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.

Dioscuric Angels

They did not fall proudly from the heavens on high
They do not plan their escape by reaching the sky
In the labyrinth their mortal parents remain
But the Sons of Zeus are destined to flee and reign
Without wings of feathers and wax they learned to fly
Icarus died; they will live when the sun draws nigh.

From A Book to Free the Soul ©
Wilhelm Haverkamp, knabengruppe, 1891

The Design

Life is a blessing wearing an ugly disguise
What creator sent us here to suffer our plight?
Did we have any choice but to accept our lot?
There is nothing to learn and nothing to be taught
We come from the light and will return to the light
Necessity demands our fall before we rise.

From A Book to Free the Soul ©
Angelo Barabino, The rising sun, 1910

The Game of Life

Alpha is Desire, the descent into the dark
Omega is Passion, the rising of the Son
‘tis the sequence of life in Heaven and on Earth
Eros-Dionysos, the dance of endless birth
In matter they play; on the track of time they run
And then, on their Elysian journey they embark.

From A Book to Free the Soul ©
Jean-Leon Gerome, Drunken Bacchus and Cupid, Oil on canvas, 1850, Musee des Beaux-Arts (Bordeaux)

Renouncing the Trivial World: commentary on Logion 8 of the Gospel of Thomas

And he said: “Man can be compared to a wise fisher who cast his net at sea and drew it up full of small fish from below (the surface). Among them the wise fisher found a fine, large fish. He threw away the fry back into the sea, and he had no difficulty choosing the large fish. He who has an ear to lend, let him listen.

—Gospel of Thomas

The first parable-like saying of Thomas breaks away from the author’s cryptic, mystifying style and surprises with its common-sense thrust, and simplicity. The wisdom of the fisher resembles the pragmatism of the child who discards his smaller treats in favor of the biggest one. Several logia in Thomas’ gospel play on the mystical theme of a return to childhood as a prerequisite for the liberation of the divine essence.
If we are asked to lend an attentive ear, there must be matters of the foremost importance to be learned from the fisherman who chooses one large fish over many small ones. In the last paragraph of his massive epic novel Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa offers a surprising conclusion to the readers who for months had been kept enthralled by the characters’ adventures (the novel was originally serialized):
The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing, and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?
The philosophical wink is clever: we are the little fishes, preoccupied by trifles and frivolities at the surface while incognizant of the great, meaningful depths were the Spirit dwells. That is also the key to understand Logion 8.
Unlike his counterparts, the fishers of men in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 4:19), the gnostic fisher imagined by Thomas has no intention to turn the fry into a flock. His yearning is for the Spirit, the desirable fish in the inner depths of man. The fish of course was also an emblem for Jesus in early Christianity. So the parable is congruent with the idea that Jesus in Thomas’ writings is an allegorical figure for the indwelling, divine presence.

Photograph, picture of  a young fisherman, youth mending a fishing net siting on his boat
Ph. Artur Pastor, Série Crianças. Póvoa de Varzim, década de 50

I enjoy visiting public aquariums, and when I do, I am always haunted by the gaze of the enormous fish dawdling silently, peering through the glass at all those humans they may find very foolish. I often think they epitomize the wise soul full of prudence and sagacity.

For an original interpretation of the Logia with a more esoteric or gnostic thrust in the Gospel of Thomas , see A Book to Free the Soul.

Behold your Master!

Qui que tu sois, voici ton maître
Il l’est, le fût, ou le doit être.

—Verses by Voltaire

These verses about Eros roughly translate as:
Whosoever you might be, behold your master
He is, was, or ought to become so.
They were initially written by Voltaire specifically for Falconet’s sculpture L’Amour Menaçant. Both the statue and the epigram were so popular that they became an inspiration for many artists afterward.

Photography, picture of a statue of cupid as a boy with a finger to his lips
Etienne-Maurice Falconet, Seated Cupid (L’Amour Menaçant), 1757
Photography, picture of a Detail of Bottée's cupid statue L'Amour à l'affut showing verses by Voltaire
Detail of Bottée’s L’Amour à l’affut with verses by Voltaire
Photograph, picture of Louis-Alexandre Bottée's sculpture L'Amour à l'affut
Louis-Alexandre Bottée, L’Amour à l’affut, 1888