Eyes All Around
As Horton points out, the mirror in the composition reveals two additional figures: the artist and an unidentified person (the viewer?) He goes on to connect the oculus dei properties of the convex mirror to the writings of the 15th century physicist and theologian Nicolas Cusanus‘ writings on the unusual crystalline properties of beryl.
Indeed, the image of a mirror figures prominently in Western occultism. According to the cosmology of Jacob Böhme, the self-reflection of the divine is the core building block of creation. Similarly, the alchemical androgyne below is pictured with a round mirror that represents the Prima Materia: the formless substrate which may transform itself, through multidimensional reflection, into all of the forms of physical reality:
The convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait is a lynchpin in David Hockney and Charles Falco’s controversial assertion that Renaissance painters like Van Eyck used optical tools such as curved mirrors and cameras obscura to achieve an uncanny degree of geometric realism.I am less interested in their thesis than my own, which I’ve never read anywhere else (though I certainly welcome relevant citations from readers who might be better educated on such matters!) It is my humble belief, based on my limited knowledge of Northern Renaissance painting and an only slightly more nuanced understanding of Western esoterism, that Jan Van Eyck’s understanding of geometry is at least partially intuitive, the product of a heightened state of sensory awareness occasioned by a profound understanding of the ecstatic techniques of alchemy.
It is an oft-romanticized fact that Van Eyck was an alchemist. What is less well-known among the general public, presumably, is that alchemy was not limited to the practice of trying to turn lower metals into gold, as is a common misconception. The process by which lower metals are “transmuted” into gold is, for the alchemist, a largely symbolic one. To be sure, many alchemists engaged in laboratory work which may be accurately described as proto-chemistry, however the greatest aim of this work was to build an experiential knowledge of the properties of matter. The real “lead” that must be turned into “gold” is always that of the alchemist’s own consciousness; from the crude, unrefined material of profane experience to the direct perceptual apprehension of the eternal dimension inherent in everything.
Nowhere is Van Eyck’s alchemical achievement more gloriously demonstrated than The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the lower central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, a painting begun by his brother Hubert and completed by Jan upon the elder Van Eyck’s death.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is one of the most celebrated paintings in all of art history; indeed, if ever there were a painting which a photograph could not do justice, this is the one! For study purposes I recommend a good illustrated book over anything that may be found on the Internet.
Entire careers have been made out of the hashing and re-hashing of the intricate iconography of this painting. All of this is very interesting, however I would like to focus on the geometric and illusory properties of the painting: specifically that it contains a painting-within-a-painting that is literally hidden in plain sight, just as the kingdom of heaven is “spread out upon the earth, though men do not see it.”
In the above detail scan (again, go get a bigger, better image if you’re really interested in seeing this!) I wish to call your attention to the negative space, in this case the green grass. You will notice that there are small flecks of light and dark paint at semi-regular intervals throughout the grassy areas. Individually, these flecks may be read as flowers or rocks, but when viewed in a sufficiently meditative state they become glassy reflections on an infinite matrix of rounded “bubbles,” uniting the composition in an ecstatic concert of geometric transcendence. Just as the dominant lines of the composition work to imply a multidimensional geometric space, the tiny light and dark flecks create an allover field of what the alchemists called cauda pavonis, “tail of the peacock.”
The symbol of the peacock’s tail was chosen [by alchemists to describe a specific stage of the Great Work] because of the many colorful and brilliant ‘eyes’. It is said that originally they were the eyes of the Greek Argus, whose name means ‘he who sees everything.’ Argus was a very strong giant with a hundred eyes, of which at all times fifty were open and fifty were sleeping. He was decapitated by Hermes. Hera, the mother goddess, placed the eyes on the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock.
–from an 18th c. alchemical manuscript, collection of Dr. C. Rusch, Appenzell, Switzerland
The perceptual phenomenon of seeing all of reality as made up of “hundreds of eyes,” or infinite “convex mirrors” reflecting all the colors of the spectrum is a persistent image in the writings of mystics and visionaries of many cultures and has been portrayed by at least as many artists. In Buddhist philosophy, it is known as Indra’s Net. In the Bible it surfaces as the “wheel within a wheel…filled with eyes all around” of Ezekiel’s vision, and is often alluded to in representations of certain scenes of the revelation of St. John the Divine:
In the 1920s, the German-American Gestalt psychologist Heinrich Klüver identified, through experimentation with mescaline, what he termed form constants: geometric organizing principles which are recurringly percieved during hallucinations, lucid dreams, and other visionary experiences. In the years since, some neurologists have linked Klüver’s form constants to certain physical structures within the visual cortex. These hallucinatory structures are essentially identical to the perennial visionary motif of “eyes all around”—indeed, the psychedelically-inspired works by popular artists like Alex Grey have a close affinity with the “hidden” geometric elements of the Ghent Altarpiece:
This final example, reflecting our current age of computers and geometry generating technology, brings me back to Hockney and Falco’s theory about Jan Van Eyck’s studio secrets. Except that the secret “technology” Van Eyck had access to may have been much more ancient than modern.
There are several identifiable groups of individuals in The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, including male and female martyrs, saints, apostles, and the Jewish prophets. Directly behind the prophets, at the lower left of the composition and very much in the foreground, we find a motley crowd of pagan philosophers from around the world (as evidenced by their various hats.) Others have taken great pains to identify the scholars; for my case I will just point out that the two figures dead center are holding meticulously detailed plants, and that the corner figure in red has a partially concealed hand in his pocket. Van Eyck, it seems, may be giving us a key to his spiritual practice: as an alchemist, he is educated in the identification and uses of the plants sacred to the ancients (which, as many serious scholars have reminded us, were often prized for their perception-altering properties.)
Whether or not Van Eyck availed himself of consciousness altering alkaloids, one thing is clear: he sure as heck knew his way around some complex multidimensional geometry. If he were alive today, I’d invite him over and try to get him to watch this TED talk with surfer/physicist Garrett Lisi about E8, a multidimensional Lie algebra root system which Lisi believes contains all sorts of secrets about the symmetries and particle interations that reality is made out of. Admittedly, I don’t know enough about physics or high-level mathematics to opine about the validity of Lisi’s controversial claims but the structural symmetries of E8, pictured below, could not possibly be more familiar from the perspective of an artistic visionary.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I have been given many reasons to assume that medieval and Renaissance renderings of the “unseen world of spirit” were often attempts to capture mathematical realities that were intuitively (or otherwise subjectively) perceived during visionary episodes but had not yet been graphed or described by mathematicians. Consider, for example, this thirteenth century detail of an Italian fresco depicting the archangel Michael’s conquest of the dragon, whose “recursive” heads prefigure the discovery of fractals.
In The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Mandelbrot himself cites related examples by Leonardo Da Vinci and Hokusai. Similarly, I find sufficient reason to understand the phenomenon alternately described as cauda pavonis and “eyes all around” by mystics and visionaries throughout history as intuitive attempts to render the subjective experience of infinite multidimensional symmetry.
Today, both religious and secular people in the West tend toward an overwhelming skepticism toward the pursuits of mystics. It is my hopeful belief that a clearer understanding of the physiological and philosophical structures underlying the non-standard perceptual experiences attained by mystics and other visionaries is currently emerging, leading to a greater appreciation of the insights, visual and otherwise, communicated by those who have seen the unseen. There will always be wisdom in the works of visionaries, so long as there are human beings with eyes to see and ears to hear.