Painting the Sun

I. “Turner’s favourite colour was yellow. He spent hours studying its myriad iterations, using more yellow pigments than any other …

Turner admired yellow’s optical power. Bright and warm, it jumps out at us from a distance and forces itself on the retina … Turner believed that yellow was the foremost of the three primary colours because it was the closest to white, to light, and therefore to the sun. … Though he wasn’t a straightforwardly religious man, Turner was a lifelong worshipper of nature. The whole world, he thought, was bathed in a divinity that originated in the sun.

In his unfinished “Norham Castle, Sunrise” (c. 1845) Turner didn’t paint a solar orb directly but invoked it with a cloud of lemon-posset yellow. For all its lyrical beauty, the painting has a curiously destabilizing effect on the eye, oscillating uncomfortably between visibility and invisibility. … That is because Turner’s sun and sky are insoluminant – they are equally bright, which creates mayhem in the visual system. To the part of the brain that mostly processes luminance the sun is invisible, but to the part of the brain that mostly processes colour it is easily distinguished from the blue sky around it. … his sun overwhelms our visual apparatus just like the real one.

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The most potent of all Turner’s suns is “Regulus” … More arson than artwork, “Regulus” is almost too incandescent to look at. When it originally went on display in London, critics advised the public to shield their eyes to avoid injury … In one sense Turner hadn’t simply painted the sun but recreated it… He, like Prometheus, had stolen fire from the gods and so become divine in his own right.”

James Fox, “The World According to Colour: A Cultural History”

J.M.W. Turner, “Regulus”

II. “The elements of visual art have long been held to be color, shape, texture, and line. But an even more basic distinction lies between color and luminance. Color can convey emotion and symbolism, but luminance alone defines shape, texture, and line. ‘Colors are only symbols,’ Pablo Picasso once wrote. ‘Reality is to be found in lightness alone.’

A monochromatic rendering of “Impression, Sunrise” reveals that Monet painted the sun at exactly the same luminance as the gray of the clouds. If he had rendered it in a strictly representational style, the sun would have been brighter than the sky by a factor too large to have been duplicated with pigments. If he had made the sun lighter—which is closer to the way it would appear in reality—it would have lost its quavering luminosity and would have seemed, paradoxically, less bright. Rather than appearing as a source of light, the sun would have looked like a cutout affixed to the clouds. By rendering the sun the exact luminance as the sky, Monet achieved an eerie effect: his orange sun appears to pulsate across the
grayish-green water.”

Margaret Livingstone, “Light Vision” via

Monet, “Impression, Sunrise”

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Matar Kubileya (Cybele)

I. “Numinous sites of the preorganic life, which were experienced in participation mystique with the Great Mother, are mountain, cave, stone, pillar, and rock – including the childbearing rock – as throne, seat, dwelling place, and incarnation of the Great Mother. … It is no accident that stones are among the oldest symbol of the Great Mother Goddess, from Cybele and the Stone of Pessinus (moved to Rome) to the Islamic Kaaba and the stone of the temple in Jerusalem, not to mention the omphaloi, the navel stones, which we find in so many parts of the world. “

Erich Neumann, “The Great Mother”

II. “Yoke your swift chariot drawn by bull-slaying lions

Of you were born gods and men, you hold sway over the rivers and over all the sea.

queen whom the drum delights, all-taming savior of Phrygia, consort of Kronos, honored child of Sky, frenzy-loving nurturer of life…”

Orphic Hymn 27 – To the Mother of the Gods

The mother, mātár in Sanskrit, like the great primordial sea, takes us back to the source and origin (fons et origo) of all that exists. One of the oldest images of the Mother Goddess, which we know of, stem from Çatalhöyük – a settlement, which flourished in Anatolia (today’s Turkey) around 7000 BC. The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük is depicted while giving birth with a head emerging between her legs. She is flanked by two mountain lions. The image is distinctly royal; she appears to be enthroned. Subsequently and most probably Anatolians inherited the same Mother Goddess, followed by Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Greeks and then by the Romans. Not all scholars, however, see a clear line of succession here. Not all accept the single archetypal source of the image of the Great Mother portrayed with beasts by her side.

The Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük

But all researchers seem to agree on “the evanescence of her place of origin.” (1) There can be no clear-cut beginning of a figure so primordial. In Anatolia she bore a simple name – Matar – with an occasional epithet Kubileya – of the mountains. Her role was both to protect the wild, rocky landscapes and the city. With a hawk by her side and two lions as her companions, she was the guardian of the cycles of death and life. She was the original Potnia Theron, which was an Ancient Greek word for “Lady of the Animals.”

Cybele from Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
Areyastis monument – Phrygian mountain shrine to the great goddess

Phrygians, who came after Anatolians to the area now known as Turkey, portrayed her in the form of a naiskos (plural naiskoi), which looked like a representative doorway cut in mountain rock. This was “an entrance to the mountain dwelling of the goddess,” (3) whose shrine was hidden in the recesses of untamed nature. Usually there was a mountain spring integrated within the shrine. Matar was a mature woman, stately, heavily draped with a high headdress, known in Greek as polos.(4) At the Phrygian sanctuary of Pessinus she was worshipped as a simple black stone – probably a meteorite. It was from here that her cult was transferred to Rome in 205 BC, but not before she was embraced by Ancient Greece, where she was renamed Kybele or simply called Meter.

Aslankaya (lion rock) from the Phrygian valley (as Roller describes, the goddess is accompanied by lions, each places a front paw on her head; she holds a lion cub by its hind legs so that its head swings down; there are two more lions on the sides of the rock monument

In Greece, where the Minoan great goddess of caves and mountains was not forgotten, she fell on fertile ground. In Homeric Hymn 14 the formerly Anatolian, now Greek, the goddess is hailed as “the Mother of all gods and all humanity too, who rejoices in the racket of castanets and drums, in the bleating of flutes, in the cries of wolves and gleam-eyed lions, in echoing mountains and thick-wooded dens.”

Her cult in Ancient Greece was a double-track one. On the one hand, the Greeks assimilated the Great Anatolian Goddess into their own mystery cults. They made Hermes her companion, for he conducted the mortal souls into mystery rites. Hekate and Dionysos, who shared with her the propensity for pulsating, trance-inducing music and dance, were also associated with her. The initiated apparently carried snakes over their heads, but that is the extent of our knowledge about her mystery rites (5). Also the tympanum (hand drum) was included in her attributes by the Greeks. Lynn E. Roller quotes an extant fragment of a testimony of one of the initiates:

“I have eaten from the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbal, I have carried the ritual vessel, I got under the veil.”

Kybele with a lion on her lap, Hekate and Hermes visible on the pillars

In an altered mental state, the mystai (initiates) got into direct contact with the goddess. Naiskoi were popular in private cult of the goddess – they were the miniature versions of the monumental rock carvings of Anatolia and functioned as votive offerings.

Athenian Naiskos with Cybele

Moreover, the cult of Kybele had a public expression in Greece. Her ecstatic rites were scorned by some of the Greeks, though. They could not stand her uncivilized wildness or her foreign origin. When she was adopted by the Greeks and later by the Romans, she became a mysterious goddess in exile:

“In the heart of the classical Greek polity, the Mountain Mother evokes a mute landscape of ancient liminality that is at once foundational and disquieting.” (6)

Yet even the Greeks had to acknowledge her power, uncomfortable as it seemed. They erected a temple for her in the very centre of the Athenian Agora. This was the famous Metroon. Here her shrine and city archives formed a unity. She was referred to as “the privileged guardian of written justice.” (7) With utmost respect Solon, the Athenian statesman, addressed Kybele as “Black Earth, the Great Mother of the Olympians.” It is important to stress that she was the only foreign goddess embraced by the Greeks. It is most probable that the figure of Attis, her tragic lover, who committed self-castration, was introduced into her cult in Greece, yet he became much more prominent in Rome. It would seem that in Anatolia the goddess had been without a consort.

The Roman part of her story is full of pomp and spectacle. In 205 BC the Romans consult Sibylline books. These were books of prophecy stored at the Temple of Jupiter and consulted in times of grave need. The Sibyl responds that Magna Mater must be brought to Rome from her sanctuary near Mount Ida (Pessinus) or the foreign enemy will destroy the empire. The Romans bring the black meteor to Rome and place the statue of Magna Mater in the representative Temple of Victory on the Palatine. It is said that after her arrival in Rome, crops were bountiful and the enemy withdrew. (8) The black stone was positioned where the goddess would have her face. She became the ultimate icon of mute mystery.

The Magna Mater did not come to Rome alone. She was transferred with an entourage of exotic, effeminate priests known as the Galli. Her cult was very much public. Everybody was able to see the wild rites performed in the goddess’s honour. The Romans were especially mistrustful towards the foreign priests, who castrated themselves in wild frenzy in the most climactic moment of the celebrations. Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher, described Cybele’s parade in detail. She was placed in the lion-drawn chariot, which was carried by the Galli. Lynn E. Roller emphasizes the Roman contempt for the eunuch priests with their “feminine dress and manners, high-pitched voices, long wild hair, garish costume.” Yet the Galli were an object of desire of both men and women and their erotic liaisons were numerous. This official scorn and secret desire was part and parcel of the ambivalent Roman Magna Mater cult.

Fascinatingly, the territory of Pessinus was located close to ancient Troy, which was the mythical birthplace of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Romans. These two seemingly independent facts coalesced in the Roman mind. Cybele’s cult was now related to Roman ancient ancestry. According to Ovid, the ship that carried Magna Mater to Rome was built from the sacred pine trees of Mount Ida. Aeneas had used the same pine wood to build the ships, in which he escaped from the conquered Troy. Thus, the pine became one of the key symbols of Magna Mater. What is more, Attis was believed to have drawn his last breath under a pine tree, too. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis he even transformed himself into a pine tree. Similarly, the self-castrated priests of the Magna Mater sought the ultimate merging with their goddess. They wanted to become her.

Cybele on a cart drawn by lions, via MET

By no other group was Cybele more vilified than by the emerging new Christian religion. It has been even suggested that she may have been an inspiration for the Whore of Babylon from Revelation 17. Nevertheless, some researchers have suggested that at the dawn of Christianity Mother Mary took on a lot of the attributes of The Great Mother of the Gods. In particular, Philippe Borgeaud wrote:

“This fusion showed itself to be possible nowhere better than in Constantinople itself.

The historian Zosimus specifies that Constantine ordered that an image of the Mother be brought into his new capital… He had the statue brought from Kyzikos…, the very same place where the Argonauts had long ago founded the most ancient cult of the Mother of the gods. … So, instead of the Trojan goddess, he brought in an even more ancient one…

Nonetheless, the new capital aimed at being, above all, a Christian city. Zosimus, with thinly veiled bitterness against the Christians, … reported that Constantine had caused the statue from Kyzikos to be ‘mutilated.’ He had had ‘the lions taken off that flanked her sides and modified the position of the hands: whereas before, she had seemed to hold back the lions, she had now been transformed into a kind of pious figure, her eyes looking toward the city and protecting it…

… the Mother of the gods had lost her ancient attributes and assumed the loving, protective stance of … the Mother of God … But she did not forget her origins.”

Our Lady of Lyons (France) – an ancient place of Cybele cult


(1) Philippe Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary, trans. Lysa Hochroth (The John Hopkins University Press, 2004)

(2) Ibid.

(3) Eugene N. Lane, ed., Cybele, Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M. J. Vermaseren (E.J. Brill, 1996)

(4) Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1999)

(5) Ibid.

(6) Philippe Borgeaud, Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary, trans. Lysa Hochroth (The John Hopkins University Press, 2004)

(7) Ibid.

(8) Lynn E. Roller, In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele (University of California Press, 1999)


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Reading The Red Book (42) – Seven Sermons to the Dead

“… what they rejected will be most valuable to them.”

Philemon’s words uttered after the sixth sermon to the dead

We have now reached the sixth Sermon to the Dead, which you will find in the third section of The Red Book called Scrutinies. This sermon is worth quoting here in its entirety:

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent. She
is half human soul and is called thought-desire.
The daimon of spirituality descends into our soul as the
white bird. He is half human soul and is called desire-thought.
The serpent is an earthly soul, half daimonic, a spirit, and
akin to the spirits of the dead. Thus too, like these she swarms
around in the things of earth, making us fear them or else having
them arouse our craving. The serpent has a female nature, forever
seeking the company of those dead who are spellbound by the
earth, and who did not find a way across to singleness. The
serpent is a whore. She courts the devil and evil spirits; she is a
mischievous tyrant and tormentor, forever inveigling the most
evil company: The white bird is a half-celestial soul of man. He
abides with the mother, descending from time to time. The bird
is manlike, and is effective thought. He is chaste and solitary,
a messenger of the mother. He flies high above the earth. He
commands singleness. He brings knowledge from the distant
ones, who have departed before and attained perfection. He
bears our word up to the mother. She intercedes, she warns, but
she is powerless against the Gods. She is a vessel of the sun. The
serpent descends and cunningly lames the phallic daimon, or
else goads him on. She bears up the too-crafty thoughts of the
earthly, those thoughts that creep through every hole and cleave
to all things with craving. Although the serpent does not want to,
she must be of use to us. She flees our grasp, thus showing us the
way, which our human wits could not find.”

Ende (c. 975), “Allegorical conclusion of the Christological cycle. The bird and the snake”

In Ancient Greece and in the Hellenistic period Daimons were believed to be guiding spirits or mediators between the mortal and divine realm. The etymology of the word “daimon” was connected with distributing or allotting destinies to human beings. (1) They were paradoxical beings “never quite divine nor quite human,” “neither spiritual nor physical but both.” (2) There could have been good (agathoi) or evil (kakoi) daimons. The good daimon was often depicted in the form of a serpent.  In “The Development of Personality” Jung spoke of the voice of an inner man, which calls us on and endows us with a vocation (Latin vocare – to call). He called this inner man “a private daimon” citing Socrates as a prominent example of a personality who followed the call of his daimon.

Fresco from shrine at a house in Pompeii showing an offering to the serpent Agathos, 1st century A.D.

Jung analyzes the symbolism of the snake in Aion (Collected Works 9ii). There he states that the serpent stands for the wisdom of the instincts and it possesses supernatural wisdom. (2) That wisdom is the treasure guarded by the snake. At the same time, the “unrelatedness, coldness, and dangerousness” of the snake is both terrifying and fascinating. The frightening and redeeming wisdom of the snake darts out of the unconscious completely unexpectedly, tearing down the psychological defenses of an individual. In alchemy the serpent symbolism is related to Mercurius and the two winding snakes of his caduceus. As Jung writes in Aion, “the serpens Mercurii is a chthonic spirit who dwells in matter, especially in the bit of original chaos hidden in creation, the massa confusa or globosa.” (3) Alfred Ribi adds this to the symbolic portrait of the serpent:

“The snake, as the presence of spirit in the material, represents, on the one hand, the same fascination it evinces, occasioning all the complications that come of projection. On the other, it stands for the fear of concrete reality, which would lead to full incarnation.” (4)

Votive relief of Aristomenes to Zeus Meilichios (4th cent. B.C.)

In the sixth sermon, the serpent takes on a role of “the daimon of sexuality.” She is called “a thought-desire” (German Wunschgedanke). Hoeller explains that the name indicates that “the serpent of sexuality has its main principle of motivation in desire, and that its thoughts are thus ever rooted in desire.” (5)

She seems to also have absorbed some characteristics of the shadow or the evil daimon. She is as seductive as the Indian goddess Maia, weaving her tapestry of projections that entangle an individual in a web of projections. The sermon says that she “goads on” or “lames” the phallic daimon, who is a deity that Jung encountered in a visionary dream as a very young boy. He recalls the dream in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“In the dream I was in this meadow. Suddenly I discovered a dark, rectangular, stone-lined hole in the ground. I had never seen it before. I ran forward curiously and peered down into it. Then I saw a stone stairway leading down. Hesitantly and fearfully, I descended.

At the bottom was a doorway with a round arch, closed off by a green curtain. It was a big heavy curtain of worked stuff like brocade, and it looked very sumptuous. Curious to see what might be hidden behind, I pushed it aside.

I saw before me in the dim light a rectangular chamber about thirty feet long. The ceiling was arched and of hewn stone. The floor was laid with flagstones, and in the center a red carpet ran from the entrance to a low platform. On this stood a wonderfully rich golden throne. I am not certain, but perhaps a red cushion lay on its seat.

It was a magnificent throne, a real king’s throne in a fairy tale. Something was standing on it which I thought at first was a tree trunk twelve to fifteen feet high and about one and a half to two feet thick. It was a huge thing, reaching almost to the ceiling. But it was of a curious composition: it was made of skin and naked flesh, and on top there was something like a rounded head with no face and no hair. On the very top of the head was a single eye, gazing motionlessly upward.”

Odilon Redon, “Onnes (Christ and the Serpent)

Hoeller says that this underground phallic god was “inwardly feminine” and lay hidden in the “recesses of physical nature and in the instinctual forces of the human psyche itself.” He is the engendering, creative force, the light of nature (lumen naturae), of which Paracelsus wrote:

Paracelsus, like all the philosophical alchemists, was seeking for something that would give him a hold on the dark, body-bound nature of man, on the soul which, intangibly interwoven with the world and with matter, appeared before itself in the terrifying form of strange, demoniacal figures and seemed to be the secret source of life-shortening diseases. The Church might exorcise demons and banish them, but that only alienated man from his own nature, which, unconscious of itself, had clothed itself in these spectral forms. Not separation of the natures but union of the natures was the goal of alchemy. From the time of Democritus its leitmotiv had been: ‘Nature rejoices in nature, nature conquers nature, nature rules over nature.’ This principle is pagan in feeling and an expression of nature worship. Nature not only contains a process of transformation—it is itself transformation. It strives not for isolation but for union, for the wedding feast followed by death and rebirth. Paracelsus’s ‘exaltation in May’ is this marriage, the ‘gamonymus’ or hierosgamos [a sacred marriage] of light and darkness in the shape of Sol and Luna. Here the opposites unite what the light from above had sternly divided.” (6)

This slithering, serpentine presence permeates all nature, down to its most hidden underground nooks. It is an animating force; one that enlightens the universum of gross matter from within. It makes half of the human soul while the other half belongs to the daimon of spirituality, portrayed in the sermon as the white bird. His name is desire-thought (German Wunschgedanke). That means that his chief impulse is abstract thought, which creates effects in the world. In the previous sermon Philemon spoke of the celestial mother, who resides in the heavens and rules spirituality. It is with her that the white bird lives, descending from time to time to the earth with a message from the mother.

Susan Seddon Boulet, “Eagle Woman”

Like the underground phallic god, who has a feminine snakelike soul, also “the celestial bird-woman conceals a masculine core.” (7) We are used to seeing the feminine as earthly and the masculine as celestial but the sixth sermon challenges our preconceived ideas. First of all, as the Chinese doctrine of yin and yang teaches, each quality has an admixture of its opposite. Polarities are engaged in a constant dance, merging into one another in the process known as enantiodromia – the transformation of polarities into their opposites over time.

Hoeller emphasizes that both sides of this polarity were important to Jung. Therefore Jung instructed his family to inscribe the following on his tombstone: “Primus homo de terra terrenus: secundus homo de caelo coelestis” (The first man is of the earth, earthly; the second man is heavenly and from heaven)” from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

As the sermon ends, Philemon stays to talk to Jung. The revelations of the sermon left Jung in awe of Philemon’s enlightening wisdom. Philemon pronounces himself free “from the cycle of births, and from the revolving wheel of endless happening.” The dead, to whom Philemon is preaching, are however still not ready to listen as they keep protesting. They continue to be trapped in between worlds.


(1) Cat Rose Neligan, Discovering Your Personal Daimon

(2) par. 370

(3) par. 371

(4) Alfred Ribi, The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis

(5) Stephan A Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead

(6) C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies (CW vol. 13), par. 197

(7) Stephan A Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead


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Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

Reading The Red Book – part 21

Reading The Red Book – part 22

Reading The Red Book – part 23

Reading The Red Book – part 24 

Reading The Red Book – part 25

Reading The Red Book – part 26

Reading The Red Book – part 27

Reading The Red Book – part 28

Reading The Red Book – part 29

Reading The Red Book – part 30

Reading The Red Book – part 31

Reading The Red Book – part 32

Reading The Red Book – part 33

Reading The Red Book – part 34

Reading The Red Book – part 35

Reading The Red Book – part 36

Reading The Red Book – part 37

Reading The Red Book – part 38

Reading The Red Book – part 39

Reading The Red Book – part 40

Reading The Red Book – part 41

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The Spellbinding Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

“The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, looked like something out of an alien hallucination—a swirling collage of warped metallic forms that appeared to have been propped up against one another in an almost random way. Stretching into the distance, the chaotic mass of shapes was draped in more than thirty thousand titanium tiles that glinted like fish scales and gave the structure a simultaneously organic and extraterrestrial feel, as if some futuristic leviathan had crawled out of the water to sun herself on the riverbank. When the building was first unveiled in 1997, The New Yorker hailed its architect, Frank O. Gehry, as having designed ‚a fantastic dream ship of undulating form in a cloak of titanium,‘ while other critics around the world gushed, ‘The greatest building of our time!‘ ‘Mercurial brilliance! ‘ ‘An astonishing architectural feat!‘

Dan Brown, “Origin”

Despite Dan Brown‘s proneness to exaggeration and hyperbole, my impression of the Guggenheim Museum was a similar mixture of shock and awe. The building has an organic feel and yet it is obviously artificial and futuristic, the combination which I do not normally go for. Having admired it in various times of the day, I noticed it looked different each time. The blinding light of the day morphed into soothing sepia towards the evening. It seems to shimmer and float – it seems ungraspable, uncanny. Yet the combination of sinuous and vertical lines is not disconcerting at all. Unlike the majority of modern architecture, this building seems harmonious and comforting. The titanium tiles look very natural. Maybe because O. Gehry had them laid in a pattern used in traditional roofing instead of going for a futuristic design. He referred to them as “the skin oft he building“ to complete the ubiquitous organic metaphor.

The story oft he museum’s creation is quite inspiring. In the 1980s Bilbao was in deep crisis due to a major industrial collapse. The previously life-giving estuary oft he river had been abandoned due tot he collapse of shipyard industry. The city’s council thought of a non-Orthodox solution. To revive the desolate river bank. It may be said indeed that the building was born out of the water and that it breathed new life into the gloomy city. As a result, Bilbao was completely renewed and transformed so much so that it is now one of the wealthiest in the whole country. The construction started in 1993 and the museum was opened in 1997.

In order to enter the museum, one needs to go downstairs. This is unique and made me think of going into the belly of the whale. It seemed like a natural movement towards the unconscious. Inside the structure there is almost complete freedom of movement. The atrium forms a nexus with no assigned linear order of visiting any rooms. This reminded me of a medieval plaza, from where various streets radiated. Each visitor can choose the order according to what beckons them at a given moment. The visit was thus very relaxing and not overwhelming, as is the case with many museums.

The art inside and outside is quite unique.  My imagination was mostly captured by Maman outside, the giant walk-in sculpture The Matter of Time inside, the sculpture How Profound is the Air, and last but not least, by a precious few paintings by Anselm Kiefer, who is one of my favourite artists. You can view the works by following the links below:

I used some information found in this book in writing my post:


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The Three Black Madonnas of the Basque Country

In the north of Spain lies a mysterious Basque country with its language Euskera, which has no relation to any other language in the world. The people of that region are descendants of the oldest indigenous population of Europe. Some researchers claim they were related to Etruscans and Cretans. The main deity of this ancient folk was Mari – the mother goddess. Because it is such an old matriarchal culture, it is not surprising that the region has not less than three Black Madonnas! After all, they do tend to appear in places of ancient goddess worship, especially the chthonic goddess. In this connection I recommend reading the following article dedicated to the pivotal role of witchcraft in Basque culture:

An old legend speaks of seven black virgins, who left the hermitage of San Sebastián de Ataun to settle in other hermitages in Gipuzkoa (a region of the Basque Country with the capital in San Sebastian). Four of these Virgins are no longer in the area but three of them are to be found in churches along Camino del Norte, which is the coastal way of St James leading from Irun to Santiago de Compostela.

In Irun we encounter the first Virgin called the Juncal – Lady of the reeds. She was found by the river and placed at the main altar of the city’s basilica. I suspect her image has been whitened but she used to be black originally. My original impression upon seeing her – without any previous knowledge – was a feeling of surprise that she is not black. The image is Romanesque and Spanish sources confirm her original blackness. You can view more images here:


The second Black Virgin is to be found in the vicinity of Hondarribia in the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. Her altar is flanked by two ships.  Here is more information about her:

Her sanctuary is located on a steep hill overlooking the city. The chapel is dark, the only source of light being the Black Madonna herself. It is indeed a supernatural apparition. At the back of the chapel there is an image of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe.


The third Black Madonna is a patroness of San Sebastian. She is to be found in Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro (St Mary of the Choir). It is a tiny figure placed in the centre of an elaborate altar. Her robes are silver. It is said that previously there was a primitive church there, dedicated to the Virgin Beltza (Black Virgin), located at the foot of Mount Urgull, which is a hill that overlooks the city.

San Sebastian

All the photos were taken by me. On the symbolism of the Black Madonna, please check numerous other previous posts on my blog (use the search function).

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Symbolism of Walls

“Our love was born

outside the walls,

in the wind,

in the night,

in the earth,

and that’s why the clay and the flower,

the mud and the roots

know your name”

Pablo Neruda, “Epithalamium”, translated by Donald D. Walsh

Stanisław Wyspiański, “Planty o Świcie” (Planty – i.e. city park in Krakow, Poland, at Dawn)

I love to stroll around old cities encompassed by walls. There is a feeling of womblike safety attached to it. Border walls, however, which are currently proliferating worldwide, seem more ominous. Symbolism of walls oscillates between the themes of separation and protection. In his Dictionary of Symbols, Cirlot cites the Song of Songs, in which Shulamite says of herself: “I am a wall.” But even the mother’s protection can feel stifling and oppressive.

In an interesting book on the history of walls, which I have read recently and which spurred me to write this, the author asserts emphatically that without the walls no civilizations could have been created. Walls made it possible to dedicate human lives to higher, spiritual goals as opposed to the constant fight for survival in the face of external threat:

“The creators of the first civilizations descended from generations of wall builders.” (1)  

Cirlot refers us to the rich symbolism of Egyptian hieroglyphs, in which the wall is a sign connected with “rising above the common level” towards transcendence.

A lion from Ishtar Gate (the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon)

The clash between wall builders and those who chose the free existence outside it has shaped civilization. For example, Spartans, who built no walls, expressed disrespect towards those safely ensconced within city walls:

“Yet the walls also stygmatized the builders on the eyes of the warriors, who questioned the courage and manliness of those who chose to live in cages. Over time, the gulf between those who would build walls and those who would roam freely across a world without boundaries only grew wider. The coexistence of workers and warriors was never peaceful.” (2)

Franz Kafka wrote a story called “The Great Wall of China,” whose narrator is an unnamed inhabitant of a Southeast Chinese province, situated close to Tibet. The story asks fundamental questions about humankind’s relationship with the law, symbolized here by the great wall. Kafka seems to be saying that we cannot function outside the wall/the law, though its the impermeability is an illusion, as there are many gaps in it:

“In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.”

Yet Kafka has no doubt that walls may stand in direct contradiction to the chaos of human nature, and impermanence is their fundamental feature:

“Human nature, which is fundamentally careless and by nature like the whirling dust, endures no restraint. If it restricts itself, it will soon begin to shake the restraints madly and tear up walls, chains, and even itself all over the place.”

Nicholas Roerich, “Great Wall of China”


(1) David Frye, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

(2) Ibid.


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“Salutations to Thee, O giver of blessings!

Dark Virgin, observant of the vow of chastity,

Whose form is beauteous as that of the rising sun,

And Thy face as that of the full moon;

Thy body is like that of a serpent

Thou givest victory in battle;

… O Kali! O Kali! O Mahakali!

Thou art called Durga by all because Thou savest men from difficulty.

Whether in dangerous lands or sinking in the great ocean,

Thou art the sole refuge of men.

When assailed by robbers, when crossing streams and seas,

Those who remember Thee, O Mahadevi! are never lost.”

John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), Hymns to the Goddess and Hymn to Kali; fragment of Hymn to Durga (from Mahabharata, Virata Parvan)


“We bow down to her who is at once most gentle and most fierce.”

From Devi Mahatmya

Durga, the Divine Mother Goddess, Mahadevi (the great goddess, from Sanskrit “deva” – to shine), whose name means “fortress” and “invincible,” is believed to manifest in the darkest hour of great need. In a myth of her creation, Indian male gods were not able to rid the world of demonic forces. Thus they brought Durga into manifestation “out of the fiery rays of their anger” (1):

“Her face was formed by Shiva; her hair came from Yama, the god of death; her arms were given by Vishnu. Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu his discus, Vayu—the wind god—offered his bow and arrow. The mountain god, Himalaya, gave her the lion for her mount.“ (2)

She defeated the buffalo demon Mahisha, who could only have been vanquished by female power. She embodies the qualities of strength and protection; her role is to restore Dharma threatened by demonic forces of chaos. She guides us through times of upheaval, especially protecting “powerful leaders who take groups of people through a crisis or a war.“ (3)

The Goddess Durga Slaying Mahisha, via

Durga is often depicted with eight arms and the following attributes; eight being the number of cosmic harmony:

1) chakra (wheel) – symbolizing dharma

2) the conch – standing for water, gestation, fertility and preservation of life; also the primal sound om

3) the sword – war, liberation, discernment, discrimination, the mind; destruction of darkness and ignorance

4) bow and arrow – power, spiritual warfare, virtue, sublimation

5) lotus – creation, manifestation, death and rebirth, spiritual fulfillment (rising from darkness), cosmic harmony (eight-petaled lotus)

6) club (mace) – protection, conformity to universal law, the destructive power of time (Kali), devotion (as the weapon of Hanuman)

7) trident – the attribute of Shiva; creation, preservation, destruction; the three gunas; past, present and future

8) hand in a gesture (mudra) of forgiveness and blessing

(symbolism deepened with the help of The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier)

Shri Shri Durga, via

As the universal goddess, Durga has both benevolent and terrifying qualities. She may have many names but she is one universal great mother. The three great goddesses – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kali are all her manifestations. As Saraswati, she brings creativity, wisdom, arts, learning, speech and music; as Lakshmi she is the life-sustaining goddess of abundance; as Kali she brings death, rebirth and empowerment. Durga can call on the power of various shaktis when she needs them.

Like Demeter in Greece, Durga is intimately connected with vegetation cults and  the agricultural cycle of death, decay and rebirth:

“She is that mysterious power that transforms apparently lifeless seeds into life-giving food when they are sowed.“ (4)

The annual Durga Puja, a ten-day harvest festival held in her honour, is the biggest goddess celebration in the world. It starts on the dark moon around the Autumn Equinox with the first three days dedicated to Saraswati, the next three to Lakshmi and the final three to Kali. Day ten is the day of Durga’s victory when the seeds planted at the dark moon begin to sprout.

In his Patterns of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade referred to Durga as “the manifestation of cosmic life in constant and violent regeneration.” In the current dark historical moment of violence and destruction, it is sometimes hard to find the strength to hope for rebirth. But we must believe that the wrathful and compassionate Durga is steering us towards a new cosmic order that will rise from the ashes.

The Goddess Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon, via


(1) Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power

(2) Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga

(3) Ibid.

(4) Vanamali, Shakti: Realm of the Divine Mother


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Wheat and War

Verily, verily, I say unto you, еxcept a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.(John 12: 24)

Salvador Dali, “Blue Knot and Ear of Wheat next to a Castle”

Out of the numberless reasons why we are all so moved by the war in Ukraine, one has a symbolic source. It is wheat and what it evokes in our unconscious mind. I read these words today:

“Ukraine is the land of bread and wheat. Even in Egypt, bread and cakes are baked using Ukrainian flour. It’s the time of year to prepare the fields for sowing, but this work is not being done. The soil of the wheat fields is full of metal – fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters. And it’s all covered in blood. The blood of Russian soldiers who do not understand what they are fighting for, and the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who know that if they do not fight, Ukraine will no longer exist. In its place there will be a cemetery with a caretaker’s hut and some kind of governor general sent from Russia will sit and guard it.”

Historically, the colours of Ukrainian flag were not conceived as “the blue sky over a field of wheat” but this association has taken strong root in people’s hearts. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wheatsky.jpg

As “the basic and primordial” foodstuff, “wheat symbolizes the gift of life.” (1) As such, it has also been associated with immortality. In the most climactic moment of Eleusinian Mysteries, the greatest religious festival of the Ancient Greece dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, a single grain of wheat was displayed to the crowd to be contemplated in complete silence. This “conjured up the eternal cycle of the seasons” as well as evoked death and rebirth from the womb of Earth Mother. (2) The planted (buried) grain will come back as an ear of wheat with a multiple of grains.

Osiris with wheat growing from his body

Can we hope that the grain will sprout despite all that senseless death and destruction?


(1) Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols

(2) Ibid.

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Reading The Red Book (41) – Seven Sermons to the Dead

We have now reached the fifth Sermon to the Dead, which you will find in the third section of The Red Book called Scrutinies.

At the dawn of civilization Greece was inhabited by Pelasgians, who are viewed as the indigenous, pre-Hellenic population of Greece. The Greeks called them their ancestors. In his Greek Myths, Robert Graves attempted to reconstruct the creation myth of those ancient people. Stephan A. Hoeller draws our attention to the analogy of that myth to the content of the fifth and sixth Sermon to the Dead. (1) This is the myth as told by Graves:

“In the beginning, Eurynome, The Goddess of All Things, rose naked from Chaos, but found nothing substantial for her feet to rest upon, and therefore divided the sea from the sky, dancing lonely upon its waves. She danced towards the south, and the wind set in motion behind her seemed something new and apart with which to begin a work of creation. Wheeling about, she caught hold of this north wind, rubbed it between her hands, and behold! the great serpent Ophion. Eurynome danced to warm herself, wildly and more wildly, until Ophion, grown lustful, coiled about those divine limbs and was moved to couple with her. … So Eurynome was … got with child.

Next, she assumed the form of a dove, brooding on the waves and in due process of time laid the Universal Egg. At her bidding, Ophion coiled seven times about this egg, until it hatched and split in two. Out tumbled all things that exist, her children: sun, moon, planets, stars, the earth with its mountains and rivers, its trees, herbs, and living creatures.

Eurynome and Ophion made their home upon Mount Olympus, where he vexed her by claiming to be the author of the Universe. Forthwith she bruised his head with her heel, kicked out his teeth, and banished him to the dark caves below the earth.

Next, the goddess created the seven planetary powers, setting a Titaness and a Titan over each. Theia and Hyperion for the Sun; Phoebe and Atlas for the Moon; Dione and Crius for the planet Mars; Metis and Coeus for the planet Mercury; Themis and Eurymedon for the planet Jupiter; Tethys and Oceanus for Venus; Rhea and Cronus for the planet Saturn.”

Thoth tarot, The Universe

This primordial vision stands in contradiction to later creation stories. Here the celestial mother is the active, creating agent. Moreover, the seven classical planets are presided over by feminine and masculine deities as equals.

In the fascinating and profound Sermo V the feminine and masculine mysteries come to light. As Hoeller emphasizes, “one finds that the ideas presented here are far more complex and esoteric than the popularized version that found its way into the standard literature of analytical psychology.” We are far from the crude distinctions into Eros-driven women and Logos-driven men. Consider these opening lines:

“The world of the Gods is made manifest in spirituality and in sexuality. The celestial ones appear in spirituality, the earthly in sexuality.”

Spirituality (German Geistigkeit) is as divine as sexuality (German Geschlechtlichkeit). The latter word in the original German does not only mean what we understand as sexual activity but refers to gender (German Geschlecht) affiliation.

Philemon continues the sermon:

“Spirituality conceives and embraces. It is womanlike and therefore we call it MATER COELESTIS, the celestial mother. Sexuality engenders and creates. It is manlike, and therefore we call it PHALLOS, the earthly father.

The sexuality of man is more earthly, that of woman is more spiritual.

The spirituality of man is more heavenly, it moves toward the greater.

The spirituality of woman is more earthly, it moves toward the smaller.

The sexuality of man goes toward the earthly, the sexuality of woman goes toward the spiritual.”

Hoeller states that these two principles – the feminine logos, the Heavenly mother, who “comprehends” all as Sophia/Wisdom on the one hand, and the masculine Eros, the engendering Phallos on the other – are present in both men and women. All individuals partake in these qualities. He writes:

“Logos governs the spiritual in man and the sexual in woman, while Eros in turn governs the spiritual in woman and the sexual in man.

The phallic god, being unconscious, is perceived by man only by projection. Thus men project their dark, erotic side onto women, whom they then fear and desire at the same time, precisely because they fear and desire their own unconscious Eros.

One might say with but a slight exaggeration that feminine sexuality has its eyes wide-open to meaning, while masculine sexuality is blind.”

The unconscious feminine Logos, in turn, makes the woman intuitive, insightful and more spiritually aware while it also frees her from the traps of rationalization, so typical of the conscious masculine Logos.

In the sermon Philemon warns against identifying either with spirituality or sexuality by virtue of them being daimons, i.e. forces above and beyond our humanity:

“Spirituality and sexuality are not your qualities, not things you possess and encompass. Rather, they possess and encompass you, since they are powerful daimons, manifestations of the Gods, and hence reach beyond you, existing in themselves.”

We must not rigidly identify with either of these energies but rather be a vessel for both to intertwine. Only in this way will the cosmic egg hatch into being.

The last theme of the sermon refers to individuality (“singleness”) as opposed to community. As usual, Jung advocates right measure in everything:

“Community is depth, singleness is height.

Right measure in community purifies and preserves.

Right measure in singleness purifies and increases.

Community gives us warmth, singleness gives us light.”

I find the wisdom contained in the Seven Sermons timeless. At the present moment, when the world is horrified by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, India is about to celebrate the annual Maha Shivaratri, the sacred night of Lord Shiva. It is also an auspicious festival that celebrates the union of Shiva and Shakti. This seems to be a very potent moment when things are poised on the edge of the knife and we are all hoping that the worst will not happen. At the same time there has also been a true feeling of oneness, solidarity and community palpable here in Europe.

Hoping against hope, I found this quote in Vanamali’s book on Shiva:

“He has two natures—one wild and fierce, the other calm and peaceful. Of all the deities, he is the one most easily propitiated. Moreover, in compassion there is none to compare with him. He is the friend of the unfortunates…

He has a blue neck because he drank deadly poison in order to protect the world from it, keeping it in his throat rather than swallowing it, and it made his neck turn blue. … He is Chandrachuda (wearer of the moon), for he wears the crescent moon as an adornment for his hair. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, he is in tune with the rise and fall of the cosmic rhythm. He is Krittivasa, wearer of animal hides. His upper body is covered with the skin of the black antelope, the elephant hide covers his loins, and the tiger skin is his seat. By wearing the male kundala (a man’s earring) in his right ear and the female tatanka (a woman’s earring) in his left, he reveals his androgynous nature.” (2)

Adiyogi Shiva statue

The androgynous nature of Shiva himself as well as the deity called Ardhanarisvara, who is depicted as half-male and half-female to symbolize the union of Shiva with Parvati, point both to a reality beyond dualism, beyond conflict, where opposites are united. The coat of arms of Ukraine is a blue shield with a gold trident; the trident being also one of the most important attributes of Lord Shiva. It can only be touched by him or Shakti. It is solely used to restore peace and divinity in the universe.

Ardhanarisvara – the combined form of Shiva and Shakti, by Ashdei-San
Flag of Ukraine with coat of arms


(1) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and The Seven Sermons to the Dead                                                                                                                                  

(2) Vanamali, Shiva: Stories and Teachings from the Shiva Mahapurana

Reading The Red Book – part 1

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

Reading The Red Book – part 21

Reading The Red Book – part 22

Reading The Red Book – part 23

Reading The Red Book – part 24 

Reading The Red Book – part 25

Reading The Red Book – part 26

Reading The Red Book – part 27

Reading The Red Book – part 28

Reading The Red Book – part 29

Reading The Red Book – part 30

Reading The Red Book – part 31

Reading The Red Book – part 32

Reading The Red Book – part 33

Reading The Red Book – part 34

Reading The Red Book – part 35

Reading The Red Book – part 36

Reading The Red Book – part 37

Reading The Red Book – part 38

Reading The Red Book – part 39

Reading The Red Book – part 40


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Frida Kahlo’s Symbolism of Life

Frida Kahlo stands today for much more than art; she is a symbol and an icon of feminism, a heroine of the disability rights movement, anti-racism movements and LGBT communities. Her boundless creativity drew no lines between life and art; she succeeded in transforming herself into a living work of art. But at the same time her humanity was reflected in the anguished gaze of her self-portraits. Her colourful Tehuana dresses covered her crippled right leg, magnificent shawls and Byzantine jewellery concealed her physical impairments while the corsets supported her shattered spine. Life accompanied by pain was frequently the theme of her art as was its mirror image – life-relishing defiance. The earthy, bodily and feminine dimension of her art stands in juxtaposition with its preoccupation with death and suffering.

Wearing earrings gifted to her by Picasso, photo by Nickolas Muray

André Breton, the co-founder of surrealism, famously said that her painting was like “a ribbon around a bomb.” Hayden Herrera, author of the most well-known biography of Frida, wrote that each of her painting was like “a smothered cry, a nugget of emotion so dense that one felt it might explode.” There was indeed a smouldering intensity in Frida, all-consuming inner fire and superhuman strength burning in a feeble, sick body of hers. Yet weak as she was, there was an undeniable carnal fire that jumps at the viewer of her self-portraits or photographs. The details of her biography are widely known. The mainstream narrative chooses to focus on her tempestuous lifelong relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she married twice. It is common knowledge that he was serially unfaithful and at the same time violently jealous of her also numerous romances – with both men and women. This post does not dwell on these facts.

Photo by Nickolas Muray

At the age of six Frida Kahlo contracted polio; a disease which crippled her right leg and gave her a limp. Also, it turned her into an introverted girl. She was “forced into the position of otherness” for the first time in her life. (1) To avoid looking weak, Frida took up soccer, boxing, wrestling, swimming and biking. In her childhood she was very close with her father Guillermo, who had come to Mexico as an immigrant from Germany. Hence Frida’s German sounding name, derived from the German word for peace. Together with her father they would spend hours developing photographs and walking in nearby parks, where she would collect “pebbles, insects, and rare plants along the river’s edge.” (2)

Frida Kahlo, “Fruits of the Earth”

When she was eighteen, the most fateful event of her life occurred. On September 17, 1925 the bus she was on collided with a streetcar in Mexico City. Herrera quotes Frida’s then boyfriend, who thus remembered the accident:

“Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her they cried, ’La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.”

And these were the horrific medical facts as related by Herrera:

“Her spinal column was broken in three places in the lumbar region. Her collarbone was broken, and her third and fourth ribs. Her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her left shoulder was out of joint, her pelvis broken in three places. The steel handrail had literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it had come out through the vagina.”

She never fully recovered. The accident prevented her from having children, resulting in a number of miscarriages and abortions as well as numerous surgeries throughout her relatively short life. For a month following the accident she had to lie flat on her back, “enclosed in a box-like structure that looked like a sarcophagus.” (3)

Frida after her accident

In 1926 she painted her first self-portrait, in which she poses in a velvet dress against a dark background – the ocean and a night sky. Her fragile and vibrant beauty has here a somber air. At the back of the painting she wrote in German – Heute ist immer noch (Today still goes on, as Herrera translates it).  There is a blossoming quality about her despite the sadness. Her signature unibrow, compared to “the wings of a blackbird” by Diego Rivera, features prominently in the painting as does a shade of a moustache. Art historian Parker Lesley once wrote aptly about Frida’s peculiar “combination of barbarism and elegance.” (4) Even before she started wearing the famous Tehuana dresses, Frida here looks striking with her magnetic, arresting gaze. Frida once said about herself that her facial features were masculine; yet without a doubt she is an epitome of resplendent femininity.  She is also celebrated as a fashion icon, though she did not follow the trends of her time, one of which was the thin, epilated brow. Her sense of what is beautiful was timeless.

“Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress”
Another self-portrait with brows in a shape of a humming bird

Her signature Tehuana dresses and rebozos (shawls), which she started to wear consistently after meeting Diego Rivera, were inspired by those of the women from the city of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is said to be a culture of confident, strong, intelligent women. Their traditional costumes, which consisted of an embroidered blouse, a long skirt and a large headdress worn on special occasions, was adopted by many educated Mexican women contemporary to Frida. Even her mother was photographed wearing such a costume.

Self-portrait in with a Tehuana headdress (1948)

The ritual of getting dressed for the day was a serious matter to Frida, says Herrera:

“People who watched the ritual of her dressing recall the time and care she took, her perfectionism and precision. Frequently she tinkered with a needle before donning a blouse, adding lace here, a ribbon there. … To go with the exotic costumes, Frida arranged her hair in various styles, some typical of certain regions of Mexico, some her own invention. She would sweep it upward, sometimes pulling it so tightly at the temples that it hurt, and then braid into it bright woolen ribbons and decorate it with bows, clips, combs, or fresh bougainvillea blossoms. One friend observed that when she placed a comb in her hair, she pressed its prongs into her scalp with a ‘coquettish masochism.’”

Much has also been written about her outstanding collection of jewellery. She did not mind the physical discomfort and would wear heavy rings on each finger, large earrings and sizeable necklaces. “She clanked like a knight in armour,” commented once Parker Lesley. Together with Diego Rivera she collected pre-Columbian art. For her necklaces she would use stone beads from archeological Maya sites. She received a pair of unique earrings from Picasso, an admirer of her art, who once wrote to Diego Rivera:

“Neither Derain, nor I, nor you are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” (5)

Most of the jewellery is now missing, as it was stolen immediately after Frida’s death:

“So desperate were people to have a memento of her that even as her body moved towards the crematorium fire, onlookers pulled at her rings.” (6)

Folk art not only informed her dress but also her art, which is often reminiscent of the so-called retablos. These are votive (devotional) paintings, sometimes in the form of ex-votos (“from a vow”), which show a life-threatening event such as an illness that a person survived thanks to an intervention of Mary, Jesus or a saint. Frida collected Mexican ex-votos art. Her paintings are a few symbolic levels higher than “ordinary” retablos but nevertheless they share their emotional genuineness in relating her physical distress.

A Mexican retablo
Votive paintings from the Black Madonna abbey in Einsiedeln

One of Frida’s earliest self-portraits steeped in the Catholic tradition is undoubtedly “The Broken Column.” This is Herrera’s description of it:

“Anguish is made vivid by nails driven into her naked body. A gap resembling an earthquake fissure splits her torso, the two sides of which are held together by the steel orthopedic corset … Inside her torso we see a cracked ionic column in the place of her own deteriorating spinal column; life is thus replaced by a crumbling ruin. With her hips wrapped in a cloth suggestive of Christ’s winding sheet, Frida displays her wounds like a Christian martyr; a Mexican Saint Sebastian…”

“The Broken Column”

According to Herrera, one of Frida’s paintings that especially resembled a retablo is “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong” (1946). In it, the sick Frida is accompanied by the guardian Frida, who acts as her own miracle worker. The blood that drips from her wounds is echoed by the red dress, which symbolizes strength and the will to live. Like the Holy Priestess of the Tarot with the Moon shining above her, the Tehuana Frida brings her soothing emotional presence, her unconscious lunar power to the exposed, vulnerable body of the sick Frida that lies in the desert under the relentless beams of the sun.

“Tree of Hope, Remain Strong”

The theme of fertility runs through the entirety of Frida’s oeuvre. She said once that her painting partly stems from an unfulfilled desire to be a mother. Not being able to bear children, she gave birth to the whole resplendent colourful world around her – the magnificent blue house (Casa Azul), which now serves as her museum, its garden, numerous pets (monkeys, a deer, dogs, parrots, doves and others) as well as her passion for cooking. The theme of roots is also vital, alluding to her desire to connect to the earth and also to honour her Mexican heritage. She was especially proud to have been nourished by an indigenous wet nurse as a baby.

Frida with Granizo
Frida Kahlo in her garden, photographed by Gisele Freund
Frida Kahlo photographed by Tony Frissell
“Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940)

“My Birth” is famously owned by the singer Madonna. It was painted in the year when Frida’s mother died (1932). A large infant’s head (Frida’s) emerges from the mother’s womb. In Herrera’s words:

“We see the infant’s large head emerging between the mother’s spread legs from the doctor’s vantage point. Heavy, joined eyebrows identify the child as Frida. Blood covers the inert, drooping head and skinny neck. The baby looks dead. A sheet covering the woman’s head and chest, as if she had died in childbirth, emphasizes the total exposure of delivery. As a substitute for the mother’s head, on the wall directly above her is a painting of another grieving mother, the Virgin of Sorrows pierced by swords, bleeding and weeping.”

“My Birth”

For me, this is a shattering image that shows how closely death and life were intertwined in Frida’s consciousness. Blood seems to have been such a crucial motif of her art and life. Even in her personal letters she spoke of it a lot. She once wrote to her great love, photographer Nickolas Muray, “To you, my loveliest Nick, all my heart, blood and all my being.”

The paintings that I am personally most attached to are “My Nurse and I” (1937) and “Roots” (1943). To me they are both indicative of Frida’s celebration of her connectedness with the fertility of the earth. In the former, as Herrera describes:

“The ducts and glands of the lactating breasts are revealed in a plant-like pattern on the breasts’ surface. … milk-like veins in a huge leaf in the background are engorged. The raindrops in the sky are ‘milk from the Virgin’ – as her nurse had explained to her. The virgin’s milk, the praying mantis and the caterpillar that are camouflaged against the stems and leaves of plants stand for the interconnectedness of every aspect of the natural world and in her own participation in the world.”

Similarly, in “Roots” Frida’s body is planted in the earth. As Herrera puts it, her dream of fertility is realized here as it is she who gives birth to a vine.

“My Nurse and I”

Frida’s very last painting was a still life depicting watermelons. She painted them at the age of 47, in 1954, shortly before she died. Herrera writes:

“It is as if Frida had gathered and focused what was left of her vitality in order to paint this final statement of alegría. Sliced and chopped, the pieces of fruit acknowledge the imminence of death, but their luscious red flesh celebrates the fullness of life. Eight days before she died, when her hours were darkened by calamity, Frida Kahlo dipped her brush in blood-red paint and inscribed her name plus the date and the place of execution, Coyoacán, Mexico, across the crimson pulp of the foremost slice. Then, in large capital letters, she wrote her final salute to life: VIVA LA VIDA.”

Frida Kahlo’s art cannot be classified as belonging to any art movements of her time. Surrealists celebrated her and tried to claim her but she said once:

“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

The symbolism of her art is firmly rooted in the earth. Of her many passions life was perhaps the greatest.

“Flower of Life” (1943)


(1) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum

(2) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

(3) Ibid.

(4) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum

(5) Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

(6) Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, by Claire Wilcox (Editor), published 2018 by Victoria & Albert Museum



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