THE HERMETIC JOHFRA
The works for which Johfra is best known - The Astrology Series - have provoked a certain fascination over the years, primarily because of their enigmatic character, the intriguing and often mysterious symbols which pervade each composition. He does not present us with just the astrological sign, but combines it with a whole series of other esoteric symbols that complement and indeed elucidate it.
In his book Astrology: Signs of the Zodiac (1981), Johfra describes how he created each composition after a series of meditations on the Zodiac as a whole.
"When I received the commission to paint posters of the twelve astrological signs from Verkerke productions in 1973, I knew that it would be pointless to add yet more examples to the many hundreds of representations that already existed... Therefore I decided to elevate as many sides of the signs as possible through a brief meditation and contemplation on the principle figure, who becomes the main point of concentration. The many different symbols related to a certain sign, gathered together into a harmonious composition, would give each painting more depth; they would offer the observer more possibilities for his own free associations."(Zodiac p1)
According to Johfra, there were primarily three esoteric systems which inspired the symbolism in his Astrology Series:
“These systems are precious treasures from our past, offering the artist unlimited creative possibilities. Above all, three great philosophical schools have strongly influenced esoteric thinking in Europe from the Middle Ages to our present day. Taken together, they constitute a secret science. They are: Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, and the Jewish Cabbala.”(Zodica p3).
What Johfra says here about his Zodiac Series is true of his Hermetic works as a whole: all of them are designed for indepth meditation, so as to gradually reveal - through images - the vision of hidden unity that Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and the Cabbala describe.
The artist spent years studying these texts, both at the Lectorium Rosicrucianum in Holland and alone in his cabin in the South of France. In the end, he devoted himself to painting Hermetic images which would not only illustrate those themes, but become a means in themselves to spiritual awakening.
Successfully penetrating his Hermetic imagery seems to be, at first glance, a rather daunting task. We must first familiarize ourselves with the Ancient texts, and the complicated language they use. But, as Johfra himself noted:
“The deepest truths come to us through myths and symbols. They cannot be conveyed through exegesis or philosophical treatise. The truth can only be hinted at, and will be understood only by those who already know it to a certain degree. Such a seedling of knowledge lies dormant in each of us.” (Zodica p2)
And he adds.
“A truly universal and archetypal symbol digs deeper, it touches man in his unconscious core, where he recognizes it from the inside.”(Zodica p2)
The strange arrangements of symbols in his works intrigue us. They delight the eye and draw us in. And so, to understand them better, we freely engage on a quest for understanding, discovering in this text and that certain passages which elucidate the imagery, rendering it transparent to the transcendent source.
The Hermetic philosophers are agreed that our initial fascination with a symbol is, in fact, a kind of recognition. We are drawn to the image because it shows us something that we knew once, but had forgotten.
Certain key works from Johfra’s Hermetic period have that ‘initially intriguing’ quality. They draw in the eye again and again until, at a deeper level, they become objects of meditation. For the artist himself, who spent many hours each day looking at the images as he rendered them into form, this practice of ‘meditation on images’ arose naturally. In the process of painting the Zodiac Series, Johfra wrote that “as I worked, each painting became an act of meditation.”(Zodica p1)
Johfra’s Hermetic works must be approached in this way: as images for meditation. The deeper we penetrate into the symbols and their elucidating texts, the more we will discover their implicit Hermetic message: that to know ourselves is to remember our forgotten origins in the divine. “The man who has learned to know himself will at the same time discover whence he comes,” Plotinus said (Enneads VI. 9. 7). And the Poimandres added, “He who has understood himself, advances towards God,” (CH I. 21). Johfra’s images serve to initiate us in this way.
In examining these works as objects of meditation, their Hermetic philosophies will be offered only as an aid to ‘enter through the image.’ This expression is taken from a Gnostic text, and describes their belief that images, fundamentally, are a means of returning in our mind’s meditations to a remembrance of our origins.
Especially under consideration will be three of Johfra’s early works, and their Gnostic philosophy. Then, we shall turn to his Vision of Hermes Trismegistos and its Hermetic philosophy, followed by his Unio Mystica and its Neo-Platonic philosophy. Finally the Gemini painting from the Zodiac Series will be offered as an example of how each of the twelve paintings in that series manifests all these philosophies in combination. In each case, we shall not attempt merely to interpret or elucidate their symbols, but to enter through them in an act of mindful contemplation.
THE EARLY ESOTERIC WORKS
After nine years at the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, esoteric motifs began to appear in Johfra’s work in the late 1950’s. Up to that time, he had painted mostly Surrealist landscapes. But over the course of the sixties, these landscapes became increasingly populated by esoteric symbols. One of his earliest attempts at an expressly Esoteric painting is his Pistis Sophia (1959).
Here, a woman in rags crawls toward a distant light, which appears between two columns in the background. Meanwhile, she is being mocked or pursued by a caval of demons and beasts, including a lion-headed dragon. In the right foreground human figures are dancing in drunken revelry while, on the left, other figures are sleeping. Some however have gradually awoken and, like the tattered woman, are reaching towards the light.
IMAGE - Pistis Sophia (1959)(J156)
The title of the painting is taken from a Gnostic Gospel which relates a dialogue between the risen Christ and his disciples. In it, many essential elements of Gnosticism are described. G.R.S. Mead’s English translation appeared in 1921 (from a British Museum manuscript acquired in 1785). Meanwhile, the chief corpus of Gnostic writings, the Nag Hammadi library, was not discovered until 1945, and did not appear in English until 1978. When Johfra painted this canvas in 1959, the Pistis Sophia was one of the few Gnostic works available to him.
In this text, Christ says to his disciples that we are all drunken with desire, or else slumbering in forgetfulness of our true origins. Only those who have ‘sobered up’ or ‘awoken’ can remember the events that transpired at the beginning of the world. This is the knowledge and revelation, the gnosis, which Christ brings to man. He reveals the ‘indweller of light’ in each of us, which Gnostics also called the ‘pneuma’, symbolized by a spark or pearl.
Through the pearl in us, we remember that, at the beginning, ‘a Great Light’ appeared and separated itself into the upper aeons (or heavens). In these heavens appeared Pistis Sophia (Wisdom), a female companion who aided the Father in creating the cosmos.
But, acting alone and without his knowledge, she gave birth to Yaldabaoth, a Demiurge who generated the lower aeons: the seven planets and the earth whirling around in the darkness. Yaldabaoth is a lion-headed serpent who glows like the fire of the sun. He commands the seven archons who appear to us as the seven planets in lower aeons. Also under his command are the many demons who hold sway on the earth and in our bodies, as lust, envy, anger, etc. All of these trap humans and their particles of the divine Light in matter, time, passion, desire, fate, and forgetting.
After generating him, Sophia’s own progeny turned against her. “And the great lion-faced light-power devoured all the light powers in Sophia... and her matter was thrust into chaos” (Pistis Sophia ch. 31). As a result, Sophia fell to the earth in the form of a woman, and forgot her origins in the divine. And indeed, all of us, who possess the ‘indweller of light’ in us, have also forgotten that we too were once descended from the Great Light. That is the revelation that Christ brings, the gnosis, the remembrance of our origins.
In light of the Gnostic text, we now see Johfra’s painting as an image to help us remember our forgotten origins. As we meditate upon it, we recognize the Pistis Sophia in rags, fallen to the earth but still reaching for the light. One or two figures on the left also reach for it. But the majority are sleeping or enmired in drunkeness. Yaldabaoth, the lion-headed dragon, rules over this darkened realm with his court of archons and demons. The composition as a whole evokes a particular passage from the Pistis Sophia:
“And Pistis Sophia cried out most exceedingly, she cried to the Light of lights, which she had seen from the beginning... and uttered this repentence: Save me, O Light, for evil thoughts have entered into me” (Pistis Sophia ch. 32).
Despite the occasional canvas like Pistis Sophia (1959), it was not until the 1970’s that Johfra’s artistic output took a marked turn toward Gnosticism and Hermeticism. This began with two allegorical landscapes called Midnight Mystery (1971) and The Guardian of the Pearl (1971).
IMAGE: Midnight Mystery (1971)(J 256)
In the former, the composition presents our eye with two possible paths to follow. The left-hand path is overrun with colorful demons who lead, drag, or carry naked figures down to ‘the world’, which appears in the distant background as a barren wasteland. All of this occurs in contrast to the naked figures on the right who willingly ascend a series of steps to behold a sphinx.
The ruins on the left are in shadow while those on the right are in the light. From the darkened ruins, a robed demon in green surveys his kingdom while, behind him, an obese naked figure is carried in on a divan. This is the kingdom of matter, flesh, passion and desire which, according to the Gnostics, is ruled over by numerous demons.
Meanwhile, the naked souls on the right are gazing upon an old sage who is sheltered between the wings of an Egyptian deity. Green, ram-headed, with the atef crown, this mummified figure has an ankh and scarab on its chest and holds two serpents in its hands. Clearly, it is an Egyptian figure, an esoteric form of Osiris, the God of initiation into the mysteries of death and resurrection.
Above him is a ladder entwined with white and red serpents. Naked figures, one with a staff of caduceus and another being a centaur, ascend the steps to the sphinx. In contrast to the dark kingdom on the left, here transcendence is offered through contemplation, ascension, and the union of opposites. The caduceus unifies sexual opposites, the centaur unifies man and beast, Osiris unifies life and death, and the sphinx reminds us that all of these are eternal mysteries, unfathomable and not easily attained.
IMAGE: The Guardian of the Pearl (1971)(J 264)
Gnostic themes return in The Guardian of the Pearl. Once more, the theatrum orbi is portrayed, the garden of earthly delights. A plethora of naked human figures parade their vanity before a host of demons and beasts. Only the ‘guardian of the pearl’ at the centre of the composition isolates himself from this spectacle.
For the Gnostics, the body with its accompanying passions, pleasures and pains was created by the archons to entrap ‘the pearl’ - the divine light in each of us (the pneuma). Since numerous demons hold sway over the parts of the body and its passions, we must free ourselves from their distractions by concentrating our thoughts on the pearl within.
Johfra’s canvas presents us with exactly that challenge. Numerous figures distract our attention and delight our eye; they provide alluring images to provoke our fear, envy, and desire. But if we are able to concentrate our vision on the solitary mystic at the centre, then we too would discover the pearl in us.
The Early Esoteric works are characterized by an increasing awareness of this challenge. What they lack, above all, is a central focus to still the eye and fix its gaze in extended contemplation. The dynamic composition of Pistis Sophia inspires movement and unrest. While Midnight Mystery has the symmetry of light and darkness, left and right, our sight is torn between the two, and continually drawn in opposite directions. Meanwhile, The Guardian of the Pearl purposefully distracts us with its multitude of minute figures, despite the singular figure in the centre.
The Hermetic works of the 70’s begin to display greater symmetry and central focus, inviting our eye to rest before them in mindful meditation. This is particularly true of his breakthrough work, Hermes Trismegistos.
IMAGE: The Vision of Hermes Trismegistos 2 (1972)(Chants)
THE VISION OF HERMES TRISMEGISTOS
Johfra completed The Vision of Hermes Trismegistos in 1972. He re-worked it two years later, and then in 1985 created a second version (presented here) which was more colourful and classical. The painting prefigures the Zodiac Series of 1973, not only stylistically but thematically. For many Astrological themes are implicit in its Hermetic imagery. It becomes, in this way, an introduction to the Zodiac Series as a whole.
In contrast to the Early Esoteric works, this painting presents a powerful central figure with pronounced symmetry. Like Ernst Fuchs’ Transfiguration of the Resurrected and Alex Grey’s Sacred Mirrors, the painting is designed for meditation. The viewer is invited to gaze upon the figure and centre himself in it. Sinking deeper, he must identify himself with it, until the canvas becomes a kind of mirror. Not a mundane mirror reflecting his day-to-day self, but a symbolic mirror offering an image of his eternal Self.
Comparing symbols to a mirror, Johfra wrote:
“A symbol is like a mirror that, while remaining itself, will alway reflect a different image, depending on who is looking at it.” (p. 2)
To situate ourselves in the sacred mirror, we begin by scanning the main figure with our eyes, becoming familiar with its many shapes and symbols. We note a man surmounted by a light-filled being that winds seven times around him. This Being is crowned and has the pentagram on his chest. Two serpents full of light form a kind of caduceus behind him; they turn five times and have lionine faces like the sun. The central figure appears to be androgynous, which is emphasized by its placement between the patriarch crowned with the sun and the matriarch crowned with the moon.
HERMETICISM AND GNOSTICISM:
THE CREATION AND THE FALL OF MAN
The first discourse of the Corpus Hermeticum elucidates much of the imagery presented here. This discourse, called the Poimandres, encapsulates the Hermetic philosophy attributed to Hermes Trismegistos, which is spread out over eighteen dialogues in the Corpus Hermeticum. Written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD, it arose from the same millieu as Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Christianity. At times, it shares a strong affinity with Gnosticism. And, indeed, a copy of the Poimandres was found in the Nag Hammadi corpus discovered in Upper Egypt fifty years ago.
Like Gnosticism, the divine One of Hermeticism divides at the beginning of time, creating a multi-layered cosmos. A strong dualism pervades, dividing the upper aeons from the lower in terms of light and dark; spirit and matter, eternity and time, knowledge and ignorance.
Where Hermeticism differs is in the role of Sophia and the Demiurge. In Gnosticism, Sophia (Wisdom) engenders Yaldabaoth, the lion-headed serpent who ruthlessly imprisons particles of light in the darkness below. And, as Demiurge, Yaldabaoth creates the archons and their planets, which surround the earth like so many prisons - each guarding a doorway to transcendence.
In the Poimandres, there is no Sophia. Instead, there is Poimandres himself, the divine Mind, who reveals everything through ‘the Light-giving Word’. Emanating outward from Mind is a ‘second Mind’ called the Demiurge. But, unlike Yaldabaoth, this demiurge is wise and knowing, “a Craftsman who... crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in seven circles.” (CH I. 9)
The major difference is that the lower realms are not prisons guarded by Gnostic archons. Nor are the Hermetic ‘governors’ actively hostile towards humans. The governors’ planetary motions determine our fate, but that is all. Another book in the Hermetica, the Liber Hermetis (Book of Hermes) expands these Astrological views on fate and planetary rulership mentioned here.
The Poimandres goes on to explain how the earth is created through an admixture of earth, air, fire, and water. The fourth dialogue in the Corpus Hermeticum adds to this the image of a krater or great mixing bowl, which the Greek philosopher Zosimos recognized as fundamentally Alchemical.
As Johfra noted about the Corpus Hermeticum, “these expositions form the Hermetic cosmology and philosophy. From them, Astrology acquired its spirit while Alchemy demonstrated their practical expression.”(Zodiac p3)
Where Hermeticism differs mostly from Gnosticism is in the belief that Astrology and Alchemy can aid us in remembering our divine origins. Through Astrology we understand the order of the planets and stars in the heavens. Through Alchemy, we gain a similar understanding over the four elements on the earth. The Hermetic adept strives to acquire the Craftsman’s knowledge of the creation. (And the same may be said of the Hermetic artist: through his own craftsmanship in images, he seeks to understand the workings of the stars and the elements).
That is why Nature is also given a most prominant role in the Poimandres. As the Earth, she generates the lower life forms: the minerals, plants and animals - even the body of man belongs to her.
Gnosticism and Hermeticism agree once more that man is an admixture of spirit and body. In both systems, the Fall of Man is preceded by the appearance of the Anthropos, a model of man in the upper aeons who is fashioned after the divine image. For the divine image in the Anthropos gives man his particle of divine light, his knowledge of the upper aeons.
For the Fall of Man, Hermeticism turned to the Greek myth of Narcissus while the Gnostics drew their imagery from Adam and Eve in the Garden. According to the Poimandres, the Anthropos became enamoured by his own form reflected in Nature’s pool. He lovingly fell into Nature’s embrace and acquired flesh. He then appeared in Nature seven times as seven androgynes - each of which manifest the qualities of one of the seven planetary governors.
After this, “all living things, which had been androgyne, were severed into two parts - humans along with them - and part of them became male, and part likewise female.” (CH I. 18) So, all of nature, from the lower animals to the seven human androgynes, divided into male and female forms to procreate and sustain themselves on the earth.
(Incidentally, this Hermetic myth entails that there are seven types of human, each of them born with a predominant quality from one of the seven planets. Hence, some people are Saturnine, others Jovial, and others Mercurial etc. This Hermetic idea became fundamental to Renaissance Astrology.)
THE SOUL’S JOURNEY
Though man is fallen to the earth and held in Nature’s embrace, the particle of divine light in him allows him to remember the cosmic framework and ‘the way’ of return. This, ‘the Soul’s Journey’ is an Astrological image central to Hermetic salvation.
The shared aim of Gnosticism and Hermeticism was to knowingly return to the One from whence we came. This is done by acquiring the knowledge (gnosis) which awakens us to our origins in the One. We remember the cosmos’ structure and the way to rise upward through the lower and upper aeons, to re-unite the divine spark in us with the one great Light.
In the Hermetic view, when the soul ascends it surrenders those qualities or ‘garments’ that belong to each planet’s governor. The Poimandres portrays ‘the Soul’s Journey’ explicitly:
“Thence, the human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth the ruler’s arrogance, now freed of excess; at the fifth unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh zone the deceit that lies in ambush. And then, stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad (the eighth realm of fixed stars where) he has his own proper power... and, having become powers, they enter into god.” (CH I. 26)
The qualities or ‘soul garments’ surrendered at each realm correspond, more or less, to the qualities traditionally associated with the planets in Astrology. The first garment belongs to the Moon, whose waxing and waning governs ‘increase and decrease’, which is to say growth (particularly manifest in plants). The second garment belongs to Mercury, the swift messenger who governs ‘machination’ or movement, (particularly manifest in animals). The third quality belongs to Venus, the goddess of love who governs ‘longing’, appetite and desire (particularly manifest in man’s ‘beastial nature’). The fourth quality comes from the Sun, ‘the king’ who governs with a ‘ruler’s arrogance’ (just like man). And so it goes, through Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
This image of the Soul’s Ascent would naturally suggest its opposite - of the Soul’s Descent just before its birth. The path of the Soul’s Descent, acquiring the influences or garments of the various planets in their constellations is, of course, the main idea of Astrology. The Corpus Hermeticum does not deal with this explicitly, but a body of other Hermetic works, The Hermetica, deals exclusively with Magic, Astrology, and Alchemy.
When viewed in light of the Poimandres, the images in Johfras painting gradually become transparent. The central figure, we may now see, is the Anthropos, the model of man. Or, to be more precise, it is each of us, since we in our body and minds are descended from the Anthropos. With one hand he points upward, indicating his origin in the upper aeons, and the hope that he will rise up through them to the One. But, with the other hand he points downward, indicating that his body still belongs to the Earth. This is the fundamental dualism of Hermeticism.
The woman below him is Nature, who holds both her hands downward to the Earth. As well, her green mantle merges with the grassy Earth at her feet, which is shadowy and in darkness. To the right of her are the plants (two trees) and the animals (two leopards playing) which she brought forth (first as androgynes, but eventually as male and female).
We shall meet with this image of Nature again in the article The Pantheist Johfra, where she re-appears in his painting of The Primordial Mother 2 (1985).
The objects to the left are also part of Natures progeny: the crystals and minerals that she brought forth. As metals tempered by fire, they are perfected through the art of Alchemy. Less obvious are the three geometrical shapes. In the Timaeus (55d), Plato expounds upon these geometrical figures, describing them as the elementary forms manifest in the four elements, so that the earth is like a cube, fire like a pyramid, and so on. The fundamental Pythagorean doctrine, shared by Hermeticism, is that all things emerge from the four elements and their basic geometrical shapes.
At Natures feet is the earth. Meanwhile, at the feet of the matriarch and patriarch to the left and right, we find fire and water. The fourth element of air is manifest above their heads, as the ether and darkened clouds. Hence, Johfra also offers for our mediations the four elements which form all things.
The astrological order in the cosmos is manifest in the figure who winds seven times around the Anthropos. The motif of a serpent winding seven times up the body is taken from Orphic and Mithraic statuary. In the former, it depicts Phanes; in the latter, the lion-headed Zervan Arkana. In either case, the seven turns of the serpent symbolize the seven planets surrounding man.
Since, in the Poimandres, it is the Demiurge who orders the seven planets, we see that the upper figure with hands raised and the serpents body is none other than this Demiurge. Like an Astrologer, the divine Craftsman encompasses in his mind the knowledge of the seven planets and their turnings.
On the Demiuges chest is the pentagram. Its five points set in a circle indicate the four elements plus the quintessence which are set in the sphere of the surrounding cosmos. Like an Alchemist, the divine Craftsman masters the secrets of elements and their combinations.
But, just as we may see ourselves in the Anthropos, so must we see ourselves in the Demiurge. He symbolizes the knowledge of the planets and the elements which we possess in ourselves, through the divine spark. As such, the upper figure with hands raised is a reflection of ourselves, reminding us that we too possess the craftsman knowledge.
The Demiurge holds up both his arms because he belongs to the upper aeons, as an emanation of the divine One. As the Poimandres describes these emanations:
The Mind who is god, being androgyne and existing as Life and Light, by speaking gave birth to a second Mind, a Craftsman, who... crafted seven governors; they encompass the sensible world in circles, and their government is called fate. (CH I. 9)
Behind the Demiurge and Anthropos, two bright figures appear with lionine faces and serpentine bodies, which wind five times like a caduceus. The imagery seems Gnostic, drawn particularly from the iconography of Yaldabaoth. But the intent, rather, is to portray the upper aeons, which are five in number and blaze with light and life. As such, these are the first emanations of the divine One - the Light and Life of the One. As leonine, these figures manifest the Light and, as serpentine, they manifest Life.
But, we must see our own reflection, not only in the Anthropos and Demiurge, but in these glowing figures as well. These images reflect the divine Light and Life planted in us as mind and soul: From the Light and Life, the man became soul and mind; from Life came soul and from Light came mind (CH I. 17) As such, they reflect the light and life which we know to exist in our mind and soul.
The divine One is indicated by the crown. But, properly understood, the One is invisibly present in all the figures in the painting, and unites them all. As Poimandres says about the figures in the upper aeons, they are not divided from one another, for their union is life. (CH I. 6). Most of all, the One is manifest in the golden circle of light on the chest of the central figure.
The Corpus Hermeticum is useful in elucidating Johfras imagery. But, the only way the viewer may penetrate these symbols and enter through the image is via meditation.
TO ENTER THROUGH
When the viewer centres himself before this image in mediation, he begins by freely roaming his eye over the lower figures: the basic geometrical shapes, the four fundamental elements, the mineralia, vegetalia and animalia - he sees all of them as Natures progeny. She holds her hands outward as if to say, Behold: all of this I create. It is beautiful to admire such things. But then the viewer remembers that she also holds the body of man in her embrace.
Gradually moving his eye upward, the contemplative holds the central human figure in his gaze. After concentrated meditation, he learns to see the Anthropos as a reflection of himself. Though the body belongs to Nature and the Earth, in spirit the Anthropos is an image of the One. Its form reflects the higher self, the eternal self. But this is not yet apparent.
Concentrating further on the image, the viewer becomes aware of how he is encompassed seven times by the planets in the lower aeons. Suddenly, he recognizes that these form a winding path upward, the Souls Ascent. But, to tred that path, he must first remember the cosmic framework: the alchemical arrangement of the elements below, the astrological order of the planets above. This knowledge is planted in him, like a divine spark, which Alchemy and Astrology help him to remember.
Accomplishing all this, he sees his proper reflection, not in the Anthropos, but in the Demiurge. Like a divine Craftsman, he understands the order of the elements on earth and of the planets in the heavens. Transcending them all, he arrives at the upper aeons.
In the glowing caduceus, he sees another image of himself. He is not a body with hands and feet. He is a glowing serpent of Life and Light. The serpentine and lionine figures ablaze with light reflect his own soul and mind. In this form, he winds five times through the five upper aeons.
Finally, in his vision, all comes together. His focus expands and he sees all of these as one: he is in Nature, he is the Anthropos and Demiurge, he is Light and Life. At the centre of all of these, he sees the glowing circle on the chest of the Anthropos: that is the divine spark in him, the remembrance of the light. In this sacred mirror, he sees himself there, as a particle of divine light.
At the final moment his mind expands and his particle of divine light merges with the One at the source. He now sees that the glowing circle of light is not an image of his own divine spark, but the One at the centre of all things. All these disparate images unite, and find their centre in the Source of Light and Life.
Then, freeing himself from this vision and slowly emerging from meditation, he thinks to himself with the words of the Poimandres,
I saw an endless vision in which everything became light - clear and joyful - and in seeing the vision I came to love it. (CH I. 4)
The triptych Unio Mystica (of which only the central panel is reproduced here) was painted in 1973, just before Johfra embarked on the Zodiac Series. In it, symbols from a number of sacred and esoteric traditions are combined to render a singular image of mystical Unity.
IMAGE: Unio Mystica (1973)(Chants)
This impetus to combine symbols from different traditions resurfaces in the works of many visionary artists - Ernst Fuchs for example, Alex Grey, even Ellen Lorien (as a painter, I must confess that I too am fascinated by this possibility). But what lies behind this impetus? Johfra writes:
"The sphere of influence of symbols broadens and deepens into the Infinite when symbols enter into combination with one another. Taken together, they define and clarify each other. In brief: a symbol, for those who can meditate upon it and lose themselves in it, is like a door offering entrance into new spaces and dimensions of consciousness." (p. 2)
The art of each sacred tradition has, as its goal, the aspiration of opening a doorway in the beholder, to reveal to him the Sacred that lies, ultimately, within his own heart. These images and their traditions are so many different paths, each leading us to the same destination. This insight allows us to juxtapose and combine symbols from various sacred traditions. Each is unique, revealing to us a different aspect of the Sacred. But all refer to the same transcendent mystery. The invisible Mysterium underlying all images of the Sacred is evoked in this painting as the Unio Mystica.
Were we to meditate upon this composition, our task would be to enter through its various symbols to their transcendent Oneness. This meditation would begin with the image as a whole, seeking to find the unity within the totality. The circular composition is our first clue: it brings together the many disparate parts and unites them onto a common centre. The multiplicity of images are thus arranged into so many co-centric circles moving inward to the centre.
First however, we allow our eye to roam over the elements in the corners and the background. We note how these images bring together many of Johfras life-long fascinations. The cliffs on the right and the ruins on the left evoke his fascination with alpine landscapes and Roman ruins. But, they also evoke an image of the world as divided between Nature and Mans architecture.
In the sky, we see a multitude of figures floating among the clouds. This fascination with multitudes of figures occurs in many of Johfras works. Here they may symbolize the many seeking their solution in the One. On the bottom left elves and gnomes are gathered - another life-long preoccupation. Meanwhile, on the right, shrouded figures invoke Christs parable from Matthew 25:1. Seven wise virgins await the bridegroom with lighted lamps, and seven foolish virgins cower in the darkness, their lamps extinguished. But Johfra has used this image in other works to suggest the initiates into the Mysteries. The figures on the right suggest organized religion, the others of the left more Pagan beliefs. Figures from each turn to face the flaming unity.
All of these framing elements may lead our thoughts in different directions, inviting a free play of associations. But, once we have exhausted that tendency, we may begin to focus our thoughts on the co-centric circles.
Concentrating on the outermost circle, we behold the five-pointed star with the figure of a man inscribed within it. For the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, the pentagram was symbolic, both mathematically and metaphysically, of absolute perfection To inscribe a human figure in the pentragram is to suggest that the Divine may be manifest in human form, be it as Adam Kadmon of the Cabbalist tradition, or as the Anthropos in of the Gnostic and Hermetic.
Here, he appears to be a mystical rendering of Christ, the God-in-man, since he bears glowing wounds in his hands and feet, each inscribed with a Hebrew letter that ultimately spells out YHWH (the Hebrew name of the god Yahweh or Jehovah). At the head of this figure is the Hebrew letter shin, just above the crown. The Cabbalist tradition would again suggest that this figure is the quintessence, the highest unity of water, earth, air and fire. His supremecy and lordship is manifest in the symbol of the crown.
Moving inward in our meditations to the next co-centric circle of imagery, we behold the tree laden with twelve fruits. In many traditions, this is the World Tree, symbolic of the cosmos as a whole: its roots thriving in the underworld, its trunk the pillar and axis of our world, and its branches forming the latticework of heaven. The twelve fruits remind us of the final words from the Book of the Apocalypse. Within the walls of the New Jerusalem there will grow "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month." (Revelation 22:2) Hence, the tree is not only a symbol of the world, but the cosmos with its twelve astrological signs.
We also have a dragon at the base of the tree, and a veiled woman holding a cup. Now we are reminded of the World Ash of Norse mythology, the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, and its dragon Nidhoggr at the root. The veiled woman with the cup re-appears numerous times in Johfra's works. In the Vision of Hermes Trismegistos, she appears as Nature. Later she will appear as the Primordial Mother. She may also be, according to Norse mythology, one of the three Wyrd women or Norns who "dwell by Urth's well from which they water the roots of the world Ash." (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, Ch. III, section III)
Winding their way up the tree are a serpent and a lotus, symbols known especially to Egypt, Hinduism and Buddhism. The serpent continually sloughs its skin, knowing in its flesh the mysteries of death and rebirth. In this way it brings knowledge, wisdom and awakening. The lotus flower closes and sinks below the surface of the water at night, then rises and blossoms open above the water each day. It too is a symbol of death and rebirth, wisdom and awakening. The archer - a women with her arrow pointed to the heavens - suggests transcendence.
Above the tree appears the Eye of Horus within the triangular halo or nimbus associated with God the Father of Christianity. This Eye of Horus, the Wedjat Eye of Egypt, is above all an image of sacrifice: Horus the falcon god sacrificed his eye in combat with Seth to restore his father Osiris to life. And below, indeed, we see the falcon god Horus descending, while the Phoenix ascends. Known as the Bennu bird in Egypt, the phoenix emerges from the flames - once immolated and now resuscitated.
As our meditation takes us to the next co-centric circle of images, we behold the Christian tetramorph of the winged angel, bull, eagle, and lion. Traditionally, these four are found surrounding sculpted images of Christ on the facades of Gothic cathedrals, symbolizing the four evangelists, and hence, the four revelations of the divine Word.
But, the Christian image is taken from the prophet Ezekial and his vision of an angel "As I looked, behold... a great cloud with brightness.. From the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures... Each had the face of a man in front... the face of a lion on the right side... the face of an ox on the left side [and] the face of an eagle on the back."(Ezekial 1:4) Ezekial himself derived this imagery from Babylonia and its large sculpted door guardians symbolizing the four directions and the four seasons (each season beginning with a sign of the Zodiac: Aquarius the man, Leo the lion, Taurus the bull, and Scorpio who appeared as an eagle). We have once more a complex image: firstly, of revelation through the Word, and secondly, of space and time as they frame the hidden, underlying Unity.
Trying to hold all the imagery of these co-centric circles together, we come finally to the innermost circle: a wheel in flames with the yin/yang at its centre. The flames are a revelation and a conflagration - they devour ignorance and fear; at the end of time, they transform all things. They are also the sun, the source of light and life, with its door in heaven offering us this worlds transcendence.
The eight-spoked wheel is the Wheel of Becoming in the Hindu tradition, turning from one cosmic era to the next (yuga), from one life incarnation to the next (samsara) in a never ending cycle of death and rebirth. But, that same wheel later became the six-spoked Buddhist Wheel of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha which would turn in the opposite direction of the Hindu Wheel and eradicate its suffering.
At the centre lies the yin/yang - Taoist symbol of male and female energies in dynamic balance. The Tao recognizes the law of alteration, the exchange between forces, the eternal that underlies the ever-changing and ephemeral.
A prolonged meditation upon the Unio Mystica would reveal to the beholder, ultimately, the ancient Unity underlying all these images from their disparate traditions. It would also offer him a vision of the Unity from whence the contemplative himself first emerged and to which he will ultimately return. This, anyway, is the sacred teaching of the three traditions mentioned by Johfra as the inspiration for his work: Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, and the Cabbala.
The Neo-Platonic tradition emerged during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, re-interpreting Plato's writings and orienting them more towards transcendence and revelation The greatest of these thinkers included Plotinus, Porphyry, Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysus, and Macrobius.
It has strong links with Hermeticism and Gnosticism, though Plotinus continually denied those similarities. For him, these were Mystery religions which invoked enlightenment through initiatory images. Meanwhile, for him, philosophy and meditation were the only means to transcendence. As Plotinus expressed it, the contemplative soul must press onward to the innermost sanctuary, leaving behind him the statues in the outer temple.
Johfra himself summarized the Neo-Platonic philosophy as follows:
"The emergence of all things from the unchanging, absolute, and divine One is the essence of Neo-Platonic teachings. All things emanated from this One, appearing in their multiplicity in the lower levels of emanation. First the One brought the Logos into being, the Word or universal Intelligence, through which the world of divine Ideas comes to be. These are the perfect Images, after which Nature is formed.
"The things of nature are thus imperfect and incomplete. But each does have within it the slumbering remembrance of the original archetype after which it was created. And through the beauty of its form, a thing reflects this perfect form. The aspiration in each created thing is to rise to a higher level. This is manifest in the attempt to release itself from space and time, and so, enclose its original essence within the safe shelter of that divine One from which it first emanated." (Zodiac p4)
In his Unio Mystica, have we not already seen Johfra's attempt to offer us images by which we, in our meditations, may rise up, remember, and ultimately enclose ourselves in the divine One? All of these disparate images are, in fact, images of the One. We have seen, for example, the logos he mentions, the Word, in the form of the Hebrew letters YHWH and the Christian tetramorph of the four evangelists, not to mention the Buddhist Wheel of the Dharma. And, we have seen Nature holding her cup at the root of the world tree.
These images evoke the archetypes which, by their beauty, raise us up into a remembrance of our origins. Through the Babylonian tetramorph, the Zodiac Tree, and the Hindu Wheel of Becoming, we are reminded of space and time, of death and rebirth, which are the framework and cycle that we hope to escape.
In images of awakening - among them, the lotus, the serpent, and the fire - we are reminded of the way to their transcendence. And finally, in images of the sun, YHWH, Horus, Christ, the tao and more, we find so many symbols which point beyond themselves to their transcendent Unity.
Through its complexity and unity, the Unio Mystica may ultimately be seen as a monus hieroglyphica a sacred sign or hieroglyph of the One. To express this interior Unity, Johfra had recourse to Christian, Buddhist, Egyptian, Taoist, even Norse iconographies. Though viewed separately, like so many vignettes in stained glass, these different cultural symbols may also coalesce into one image, and then be entered through to the single Light shining behind them.
THE GEMINI OF THE ZODIAC SERIES
After completing The Vision of Hermes Trismegistos (1972, 1985) and The Unio Mystica (1973), Johfra embarked on the Zodiac Series (1974). Within the span of a year he had completed all twelve paintings.
According to Johfra, the twelve images are designed as a series of graduated meditations, moving the contemplative through all the signs of the Zodiac. In a sense, it is another kind of Souls Journey. At the end of his introduction to his book on The Zodiac, Johfra says,
I took the spiritual development running through the cycle of the twelve stars as my starting point. They are twelve phases in the growth of consciousness along a path on which all the latent powers shut away in the being can successively be made real and active.(p. 11)
One issue arising from the Hermetic view of Astrology is the role of the planetary governors in determining our fate. As Johfra observes,
One might object that this view of the world is fatalistic, as fatalistic as one can get. Man hanges in the cosmic web of his fate and is manipulated like a puppet through the course of the stars... There is, however, more. We do also have the ability to choose. As we mature through repeated experience and gain insight into ourselves, we can place ourselves in a different relationship towards new events...(p. 7)
And he goes on to say that
This process is like a journey. Astrologically speaking, it is the evolution of the being through the course of the twelve signs of the Zodiac...(p. 7)
The purpose of meditating on the successive signs of the Zodiac is to become aware of the different forms that may govern our fate. It was mentioned above in the Souls Journey that once he is ...stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework, the human enters the region of the ogdoad (the eighth realm of fixed stars where) he has his own proper power... The belt of the Zodiac lies in the eighth realm of the fixed stars and, after the seven planets, it constitutes a final doorway which the soul must pass through.
Each of the Zodiacs figures exists in us in potentiality. The planets in their various configurations activate a certain number of them. And, at the time of our birth, the sun in a certain sign offers the clearest image of the qualities we are apt to actualize in life. But all these images are latent in us. Being familiar with all signs of the Zodiac is therfore essential for self-knowledge. The word Zodiac, it must be remembered, comes from the Greek zôé, life, zôidion, small figure, and kyklos, circle or wheel, giving us zodiakos - the wheel of life.
Johfras paintings aid us in exactly this endevour. And his book on Astrology labours hard to elucidate each image as the evolution of being through the course of the Zodiac. For us, it would be pointless to repeat that task. Instead, we will approach the Gemini painting as one example for the type of meditation that may be practised on all of these images. Each sign in the Zodiac is but a twelvth part of the whole. The aim is to enter through the image to the greater Unity that unifies them all.
IMAGE: Zodiac Series: The Gemini (1974)(Chants)
In The Gemini, Johfra combines many symbols from different esoteric traditions into a single contemplative image. As our eye wanders over the composition, certain details capture our attention, inspiring a free play of thought. The original Twins of the Zodiac, for example, remind us of ancient Babylonian astrology - the Mastabbagalgal or Great Twins who appeared in Shitir Shame, the Book of Heaven. Yet their stance, holding between them Mercurys caduceus, recalls an image from alchemy: the Mysterium Coniunctionis, in which the male and female principles shall, like the entwining serpents, be combined.
But, with the serpents between them, the twins also evoke the Hebrew image of Adam and Eve the fall they wrought upon themselves, and the long-awaited hope to rise again. Adams gesture of pointing heavenward and Eves of pointing earthward invokes not only this myth, but also recalls the alchemical expression As above so below. And indeed, Johra explains their gestures in light of this expression, which is to be found in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes: What is above is like what is below. What is below is like what is above... Everything is formed from the contemplation of unity, and all things come from unity.
Below them sits the God Thoth in his baboon form (the cynoscephalus), which is the Egyptian equivalent of Hermes. (The Corpus Hermeticum was said to be written by Thoth - carved on stelae in Egyptian hieroglyphs - and then translated into the Greek treatises by Hermes Trismegistos.)
Beside them stand the male and female figures of the Fool and Temperance from the Tarot Arcana. Meanwhile, the red and blue pillars are a reference to the Chokmah and Binah branches of the Cabbalist Tree of Life, the masculine and feminine principles of force and form. But, they also evoke the Joachin and Boaz pillars of Freemasonry. They are crowned with the baton and the cup (each a suit from the Tarots minor Arcana) and, above them, the Sun and Moon symbols once more of the masculine and feminine. Arranged along the left and right of the canvas, all of these images symbolize opposite aspects of the One, as its male and female principles.
Yet, we notice that the series of images along the middle axis form symbols of the male and female principles in union. They begin with the entwining snakes of the caduceus, and ascend to the entwining dragons. Then, in that same constellation of images, we behold the alchemical symbols of the Doppeladler (two-headed eagle) and the hermaphroditus. All of these symbols, arising from a variety of cultural traditions, unite the male and female opposites into one form.
If we now concentrate our vision into a form of meditation, we may attempt to enter through the images. Each distinctive symbol in Johfras painting becomes a doorway. And the combination of different symbols offers us instead a series of doorways which may be entered though in succession until we arrive at a vision of the One.
By looking to the left and right of the painting, we behold the One as divided into its unique, male and female aspects. And yet, by turning our glance to the middle, we behold combinatory images of those male and female aspects in union.
Beginning our meditation on the symbols located on the periphery of the painting, we see the arrangement in terms of opposition: male is separate from female, (as is left from right and above from below). And so, through these images of male and female in separation, a kind of Creation myth occurs, in which the One divides into the many through a series of descending opposites. We descend through the cosmos and its Chain of Being.
This transpires, first of all, in the upper heavens the division of the sun and moon; the heavens and the earth (as indicated above and below). This is followed by its division into human forms the male and female figures from the Tarot; the celestial Twins of Babylonian astrology; and the Fall they undergo in the form of Adam and Eve. As it continues to divide into gender opposites, the One descends further into primæval creatures and principles: the two dragons with their tails wrapped around the Chokmah and Binah pillars. And finally, simple objects also reflect this division: the phallic baton and womb-like cup of the Tarot. All emanate from the One in descending steps of male and female opposites.
But, as we concentrate on the images along the central axis, a new path is offered us in our meditations. For, all these combinatory symbols manifest masculine and feminine opposites in union. And as we enter through them in succession, we ascend the ladder of vision, and rise up through the Chain of Being, so as to return in our meditations to the Source of creation. The entwined serpents, dragons, and eagles offer us more primordial and animalistic images of unity. Moving from crawling to winged beings, these figures slowly rise upward. The entwining serpents instinctually, in darkness and unknowing offer a more primordial vision of unity. Still, as we enter through their image, the serpents transform, acquire wings, and become like the two dragons. As serpents with wings, the two dragons offer us a higher symbol of unity.
Then, as their wings expand, the dragons merge into the two-headed eagle. Soaring freely across the heavens, seeing all from above, the doppeladler symbolizes yet an even higher vision of unity. Finally, at the highest rung in the ladder of vision stands man and woman in the form of the alchemical hermaphroditus. This union of two human forms symbolizes the Mysterium Coniuntionis, the alchemical attainment of highest knowledge. As such, we enter through this image into a knowing union with the One now understood as a union of God and Goddess in the Unio Oppositorum.
As Johfra himself made explicit in his description of this work:
In the representation of the Gemini sign, I have especially stressed duality, and used the problem of duality as its main motif... The task is to find their Unity. Therefore, the painting is built up symmetrically. Everything positive is right; everything negative is left, and arranged on various levels... The two poles come together when duality finds its solution in Unity.(Zodiac p21)
THE END OF HERMETICISM
The majority of Johfras Hermetic works were executed in the 1970s. In the last two decades of his life, he continued to paint works that revealed Hermetic themes. Most of these portrayed the resurrection that awaits the spirit after the death of the body. But none of them had the power or, I dare say, conviction of the images just presented here.
Instead, he seemed to undergo a gradual spiritual transformation, inwhich his thoughts turned more towards the earth itself - to Nature, and to a view of the world expressed by Pantheism.
In the succeeding article, The Visionary Revue examines The Pantheist Johfra.