage.
In Paris, as I crossed over the marriage threshold with F., we were initiated together into a momentary unveiling of that mystery. Through this image and the ritual it invokes, time momentarily stilled itself to reveal the Sacred at life's source. This sacrament of marriage was preceeded, incidentally, by the lesser life-thresholds of our first sexual experiences, love's gradual awakening, and the eventual attainment of life-long companionship. By contrast, each time one of us fails to cross that threshold, the Sacred appears in its more malevolent form - for men, as the cruel and barren Goddess; for women, as the Devil with his horns and cloven hooves.
In the figure of Quetzlcoatl, I sensed something akin to Jung's Persona - the 'role' one plays in life. In terms of our ancient life-philosophy, this image stands at the threshold of profession. But, in a much deeper sense, it indicates our calling and life-task, the artist's 'vocation' or the hero's 'call to adventure'. When I, as a child playing with my leaf-boat, became conscious of my creative nature; when later, as a youth, I dreamt that I acquired the tools of my profession; when later still, in Malta, I destroyed my painting but eventually restored it - all these events constituted cases where the life-threshold of profession was come up against and gradually crossed.
Through his descent into the underworld, overcoming his fears and eventually acquiring its gifts, Quetzlcoatl assumed the timeless mantle of the hero. Conquering his own, darker, immature, and more monstrous nature, he sloughed off his serpentine form to finally emerge fully human. As such, the Aztec saviour re-emerged from his life-and-death struggle to stand, finally, at the threshold of life's greatest adventure. Demonstrating fearlessness and skill in the attainment of his vocation, he became the image of that threshold-crossing which, in our more modern culture, is the profession threshold.
Each time I looked into the face of Moses and the ancient Earth Mother, I could not help but see the faces of my own mother and father. For these elderly figures symbolize, in Jung's words, the Wise Old Man and Magna Mater, as male and female versions of the same 'Spirit' Archetype. That is to say, they symbolize the wisdom of old age in its masculine and feminine aspects. In our own life-journey, their thresholds are crossed when we ourselves become elderly and wise through experience. Typically, that occurs after we have become parents and even grandparents. Then, to our own children and grandchildren, we may become the bearded sage and wise old witch.
Finally, all of these archetypes are entered through, all of the life-thresholds are crossed over, so as to eventually encompass one's life as a whole. For Jung, such Wholeness was symbolized, typically, by the mandala: a circle contained in the four cardinal points. In the arcana majorum of the Marseilles Tarot, such a mandala appears in the final card of the series, 'the World card'. Such a shape also appears in my own painting, but I only realized this by the strangest of co-incidences.
One day, I had mislaid exactly that Tarot card, and was more than relieved when I found it again. Not really knowing why, I taped it above my easel. Weeks later, my brother saw The Harrowing of Hell, and asked me why I had based its composition on the World card of the Tarot de Marseilles. In truth, I was stunned, as I hadn't taken the slightest note of their shared symmetry: the rising figure encircled by a mandorla, which was then enframed by four cardinal figures. Though sensitive to the emerging symmetry, I had created the entire composition by intuition alone. Only on that day did I recognize its obvious association with mandala-images.
Because Kali and Quetzlcoatl enter into the shivite aureola, the circle surrounding Christ is not complete. Only in the sun-disc above do we find a perfect, unbroken circle. This becomes the symbol of Oneness and Totality which Christ rises toward. He strives to encompass the higher circle within the lower one. In Jungian terms, the lower ego attempts to find its centre in the higher Self. The sun-disc's circular design offers us a geometrical and trans-cultural symbol of unity - the Ancient Oneness which all the gods of various cultures strive upward to attain.
But, more than that, all of life's threshold crossings, symbolized by these different gods, become momentary evocations of the timeless and eternal Sacramentum that underlies life as a whole. For the events of our lives are like so many veils enshrouding the Eternal. Each time we cross a life-threshold, that veil is momentarily removed. The gods and goddesses of different cultures, as different Threshold Images, elevate our life-threshold crossings, revealing them to be momentary Epiphanies. And so, when life is finally transcended as a whole, it reveals the greater Wholeness and Holiness at its depths.