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.