The Mystic Diptych
In my book Enter Through the Image, I attempt to think once again through arrangements of images. From my labyrinthine life-wanderings, I gained an intimate acquaintance with this image-language - though elevating its constructs into consciousness was no easy task. But, what was more, I needed to substantiate my findings objectively through research. This meant that I had to scrupulously avoid using my own dreams as source material (of which, only a small portion have been recounted here. I have actively recorded my dreams for the last thirteen years, filling five volumes so far with an untold number of dreams.)
Instead, from Freud, Jung, Stekel, and Saint-Denys, I was able to find the necessary dream-material. (In particular, Saint-Denys' neglected studies on dreams became an important discovery for me in Paris). Then, using the works of Campbell, Zimmer, Eliade, and Frye, I drew much insight onto the nature of myths. To avoid using my own works of art, I found visual source-material in the works of Dali, Fuchs (who I eventually met in Paris), and Johfra (another discovery), as well as other artists more classical and ancient. Last of all, I found remnants of a more archaic logic in fragments from the Pre-Socratic and Neo-Platonic philosophers.
Now, the time has come to reveal my findings in relation to my own dreams and works of art. What my dreams and paintings have revealed to me gradually over time is 'a more ancient philosophy' of life. In one, fateful moment of epiphany, I realized that the events of life, when seen through the images of dreams and then elucidated by art and myth, reveal life to be 'a gradual unfolding of the Sacred'.
But, to understand this, we first must regain a more ancient view onto time. The enigmatic image of Christ on the wheel offered me my first intuitions into this forgotten phenomenon. I was forced to ask myself, time and again, why Christ appeared to me on a wheel. Especially a wheel which had a dizzying, swirling, vertiginous sense of time. And why was this wheel engraved with the Alpha and Omega?
Regardless of the symbolic meaning of these images, one thing is clear: images may be so arranged as to mark and measure time. In Enter Through the Image, I demonstrate how the daily rising and setting sun-god in ancient Egypt, the monthly waxing and waning moon-goddess in ancient Babylon, and the yearly dying and rising shepherd-lord of the ancient Near East - all of these arrangements of images serve the same purpose: to measure a span of time, and mark it as holy through ritual and myth.
When we come to think of time through arrangements of images - rather than through the logic of our spoken language - we learn that time has three different aspects. As revealed to us through the myths of Judaeo-Christianity, time may be experienced linearly and historically (with a beginning and an end). Or, as revealed to us through the myths of Hindu-Buddhism, time may be experienced cyclically as ever-recurring (where the end becomes the beginning).
But the myths of the ancient Near East (Egypt and Sumer) reveal a different, more archaic sense of time. For these cultures, time may pass in linear-historical segments or ever-repeating cycles, but it also has a more ancient, indeed eternal aspect, which myths of the Creation reveal as transpiring 'at the Beginning'. This timeless and eternal Mythic Time may be re-experienced each day, each month, each year. For, each time the sun ascends on the horizon or the moon re-appears after three days' darkness, the God Amun-Ra or the Goddess Inanna momentarily appears in a timeless epiphany. The God or Goddess is mythically made present, re-ennacting at that moment an event from the primordial Mythic Time. And, by the ritual recognition of this miraculous epiphany, the ancient devotee was himself transported into timelessness. He re-experienced those primordial events which first occured 'at the Beginning' of time.
This more ancient understanding of time (what Eliade has termed 'the myth of the eternal return') has been lost to Judaeo-Christianity and Hindu-Buddhism, since their myths have always measured time linearly or cyclically. And, as such, this sense of time has become lost to us. Nevertheless, all myths, as arrangements of images over time, are capable of revealing the measureless and eternal Mythic Time. What is required of us is to think about time through images once more.
And, by juxtaposing the myths and symbols of different cultures, we may come to see their more ancient, underlying Unity. We may come to see how all myths share in the original, more ancient view of time. Christ is our cultural symbol of time and its transcendence. Through his image, we pass forward through linear-historical time, with the hope of life after death, and the eternal splendour of heavenly existence. For this reason, in his myth, he rises once more from the dead. And, as the Judge of the Living and the Dead, he stands at the threshold to eternal existence. By entering through his images of resurrection and judgement, we too may transcend linear-historical time, and participate in its timeless eternity.
What is more, the image of Christ will re-appear at the end of historical time, so as "to make all things anew." (Rev 21:5) Christ has this power at the end of time because it was he, at the beginning of time, who became the Word "through (whom) all things were made." (Jn 1: 2-14) This is explained in John's Christian redaction of the Hebrew books of Genesis and Proverbs. And for this reason, in the Book of Revelation, Christ announces "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (Rev 22:13) The symbol of Christ marks and measures the complete unfolding of linear historical time.
But in the painting of Christus Mysticus, the symbol of Christ as the Alpha and Omega is juxtaposed with a different cultural icon. This is the Hindu Wheel of Existence. To a Hindu, the image of the wheel from Vishnu's sun temple is immediately recognizable as a symbol of time's ever-recurrence. This temporal recurrence results not only from our soul's endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), but the world's endless cycle of destruction and re-creation brought about by the Gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Anyone who thinks through the image of this wheel - who successfully enters through the image - will immediately experience 'a dizzying, swirling, vertiginous sense of time'.
And so, we see how the images of Christ and the Wheel, which my dream had juxtpaposed, reveal two very different aspects of time. What, then, are we to make of the second half of the diptych? Why does the Madonna (who, in my painting, appears expectant of the Christ-child) stand before a broken wheel?
In the myth of Christianity, the Madonna plays a very different role from that of Christ. She does not undergo the Passion play of death and resurrection, as he does. Rather, she witnesses the miraculous joy of Christ's birth, the terrible agony of his death, and the awe-ful mystery of his resurrection. She is there at each threshold crossing, as he gradually awakens to the divinity within himself. And so, instead of undergoing Christ's Passion, what the Madonna reveals through her myth is an infinite Com-passion, a 'suffering-with' the Saviour. Like the infinitely moved but mute spectator at a tragedy, she experienced in her heart what Christ experienced in the flesh. (Indeed, his crucifixion 'pierced her soul like a sword'*)
*"Inspired by the spirit, he (Simeon) came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus... Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel...And a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.'" (Lk 2:27-35) For this reason, the Madonna is often depicted with her heart laid bare and pierced through with a sword.
Like the ancient Goddess of Fertility who was the Mother Earth; like Kali, Maya, and Shakti of the Hindu tradition who are the play of illusory forms over time; what the Christian Madonna symbolizes, ultimately, is the spectacle of this world. Through her image, the ancient ideas of substance, space, and time all become present, just as today we conjure them forth through words and their attendant concepts. The name Mary, let us not forget, is related to the Latin, Greek, and Aramaic words for sea or water; and these are the ancient images par excellence of matter, space, and time - the undifferentiated substance from which all of Creation emerges.
Mary is the removed but compassionate spectator at Christ's passion because she symbolizes the world from which he seeks release. She is the flesh which he hopes to conquer through the spirit. She is the source of life and death which he hopes to overcome through suffering. She is time, space, and the world - all of which he hopes to ultimately transcend.
When we enter through the image of the Madonna, we experience the same enclosure within the world as first experienced, in our own lives, when safely ensconced in our mother's womb. As a child unborn, we experienced our mother's womb as an undifferentiated totality; as matter, space, and time inextricably fused and confused. According to the Christian tradition, the Madonna is the Mother of us all. Like the ancient Goddess of fertility, in whose womb cycled round all death and rebirth, she is a more archaic image of time. Like the ur-alte Erdmutter, whose plentiful body indeed was the earth, she becomes a more archaic image of space and substance. Her body and womb are the world.
We now see what my dream image may import. The Hindu Wheel of Existence, with the Alpha and Omega inscribed upon it, may finally break apart if we feel ourselves ensconced once more within the womb of the Madonna. We must, through Christ, feel ourselves to be as a child unborn. The only way to escape time, whether it be linear (the Christian Alpha and Omega) or cyclic (the Hindu Wheel of Existence), is to return to the beginning - to return to the womb of the Goddess. Then, the wheel of time shall break apart. To enter through the image of Madonna Mystica is to re-experience the more ancient mythopoeic understanding of time as endless, eternal, and without measure. Through our recognition of her, we re-experience the mythic moment of our own timeless existence within the nourishing waters of her all-protective womb.
To Bring Symbols to Life
This forgotten view onto time is only one aspect of a more Ancient Philosophy that was slowly revealed to me through images. Through the juxtaposition of the Christian Saviour and the Hindu Wheel of Existence, other aspects of that philosophy were pursued in my meditations. For example, I have described Christian time, due to the Alpha and Omega, as a once-only linear unfolding, bounded on either side by Christ as the beginning and end. For this reason, the Christian Saviour is a symbol of our resurrection, as a once-only event within our soul's history. But, according to the Hindu Wheel of Existence, death is not followed by a once-only resurrection - but an ever-recurring rebirth. The Hindu feels this ever-turning wheel within his soul's history: its endless round of death and rebirth.
Through the image of Christ crucified on the Wheel, a new pathway is offered to us in our image-thinking. The Christian may come to see Christ in a more ancient way: as an ever dying and rising God. Like the ever-dying and rising Dumuzi, Osiris, and the other Bronze Age Gods of Fertility who lie at Christianity's roots, Christ too may continually die and be reborn with the cycle of the seasons. Meanwhile, through Christ, the Hindu may come to see, contrarily, that the Wheel of Existence may have a once-only turning. The Wheel of Existence may spin but once from the Alpha to the Omega, from the Beginning to the End.
The iconologic behind this arrangement of images manifests a certain ambiguity - an ambiguity that also arises at times in the images of our dreams. It is only our conscious standpoint that causes one interpretation to gain creedence over the other. (In the words of Heraclitus: "The lord whose orcacle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign.") One culture finds this image blasphemous in one way, the other in another. But if this cultural bias were transcended, then the path to a higher Unity would be found.
For myself with my Catholic upbringing, I had to overcome numerous resistances to these ideas before finally accepting them. For, at the beginning, they threw my inherited spiritual outlook totally out-of-kilter. I found myself estranged from my Maltese roots - disinherited from my spiritual tradition. But, like so many others in the Old and New worlds, I also found my spiritual inheritance somewhat empty, worn out, and meaningless. Especially the image of Christ seemed simplistic and overdone - either too sentimental or too painful to bear.
All of this changed when I learned to bring these symbols to life. I accepted that the symbols in my dreams concerned my own life, and indeed, were intimately tied up with my own spiritual destiny. In particular, the sacred symbols upwelling from the spiralling abyss were not empty and meaningless, but of great personal signifigicance and power, if only I could relate them to my own existence.
For this reason, I puzzled over the image of Christ on the Wheel for so many years. At first, I came to see it as a doorway out of my Western beliefs, and leading me unwittingly to the East. I altered my views onto the afterlife, and came to believe in my soul's re-incarnation. But, almost immediately, this struck me as false. This view seemed as antiquated and hollow as the Christian one I'd just abandoned. And so, for the longest while, I wallowed in uncertainty.
Then, I came to see the relevance of this symbol for my own life. What was required of me, first of all, was to preserve the symbol's ambiguity: to side neither with the East nor with the West. Secondly, I had to apply its teachings, not to the after-life, but to this life. As a result of my many years of wandering, from one land to another, and from one broken relationship to another, I came to see how life itself consisted of a series of deaths and rebirths. Each time we crossed one of life's thresholds, we died to ourselves and were reborn. Meanwhile, through it all, something much deeper carried on through.
Consider the ancient image of the moon. As the Sumerians knew and recounted in their myths, it had two different aspects: one waxing and fertile, the other waning and sterile. They symbolized the former by Inanna, the Goddess of Heaven, and the latter by Ereshkigal, the Goddess of the Underworld. As was told in their ancient myth, the fertile Inanna descended to the dark Underworld and there she died. Meanwhile, at the same time, the sterile Erishkigal became full with child. Only when Erishkigal was delivered of her child did Innana rise again and re-ascend to Heaven. These two goddesses influenced each other so profoundly because they were different aspects of the same thing, of the same Goddess in fact. The moon's continual waxing and waning with three days' darkness in between manifest the death and rebirth of this hidden, more ancient Goddess.
In our own lives, different aspects of ourselves are continually dying and being born anew - yet, through it all, something more deeply persists: our hidden, innermost divinity. Yet, our inherited spiritual tradition has no myth to account for this. It was only gradually over time that I came to see how my dream-image was symbolic of my own life-transformations. Christ on the Wheel is a symbol of our ever-recurring death and rebirth, which takes place within life's once-only unfolding. In this way, the symbol's ambiguity sides neither with the East nor the West. To pass through life, we must continually die and be reborn to ourselves. Christ's continual death and rebirth on the Wheel symbolizes life's painful, ongoing metamorphoses as we cross one life threshold after another - each time dying to ourselves, so as to be reborn. Yet, the figure of Christ also symbolizes something deeper, hidden, persisting, and unknown - our innermost divinity
I considered this to be another fragment of the more Ancient Philosophy revealed to me through images. My dreams were offering me arrangements of images. And the only way to read the enigmatic cyphers of this forgotten script was to learn, once more, the ancient philosophy there encoded and preserved. Then, and only then, could I begin to make sense of its underlying grammar - its iconologic. I was continually aided in this endeavour by ancient works of art and myth. For these too preserved certain fragments of that archaic outlook.
But my dreams seemed to be combining archetypal symbols in new and ever more creative ways. I came to recognize how something utterly mysterious happened each time certain recognizable sacred symbols were juxtaposed. Since these symbols remain imbedded within the context of their myths, when two such symbols are juxtaposed, their accompanying myths cross as well. Through the conjuction of Christ and the Wheel, for example, the myth of Christianity crossed over with that of Hinduism.
One result of these fusions was a deepening in the signifigance of the symbol itself. I found that, for me, by placing a Christian symbol in the context of a Hindu myth, it was re-invigorated and expanded; it began to resonate with new depths. The symbol also tended to reach further back in time. For example, as a Christian, the only feminine image of the Sacred I'd inherited was the Madonna, coupled with her shadow aspect of Mary Magdalene. But through comparisons with Kali, Maya, and the Shakti of the Hindu tradition, her symbol sounded new depths. It reached back to Bronze Age Goddesses like Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, and Astarte. And plumbing ever darker depths, it even illuminated the ancient Goddess of Neolithic times - whose silent but mysterious temples I had often visited in my Maltese homeland.
That is why no one tradition could claim an exclusive and all-encompassing view onto the ancient Mysterium. But through the juxtaposition of their symbols and the crossing of their myths, a greater, underlying Unity slowly became manifest.