Jesus and the Bird Seller: an examination of C. Bloch’s painting in view of the inner mysteries of the Savior Twin

Carl Heinrich Bloch’s religious, academic paintings are accomplished but not particularly original. The artist’s realistic, didactic style has made him a favorite of modern evangelism, and in particular within the Mormon Church who has a predilection for propagandist art. One exception, to which we will now turn, is a piece representing Jesus at age 12 being questioned by rabbis in the temple of Jerusalem, based on an incident from the Gospel of Luke (2:46 KJV):

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

The subject is not remarkable, but the composition reveals some noteworthy details. It is unlikely Bloch’s intent was anything more that the artistic rendering of a classic, beloved episode of Christian lore. However, in art as in literature, the purpose of the author is often supplanted by a will beyond his own mind. Artists are not always aware of the concealed meaning that infiltrates their creation from the subconscious or the metaphysical spheres. For that reason, the creator is rarely the best interpreter of his own work. The task of revealing a subtext, of unveiling the hidden, and of bringing to awareness buried motives and motifs falls to the critic.

Having acquired some familiarity with the inner mysteries of the Savior Twin as articulated in A Book to Free the Soul, one will begin to discern patterns and elements in works of art and literature that reflect its tenets. The religious scene depicted below by Carl Bloch is a foremost example that illustrates the dynamics between the soul and her Spirit-angel personified by Jesus.

Carl Bloch, Jesus Is Found in the Temple (Christ Teaching at the Temple)

In the painting, the boy Jesus is seen conversing with learned men in the temple that represents the human body (see John 2:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:19) and houses both soul and Spirit. The caged pigeon or dove at the bottom left corner of the painting is the only creature on the scene to look directly at the viewer: it is our invitation to step into the canvas and explore the secrets it might be concealing. From the bird’s cage, we follow a string on the floor to its end in the hand of a young bird seller sitting at a left angle at the bottom of a stairs. The boy’s gaze directs us to Joseph and Mary (recognizable by her iconic halo and blue mantle) who, with her extended hands, leads us toward Jesus. Traditionally, Mary represents the Mother Church and is a mediator between humankind and its redeemer. Mary and Joseph are the largest figures on the canvas, but they turn their back to the audience. This suggests that the mediation of the exoteric, established church is obsolete. We must look for a less conspicuous, direct, esoteric link between the soul and her savior. Such a link is indeed revealed in the painting. The intensity of the light falls on the bird seller, establishing him as the central character to whom we ought to give our attention in the overall composition. He stands for the soul and, as child of the earth, his feet (1) are firmly planted on the floor. There is an invisible axis we can trace from his spinal cord to that of Jesus who is sitting roughly at a same angle but to the right, on top of the stairs. The stairs’ steps thus take us symbolically (2) from the earthly soul to her metaphysical liberator. Indeed, Jesus here appears nothing like a physical being, but as an almost frail, ghostly figure in semi-obscurity. He is precariously seated on the edge of his chair, as if suspended in air. With his feet hidden behind the diaphanous helm of his robe, he does not seem to be touching the ground. Jesus preaching in the physical temple is an allegory for the spiritual hierophant dispensing an inner initiation in the temple of the soul. From his lofty seat, he reaches down into the depths of matter. Hence, his presence is symbolically duplicated by the dove next to the child-soul. (Recall that the dove is a symbol of the Spirit) The dove is caged, signifying the imprisonment of the Spirit-angel in the physical world. Yet, the soul has the keys to the release of her inner, dioscuric angel who, in turn, will be her liberator. Thus the bird seller holds in his hand the string that pulls open the door of the dove’s cage.

edIn conclusion, the unique episode captured by Bloch from the mythical childhood of Jesus portrays that moment in the soul’s initiatic journey when she comes into the presence of her Savior Twin (note that Jesus and the bird seller appear roughly of the same age). I started my exploration of Bloch’s painting with the white dove who in Christian iconography stands for the Holy Spirit. In some Gnostic and Cathar circles, that Holy Spirit was the guardian angel or spiritual twin of the soul, as well as her liberator. This Heavenly Twin however must first be awaken by the soul in order to liberate her. Through these metaphysical dynamics the soul and Spirit become saviors unto each other. But until such liberating time arises and the spiritual siblings can soar together to a higher realm, they remain caged birds, prisoners of the material world.

For a more thorough examination of the concepts touched upon in this post, the interested reader can refer to A Book to Free the Soul

(1) The feet in Medieval, Western esoteric tradition are associated with Pisces, the astrological sign that rules over the dispensation of Christ and is one of the only two, dual signs in the zodiac; the other one is the sign of the twins, Gemini.
(2) Stairways, ladders and trees recur in mystical imagery to symbolize the means to ascend to the god(s), or alternatively the conduit for god(s) and angels to enter the material realm.

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