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


NOTES:
(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.

The Treasure within: an esoteric interpretation of Logion 109 in the Gospel of Thomas

The empyreal sovereignty can be compared to a man who unknowingly had a treasure [hidden] in his field and, [after] his death, he left it to his [son]. The son did not know (either). He took over the field (and) gave it [away]; [and] whoever bought it went plowing and [stumbled upon] the treasure. He began to give money at interest to whom he loved.

The parable speaks of the owner of a field, his son who inherits the field, and a buyer to whom the later gives the field away. These three individuals represent the three orientations of the soul alternatively called angelic (the last owner), psychical (the second owner), and earthly (the first owner) by the Naassene (according to the second-third century Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome) or pneumatici (“those of the Spirit,” the initiands or gnostici), the psychici, and hylici by the Valentinian Gnostics. In A Book to Free the Soul, I refer to them as the initiands (Gnostics), the easy believers, and the materialists.

Nicholas Roerich, Lamas-reapers, 1937

The materialist is incognizant of the inner spiritual dimension. The easy believers have an inner spiritual life but do not probe its depths. They prefer to relinquish analytical thinking and surrender their mind to the purveyors of spirituality who will map for them the territory within. Only the initiand invests completely in the inner field where she finds the hidden treasure, the liberating gnosis revealed by the angel of the innermost. She then shares the sacred knowledge (metaphorically “the money,” because of its value) with those who are closest to her and reaps the benefits (interests) of passing on what she has learnt. Indeed, the reward is an even greater depth of knowledge. As Manly P. Hall wrote:

In things pertaining to occult philosophy, … if the lay instructor is actually in contact with the higher worlds he will learn far more while he is teaching than will those to whom he is explaining the subject under discussion.

Spiritual Centers in Man, 1978
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with a Reaper

This post is a modified version of an excerpt from A Book to Free the Soul

The Folly of Materialism in the Gospel of Thomas

Jesus said: “There was a man of wealth who had many riches. He said: ‘I will use my riches to sow, reap, plant, and to fill my treasure-house with fruit, so that I will not need anything.’ These thoughts he had in his mind (alt. ‘in his heart’); and in the present night, he died. He who has an ear to lend, let him listen.”

Logion 63 of the Gospel of Thomas

Little spiritual discernment is needed to understand the implications of this logion. The message here—for once devoid of a hidden subtext—is urgently conveyed to anyone who has an ear to lend: our engrossment with materialism is dire foolishness.
A man accumulates all the possessions he believes he might need in his life only to die the same day he completes his task. That is the irony of an existence spent in preparation for hypothetical necessities without a care for death who might come unannounced and swiftly.

painting by Hieronymus Bosch of an angel urging the soul to turn to the empyreal light while death looks upon the scene
Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser (detail)

The ruling elite of the Etruscans, the Celts, and the Vikings, the potentates of the ancient Chinese kingdoms, the Pharaohs and priests of Egypt were entombed surrounded by their earthly belongings in a vain hope to perpetuate their privileged status in the afterlife. You would think our modern consciousness has transcended such limited outlook, but what sort of highly conceptualized metaphysics can you really expect from the average person who cannot part with his smartphone for more than 20 minutes at a time. Instead, we witness the ever increasing popularity of pseudo-spiritual schemes such as the “Law of Attraction,” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” that conveniently allow for greed to be justified through a metaphysical perspective. Far from renouncing our attachment to materiality, we have grown more dependent on the rich variety of its dubious gifts. The contemporary individual may scoff at the poor spiritual foresight and awareness of his ancestors but he is hardly more enlightened than his predecessors. In our days, we simply ignore our impending demise and give ourselves entirely to the “pursuit of happiness” (the most inventive euphemism ever concocted for our obsession with property and the accumulation of the useless). Our “needs” are constantly pushed farther so that there is no possibility of fulfilling them: a blind intent that is the basis for industrial societies epitomized in capitalist America by its underpinning middle-class.
In his essay On the Vanity of Existence, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer remarks:

How insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will.

Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser (detail)

Crass materialism was made acceptable under the guise of an ideal to which we attached many values (including religious or spiritual ones), but we are fooling ourselves: we left in the distant past our legitimate yearnings for comfort and rushed headlong in a greedy chase after persistently receding aims. Oblivious to its annihilating power, we revel in the insatiability that devours us.
The rich man in Thomas’ story uses his money to increase profits; Georges Bernanos wrote that spiritual values will never be restored as long as profit is honored, when it should only be tolerated and controlled. Our descent in the bottomless ravine of greed begins the moment we seek to multiply gains beyond the requirements of our well-being. Tragically, we cannot discern the lies we are telling ourselves, and each step we believe is taking us closer to achieving our goal of “happiness” is in reality leading us away from the richness of a mystical sovereignty. In Logion 110, Thomas drops the parable in favor of a straightforward approach:

Whoever has found the world and become rich, let him renounce the world.

There is no ambiguity in Thomas’ views about wealth: it is the fastest road into the trapping of the physical world. Even more dangerous to our soul than excess wealth is the power it yields:

Whoever has become rich, let him become king, and he who has power, let him renounce (it)

Logion 81 of the Gospel of Thomas
Hieronymus Bosch, Death and the Miser (detail). In this bottom portion of the painting we see the emblems of power that a dying man cannot carry with him in the beyond.

The final snare of excessive wealth is that the plutocrat cannot conceive of something loftier for the soul. He loses the ability to think abstractly and favors a notion that there isn’t really anything better than what can be accumulated physically. In Thomas’ philosophy, money rules the world, and the rulers of the world are the rich. Anyone finding himself in such a mighty position should weight his priorities: One cannot serve God and mammon. For the gnostic, the material plane has nothing of authentic value to offer. She seeks not the rewards of the world but an empyreal sovereignty through a knowledge of herself.

For a thorough esoteric examination of the Gospel of Thomas, see A Book to Free the Soul.

Hieronymus Bosch, Ascent of the blessed, or Ascent into the Empyrean (detail) ; the reward of those who voluntarily leave the material world and separate their soul from its concerns.

The Fisherboy and the White Horse: a gnostic tale

This esoteric interpretation of Lamorisse’s Crin Blanc is based on the ideas thoroughly developed in A Book to Free the Soul.

White Mane (Crin Blanc) is a short black and white film released in 1953 and beautifully directed by Albert Lamorisse in the wilderness of Southern France. The storyline has the form of a children tale with nearly no dialogue and sparse narration in voice-over: the images speak for themselves. The region of Camargue where the story unfolds, with its vast skies and endless dunes drenched with sunlight, lends itself perfectly to the eerie feel of a serious fable. Indeed, as in many other stories seemingly aimed at children, it is the adults who would do well to listen and ponder.

Screen capture from Crin Blanc, 1953

Folco is a young fisherboy who lives in harmony with nature. He shows kindness to animals and is the caretaker of his only apparent family, a younger brother and an aged grandfather. Folco is a Christian figure similar to the fishermen apostles in the gospels. He is shown carrying and using a fishnet (compare to Matthew 4:18-19), and we know that the fish was one of the earliest symbols for the Christ.

The beautiful boy is about 12, which would be the age of the young Jesus at the time of his first recorded appearance in the new testament. He stands for the purified soul on the path to liberation. The world around him is harsh and cruel, but Folco lives his life in earnest and with simplicity, detached from worldly cares and material concerns.

The Call

When the souls have made enough progress on their long journey, they hear a call in one form or another that reveals their syzygos, the heavenly entity to whom they must be united to free themselves from the shackles of matter. Folco falls asleep and dreams of a majestic, untamed white horse—White Mane—who symbolizes that spiritual companion, uncompromisingly free, uncorrupted, and powerful.

In the dream, Folco and White Mane are friends. They have always been, since they are two aspects of the same being, only until now unaware of each others and psychically separated.

Against the world

The natural landscape surrounding Folco’s home is either the swamp symbolizing decay, or the parched, arid sand dunes representing the desolate earth and state of matter (relatively to the plenitude of the spiritual heavens). Halfway into the movie, a gory fight between two stallions reminds us that suffering and death are concomitant with life. Folco is determined to tame and befriend White Mane in reality as it appeared in ethereality.

First, however, he must face the herders of Camargue, the famed gardians (meaning keepers or guardians) who represent not only a misguided humankind but also the “Archons.” In gnostic thought, those para-spatial entities are the guardians of the cosmos, and their objective is to keep the soul ensnared in the material world through lies and deception. Allegorically, this is shown in the movie when the gardians attempt to capture the white horse and prevent Folco, his legitimate owner, to keep it for himself. Because for Folco—the soul—the white horse means deliverance from the material world.

Reuniting and departing

After some tribulations, Folco wins the trust of White Mane, the mystical companion of his dream, but the gardians are in pursuit. There is a scene toward the end of the movie that most likely escapes the audience’s attention and yet is very important:
Folco has stopped to rest in the shade of a tree and roast a rabbit he had caught earlier. The eating of meat is emblematic of earthly attachments and death (the reason most Gnostic, Manicheans and Cathars were vegetarians). Before Folco has even taken a first bite, the gardians close in and the boy must speed away astride his horse. Metaphorically, the soul is abandoning the world for good, leaving behind her last link to material attachment in the form of uneaten meat.

The flight

Folco and his majestic mount now flee through the dunes until it seems there must not be any escape left, but the will of White Mane—the spirit—is commanding: it is now the new will of the soul, and together, the eternal companions thrust themselves into the sea.

The return

The great seas have always inspired awe, fear, and respect in the hearts of men. They have come to symbolize the great divide between the known and the unknown as well as the uncharted depths of the psyche.
The tale ends when Folco and White Mane disappear into the waves before the eyes of the gardians.

As he saw the youth and his horse carried away by the strong currents of the sea (and seemingly drowning), many a child must have been confused by the ending of the movie. The narrator’s last words leave a rather narrow alternative for parents to explain what ostensibly is a grim denouement. Likely, the grown-ups themselves would not understand the conclusion of the tale:

And White Mane, who was endowed with great strength, carried Folco to a beautiful isle where children and horses are always friends.

In gnostic philosophy, life on the physical plane is but death, and the world is a tomb for the soul. But for the chosen, physical death is the beginning of the true life in the eternal place of light and harmony.

Postscript

While looking up illustrations for my post, I found the following two pictures:

If the similarity is coincidental, this is an interesting coincidence because The Neverending Story (from which the capture on the right is taken) is also one of those children tales with a subtle message for the grownups. The 1984 movie adapted from the book is well worth watching. You may pass on the two Hollywood sequels, which were botched, the last even more than the second. Read the book. Michael Ende was a theosophist who based his story on the esoteric ideas of the philosopher mystic Rudolf Steiner. But that’s for another post.

All Perception is Remembering

Your perception, however instantaneous, consists in an incalculable multitude of remembered elements; in truth, every perception is already memory. Practically, we perceive only the past, the pure present being the ungraspable progress of the past gnawing into the future.

—Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory
photomontage with statue of Eros and clock
Protogenos

The antidote to materialism, Establishment religions, and the pop-spirituality industry

If the soul is to be liberated from the material world, it cannot be by the means and precepts of the world. Hence, the form, style, and content of A Book to Free the Soul break away from the circuitous, popular conventions of modern society, religion, pop-spirituality, and occultism, to chart anew your journey through a unique, inner initiation. The esoteric, liberating knowledge (gnosis) presented in this book deliberately does not follow a structured argument; it must be experienced introspectively. Within the pages of this volume, you will find a far-reaching corpus of narratives, essays, analyses, meditations, and riddles, to guide you in claiming your authentic spiritual heritage and defeat the forces of materialism that work against you.

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