Artistic Interpretation of Spiritual Phenomena
As long, as there are human beings living in this world, the question about Creation is the essential one in our perception of the life around us. There is not that much distance, actually, from a child’s natural questioning to an elderly’s organic puzzling.
We know the narrative, but because this one is the question of essential importance and very personal meaning, there are as many individual pictures of the creation, as there are people who are thinking about it.
There are also numerous artistic renditions of this ever-elusive concept, in all genres of arts, from music and poetry to visual interpretations. As it happened, in this very case, music and poetry are the two domains which allow an author’s fantasy to accommodate the author’s version most organically.
With visual arts, there are many stumbles in these renditions. How to visualise the world which did not exist? How to portray the conditions of energy in its pre-life stage? How to escape kitsch and get away from cliches? To avoid extremes on the both sides of the spectrum, not to get neither into too light-headed naivety, nor too heavy-headed obscurantism? How to be intellectually coherent and artistically convincing on the subject of pre-life condition? It is a big gamble for a visual artist.
In my own effort, I followed the multi-dimensional character of the intriguing process that led to Creation. I also have realised that the best way of portraying pre-existence is to keep it dynamic.
This is the background of my composition Primordial Elements portraying the stage before Creation in the way it is seen by our sages and in Jewish Mysticism.
Four Primordial Elements
The stage of the world before Creation is understood as consisting of four primordial elements, or rather processes which also have had its consequential order.
It started with Primordial Void, the state of total, complete Nothingness which is not only a description of the condition of energy in Jewish tradition, but also is an important philosophical concept which has been adopted by most of the world’s cultures to be developed into various versions of it.
My portrayal of Primordial Elements is subjective and is just one version of many possible ones. How do you create the image of void, not replicating unconvincing ( to me, personally) Malevich’s idea of Black Square?
In the Talmud and Talmudic literature, Genesis Rabbah and Midrash Konen the sages provide for Primordial Void, which they named as vohu, the certain place in the chain of development that led to the Creation. In this understanding, the important moment is that vohu is placed close to the forthcoming universe of water. Such proximity traces the essential source of life close to its possible origin from Primordial Void, alongside Primordial Chaos.
If vohu, Primordial Void is a form of energy which was partially used in the Creation, as it is discussed in the Talmud, that form had had to have some potentials for further development – and this is the meaning of my artistic interpretation of possible image of Primordial Void.
While working on very many versions of possible image of Primordial Void, I also was thinking on a very intriguing and actually quite important subject in the Rabbinic literature, the Cave of the Four Winds which has direct connection to two Primordial Elements, vochu and tochu, Primordial Void and Primordial Chaos. This thinking led to the image I finally choose to visualise tochu.
Interestingly, of all Primordial Elements and from all phenomena of Creation in general, the image corresponding to Primordial Void turned out to be the most difficult subject to portray, due to the intellectual meaning of the phenomenon.
Among the set of Primordial Elements, Primordial Void, vohu, has its valid partner, tohu, Primordial Chaos. Most of the time in the Talmud and other writings, the two Primordial Elements are mentioned together although tochu, Primordial Chaos, is addressed far more often.
In the tradition of human thinking and perception, chaos as a term and condition, is rooted in our mental imagination perfectly well. We all know what it is about.
But back to the origins, there are quite specific descriptions to be found in the Rabbinic literature on the role of vohu and tohu, Primordial Void and Primordial Chaos, in the crucial order of development before Creation, the chain of changes of the energy’ level that has led to the Creation.
Probably, the most clear vision of the Sages is reflected in Pesikta Rabbati. It describes that ‘tochu ( Primordial Chaos) stands on vochu ( Primordial Void), and on tohu stands Abyss’. Such vision provides us with clear understanding on inter-connections of pre-conditions of the process of pre-Creation. It also inter-connect the primordial phenomena in fundamental philosophical concepts.
My interpretation of possible imaginary of Chaos reflects the understanding that Primordial Chaos includes everything in itself: good and bad, potential and impotent, colour and colourless, intense and weak, frightening and encouraging, storm and calmness.
Deriving from this, it is actually quite logical that in the tradition of Judaism, Chaos is namely pre-Creational element, as Chaos, rich with everything with no order and conscious effort, cannot be a life-force but can be a material from which some elements useful for Creation process can be extracted.
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I find it interesting that Primordial Elements shows stability in their configuration: they are four in number, thus having a model of a square, the most stable among geometrical figures. This stability extrapolates into the model of the Universe of Pre-Existence, so to say. It is also a linear completed perimeter, without openings or interruptions, which is another sign of stability and completion of the structure.
The four elements are also kept in two pairs, with Primordial Void and Primordial Chaos for the first one, and Primordial Darkness and Primordial Light for the second. One can conclude that while the pair one, void and chaos, are complimentary, with the elements co-coexisting within the pair, the second pair, darkness and light, is the pair of ant-thesis. Actually, this pair of Primordial Elements is the first antithesis in the history of human consciousness. It is not only primordial disposition of pro- and contra, light versus darkness is the prime anti-thesis at any time.
Philosophically, darkness is an easy concept to perceive. Visually, it is not necessarily so, especially is the purpose is to get, artistically, into the nature of this fundamental element, and to do it also from a spiritual point of view. The sages of the Talmud, echoing King Solomon, have come with a convincing method of perceiving darkness orienting us to do in comparison with light. Only then people can truly comprehend it.
In philosophical pondering the essence of darkness, our sages in Zohar and many other sources came with a rather poetical conclusion describing it as ‘unfinished corner of the world’. There are many different opinions of what this corner is left for, and we know from history that this mysterious corner is ever present domain of our existence.
In my attempt to portray darkness, in this case, primordial darkness, I was guided by the Talmudic wisdom of the possibility to see darkness by comparing it with light. In this work, every particle of dimming, disappearing light is infused with the light’s antithesis, darkness, within it. As the process is going, the light gets dimmer and is on the way to disappear while darkness gets the space expanding further on. Visualised here is that mysterious, unfinished corner of the world. Fortunately and hopefully, just a corner of it.
In a contrast with Primordial Darkness, Primordial Light is a champion of our hopes and aspirations. After all, it is the element which is known in Judaism as Infinitive Light. The substance which, according to the Talmud and Zohar, filled the space of the Garden of Eden. The sustenance which was lost by Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Eden. The element, which is the different one from the light produced by sun and moon, was in existence before Creation, according to the basic principle of Kabbalah.
If we can qualify light as a condition of life, metaphorically, as a most distinct feature of Jewish concept, Primordial Light, infinite, mighty, full of positive energy, is the precondition of it. This special state and quality of energy is pre-setting our values, and I think that it is the important thing to understand.
Tellingly, all Primordial Elements are mentioned in the Psalm 104, and it is the only case of this poetic ‘catalogue’ of the pre-Creation conditions and elements in all of the Psalms. Known as ‘the hymn to Creation’, Psalm 104 is always read on Rosh Chodesh, and also during the part of the Jewish annual circle starting from the Sukkoth and until the Shabbat HaGadol that precedes the Pesach ( Passover).
Pre-conditions for Creation
Following the logic of processes before Creation, after figuring out a possible visual interpretations of Primordial Elements, I turned my attention to the key-process preceding Creation as it is seen by the Lurianic Kabbalah.
The mighty mind of Arizal, brilliant Rabbi Luria, and the school of his disciples saw the pre-Creational dynamic, the process of vital importance, in a razor-like vision and with deeply scientific sharpness. In my art works reflecting on some of these views, I was keen to experiment with possible visualisation of the process of the Primordial Light’s self-contracting which has become the primary precondition for Creation according to Lurianic Kabbalah.
Here is one of several variations of such artistic interpretations, with Infinite Light seeing in the middle after its self-contraction, and the rest of the space in a process of dynamic transfiguration with shades of different colours, corresponding to a wide spectrum between light and darkness, metaphorically, too. I think that the important circumstance here is an imagination of the condition in which almost nothing is final, except the fact that the brightest primordial light is almost gone. But the dynamic and inter-dynamic of the conditions of the rest of the spectrum is perpetually mobile in this portrayal of philosophical interpretation of the Lurian vision of pre-creation. It is not without a reason that I have named this work, additionally to its Contraction II mark, as Flight of Thought.
In my art series, two central processes of pre-Creation according to Lurianic Kabbalah, shattering of vessels and life of sparks are interpreted in Shattered Vessels and Life of Sparks I works. According to Rabbi Luria and his pupils’ understanding of this fundamental pre-Creation process, in the result of mighty self-contraction of the primordial light in order to provide space for creation, the vessels which were keeping the light, had been shattered. It was the central development in the cosmic process of pre-Creation, the qualified change in the balance of powers and elements. It was the process which set up a metaphorical ‘landscape’ of all further developments of existence.
In this version of Shattered Vessels artistic interpretation, different stages and conditions of the vessels are portrayed during the process of shattering, with wondering sparks of light which had been released in the process and which were destined for a new conditions of existence. There are some allusions to our world of human beings depicted, as well – because the drama of shattering of vessels containing light is projected onto entire history of mankind in general, and effects the life of every one of us.
And what has happened with all those 288 sparks released from the shattered vessels? The number was defined by Arizal himself based on the gematria approach ( the math meaning of Hebrew letters) and derived from key-phrases of the Bereishit, the first parasha ( chapter) of the Torah.
There are many ethical teachings on the matter by the Rabbis who had based their vision on the Kabbalist principles, from the Middle Age onward. The one which is very accommodative for a human psychology is the theory explaining that the sparks of light from shattered vessels are the main containers of an ultimate light which was the protoplasm of Creation. For those who see the world this way, the supreme purpose in life is to find, to refine, to keep, to cling to, to collect these sparks, metaphorically, in order to restore that initial Infinite Light which had been dispersed throughout the Universe after the vessels had been shattered.
The idea is quite clear: dispersed original light which was transformed into its sparks, has become an ideal for us to strive for in our thoughts, aspirations, motivation and activities. To enlighten our life experience and to present it with a beautiful, engaging, encouraging and energising reasoning.
Not surprisingly, some descriptions of the sparks in the Rabbinic literature are very poetic. We are reading about the sparks which were ‘like sand, like seeds, like stars’ in compilation of thoughts and ideas of Rabbi Nachman from Breslow in Likutei Moharan, and we also read in many Rabbinic Sources that ‘the sparks fell everywhere in our world, but more than anywhere they fell over the Eretz Israel’.
I personally like the way of interconnecting two kinds of sparks: the sparks from the shattered vessels and the sparks of Jewish souls which are widely present in the Rabbinic literature. I think that ‘the common denomination’ of a spark expresses perfectly the meaning of that inner glimpse of the best that every soul bears by this subtle referring to that ideal Infinitive Light, as well.
The trigger of existence
There can be endless tractates to be written, additionally to everything that already exists in the Rabbinic literature, regarding the subject of light. Perhaps, it is the most fruitful subject of all.
Within the framework of the project of intellectual studies and artistic interpretation of Jewish mysticism, I narrowed my consideration into the mystical meaning of light. What is the secret of light? – I thought. What makes its attraction irresistible? I do not pretend to find the answer for such a fundamental question. But I am glad to note that our great rabbis, including such authority as Rav Yitchzak Ginsburgh, have noted that the gematria 207 that correspond to Hebrew word ohr, light, also corresponds to Hebrew words ein sof , infinity, and raz, secret. Light, Infinity, and Secret – this is telling combination.
For anyone who is aware of the principle of gematria, it is evident that there is no coincidence here. As it is stated in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), in the words of Rabbi Eleazar ben Chisma, the tanna ( sage) who was also an outstanding scientist, “Astronomy and gematria are the seasonings of wisdom” ( Pirkei Avot 3:23).
It is important to remember that additionally to its literal semantic, Ein Sof is also a special term in Kabbalah referring to Infinitive One, and is regarded there as the source and origin of Ohr Ein Sof , the infinite light of divine self-knowledge, the very essence of the space of energy of the highest origin, nature and order.
To me, that secret , or perhaps, one facet of it, can be formulated in the way that the hidden meaning and mysterious capacity of light makes darkness in its proximity to be transformed into something less menacing and more promising, like in this artwork illustrating my thesis. It is the secret of the Promise.
The Light of the First Day original art series interpreting Jewish spirituality and Mysticism can be seen in full here.