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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Flash in the Pan

Four page engravings of christian mystical symbolism.
Unidentified engraver. Published by Johann Gichtel in the collected works of Jakob Bohme,1682. Engravings illustrating the text of Jakob Bohem.

I saw the Being of all Beings, the Ground and the Abyss; also the birth of the Holy Trinity; the origin and the first state of the world and of all creatures. I saw in myself the three worlds—the Divine or angelic world; the dark world, the original of Nature; and the external world, as a substance spoken forth out of the two spiritual worlds. . . .

Jakob Bohme

At 25 years old, young Jakob Bohme, had a spiritual vision that would change his life. He was always a pious man who studied the Bible, was raised in the Lutheran religion and was constantly seeking knowledge. One day while working in his cobbler’s shop, Bohme’s attention was directed to a flash of sunlight that reflected off a pewter vessel. In the blinding flash of this event, Bohme had an insight to the some of the most difficult theological conundrums of the age. He believed that he had been shown the mystical order of the universe, the answer and solution to the theological dilemma of good and evil, God’s plan on the collapse of feudal hierarchies, and that all things consist of either yes or no.

Engraved portrait of Jakob Bohme in an oval with text underneath.
Jakob Bohme

The year was 1600. Jakob Bohme (1575 – 1624) was a shoemaker in the Eastern German town of Gorlitz, near the Polish border. Although he had only a rudimentary education, he had risen from his apprenticeship in a shoemaker’s shop to become a master craftsman with his own shop. He had married a butcher’s daughter and begun a family that would eventually include six children. Bohme’s wife Katherine was a pragmatic woman who did not share her husband’s interest in searching for knowledge. For her, there were mouths to feed and a household to maintain. Let God do His work and Jakob the shoemaker do his and the world will be fine, was her belief. We do not need to understand God’s ways.

Although not highly learned, and despite his wife’s pragmatic approach to life, Bohme still thought on many things and wished to know more. When the charismatic Lutheran pastor and mystic Martin Moller came to town to assume the position of the town Pastor, Bohme joined his congregation, and then began attending Moller’s spiritual study group the Conventicle of God’s Real Servants. It was shortly after becoming part of this spiritual study group that Bohme had his vision.

Old engraving of an bird's eye view of the town of Gorlitz, Germany c. 1600.
The town of Gorlitz c.1600

However, Bohme knew his place as a peasant shoemaker in German society, and he knew not to confide to his quarrelsome wife the daydreams he had on the nature of God. He kept his remarkable visionary experience to himself. For twelve years he ruminated on what had been revealed to him until he believed that he fully understood the message he had been entrusted with. Wishing to hold on to his thoughts in a more tangible way, he began to write down his understanding of his mystic vision. The manuscript he composed was titled Dawn of the Day in the East. Although the Pastor Moller had died six years before, Bohme must have shared his project with members of the Conventicle of God’s Real Servants because somehow the work in progress got into the hands of a nobleman. Dually impressed the nobleman had copies made and began to circulate them among the learned men of Gorlitz. A copy of Dawn of the Day in the East, retitled Aurora by a friend, reached the hands of the new Pastor who had replaced Moller and become the chief Pastor of Gorlitz. The Pastor, Gregorious Richter was not as open to religious interpretation of Lutheran doctrine as Moller had been, nor was he open to considering the thoughts of the unlearned. An uneducated peasant had no business attempting to have his own interpretations of the Word of God. For the intransigent Moller, theology was best left to trained clergy who had rigorously studied religious discourse. Although Bohme’s treatise did refute the Lutheran teaching of sola fide, (the righting of sin by faith alone) this was not the main reason that Richter was willing to brand Bohme a heretic. It was Bohme’s audacity to try and rise above his station and his attempt to argue theology with his social and intellectual superiors of the clergy that angered Richter. Bohme must be silenced. Richter threatened exile if Bohme continued with his scribbling.

For five years Bohme laid aside his pen. But the exhortations of his supporters and the continued mystical experiences he had had finally won out. The message from God was too important to keep silenced. Between 1618 and 1622 Bohme wrote eleven books. All of these were inspired by his mystical visions and experiences and covered the topics of sin, evil, redemption, and divine grace. Each of these books were copied by hand and distributed among his friends and supporters. By the time his eleventh book, The Way to Christ, was completed in 1622, one of Bohme’s nobleman friends decided that it was time for Bohme to find recognition with a wider audience. In 1624, through the largesse of this nobleman, The Way to Christ became Bohme’s first published book. Its publication caused another scandal and complaints among the clergy. He was summoned in front of the Gorlitz town council and given the ultimatum of exile, or harsher measures would be implemented against him.

The primary condition of his exile was that he was required to appear in front of the Prince Elector (one of the reigning nobleman who had the power and duty to elect the German Emperor and decide legal issues) who had his court in Dresden. The Prince Elector would be the one to decide Bohme’s fate. There Bohme stayed with the court physician. His stay was brief, for at the Dresden court, his intellect was recognized by the high clergy and the Prince Elector. Through their judgement and decision, his transgressions were vindicated. After only two months exile, Bohme was encouraged to return home to his family who were destitute without his financial support.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of Bohme’s troubles. Pastor Richter had inflamed the rancor of the townspeople against Bohme, so much so that the nobleman who had financed the publishing of The Way to Christ extended an invitation to Bohme to stay at his country estate to keep him safe from their cruelty. There Bohme began work on what would become his final book, 177 Theosophic Questions.

Although welcomed, esteemed, and lauded by his intellectual and noble friends, he fell gravely ill while at the country estate. Acceding to his wishes, Bohme was returned to his family. There he died under the care of his wife and sons on November 17, 1624 at age 49.

Jakob Bohme's house in Gorlitz, Germany where he died.
Jakob Bohme's house in Gorlitz, Germany where he died.

In 1682, Bohme’s work was collected and published in Amsterdam, by an ardent disciple, Johann Gichtel. It was Gichtel who commissioned and had inserted into Bohme’s text the esoteric, symbol laden illustrations that have fascinated many for so long. These illustrations by an unnamed engraver, under the supervision of Gichtel, attempt to visually interpret Bohme’s complex theological universe. Many of these illustrations use alchemical symbolism in their depictions of religious concepts since much of Bohme’s writing uses such terminology. This has brought up speculation that Bohme may have been practicing alchemy. Bohme was never an alchemist. His Christian piety would not allow for something that may have associations with the Dark Sphere of evil and greed. It is clear from his language that he did have a cursory understanding of alchemical terms and processes, probably through his intellectual and physician friends. He also certainly was given access to the writing of Paracelsus (c. 1493 – 1541), the famous German Renaissance physician and alchemist, who had an enormous influence on medical thinking and practice at the time. For Paracelsus the purpose of science was not only to learn more about the world around us, but also to search for divine signs and potentially understand the nature of God. This intersection of nature, science and God resonated with Bohme.

18th century oil painting of Paracelsus with red hat.
The Louvre copy of the lost portrait of Paracelsus by Quentin Matsys, 18th century.

It was through those mystical engravings that Gichtel had inserted into Bohme’s printed works, rather than the texts themselves, that became my introduction to this Lutheran mystic. I too was fascinated by their dense symbolism and cryptic imagery. Perhaps because of my Catholic upbringing, the Catholic Church’s reliance on similar symbols and my fascination with Catholic iconography, these engravings did not read as alchemical in nature. Their arcane appearance and nearly impenetrable messages enticed me to decipher them further. Particularly, four of the etchings from Bohme’s volumes caught my interest when I saw them on exhibition. I shall delve into these particular engravings more deeply and attempt to unravel their meanings.

The Kingdom of Christ

There are several written clues that aid in deciphering this engraving. Each illustration has a floating banner imposed upon the image which titles it. This one translates to The Kingdom of Christ and sets the theme. Additionally, there are two references to Bible verses: Matthew 11:12 and Joel 1:12-13. These two Biblical quotes further clarify the meaning of the image.

Matthew 11:12 reads – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

Joel 1: 12-13 reads - The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.

Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God.

If we look at the Kingdom of Christ engraving from the bottom up, we notice that the quote from Joel is just above the Dark World sphere, in which roots penetrate. For Jakob Bohme, there are always at least two world spheres: the Dark World and the Light World. Bohme always sees the universe as a conflict of opposites (Yes and No). The Light World is the sphere of goodness, the acceptance of God’s grace and the world of unlimited spiritual growth. The Dark World is the unregenerate sphere. The place where we turn away from God and his blessings and embrace sin.

As the quote from Job describes it, the roots in the Dark World are dead. They do not bring nourishment to the human heart. They are in fact keeping the heart in darkness and withholding it from the light of God, causing it to wither and in danger of dying. To further emphasize the hold that sin has on the human heart, it is encircled by the evil, cunning serpent of Eden and the Dragon of Satan.

Crowning the heart, is the eye as a symbol of the soul. The soul is surrounded by the flames of enlightenment, which also penetrate the heart to fend off the negative influences of the Dark World. As the quote from Matthew implies, the soul must take action, even violently, to break free of the evil of the serpent, dragon and the Dark World.

The quote from Matthew, comes from the New Testament chapter where Jesus explains to his followers the importance of John the Baptist to the coming of the new world order in preparing their souls for the coming grace of God, in the form of His presence on Earth. So too, must we all continue to do what is necessary to thwart that which would keep us trapped in sin and darkness.

Rising from the enlightened soul, is a rope, the lifeline that leads us to salvation, attached to an anchor. The anchor of hope. The anchor is affixed to the cross of Christ’s Crucifixion, the symbol of redemption from our transgressions. Christ died for our sins so that we could break free from the darkness of Satan and live in the light of the Holy Spirit, which sits atop the cross.

The concise message of this engraving is that to achieve an eternal life with God, we must put our faith in Christ as our savior who will lead us to the Holy Spirit.

The passage from Bohme that inspired this engraving is:

“The fiery soul has entered a shelter with fire, and must break out again with fire and violence, or the diabolical serpent or the astral world spirit will keep it in its prison. There is no escape route downwards; only upwards – above all the senses – does one draw breath and strengthen life.” Jakob Bohme, The Way to Christ, 1730 edition.

Of Divine Revelation

The print titled Of Divine Revelation, is the only Gichtel engraving for the Bohme books to have a naturalistic figure in it. The masculine form symbolizes Adam, or Everyman. He stands on the Earth, between a sheep which rests on the side of the sun and light; and a goat, that seems to cower on the side of darkness (note the moon in the sky). These are the traditional biblical symbols of good and evil. This is defined in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew where he discusses Christ’s Last Judgment (25: 31-33) -

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”

Adam holds in his right hand a sphere. The sphere is bordered by the alphabet that symbolizes all the world’s knowledge. Inside the sphere are the flames of enlightenment, and the cross of God’s blessing. In Adam’s left hand, he holds the lighted candle of flesh (Christ) and spirit (Holy Spirit). With the candle of the Word of Christ, he is igniting the flames of purification and rebirth around the sphere of the earth.

Above Adam’s head is a triangle which contains a cross surrounded by a nimbus. Each side of the triangle is named: VA – Jehovah (father), IE – Christ (son), and OH – Adonai (spirit), the components of the Christian Holy Trinity. The Trinity is also indicated by the three heavenly crowns and the letters M, V, and I: M - Mysterious Magnum (great mystery), V – Verbum (the word) and I, which is the symbol of unity, or one.

Thus, the etching is telling us that every person has been given the knowledge and ability by God to rise above the earthly sphere by choosing rebirth and purification over evil and can elect to dwell in heavenly sphere with God. For Bohme, understanding this is the divine revelation.

Bohme wrote a pamphlet titled The Four Tables of Divine Revelation that may have influenced the iconography of this etching. Similarly, Bohme’s Conversation Between and Enlightened and an Unenlightened Soul (1624) covers similar ground.

The Serenity

At the center of the engraving The Serenity, is the symbol of the soul with wings. In Gichtel’s engravings for Bohme, the eye is consistently used as a symbol of the soul. Here, it has been given wings to represent the soul’s state of yearning to reach ever higher into God’s grace. In this etching, there are two overlapping spheres, the bottom sphere represents the Universe, or God’s creation. It is the corporal plane where we all live. The larger sphere, superimposed upon the worldly sphere, is the sphere of heaven. It holds the triangle of the Trinity near the top, representing God from which all goodness radiates as light. In the center is the striving soul. For Bohme, this was the ideal place for man’s desire to be with God. We need to rise above the worldly temptations and concerns to bask in God’s grace. But, warns Bohme, we must not strive to rise too high into the loving light of God, lest we become accused of hubris like Lucifer. Lucifer wished to shine brighter than God in his beauty and was then cast down into the abyss for trying to compete. So it is the same with our human souls. Finding the proper middle place between the darkness of the world and the light of God’s grace, should be the desire and humility of every human soul to avoid the condemnation of hubris.

The text from Bohme’s Theosophical Work of 1682 became the basis of this illustration of human humbleness before God. “The soul is an eye of fire, or a mirror of fire, wherein the Godhead has revealed itself… It is a hungry fire and must have being, otherwise it becomes a dark and hungry valley. The darkness is hidden at the center of light, and anyone who wishes arrogantly to go beyond God, like Lucifer, is left with only darkness. Thus, it is best for the soul to linger in a “calm” middle region between spiritual heights and deep humility.”

The Tree of Faith

The Tree of Faith engraving is based upon three spheres of God’s creation. The bottom most is called The Region of Stars. Like the dark universe of The Serenity engraving, it represents the worldly sphere where were all humans live. The surrounding stars are the spiritual light penetrating from heaven. The Center sphere placed behind in an inferior position is the Dark World of sin. This is the sphere that humans are trying to avoid as we grow in God’s grace. The sphere of the Dark World is positioned to the back to minimize its influence both visually and spiritually. The third and topmost sphere is the sphere of Paradise, with Jesus positioned at its center.

The tree trunk grows up through the center of the image. Its roots are entwined around the anchor of hope from the Word of Jesus’ teachings. The branches of the tree fill Paradise with the promise of immortality when we follow the Word of God.

In the center position, between Paradise and the Region of Stars rests the soul, purified by the flames of truth. This provides us with the message that as we put our faith in the hope of God’s Word, so we will grow into the promise of immortality in Paradise.

Bohme’s passage from Aurora sets the imagery for this engraving. “Now the Earth, in which the Tree stands affords sap continually to the tree, whereby the tree hath its living Quality: but the tree in itself grows from the Sap of the Earth, becomes Large, and spreads it self abroad with its branches : And then as the Earth works with its power upon the tree, to make it grow and increase ; so the tree also works continually with its branches with all its strength, that it might still bear good fruits abundantly.” Jakob Bohme, Aurora, 1656 English edition.

As can be attested by the four engravings interpreted here, it was Gichtel who gave visual acuity to Bohme’s dense metaphysical texts. For good or bad, it is Gichtel who seems to hold our modern interests now even if we merely find the engravings curious and optically arresting. Few of us have studied Christian theology enough to decipher the opaque religious symbolism and with the waning of religious interest, fewer still are open to the messages of salvation that these engravings offer. As I hope to have shown through my analysis of their meaning, they have little to do with alchemy, but everything to do with the Christian mystical experience. It was the mystical state of mind that Gichtel was attracted to in Bohme’s writing and through these engravings it was that mysticism that he endeavored to convey. Given how these images have gained attention, I believe that Bohme’s greatest fan has succeeded in his endeavors. If perhaps the American occultists who are attracted to these symbolic illustrations could actually read the black letter German banner titles, perhaps they would find them less exotic and mysterious. The banner titles direct the viewer towards the direction that the imagery is going. There is something attractive about a mystery. The romantic attributes of something visually undeciphered can entertain the creative mind for an eternity. Knowing the meaning of something often takes one kind of pleasure from it. The pleasure of savoring the inscrutability, of reveling in the enigma. We don’t always want to know the “how” of the trick. We often want to believe in the magic and let the mystery be.

Arthur Bruso © 2022

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