Why I Love Symbols


Johfra Bosschart, Hermes Trismegistos

I was lucky once to co-teach about symbols at a workshop dedicated to The Lord of the Rings. The workshop started with watching the film together. I asked the participants to look for symbols in the movie. I was quite surprised when it turned out that they had found only one or two, mostly signs and not symbols at that. The task was a tricky one because the list of symbols in The Lord of the Rings is in fact endless. The participants were quite surprised that we can look at a tree as a potent symbol, that a horse carries deep, unfathomable meaning, and getting closer to the symbolism of the ring might actually take weeks.

I’ve decided to embark on a project and write about the absolutely stunning Zodiac paintings by Johfra Bosschart, a Dutch symbolist painter. I find these paintings simply stunning and by far the best depictions of Zodiac signs ever created. I have got my hands on a very rare copy of Johfra Astrology, which has been out of print for many years, and I am going to let it guide me in my journey of discovery. Hank Harrison was very lucky to see the original paintings and not the reproductions that the rest of us have to content ourselves with. This is how he describes the unique experience of viewing them:

Seeing them was a mystical experience. Hardly any damaging sunlight could reach the paintings and in order to view them one was forced to press a button with a timer, to light a special flood lamp which exactly duplicated ideal sunlight.

I inquired as to why this viewing gallery was set up this way and I was told that for this series, Johfra and Diana mixed their own paints from scratch using alchemical formulae passed down from Rembrandt and Vermeer. When I challenged that statement I was shown a very old hand written journal signed (and once owned) by Rembrandt. I was also shown the kilns Diana used for baking the stones and the crushers she used for pulverizing the stones into colored powders. To my surprise two of the blue tones were achieved by crushing turquoise and lapis lazuli, while one of the reds was achieved by crushing red ochre. Gold and Silver and antimony were also used in extremely small degrees.

This experience of looking at the paintings briefly, catching a glimpse of them, was like an elusive, fleeting moment of vision. It was, like staring at the sun, extremely dangerous. It is much safer to look at its reflections rather than look at it directly. By the same token, perhaps it is safer to look at the reproductions of Bosschart’s paintings rather than the original paintings. They are still quite powerful and make ideal objects of meditation.

I actually started exploring the world of archetypes and symbols compelled by a dream I had 12 years ago. In this dream, I was looking at the Sun during a solar eclipse. I noticed suddenly that the Sun had turned into the planet Saturn, which appeared to be made of gold. There was a circular rainbow around Saturn. The whole image was moving, Saturn was spinning and sparkling and so were its golden rings. I have always regarded this dream as incredibly important and up to this day I have not managed to interpret it fully. As Jung wrote, it is the most difficult to interpret one’s own dreams.

Johfra Bosschart shared his understanding of symbols in the preface to the book that I mentioned at the beginning. His words are very close to my heart. Here’s a couple of inspiring quotes:

The deepest truths can only be approached through myths and symbols.

The Truth can only be hinted at and, even then, can only be recognized by those who already know it. Yet this recognition lies dormant within us all.

A truly universal archetypal symbol works deep down, it touches the unconscious essence of the individual who thereby recognizes it from inside. It moves him totally. It strengthens him, changes him.

A symbol, to those who meditate upon it and who can lose themselves in it, is like a door that opens out on to a fresh vista of consciousness.

It is extremely hard to convey a visionary experience with words unless one writes a poem. During an illness, C. G. Jung once dreamed that he was in a valley of diamonds and managed to put some of them in his pockets. He understood the diamonds to refer to what he had to say about the nature of the psyche. But how to translate the dream vision into the everyday, ordinary language? There’s the rub. When I look at these paintings I feel at a loss for words but words I must use to describe them.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Why I Love Symbols

  1. Thank you so much for making me aware of Bosschart’s art. What a wonderful gift you have given me today! I look forward to your additional comments about his book. I also want to thank you for sharing your tremendum dream, and I’m curious to know more about it and the way it has moved through your life since you had it.


    • Thank you! This tremendum dream has been equally a blessing and a curse in the sense that translating it into the so called real life has been hard. I feel it was a sort of a divine directive that I need to find a way of uniting the world of the spirit symbolized by the Sun with the world of matter symbolized by Saturn. It was a moment of ecstatic vision and I felt blessed receiving it.
      I am also looking forward to reading your blog, always happy to discover new Jung addicts.


  2. ” A symbol, to those who meditate upon it and who can lose themselves in it, is like a door that opens out on to a fresh vista of consciousness “. – This is quite provocative and poetic. I look forward to reading about your interpretations as your project progresses. I love symbols also, but don’t have a great reason as to why. I know that I am very visual and like to speak metaphorically, and have reliable dream recall. In any case, you have so much knowledge to share. thank you!


  3. renatembell says:

    Oh, what a wonderful workshop that must have been. Sounds like lots of eyes were opened and minds stretched. A beautiful thing!
    Thank you for sharing your dream. It hits home. I share with you the experience of a solar eclipse dream. In mine, as I gazed upon the eclipse, I had suddenly been take up into the Sun’s brilliance and radiance. I remember waking up thinking, “So that’s what it’s like to be on the bright side of an eclipse!” I also have Sun and Saturn prominent in my chart, opposite each other, both strong in their own signs. Seems this life is about learning to choreograph the sacred dance between them, as they continue to learn how to move together towards a mutual agenda. Not easy! But never boring.
    Curious. Is there a connection between Sun and Saturn in your chart?
    Beautiful post. Thank you~


  4. Beautiful comment, thank you! Saturn features prominently in my chart, for better and for worse. It forms a precise semi-sextile to my Sun, which is in the 10th house ruled by Saturn. I have no choice but to cross Saturn on my way to individuation.


  5. Beautiful project idea and stunning imagery. When I saw this post this morning I was amazed because I was in the middle of writing something with similar themes. I have it posted on my blog now, it is about Osiris, alchemy, and individuation. Your dream and this image both appear to be alchemical. Saturn is related to lead in alchemy, which Carl Jung studied as part of his individuation theory development. Alchemists believe that lead held gold inside of it, at least a bit or a spark; similarly, it is a symbol for how even in our greatest darkness we have the light and fire of consciousness we can spark for individuation. Seems like your dream revealed the golden being you have within, so interesting it inspired you on your journey with astrology and archetypes. Saturn can be a great test and karmic task master, but the rewards of doing our Saturn work lead us to our greatest potential.

    The book I quoted a lot in my recent article about Osiris and alchemy, “Embodying Osiris: The Secrets of Alchemical Transformation,” has the following quote about the object of your image above:
    “For alchemy in particular, we can identify a lineage that begins in Egypt with Thoth, followed by the Greek Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus, and finally, in the Middle Ages, we have Mercurius, who becomes the patron of the alchemical opus” (p. 51).
    I am excited to read more of your posts about Jofra Bosschart- I have seen digital images of his zodiac paintings that I love, and so my imagination is running wild with your description of the gallery setting. And so fascinating that his painting method involved alchemy, with the source being none other than Rembrandt! Awe inspiring, thank you so much again for your thoughts.


  6. I love symbols too, they are everywhere, a message from my Inner Divine Self to Remember!
    ✿ღ✿ღ.¸¸ღ♫*¨`*•..¸ƸӜƷ ✿ღ ✫❀


  7. reikiheidi says:

    That picture is stunning! And, more than that, the woman in the middle with the wings behind her and the ‘spiral’ around her… I had a vision some years ago strikingly similar to that – and I have never seen that painting/picture before.
    Very interesting, and food for thought for me… thank you for sharing this.


  8. MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

    Im quite a rationolist teasted by your blog in your world of symbols and always curious for different thoughts and visions. Interisting and tantelising post again. I can appriciate the work of Bosschart, but I m not so open (yet ?) for the kind of symbols in it. In fact for me the painting is primarly a symbol of its own of a mystical culture I dont have much connection with (till now). Maybe I’m not conscionous enough of my inner awareness..
    But I do agree that we only could interact with reality and think and speak about this by interaction through symbols, concepts and matrixes. Its everywhere in allday live (and dreams) and specially in our more creative presentations. Were framing and reframing all the time I think.
    In this continuous process of cultural evolution surely we use, reuse and partly also abuse very old symbols , concepts and frames. Maybe this is what you call ‘archetypal symbols’?
    By your posts Im gettjng more conscious and curious again about the impact of this older and deeper symbols on our feelings, being and thinking.
    But as a earthed rationalist I think I only can discover this by a deductive way, out of daily experience, trying to peel of outer layers of meaning in search of deeper sources of it… I do recognise the ‘gateway’ we can go through by concentrating on -complex- artistic works, for me specially images and poems.
    Thanks for triggering this. Curious to follow your futher interesting and well-written posts on this blog.


    • Thank you for a very interesting comment!I think an artist like yourself does not need all that conscious knowledge of what symbols mean. I saw some archetypal patterns in your creations but maybe because my mind is attuned to see these things.
      Also I do not claim I know what symbols mean. All I am trying to do is approach a great mystery.
      Thank you for reading!


      • MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

        Sure I’m using more or less conscious old symbols in my haiku-images. Am curious about them. Its my kind of ‘peeling technique’. And mysteries are to be discovered! (:
        Will follow your discoverytour from now. Looking forward for futher exchange. SY, Mart.


  9. Happy exploring of the artist’s art, the signs themselves, and the mysteries behind them. In reading your post, I was reminded of the tantric meditation practice of Dream Yoga. Are you familiar with this?


    • Very vaguely… Is this related to lucid dreaming?
      I still need to find a spiritual practice that I would feel compelled to keep… I will look into dream yoga, the name certainly sounds appealing. You are an incredible source of inspiration.


  10. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Gemini | symbolreader

  11. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Leo | symbolreader

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s