Johfra Bosschart, Libra
“…to know how to think with emotions and to feel with intellect…”
“Let your judgements have their own quiet, undisturbed development, which must, like all progress, come from deep within, and cannot in any way be pressed or hurried.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
We started our visual journey through the Zodiac with Aries, and now we arrive at the point opposite the Arian instinctual realm and we encounter an inanimate object – the scales (the only non-living entity in the Zodiac). Aries just acts, Libra, on the other hand, judges, reflects and only then proceeds to make a choice. As a matter of fact, in early Mesopotamian astrology the name Libra was not even used: the sign was merged with that of Scorpio. “It is as though our noble faculty of judgement emerged from something much older, more archaic and more primitive,” comments Liz Greene in The Astrology of Fate. Cirlot adds an interesting observation in his Dictionary of Symbols:
… the scales has two tendencies, symbolized by the two symmetrically disposed pans, one tending towards the Scorpion (denoting the world of desires) and the other towards the sign of Virgo (sublimation).
CHAOS AND ORDER
Looking at this image of Libra I canot help thinking of an air bubble formed on the surface of the ocean of tar. Out of the four corners of the painting black lava threatens to suck it back into the abyss. The order is extracted out of chaos and appears very delicate, fragile and temporary. The harmony, balance and symmetry are achieved at a great expense and only for a little while. “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star,” said Nietzsche once and I think this quote has a lot to do with Libra. In the painting you can actually see a beautiful seven-pointed star between Hathor’s horns; seven being the number of perfect order and the reconciliation of spirit (three) and matter/earth (four). According to the Bible, the world was created in seven days. In number seven divine order unites with the earthly order.
THINKING AND FEELING
Johfra focuses on the archetypal Libran balance between head ad heart, intelligence and feeling. In Jungian psychology, the thinking function forms an opposition to and compensates the feeling function. Also in the Kabbalah, the sephira Hod that rules the intellect stands opposite Netsah (feeling), which is placed at the bottom of the pillar of mercy. In the painting, the feeling function is represented by the goddess Hathor (she stands for the goddess Venus, who rules the sign Libra), while the thinking function is represented by the ibis-headed Thoth, the Egyptian counterpart of the Roman god Mercury and the Greek Hermes. Jung had a very specific understanding of the concept of feeling, demonstrated in the following passage from The Psychological Types:
Feeling is primarily a process that takes place between the ego and a given content, a process, moreover, that imparts to the content a definite value in the sense of acceptance or rejection (‘like’ or dislike’); … Feeling therefore is an entirely subjective process. … Hence feeling is also a kind of judging, differing, however, from an intellectual judgement, in that it does not aim at establishing an intellectual connection but is solely concerned with the setting up of a subjective criterion of acceptance or rejection. … When the intensity of feeling is increased an affect results, which is a state of feeling accompanied by appreciable bodily innervations. Feeling is distinguished from affect by the fact that it gives rise to no perceptible physical innervations, i.e. just as much or as little as the ordinary thinking process. … just as thinking marshals the conscious contents under concepts, feeling arranges them according to their value.
This passage shows the essence of Libran judgement: it can be based on objective intellectual criteria or on a subjective value system. I think it explains very well that Libran ‘feeling’ has an airy, rational quality, which is very different from a common affect, which in turn has a distinct physiological feel.
THE SCALES OF MAAT
The pivotal symbol of the whole painting are the scales: the left one with the feather of Maat, the right one with the heart. The mythology of Libra has first and foremost Egyptian roots. The concept of maat was central to the Egyptian philosophy. It signified Order. The following quotation comes from the book Arts and Humanities through the Eras: Ancient Egypt, edited by Bleiberg and others:
The Egyptian philosophical view of existence was based on the idea that all existence was either orderly or chaotic. Order was called maat while chaos was called isfet. Maat encompassed the physical world,political conditions, and ethical conduct. In the physical world maat meant that the sun rose and set in a regular pattern. Maat also meant that the Nile flooded Egypt on a regular schedule and provided fertility to agricultural fields. In politics, maat meant that the true king sat on the throne and ensured order within Egypt. In Egyptian thought, maat depended on correct personal conduct. In fact correct personal conduct ensured loyalty to the king, which, in turn, supported an orderly physical world. For individuals, maat also meant telling the truth, and dealing fairly with others in addition to obedience to authority. Ultimately an individual who supported maat through his actions could enter the afterlife as a reward.
…the Egyptians believed that the heart was the organ of thought. Yet Egyptian philosophers advised that the silent man who ignored his emotions and who thought before he acted was the ideal. The opposite of the silent man was the heated man, one who immediately submitted to his emotions without giving adequate thought to his actions. Much of Egyptian philosophy counseled against impulsive action without thought.
Justice, a tenet of any philosophical system, was also part of the right order that maat guaranteed. The prime minister, whose job included dispensing justice, was a priest of Maat…. Court decisions also found one party to be “the one who is performing maat,” and therefore the innocent party.
Maat dictated correct and proper behaviour in all social situations and also in relationships, which in astrology fall under the domain of Libra. Maat was especially integral to The Book of the Dead and it is this part of the myth that Johfra focuses on in his painting. The heart of the deceased is weighed against the symbol of maat (the feather denoted truth in Egyptian hieroglyphs). If the two were in balance, the dead were allowed to enter the afterlife. Maat also stood for cosmic order and celestial harmony. The feather as her symbol denotes spiritual lightness understood as the karma that weighs a person down. The ostrich feather was known for its symmetry and harmony of divine design. Having maat meant being attuned to both earthly and cosmic harmony, being free from negative karma, having the heart as light as the feather. Failing the test of Maat meant that the heart was thrown to be devoured by the monster Ammit – part lion, part hippopotamus and part crocodile. The results of judgement were recorded by Thoth.
Weighing of the Heart
THE ROSY CROSS
The scales in the image are adorned with the Rosy Cross. Rosicrucianism was a secret society which, among other things, advocated the balance between head and heart. The Rose Cross symbolism is extremely rich. I refer you to my post on the symbolism of the cross, which, very briefly, stands for the collision (and possible reconciliation) of matter and spirit and the suffering resulting from incarnation. Numerologically, it resonates with number four, symbolic of terrestrial space and organization. The following quotes come from A Brief Study of the Rose Cross Symbol written by a member of the Rosicrucian order, Fra. Thomas D. Worrel:
The rose … is at once a symbol of purity and a symbol of passion, heavenly perfection and earthly passion; virginity and fertility; death and life. The rose is the flower of the goddess Venus but also the blood of Adonis and of Christ. It is a symbol of transmutation – that of taking food from the earth and transmuting it into the beautiful fragrant rose. The rose garden is a symbol of Paradise. It is the place of the mystic marriage. In ancient Rome, roses were grown in the funerary gardens to symbolize resurrection. The thorns have represented suffering and sacrifice as well as the sins of the Fall from Paradise.
The rose has also been used as a sign of silence and secrecy. The word sub rosa “under the rose” referring to the demand for discretion whenever a rose was hung from the ceiling at a meeting. In the Mysteries roses were sacred to Isis. It is also the flower of her son Harpocrates or younger Horus, the god of silence.
It is the flower of Venus, the Goddess of Love.
According to Cirlot, the rose corresponds symbolically to the mandala. The beauty of its form is undeniable and speaks for itself. The many petals of the rose are symbolic of the unfoldment of the soul. It may also be treated as the symbol of the divine feminine. The red rose is symbolic of awoken instincts while the white lily at the bottom of the painting brings to mind calmness, harmony, and the purification of the senses.
THE ANKH, THE SISTRUM AND THE LEMNISCATE
The god and the goddess are both holding objects of great symbolic values. Hathor has got a sistrum (a kind of a rattle), Thoth – the ankh. Pat Remler writes very interestingly on the sistrum in her book Egyptian Mythology A to Z. A sistrum was shaken to honour the gods and to ward off evil spirits (to ward off the forces of chaos). It could also have been used as an instrument of punishment – sinners could be struck blind by its power. The ankh is quite a mysterious symbol. The hieroglyph means to ‘live’ and a popular interpretation equates it with eternal life. It is the Key of Life and Creation, a life force per se. It is a harmonious blending of the masculine (the T-cross) and the feminine (the circle) polarities. It symbolized the union of Isis and Osiris. The ankh was also the breath of life, as can be seen in this image, where the goddess places it in front of the nostrils of the pharaoh:
The ankh resonates with the lemniscate (the symbol of infinity) featured at the top of the painting. It is a symbol of the infinite wisdom of cycles, which create balance in the universe. The yin/jang is rendered beautifully with wisps of air, reminding us that Libra is an air sign, and the balance of opposites can never be set in stone but is subject to whirlwinds.
THE TWO SPHINXES, THE CRYSTAL CUBE AND THE CHESSBOARD
The two Assyrian sphinxes form a pair of opposites: one is masculine, one is feminine. The sphinx being a symbol of wholeness, they show the unity of man and beast, consciousness and the unconscious. Libra is a sign of partnership: it is in partnership, in the meeting with the other, that human wholeness and individuation is achieved. The rose (the soul) is born out of this union. The sphinxes are guarding an altar in the form of a cube. The transparent cube is the cornerstone of manifest reality, at its centre lies a golden circle or a philosopher’s stone (the goal of individuation, the indestructible spiritual essence). Says Johfra:
If the cube were opened out, the six surfaces would form the Christian cross and the golden embryo would be lying in the centre of the cross, a direct reference to the Rosicrucian belief where the rose is also placed in the centre of the cross…
Finally, the chessboard floor is an expression of the interplay of opposites, on the one hand, but on the other, it alludes to the faculty of strategic thinking characteristic of Libra.
The heights of harmony and symmetry achieved in the painting are extraordinary. Each element resonates with another; the painting is a series of juxtapositions, resonances and counterpoints. However, in everyday life “any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness,” as Walter Benjamin once wrote. The heart of the image is pure light of the Self – the counterbalance to the forces of chaos.
Related posts in the Images of the Zodiac series: