Dream of Christ Alchemist
Iconography of Christ Alchemist
Once back in Toronto, I began sketching out these large, dream-inspired works. The Hindu wheel behind Christ, with its infinite detail, was extremely time-consuming. But drawing it became, for me, 'a sacred act' - something to teach me time's hidden, more sacred aspect. I learned to make my drawing of The Mystic Diptych a kind of ritual, where time no longer passed in its usual fashion.
I also began drawing the Christ devoured by demons. For some reason, I drew him rising from the tomb. Although Grunewald's Resurrection and Raphael's Transfiguration lay before me on the drawing board, my inspiration seemed to be coming from elsewhere. At the time, I was reading voluminous accounts of various myths, including the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which described in some detail Christ's 'Harrowing of Hell'.
During the three days between his death and resurrection, Christ descended into Hades to free the souls of all those imprisoned there, since they'd perished before their sins could be forgiven. These, Christ led out of Hades' open mouth. As I was drawing, this image of 'the Harrowing of Hell' combined with the image I'd dreamt in Malta of the Buddha's (and St. Anthony's) Temptation.
So, I drew Christ rising from the tomb, but, like the Buddha, he was cross-legged. And a host of swirling demons were rising with him from the open tomb. These demons took no particular form, but were roughly sketched in with faint outlines. As I was drawing them, one line in particular from the Gospel of Nicodemus kept repeating in my mind:"And all the dark places of Hades were illuminated." (Acts XXI:3) The more I drew the details of this work, the more the demons remained shadowy and in darkness, offering me only dim sillhouettes. Only gradually, over the next few years, was each of these seven demons illuminated in turn, revealing a strange, unexpected form. Thus did The Harrowing of Hell gradually come into existence.
While image-making sustained me, my life in Toronto was falling into shambles. After ten years of struggling, both together and apart, A. and I finally had to separate. We had both struggled, out of a genuine love for each other, towards the greater light of our union - but ultimately the darker and unknown side of our natures had torn us apart. I moved out, and began a dangerous form of 'bohemian debauchery': drinking and smoking late into the night, deep in conversation with other like-minded artists and intellectuals, and the occasional affair ending, as usual, in tragedy.
I continued to hold a steady job as a bookseller, working full-time and barely meeting the rent on my room in High Park. Like all my co-workers, I was a victim of 'Generation X'. In 1990's Toronto, you were offered a job that demanded twenty percent of your abilities and eighty percent of your time. Meanwhile, you poured the remaining eighty percent of your abilities into a mere twenty percent of your time, hoping your art would set you free. I called it 'the fucking duplicity', and swore to my co-workers - painters, writers, and musicians all - that somehow I'd escape it. I had to evade the dangerous schism it was carving through my soul. My goal was to return to Europe. And for two years, all that held me back was a lack of funds.
During this period, nights became the worst possible time. In the darkness, I could find no defence against the overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Often I didn't know how to make it through the night. One dream, which was typical of my dreams at that time, revealed the continuous longing in my life for 'the dark feminine'. It was dreamt on May 6th, 1991, and was soon titled The Virgin.
My two brothers and I were on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea surrounding Malta. We were playing a kind of game but, as with all games between brothers, the competition was fierce. Also, this game - of diving into the water - was not only life-threatening, but to be played once and never again. Furthermore, the rules were not at all clear.
At the beginning of the dream, it was the turn of my elder brother. Down below were seven prizes floating on the surface of the water. Each had a certain reward or power associated with it. They were like seven planets floating in the cosmos, or the seven days of the week - each unique in its time and place. And, according to the name of the planet and the day of the week, each was associated with a god who personified its power.
The game began. My elder brother dove off the cliff, plunged some twenty metres, and landed directly on one of the seven prizes - a ram and her young. As he hit the water, he clasped these to his breast, and dragged them under, drowning them. When he resurfaced, he raised his hands triumphantly. For, he had successfully 'sacrificed the ram'.
Now it was my turn. By the rules of the game, I was also supposed to offer a sacrifice. But, my sacrifice had to follow a certain order. My brother had slaughtered the ram - Aries, Mars, Thursday, Thor. Now, I had to slaughter the virgin - Virgo, Venus, Friday, Frigg. But, as I looked out over the water, I realized that I didn't want to do this.
Gazing at the prizes below, I began to associate their seven forms with something else. I saw the surface of the water as a pool table, and the seven prizes as seven coloured balls which one must sink at the end of a snooker game. I remembered that, when it is not to your advantage to sink a coloured ball, you should hook instead, by placing one ball behind the other.
I jumped off the cliff. Rather than diving, I performed a very graceful jump, landing feet first, thus piercing the water at a very sharp angle and sinking very deep down. My brothers were shocked because I didn't land on one of the prizes. Instead, I began swimming underwater towards a figure floating on the waves.
I surfaced directly behind her, and locked my arms around her waist. She was beautiful, with long, curling, black hair, large dark eyes, fair skin, and a shapely physique. In her glance, I could see a deeply passionate nature, balanced by a sharp intelligence. At first, she was frightened of me, as she feared the rules of the game; the sacrifice. But I held her gently and assured her that she would not be harmed.
Then, I plunged the two of us under the water, and we swam beneath the waves to a grotto beneath the cliff. We resurfaced there, out of view from my brothers, and I explained to her my strategem: that I had hooked rather than sunk. Immediately, she understood, and was very pleased.
Then, floating freely on the water, nakedly embracing, we acknowledged the desire to make love. And, with that acknowledgment, the dream ended.
Many of my dreams at that time were haunted by women, which revealed the feminine in an amazing number of different guises. Often she was a tempting ideal like the one above. But equally often she was merely a mysterious presence, disturbing, dark, and dangerous. While reading Heinrich Zimmer, I came across a description of the Hindu Goddess Kali, who was both the creator and destroyer of this world - the creative embodiment of man's deepest desires, and the terrible cause of his pain and suffering. She was both compassionate and cruel - the source, and the severer, of all existence. She was also Time which, through its endless cycling, revealed the material illusion of this world. And so, in this manner, "the Goddess, in the fullness of her terrible beauty, stands revealed to us." (Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, edited by Joseph Campbell, Bollingen, Princeton University Press, 1946 p. 215)
Suddenly, in The Harrowing of Hell, one of the demonic shadows took on a recognizable form. I drew the Goddess Kali, emerging from Hades' darkened depths, and assuming her place at Christ's side. A smaller Hindu figure, like a mischievous child, also materialized beneath them. This, I eventually recognized, was Krishna. He is a child-god full of mischief - a creative mixture of playfulness and trickery. Originally, Kali had flashing fangs and a face full of fury. But a female acquaintance of mine, who was Indian in origin and actually the model for that figure, managed in one night to show me Kali's more compassionate side. And so I altered the Goddess' features to reflect this compassionate aspect. But Kali's four hands still held the emblems of her cruelty.
A Visionary Dream
Meanwhile, many of my dreams had another recurring theme: I came across a child that had been beaten then abandoned. For this reason, my next 'visionary dream' came to me as a real revelation. Once more, it was loaded with a melange of cultural symbols. Once more, it lacked plot and characters; merely presenting me with a vision. As in my earlier dream in Vienna, I dreamt that I saw a painting. It was in the Gothic style, and depicted Christ standing before the altar with his hands raised and turned outwards in a curious manner. Although he stood before the altar, performing the mass, there was also a sense that this was the resurrection. Christ stood within the tomb, and dawn was breaking behind him. His stance, the gestures - all were reminiscent of Gothic paintings that depict Christ rising from the tomb.
But in this composition, he wore a long robe with a cowl, like that of a monk. And indeed, there was a monastary behind him, reminiscent of the Byzantine monastaries I'd last seen in Moldavia and Kiev, with their peculiar onion domes. The entire atmostphere of the painting was pervaded by a curious blue glow.
Yet, strangest of all, there was a chalice on the altar - a chalice that was topped with a glass vessel, like the vas hermeticum of alchemy. And within this vas-like chalice, a child was being born in a cloud of luminous vapours. This was both a child and a 'little man' such as one sees in alchemical images of the homunculus or Byzantine renderings of the Christ-child. And finally, at the top of the painting, I noticed the words 'ALCHEMIST CHRIST'. The painting had a strong feeling of transformation, transfiguration, and transsubstantiation. It was dreamt in Toronto on the night of December 15th, 1990.
Although I had no idea what it meant, I immediately set about drawing this image onto a prepared wooden panel. In truth, I had very little understanding of alchemy, and so began to familiarize myself with its strange symbolic language. In Campbell's lengthy study, The Mythic Image, I came across an illustration from Rabbi Simeon Ben Cantare's 16th century manuscript The Cabala Mineralis.
It depicted the homunculus in the vas hermeticum, surrounded by a tail-eating dragon on the one side, and two entwined serpents on the other. I also found the 'rose within rose' emblem that I drew on Christ's chest. For, as the accompanying text states, 'betwixt these roses milde, thou shalt bring forth a gloriuse chylde.'
From this alchemical arrangement of images, and the arrangement of images given to me in the dream, I started drawing more and more, freely associating as I went along. The tail-eating dragon seemed to evoke a gryphon I'd seen on a Sumerian ivory plaque from 1500 B.C. And the entwined serpents similarly evoked a Sumerian caduceus from King Gudea's libation cup of 2000 B.C. Within the coils of these life-giving serpents, I drew the extremely gothic and grotesque figure of Christ - with his head dislocated and hanging downward in a horrible, death-like manner. And beneath the feet of the gryphon, a bible emerged with its cyrillic text.
Set between the pages of this bible was a bookmark which combined the symbols of the Alpha and Omega. (Originally, the caduceus and gryphon were contained in alchemical flasks, but grew so large that the flasks could no longer contain them. And so the flasks were gradually erased.)
Christ's stance and stare were Gothic in character, due to my fascination with Gothic painting. But a number of Byzantine symbols also began to appear in the work, due to my fascination with the orthodox monastaries and icons I'd seen in my travels east. The cyrillic text on the pages of the open bible was copied letter by letter from a Sicilian mosaic of Christ-Pantocrator. Only later did I learn its surprising, hidden meaning.
On the chalice there appeared the Byzantine 'chi-ro', its X and P symbolizing the first two letters of Christ's name. And even the child held up his hand with the third finger touching the thumb, thus imitating the sacred Byzantine gesture that spells out IC XC - the first and last letters of his name: 'Jesus Christus'. A Byzantine cross I'd seen in Moldavia gave me the inspiration to place the sun and moon to the right and left of Christ-in-the-caduceus. Yet, I topped this, intuitively, with the alchemical symbol of Mercury, not realizing its hidden relationship to the sun and moon.
On the banner at Christ's right, and the spear to his left, I added a few personal symbols. My family's coat of arms came to adorn the banner, while the spear emerged as a hybrid of two forms: the Byzantine cross, and the small Catholic cross I used to wear around my neck as a child. The child in the chalice was also a very personal symbol, as it was based on a photo of myself when six months old. Meanwhile, the face of Christ-Alchemist also came to bear my own features. Like Durer's self-portrait of 1500, I sought to evoke Christ's mysterious immanence, as described in Galatians 2:20: "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
During this time in Toronto, while I was working on the underdrawings to these paintings, the mythological figure of Christ assumed greater and greater importance for me. Through Kazantzakis' novel, The Last Temptation, I came to see Christ as a God-tormented figure - uncertain, questing and questioning. This was not the Christ of my Catholic youth. For, this incarnation of Christ did not know he was the Messiah. Only through severe trials did that revelation come to him. It was his dreams, his visions, and a poetic (if not prophetic) understanding of the events of his life which gradually revealed his inner divinity.
In one passage from Kazantzakis' novel, Christ as a young man goes to Cana to select a bride. He hopes to offer a rose to one of the women dancing before him in a row. Then he sees his cousin, Magdalene: "The young man's mind shook violently. 'Its her I want, her I want!' he cried, and held out his hand to give her the rose. But as he did so, ten claws nailed themselves into his head, and two frenzied wings beat above him. He shrieked and fell down on his face..." (Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, translated by P. A. Bien, Faber and Faber, 1961, p. 32) The meaning of those eagle's claws I understood all too well: the hidden God calling - from nature, from dreams, from within, but never showing His face. The God that offers a love more demanding than any human love - more demanding, and less flawed.