Above, today’s progress on ‘Jupiter’.
That’s just the background layer, so it looks a bit pantomime-backdrop at the moment, possibly a bit Visit Scotland, but it will look very different within a week. The raised marks are from a previous painting, but since I’ll be painting oak branches these will be incorporated as part of the gnarly texture of tree-bark.
It’s the same size as my previous painting Saturn, this image gives an idea of scale …
I hope there aren’t too many Medievalist experts reading my blog! Reading back over the past posts on this planet series, I need to correct a couple of details. It’s typical of my approach to a subject since I write as I explore, but I’ll get there!
(This is the second in a series of seven paintings inspired by the seven planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and the seven books of Narnia, which as the writer Michael Ward discovered, were themselves inspired by the seven planets) …
I’ll write a description of the Medieval view of the cosmos below, then I’ll describe a little more about C.S. Lewis’s views on imagination and reason, as explained in Michael Ward’s excellent book Planet Narnia …
Medieval view of the cosmos in everyday life and in art ..
Medieval philosophy, astrology, astronomy, science and religion in the western world all more or less interconnected, though it wouldn’t be described as a rigid or unchanging system of thought and belief.
Some religious groups – Gnostics for example, might accept aspects or theories prevalent in the Medieval view of the cosmos, but not others. Similar to any time including our own it would be misleading to say that Western society was ‘of a mind’, to use a Scottish-ism!
The Medieval view of the cosmos did feed in to every day life though, it was (as we might say nowadays) fairly mainstream. Ordinary working folks might pray to or invoke a planetary influence. Science of the time included the Medieval understanding of the cosmos, the practice of magic was wide-spread, and included evocation of planetary influence. Writers, musicians and artists would create cosmic and theological allegories, the most famous example probably being Dante’s Inferno.
Or more earthy in tone, Chaucer’s character in The Wife of Bath bewails the influence of Mars on her nature – all Chaucer’s stories deal with the influence of the planets, some as entire allegories, woven imaginatively into the narrative so it can be enjoyed as a story, and as inspiration or contemplation.
Planetary influence was like a lens of myriad colourful and emotive aspects through which artists could explore and observe the world and human nature. It could be described also as a world of external influence playing on the human psyche (interesting to compare it to the influence of Freud on creativity in modern times – Hitchcock films etc).
C.S. Lewis’s interest in Medieval cosmology …
C.S. Lewis was a Medieval Classics scholar and teacher, who felt that society had lost something magical and profound in the post-Copernican world (i.e. when scientific discovery of space altered our view of the cosmos, and by association a certain way of believing, of faith), and although he spent most of his life writing on Christianity and classical literature, his creative output always dealt with planetary influences.
This is why it’s surprising that Michael Ward’s discovery – that the seven books of Narnia were each influenced by the seven Medieval planets – wasn’t recognised sooner. He believes that this had much to do with the fact that most scholars studying the work of Lewis were Christians, so put simply they’d be a bit shifty about the mention of gods in the plural, not to mention astrology. (if you’ve got a strong stomach you can find numerous right-wing Christians of dubious sanity on Youtube declaiming that C.S. Lewis is an evil Pagan.) Or, atheist ‘rational’ scholars might dismiss the Medievalist aspects as superstition – they might view the form of romance, or fairy tale as not worthy of serious study – i.e. sci-fi or children’s novels.
C.S. Lewis had meaningful or profound reasons for writing in the form of a children’s story. Probably one of the most simple was that it was the only way he could successfully integrate Medieval cosmology in a post-war literary climate where harsh realism was more zeitgeisty. As Ward observes, he opposed the harsh negative, or nihilist, tone of the literature of his time for philosophical reasons.
He knew too, that the Medieval view of the cosmos, which in many ways incorporated Pagan approaches to belief, did incorporate the concept of one god.
Medieval understanding of the Cosmos …
In Medieval thought, there were three layers: Earth, the Celestial Realm and the Empyrean.
‘As above so below’ referred to the idea that earth and everything in it was a reflection of the heavens, but the influence of the heavens could not be experienced directly because everything ‘sub-lunar’ – beneath the moon, was separated from the direct influence of the cosmos.
People sought harmony with the planetary influences: ‘as above-so below’, and it was believed their influence could be invoked via ‘talismans’ – objects, plants, animals places etc that related to, or were influenced by a certain planet.
(For example copper relates to Venus, tin to Jupiter, silver to the moon and so on) …
Above the earth, the moon drew a sort of veil between the celestial realms and earth. The celestial realms were where the planets resided. The planets, in turn, were influenced by what was termed ‘the divine’ – the realm beyond the planets – the Emypyrean.
Going back farther in time, think of the mysterious inscription on the tomb of Isis: I am all that was, all that is, and all that shall ever be, and no man hath lifted the veil from my face. It’s interesting also to explore the mythology of Gnosticism, usually at odds with Christian belief, which has a ‘creation myth’ around the idea of this veil – ‘In Our Time – Gnosticism ).
To some branches of thought, the Divine, or the Empyrean, was the unknowable; the One God, ‘all that is’, veiled and beyond human comprehension. In Christian orthodox practice it might be referred to as ‘He’ or ‘our Father’, but the Gnostic view, for example, was that its actual form was unknown and unknowable.
A few posts ago, I described how I became interested in Medieval cosmology via symbology and the Narniad. I’ve been amateurishly dipping in to these religious, esoteric or spiritually related subjects since the age of twenty or so, including religious beliefs of the Essenes, Cathars, Rosicrucians and Gnostics among several (I’ve still never felt compelled to actually join a religious or spiritual group though!) I do find a fascinating harmony in Medieval cosmology, and I’m finding this recent research rewarding, I think partly because exploring it helps clarify the interrelated patterns and connections between all these belief systems.
Influence of the planets in the Narnia Chronicles …
The process is made even more rewarding with the added clarity and insight of Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’. The book doesn’t just explore the planetary influence in the Narnia Chronicles, it also makes sense (to a lay person such as myself) of the experience Lewis is aiming for; he wants the reader to be immersed in these books, in a way that is quite unique.
Artists and writers often deal with different layers of meaning in their work, but Lewis’s incorporation of planetary influence went further because it was deliberately hidden – unknowable by the reader even while they experience the influence of the planets as they read.
Ward observes that Lewis had a mischievous mind; though an honest and unusually self-effacing character, he did enjoy secrets and he might have wondered if the penny would drop for readers of his books in his own lifetime (in fact it was fifty years after his death!)
His intention was not just secrecy though, it was intended as a mystical experience – it had to be hidden in order to give that experience and not simply a one-dimensional intellectual understanding. Not only children but adults reading the Narnia Chronicles would be unaware that each was written ‘under the influence’ of each planet – stories, plots and characters woven from an understanding of the mythology and qualities of each planet, with no direct mention of the planets themselves.
The poetic effect feels profound while reading the stories, for example the Jupiterian theme of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’; Winter passed and guilt forgiven is (as Michael Ward explains) how Lewis put it when describing the influence of Jupiter in his poem ‘The Planets’.
This idea is woven into the pivotal moment in the story when Edmund realises his guilt and regrets his allegiance both towards the witch, and his own selfish motivation – this is described at the same time as the melting snow, appearance of flowers and long-awaited arrival of spring.
Lewis had come to question a purely rational approach to understanding faith, and that’s a huge subject to get into and best understood by reading Michael Ward’s, or C.S. Lewis’s books, but something that occurred to me as I was reading this subject was the notion of an initiation – a ritual that’s experienced in, for example, the freemasonic tradition (as mentioned before I do believe that freemasonary organisations have unfair influence, and I question the organisation’s practices, just to be clear!) Part of the esoteric or hidden aspect of freemasonry is the initiation ceremony, which must remain secret because otherwise it’s rational, no longer an experience. And that brings it back to Lewis’s ‘Contemplation and Enjoyment’.
The difference between the two is more complex than ‘Subjectivity/Enjoyment’ and ‘Objectivity/Contemplation’. (I mentioned this in the previous post as a way to paraphrase C.S. Lewis’s quote from ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’, but that’s an oversimplification) . Among other things, it’s an acknowledgement of imagination – rationality places us outside an experience, ‘knowing’, Lewis argues, is deeper – it’s all-encompassing, eluding reason, because rational understanding separates us from experiencing, or as C.S. Lewis would say – Enjoyment.
I’m not giving these ideas their proper due; better that people read the sources themselves, but to me it offers a deeper appreciation of a more holistic, imaginative understanding and perception, which feeds into my work as an artist.
I’ll leave it there just now – that’s a long read for a person casually dropping in to this blog! But it’s also helpful to write here so I don’t forget. I might write up these posts as a booklet at some point …