Eyes All Around

This week on the Harper’s Magazine blog, Scott Horton muses about the philosophical significance of the convex mirror at the vanishing point of Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

Jan Van Eyck. Detail from the Arnolfini Portrait. Oil on panel, 1434.

Jan Van Eyck. Detail from the Arnolfini Portrait. Oil on panel, 1434.

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:

Illustration from S. Trismosin, "Splendor Solis." London, 16th c.

Illustration from S. Trismosin, “Splendor Solis.” London, 16th c.

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.  Astute readers will already be aware 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, as legend has it, initiated by his mysterious and otherwise unknown brother Hubert and completed by Jan upon the elder Van Eyck’s death.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.  Lower center panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Lower center panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432.

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. [UPDATE: As of 2012, the Getty has released a 100 billion pixel reproduction of the Altarpiece which may be accessed here.]

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.”

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (detail.)

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (detail.)

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.”

Alchemical illustration of Cauda Pavonis (Tail of the Peacock)

Alchemical illustration of 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

Salvador Dali. Argus. Etching, 1963.

Salvador Dali. Argus. Etching, 1963.

Examples of peacock deities with roots in ancient, visionary practices survive in other religions as well, such as Melek Taus, the “peacock angel” of the Yazidi religion still practiced by some members of the Kurdish minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

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 reminiscent of the metaphysical concept of 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:

William Blake. The Four and Twenty Elders Cast Their Crowns Before the Throne. Pencil and watercolor, c. 1803.

William Blake. The Four and Twenty Elders Cast Their Crowns Before the Throne. Pencil and watercolor, c. 1803.

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:

Alex Grey. Dying. Oil on linen, 1990.

Alex Grey. Dying. Oil on linen, 1990.

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.

The Pagan Philosophers. Detail from the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

The Pagan Philosophers. Detail from The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

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 certainly knew his way around some complex multidimensional geometry.  If he were alive today, one might expect him to take an interest in such mathematical models as E8, a multidimensional Lie algebra root system which physicist Garrett Lisi believes contains all sorts of secrets about the symmetries and particle interactions 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.


The resemblance to a “peacock’s tail” is self evident.  E8’s mandalic form also bears a striking resemblance to representations of beatific visions:

A View of God, the Source of Light. 1861.

Gustav Dore. Dante’s Paradisio, Canto 31: God, the Source of Light. 1861.

Hildegard von Bingen. All Beings Celebrate Creation. 12th c. illumination.

Hildegard von Bingen. All Beings Celebrate Creation. 12th c. illumination.

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 codify geometric 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.

Detail from 13th c. fresco at San Pietro al Monte. Civate, Italy.

Detail from 13th c. fresco at San Pietro al Monte. Civate, Italy.

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 infinitely self-reflective multidimensional symmetry in which the “eyes” of eternity watching the watcher may be read as reflections of the viewer’s own perceptual apparatus “seeing itself.”

Jacob Bohme. Engraving for Dreifaches Leben. Amsterdam, 1682.

Jacob Bohme. Engraving for Dreifaches Leben. Amsterdam, 1682.

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.

Lauren Grossman. Eyes Round About. Bronze and nickel plated steel, 2008. Via Howard House.

Lauren Grossman. Eyes Round About. Bronze and nickel plated steel, 2008. Via Howard House.

~ by emilypothast on January 5, 2009.

13 Responses to “Eyes All Around”

  1. gawd, emily! i just love your blog. thanks for sharing all this the other night, too!

  2. This is a FEAST. Asks so much more than an internet-speed scroll-read. I’m going to bed thinking about it and will read it again tomorrow.

    (Hey– nice sharing a little blog space with you on Art to Go)

  3. I am reminded of Buddhist imagery, in particular the repetition of images of Buddhas in Chinese cave temples for example and Tibetan Buddhist mandalas. Also, the alchemical aim to gain experiential knowledge of the properties of matter and the formless ever changing eternal substrate reminds me of Vipassana meditation techniques.

  4. Sorry, the images did not come through in my above post. I’ll try again or send you some.

  5. Definitely, and thanks for the images! There are tons examples like this in Buddhist art and architecture, I just need to learn more about them. I’m guessing there are even more than in the West, since in Buddhism, the aim of transforming individual consciousness is out there in the open as the goal of “worship” itself. The parallel strand of Christian mysticism has always been there too, but due to the political realities of the church it has typically had to operate just under the surface (i.e. telling the priests and kings the half-truth that you’re working on “transforming lead into gold” so that their greed will trump their authoritarian impulse to imprison you for heresy).

  6. So well done, Emily. I will try to read Fractal Geometry of Nature soon. I could look at that representation of E8 for hours. There is a calm in it that my/our brains respond to on a primal level – where the spiritual is happening in our neurology.

  7. […] (and vice versa)—which is to say, virtually all of modern history.  As I have often noted on this blog, as the frontiers of physics theory continue to push our conception of reality further […]

  8. Any painter’s a pigment specialist, therefore alchemist: Till Holger Borchert is examining another possibility, that he was a cosmologer-astrologer, as I’ve found details of his sources which were previously unknown.

  9. […] for a couple of reasons. First of all the album art and title, Eyes All Around, explore the exact  multi eyed visionary experience that I’d been contemplating in depth since again contacting it months earlier on my birthday – […]

  10. […] record had become arguably my all-time favorite human artifact in any medium (with apologies to the Ghent Altarpiece). Portable Shrines Magic Sound Theatre Vol. I, featuring a poster by Steve […]

  11. Thought you might find this logo from the band Devo interesting. http://www.devo-obsesso.com/html/store_pgs/holyspud.html The line “I’ve got eyes all around” is in their song “I’m a potato”.

  12. I love it. Thanks:)

  13. I enjoyed reading this and agree to most things said. Very interesting point of view, when it comes to black and white spots of paint on the grass. The peacock’s wings on one of the angles with thuribles (the left one) nicely underline the “eyes” theory.

    What I always found interesting was usage of Tau cross (as cross angel holds is actually tau, with some piece of scripture on top of it), as well as presence of the pillar in other angel’s hands…pillar as witness or symbolizing presence of God? Also, among woman, a young woman with the lamb is rather confusing to the few of us who are trying to discover symbolics of this: does it show young Maria with lamb Christ (the past that led to current sacrifice) or is it an omen of some new savior that is to come or is it (a very gnostic if so) view of Christ’s descendants? The other girl who carries a fruit basket could signification this also (meaning fruit of Christ’s body-a child to inherit his mission) and the third who carries a small church could symbolize the fruit of his teachings, a church. But it is very far fetched, even interesting.

    What always intrigued me is a bit less hidden and still hard to find the answer to. There’s several men turning their heads/back to the sacrificed lamb, even among clergy. Two of them look directly into the viewer, one of priests and one of the mystics…I always wondered who is a black bearded man in salmon pink robe, walking away from the sight. Would be interesting to know.

    Fountain has its interesting points, as well. I always wondered does water starting from an angel on top, over and through dragons and demonic forms and pouring out from the demon’s head on the lowest bottom means something…water from his mouth comes out into the world. Could it means knowledge of faith or faith comes out polluted? Not necessarily, but would be an interesting debate.

    Tthe title on the center piece, where lamb stands clearly say:Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi – Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I can clearly see “Ihes Via” on the left (“the way of Jesus”?) and Vita, Vita on the right (“life, life” or “life is life” or…?). But the fountain title is less readable and I can see only something about the “throne of god” “from the throne of god” ???

    Also, who exactly are men (and a woman) touched by eight sun rays. That it has meaning, is beyond doubt, but who they represent and were they saints/martyrs/mystics or real people of Van Eyck’s time, used for models? One of the sun ray touched is exactly the lady with the lamb, firming the possibility of being Maria/Blessed Lady.

    A great place for studying this better is “Closer to Van Eyck”, where this could be seen and zoomed in great detail : http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/#viewer/id1=37&id2=0

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