Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

The Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947), Russian painter and philosopher, mesmerized me when I first laid eyes on the collection. I stared at them for hours. I feel a bit as though these paintings knew me better than anyone. It’s like I understood them, and in turn, they understood me. I became interested in why. 

It could be that as a child my imagination was captured by the breathtaking views of mountains. I was inspired as much by the physical grandeur of their peaks as by the spiritual mysteries harbored within them. Indeed, for me the towering peaks represented the very summit of beauty and spirituality. The tallest mountains I ever climbed were in Zermatt, Switzerland.  I had a truly a remarkable time discovering certain wonders in nature such as glaciers and rich vegetation along with snow-capped points. I would take a rest at several spots which were beautiful and magnificent. There were always more heights to scale, another plateau or peak above, views of the Matterhorn.

Was it this experience that caused me to have a connection with Roerich’s art or something else? Are we drawn to art that mirrors a part of our inner self? What was it specifically about Roerich’s art?

Mount of Five TreasuresIt is virtually impossible to separate the artist’s art from his philosophy. Many contemporaries were skeptical of Roerich’s spiritual mission and tended to dismiss his work as being repetitive and unoriginal. However, those who embraced his philosophy experienced something transformative in those same canvases – never ending spiritual realizations.  A brief survey of his life reveals that Roerich was not an adherent of any one established religion or philosophical movement. His name is universally known not only as Master of the brush but also as a thinker and a builder of life.  His art and writings are an evocation to Beauty, to Knowledge, and to Culture. Art education would pave the way to universal beauty and open the gates to spiritual enlightenment. This vision is nicely captured in his philosophical statement of the Master Institute of United Arts which he formed in New York in 1921:

“Art will unify all humanity.  Art is one – indivisible. Art has its many branches, yet all are one.  Art is the manifestation of the coming synthesis. Art is for all.”

Regardless of whether his lofty ideals will ever be realized, or if you agree with the artist’s art philosophy, his paintings are replete with rich symbolic jewels that are a pure delight for anyone to reflect upon.

19284963678_72350b9c8f_oFor example, Roerich refers often to the great treasures stored deep within the Himalayas. The very name Kanchenjunga, he tells us, means, “the Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” because it contains the five most precious things in the world.  He alludes to them in the painting, Treasure of the Mountain. The setting is deep inside a mountain cave.  Roerich causes us to question what treasures he is referring to? Are they rubies, gold, and diamonds?  Or, upon deeper reflection, is he talking about other more inner treasures?

The gurus hold a lamp. Does it suggest that the Light of Wisdom is the treasure of the mountain?   Roerich reminds us that we must think about what we hold valuable. And – taking this to the deeper level of reflection – we should think very clearly about how we find these symbolic jewels.  What does it take?

Pearl of Searching Flickr mediumIn the Pearl of Searching, another journey is pictured. The teacher-student relationship is a theme in many of Roerich’s paintings. Our eye is drawn to the figures and we identify with them, experiencing the panorama that unfolds behind from their perspective. They have reached a plateau and are celebrating the view and a treasure they have found. What is it? What symbolic meaning do we see?

Perhaps the “Pearl of Great Price” is what gives purpose to life.   The mountains themselves symbolize a spiritual world separate from earth but accessible to those who are attuned to the higher realities. The necklace – a symbol of eternity – signifies that this daily seeking is destined to go on forever, an emblem of immortality. This all causes us to consider, “Why are we here?”

Unquestionably Roerich is one of the most interesting 20th century figures. It seems to me that his life was a symbolic journey documented in his massive body of works, each canvas a masterpiece of daring composition, glowing with color. Himalayan is the word not only for his art, but also a metaphor for his thoughts on the process of transformation.

The path to enlightenment, spiritual ascent, the sacred signs of Satyum, Shivam, Sundaram (Peace, Beauty, Truth) – these are the symbolic themes at the heart of Roerich’s paintings and writings, also at the heart of Freemasonry.  They continually cast a spell on me.  Once we begin on this infinite and exponential journey of discovery, we might stop for a moment to enjoy the view or a treasure found, but there is no turning back. Ultimately, we choose the next plateau we want to rise to.

From Roerich’s “Realm of Light”:

“Let us abandon the past for the future. Let us impel our entire consciousness into the future and let us suffuse it with radiance, for this is within the access of humanity.”

Note: To read further on Nicholas Roerich, check out the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

The Tarot: Symbolism and Freemasonry

The Tarot: Symbolism and Freemasonry

Is a picture worth a thousand words? In our modern society, most are acquainted with Tarot cards as a form of divination or fortune telling. However, there is a deeper, more esoteric meaning attached to the Tarot. A legend exists related to the Tarot which tells of a group of adepts traveling through an enchanted forest. Along the way, these individuals lost their voices and were only able to communicate with each other by displaying Tarot cards to one another. Through the exercise of relation via symbols, the adepts were able to navigate out of the forest and into the light. What is the Tarot, and what relationship does the Tarot have with Freemasonry?

The Tarot System

On a surface level, the Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, each with its own distinct image and meaning. While many have used the cards as a divination tool, Tarot cards can also represent a mysterious oracle of hidden knowledge. The Tarot cards are divided into two separate groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards divided into 4 suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, and 4 court cards: Page, Knight, King, and Queen.

MinorArcana

The meaning of the Arcana represents “what is necessary to know, to discover, to anticipate, so as to be fruitful and creative in one’s possible endeavors.” Arcana is derived from the Latin words “Arca,” meaning “Chest” and “Arcere” meaning “To shut or to close.” Thus, Arcanum symbolically represents a tightly-closed treasure chest which holds a secret meaning.

Nobel Prize winner Herbert A. Simon provides this illuminating sentiment related to the Tarot:  “a symbol is simply the pattern, made of any substance whatsoever that is used to denote, or point to, some other symbol, or object or relation between objects. The thing it points to is called its meaning.” By reading Tarot cards symbolically, each person is able to divine their own meaning and truth.

Historical Origins of the Tarot

Mystery shrouds the historical origination of the Tarot. The French scholar, Court de Gebélin, wrote that the Tarot was the one book of the ancient Egyptians that escaped the burning of the great Library of Alexandria Library. This booTarotEygptk was said to contain “the purest knowledge of profound matters” possessed by the wise men of Egypt. After the library was destroyed, a group of sages met in Fez, Morocco and decided to preserve the secrets of this ancient text into pictorial form on the cards of the Tarot.

There is general consensus that the pictures on the cards represented the visual retelling of the secrets of ancient mysteries, with different accounts of the wisdom being Egyptian, Zoroastrianism, or Gnostic in tradition. The symbols depicted on the cards provided a manner to keep the secrets safe except for those prepared to receive them. The cards were brought to Europe, purportedly as a result of the Crusades, but were suppressed during the inquisition of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.  

treeoflifekabbalahTarot and the Kabbalah

Many esoteric scholars have sought to understand the Tarot through the Kabbalah, the mystic teachings of Judaism. Kabbalah has been translated to mean “receiving,” from God, the Eternal One. Referred to as one, the deity is actually twofold in nature including the male aspect, Adonai, and the female aspect, the Holy Shechinah. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, displayed above, is particularly useful in understanding and interpreting the Tarot. The Tree of Life consists of ten spheres, referred to as Sefirot, which are connected by 22 different paths, expressing different interactions between the Sefirot: Kingdom, Foundation, Victory, Splendor, Victory, Beauty, Mercy, Severity, Wisdom, Understanding, and Crown. Each path corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which contains 22 letters. Similarly, the Tarot deck contains ten numbered cards in each Minor Arcana suit and 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

Freemasonry and The Tarot

What is the relationship between The Tarot and Freemasonry? To begin, there is the existence of a Masonic themed Tarot Cards: The Square and Compass Tarot Card Deck, which is displayed above. Deeper connections exist as well, including the symbolic journey of the initiate into Freemasonry. The Tarot has been described as symbolizing the path of initiation or a journey towards reintegration with one’s true self. “Know Thyself” is a motto of the Craft and the twenty-two cards of Tarot’s Major Arcana provide useful tools for reflection for those interested in doing the work. The cards reveal stages of an archetypal journey of man with each card representing a stage to be encountered by each individual on their life path.

Like the Tarot, Freemasonry’s origins are difficult to trace and veiled in mystery, and both systems have evolved through history, HolyGrailyet their essential substance remains unchanged. The Masonic scholar, A.E. Waite, posits that the Tarot and Freemasonry are both connected to the Legend of the Holy Grail. In his book The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal, Waite presents his conclusive belief that the Tarot is the “canonical Hallows of the Graal legend,” linking the character Percival, the Fool in the Tarot deck, to the Mason in search of light.

Alternatively, the Masonic writer, Manly P. Hall argued that the Major Arcana represent the 22 chapters of the Book of Revelations: a spiritual road map to achieve oneness with God.

It has been said that individuals come to Masonry to remember what has been forgotten; that all knowledge already exists with us. Through the signs, symbols and images in Tarot, the seeker is directed to recollect the universal teaching that we are all the same in essence, each traveling the same road despite perceived differences in form.

Mozart’s Masonic Opera: The Magic Flute

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Described as “an Enlightenment allegory, veiled in Masonic ritual,” The Magic Flute was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final opera. A prolific composer, Mozart’s portfolio of works included over six hundred pieces of symphonic, chamber, operatic, and choral music. Of all his compositions, The Magic Flute receives a distinctive status due to its critical acclaim and public intrigue over the Opera’s esoteric themes. The fact that Mozart and his collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder were both Freemasons has only added to the mystery surrounding his enigmatic masterpiece.magic_flute

Premiering on September 30, 1791 at Schikaneder’s Theatre in Vienna, The Magic Flute tells the tale of a prince compelled to complete a series of Herculean tasks, including vanquishing a wicked queen, assisted by the Princess Pamina. Mozart conducted the orchestra until his illness and death in December of 1791. Experienced through the eyes of the hero, the viewer shares in his enlightenment as Tamino gains knowledge and insight. At the beginning of the Opera, the prince believes without questioning what he sees and hears, however, through the journey, he matures in perception and understanding as he is eventually united with Pamina as members of Sarastro’s order.

Synopsis of The Magic Flute

Set in ancient Egypt, Prince Tamino is lost and pursued by a serpent. Collapsing from exhaustion, Tamino is saved by three ladies inthe service of the Queen of the night, who kill the serpent. When Tamino awakens, he meets a bird catcher named Papageno, who resembles a bird himself being covered with plumSchinkelDesignMagicFluteAct2Scene3age. When Papageno boasts that he strangled the serpent, the three ladies reappear and punish Papageno for lying to the Prince. The women place a padlock over Papageno’s mouth.

After he learns that the women killed the serpent, the Prince expresses his appreciation for their actions in saving his life. The women give him a picture of Pamina, the beautiful daughter of the Queen of the Night, who they say has been kidnapped by the evil magician Sarastro. Tamino instantly falls in love with Pamina. The Queen appears and entreats Tamino to rescue Pamina promising that he can marry Pamina if he is successful. He agrees to the quest, and the women give Tamino a magic flute that can change men’s hearts. Removing the padlock from Papageno, the women present him with silver bells to be used for protection. Papageno and Tamino set forth on their quest, guided by three boys.

In Sarastro’s Palace, Pamina is guarded by a villain named Monostatos, who is attempting to seduce her.  Sent ahead by Tamino, Papageno arrives and terrifies Monostatos into fleeing. Papageno then announces to Pamina that her mother has sent Tamino to rescue her. Pamina rejoices to hear that Tamino is in love with her.carl-offterdinger-papageno-the-bird-catcher-from-the-magic-flute-by-wolfgang-amadeus-mozart-1756-91

Lead by the three boys, Prince Tamino arrives at a temple. He finds three doors, but he is denied entrance to the doors of Nature and Reason. When he tries the third door, the Gate of Wisdom, a priest appears and explains that Sarastro is good and the Queen is the evil figure. After the priest leaves, Tamino plays his magic flute in hopes of summoning Pamina and Papageno and ward off wild beasts.

The tones of his magical instrument are returned with the sound of Papageno’s bells, causing Tamino to leave the scene. Papageno appears with Pamina and they are apprehended by Monostatos and his servants. Papageno plays his magic bells, and the villains are enchanted to release Pamina and Papageno.

Hearing the approach of Sarastro, Papageno is frightened and asks Pamina what they should say. She replies, “The truth! The truth! Even if it were a crime.” Sarastro and his followers arrive and Sarastro conducts a judicial proceeding. During the trial, Pamina confesses that she was trying to escape because Monostatos had demanded her love. Forgiving her, Sarastro informs Pamina she is free of Monostatos , but he will not allow her to leave. Arriving with Tamino as captive, Monostatos enters and tries to convince Sarastro that Tamino deserves retribution. Sarastro denies Monostatos’ claims and sentences him to receive 77 strokes of the bastinado. Tamino and Papageno are taken into the Temple of Trial to be purified, and the First Act ends with a chorus:

“Brethren! Initiates of the Temple of Wisdom; Servants of Isis and Osiris! Tamino, who is waiting at the Northern Gate of the Temple, is yearning to be free of the veil of the night, he wants to behold the sanctuary of Light.”

Act II

tumblr_n6q9o5htsx1rtynt1o3_r1_1280A council of priests, including Sarastro, deliberate and determine that Tamino shall be allowed to have Pamina if he succeeds in passing through the Temple of Ordeal. The council does not want Pamina to be returned to her mother, the Queen of the Night, who they believe has infected the world with superstition. Subsequently, Sarastro prays to the gods Isis and Osiris, askings for the protection of Tamino and Pamina by requesting that the Gods take the two into their heavenly dwelling place should they meet death in the course of their trials.

Back at the Temple of the Ordeal, Tamino is cautioned that this is his last chance to turn back. He responds that he will undergo every trial to win his Pamina. The priest also asks Papageno if he will concede to every trial, but he replies that he is uninterested in obtaining wisdom. The priest responds that Papageno may receive a woman, Papagena, if he undergoes the trials. Papageno agrees to also undergo the trials. Tamino and Papageno are instructed that their first trial is that they must remain silent under the temptation of women.

Three ladies appear and tempt them to speak.  Tamino and Papageno remain firm, although Tamino must constantly restrain Papageno commanding him to be “Still!” Papageno confronts one of the priests demanding to know why he must undergo tests if Sarastro already has a woman that wants to be his wife. The priest responds that it is the only way.

In a garden, Monostatos approaches and gazes upon a sleeping Pamina with rapture. The Queen of the Night appears and tells Pamina that she must kill Sarastro if she wishes to remain her daughter. She gives Pamina a dagger with which to kill Sarastro. Observing the conversation, Monostatos tries to force Pamina to love him by telling her that he will reveal the exchange. Sarastro appears and rebukes Monostatos, while reassuring Pamina.  

Approached by Pamina, Tamino and Papageno continue in their ordeal mandated silence. Papageno can no longer hold his tongue, but Tamino remains firm. Since Tamino refuses to answer, Pamina believes he no longer loves her and is heartbroken.Yearning for his wo524cedc2640499297472a5cfc1001581man, Papageno plays his magic bells. At the first ordeal, an old woman approached Papageno declaring herself his bride. Reappearing, she has transformed herself into the young and pretty Papagena. The priests send her away with thunder and lightning. Frightened, She vanishes and Papageno is miserable. Shattered by Tamino’s rejection, Pamina attempts to commit suicide but is stopped by the three boys.

Counseled by two men in armor, Tamino is given advice and instruction. Sarastro and Pamina appear, and Tamino is allowed to speak with her and assures Pamina of his love. Pamina and Tamino are allowed to undertake their final ordeals together, fire and water. Pamina leads him through the ordeals, and they triumph with the help of the magic flute.

Contemplating suicide, Papageno is distraught wishing for Papagena. Three Boys appear and remind him to use his magic bells, which indeed summon Papagena. The two are united, stuttering at first in astonishment. Seeking to destroy the temple, Monsanto’s and the Queen of the Night reappear, but they are magically cast out into eternal night. Sarastro bids the young lovers welcome at the entrance of the Temple and unites them. The members of the Temple praise Tamino and Pamina for their success in enduring their trials and give thanks to the Gods. 

Masonic Symbolism in The Magic Flute

At the age of twenty-eight, Mozart joined a Masonic Lodge in the autumn of 1784 and spent a total of seven years as a Mason. Many of his compositions during this period demonstrate his dedication to Masonry, including his final masterpiece, The Magic Flute. The Opera celebrates several integral Masonic themes: the importance of morality, the destMozart_magic_fluteruction of ignorance through enlightenment, and the virtues of knowledge, justice, wisdom, and truth. Moreover, the Opera includes the evocation of the four elements of earth, air, water and fire and the requirement of silence.

The number three is repeated throughout the story and in the music of opera: three women in service to the Queen of the Night, three boys, three doors to the Temple, three loud chords at the beginning of the Overture, the three flats of E-flat Major key throughout much of the score.

“He who treads the road full of care,

Is purified by fire, water, air and earth.

If he can overcome the fear of death,

he soars heavenwards away from earth!”

Viewed within a historical and political context of the Age of Enlightenment, the Opera’s Queen of the Night was seen to represent the Austrian empress Maria Theresa who vehemently opposed Freemasonry. Her antagonist, Sarastro, symbolized an enlightened sovereign who ruled according to the principles of reason and wisdom. Providing an allegory to the ideal progress of humanity towards enlightenment, Tamino journeys from chaos as represented by the serpent through the religious superstition of the Queen of the Night, and eventually arrives at rational enlightenment at the Temples of Sarastro.

The Magic Flute demonstrates an enlightened portrayal of gender equality through Pamina’s invitation to join Sarastro’s order by undergoing her own initiation. Scholar Julian Rushton argues in the publication, New Grove Opera, that “the implication that women should become initiates is the opera’s title to true Enlightenment.” In the second act, the Two Men in Armor counsel Tamino and address Pamina’s fate stating, “A woman who is not afraid of night and death, is worthy, and will be initiated.” Musicologist H. C. Robbins-Landon has postulated that the Opera demonstrated Mozart’s wish “to reform the St. John Masonry to which he belonged by asking that women be included in the Craft’s membership.”

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