The Flammarion Engraving and its Symbolic Potential
Dr Laurence Browne
While researching into coincidences for my PhD I came across the Flammarion engraving, or woodcut as it was then described. Like so many before and since, I was struck by the breathtaking complexity and depth of the image, especially when enlivened with colour. Exploring it further, I found that Marie-Louise von Franz had used the illustration to great effect to explain synchronicity, and so included her insights in an appendix to my thesis. This article has developed out of that; and not only von Franz but many others have found symbolic meanings in the engraving to reinforce their ideas about exploration into the unknown, however that might be conceived.
Figure 1. The Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World
In 1959, the English version of C. G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies was published (Jung 1959/1977). One of the illustrations for the book is reproduced in Figure 1, along with its caption. Jung had been sent a copy of the image by a friend and speculated that it was a Rosicrucian engraving from the 17th century. He included it in his book on UFOs, or flying saucers as they were commonly known in those days, no doubt because he equated the disc-like shape of flying saucers with the projection of mandalas from the unconscious. He almost certainly would have seen the depiction of a spiritual seeker with his head in another world gazing at various unusual circular objects as a confirmation of this. Concerning the illustration Jung wrote:
This 17th century engraving, possibly representing a Rosicrucian illumination, comes from a source unknown to me. On the right it shows the familiar world. The pilgrim, who is evidently on a pélerinage de l’âme, has broken through the star-strewn rim of his world and beholds another, supernatural universe filled with what look like layers of cloud or mountain ranges. In it appear the wheels of Ezekiel and rings or rainbow-like figures, obviously representing the ‘heavenly spheres’. In these symbols we have a prototype of the UFO vision, which is vouchsafed to the illuminati. They cannot be heavenly bodies belonging to our empirical world, but are projected ‘rotunda’ from the inner, four-dimensional world (Jung 1959/1977, pp. 132-33).
Jung obviously connected the UFO vision, or at least its prototype, which would not historically have been interpreted as aliens visiting our planet, with deeper levels of illumination about which he had much to say, for instance, in The Secret of the Golden Flower (Wilhelm and Jung, 1932/1972). At the same time, Jung did not dismiss the possibility of a physical dimension to UFOs, though he considered their reported manifestation to be intrinsically bound up with psychological or mythological projections. He argued that “even if the UFOs are physically real, the corresponding psychic projections are not actually caused, but only occasioned, by them. Mythical statements of this kind have always occurred, whether UFOs exist or not” (Jung 1959/1977, p. 147).
It should be noted that in his commentary on the illustration, Jung mentions the ‘wheels of Ezekiel’. This is the interlocking double wheel in the top left corner of the image, towards which the pilgrim is pointing with his right hand. Jung does not explore the possible implications of the inclusion of the wheel. However, his close associate Marie-Louise von Franz does explore the implications in her book Number and Time (1974). Like Jung she includes the above illustration, and while she suggests it might be from a 19th century woodcut, she too is unaware of its source (1974, p.260). But before turning to von Franz’s interpretation of the engraving, it is worth looking into its origins, and in regard to that, the first thing to note is that in its original form, the image came with a border, the style of which is very much a 19thcentury product, as can be seen in Figure 2.
The illustration first appeared in 1888 on page 163 in a book about the atmosphere and meteorology by the popular scientist and astronomer Camille Flammarion. The title of this book is L’atmosphère and the subtitle is météorologie populaire. The woodcut, or wood engraving, as it technically is, is thought to have been specifically designed and commissioned by Flammarion for his book. [The difference, incidentally, between a woodcut and a wood engraving is as follows: a woodcut is made on the long-grained surface of a piece of wood, on the length of a log that has been split; while an engraving is made on the flat surface of the log, where the rings are visible. The wood is harder on the flat surface and has much less tendency to splinter, and so is much more suitable for intricate detail, such as that used in the illustration (Fiffas, 2020).]
Figure 2. The original image and caption from page 163 of L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire by Camille Flammarion.
BREAKING THROUGH THE SHELL OF APPEARANCES
The caption in Figure 2 translates as “A missionary from the Middle Ages says that he has found the point where the Earth and the sky touch.” The idea here is that if you can find the point where the earth and sky meet and see past it, you will have a direct vision of the workings of God, which for the medieval mind was quite within the bounds of possibility. Indeed in a 4th century Hermetic text, there is a description of a man who, to quote: “…broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god” (Magruder, 2003). It is quite possible that Flammarion was aware of this text, especially as on the page prior to the one containing the illustration he wrote:
A missionary of the Middle Ages even tells us that, in one of his voyages in search of the terrestrial paradise, he reached the horizon where the earth and the heavens met, and that he discovered a certain point where they were not joined together, and where, by stooping, he passed under the roof of the heavens (Magruder, 2003).
Further on in the same paragraph, Flammarion addresses the absurdity of trying to find the illusive point where the earth and sky meet in order to penetrate the empyrean vault of heaven itself:
And yet this vault has, in fact, no real existence! I have myself risen higher in a balloon than the Greek Olympus was supposed to be situated, without being able to reach this limit, which, of course, recedes in proportion as one travels in pursuit of it – like the apples of Tantalus (Magruder 2003).
Figure 3. Camille Flammarion in 1883 at the age of 41
Flammarion worked at the Juvissy Observatory south of Paris and wrote a number of books on popular science. He was particularly concerned with astronomy, for which he was a very successful populariser, and is described by the science historian Kerry Magruder as the ‘Carl Sagan of the 19th century’ (2003). As far as the engraving is concerned, it may be that he commissioned it in order to emphasise the absurdity of the medieval conception of the earth as the centre of the cosmos. At the same time, however, Flammarion was also a great champion of the paranormal, which unlike today was not at all unusual for respected scientists. In 1900, he published a book called L’inconnu (or The Unknown) in which featured the superb story of M. de Fortgibu and the plum pudding. Jung quotes this story with great delight in his main essay on synchronicity, the term he coined for meaningful coincidences:
A certain M. Deschamps, when a boy in Orléans, was once given a piece of plum-pudding by a M. de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered – by M. de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards M. Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was M. de Fortgibu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of deterioration walked in: M. de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake (Jung, 1955/1991, p. 21).
Also in L’inconnu Flammarion describes a personal coincidence which occurred to him as he was writing L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire. He had been writing about “the strange doings of the wind,” when a sudden gust blew his papers off the table and out of the window, “carrying them off in a sort of whirlwind among the trees”(Inglis 1990, p. 3).It then started to rain so Flammarion decided it would it would be a waste of time to go and look for them. However, a few days later the printer delivered that particular chapter to Flammarion, without a page missing. Flammarion was astounded at this! He had already been surprised at what had occurred when he had been writing about the strange doings of the wind and this was totally unexpected. It turned out that the porter from the printing office, who lived nearby and regularly delivered Flammarion’s proof-sheets, had passed by sometime later and found the sodden papers. Thinking that he must have dropped them himself, the porter picked them up carefully and took them to the printing office. He then dried and sorted them without mentioning it to anyone, and delivered them to Flammarion (Inglis 1990, p. 3).
Figure 4. Flammarion in later life with his friend and namesake, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns
Flammarion’s general explanation for such meaningful coincidences was that they were due to telepathy, and in reference to this interpretation, Jung – who seems to have been quite an admirer of Flammarion – made the following comment: “The fact that he mentions these coincidences… in connection with… telepathy shows that Flammarion had a distinct intuition, albeit an unconscious one, of a far more comprehensive principle” (Jung, 1955/1991, p. 21). The principle Jung is referring to here is that of synchronicity, which as we will see has a link with the illustration. But perhaps it was also his unconscious intuition that inspired Flammarion to design the engraving, which has much more allegorical potential than simply as a criticism of the medieval conception of heaven and earth.
THE ILLUSTRATION AS ANALOGY
The image has been very widely reproduced and adapted, especially since the late sixties, when it represented the counter-cultural quest of young ‘pilgrims’ in search of the secrets of the universe far beyond the ‘flat earth’ perspective of materialistic society. Over the years, the illustration, in various guises, has appeared on cards and posters, in books and brochures, and is widely available on the internet. The details of the engraving have been interpreted in many different ways, usually with the theme of a transition from ignorance to knowledge, and often with alternative captions. For instance, in The Mathematical Experience by Davis and Hersh, accompanying the illustration there is the following caption: “The astronomer reaches for truth. He is depicted as breaking through the shell of appearances to arrive at an understanding of the fundamental mechanism that lies behind appearances” (1981/2012, p. 77). Nowadays astronomers use complicated maths to make their discoveries and no doubt Davis and Hersh are alluding to that when they consider what makes everything tick.
Figure 5. One of many coloured versions of the Flammarion engraving (Günther Schöll)
Quite a number books have used the illustration for their cover, including Daniel Boorstin’s very popular The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know his World and Himself, first published in 1983. Then there is Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William Vollman, published in 2006, as well as the more esoteric Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan Hoeller. According to the publishing information for the book: “Gnosticism developed alongside Judeo-Christianity over two thousand years ago, but with an important difference: it emphasizes, not faith, but direct perception of God – Gnosticism being derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’” (Hoeller, 2002). Here, obviously, the illustration is used to symbolise the direct experience of gnosis itself.
In a rather more playful vein, an enlarged black and white image is also featured on the inner sleeve of Donovan’s 1973 album, Cosmic Wheels, with the note: “Get your cosmic crayons, kids, and colour in” (Richardson, 2015). In addition, the title track of the same name has lyrics that allude to the pilgrim’s vision of the celestial spheres (Leitch, 1973/2020):
In a rather more playful vein, an enlarged black and white image is also featured on the inner sleeve of Donovan’s 1973 album, Cosmic Wheels, with the note: “Get your cosmic crayons, kids, and colour in” (Richardson, 2015). In addition, the title track of the same name has lyrics that allude to the pilgrim’s vision of the celestial spheres (Leitch, 1973/2020):
God is playing marbles With his planets and his stars Creating havoc through my life Through his influence on Mars That's why I'm stumbling down the highway On my boots of steel I should be rolling down the skyway On my cosmic wheels… celestial wheels Cosmic wheels… celestial wheels…
Figure 6. Number and Time by Marie-Louise von Franz
But what must be the most remarkable interpretation of the Flammarion engraving is to be found in Marie-Louise Franz’s Number and Time: Reflections Leading toward a Unification of Depth Psychology and Physics, first published in German in 1970 and then in English in 1974. Von Franz was one of Jung’s closest associates and probably understood his ideas about synchronicity as well as if not better than anyone else in his circle, and in Number and Time she makes good use of the illustration as a pictorial metaphor for synchronicity. She points out the symbolic significance of two features in particular: the open hole in the fabric of the known world and the functionally untenable double wheel (1974, pp. 261-64).Figure 6 shows the cover of the 1974 Rider edition of Number and Time. Interestingly, the illustration has been extended beyond the original engraving, which means that the last row of cosmic wheels is an added extra for the cover. But what this makes one notice in particular is the incongruent double wheel on the left – the wheel of Ezekiel.
EZEKIEL’S WHEEL AND THE HOLE OPEN TO ETERNITY
Figure 7. Ezekiel’s vision of God, four beasts, and a wheel within a wheel. Zurich Bible, 1536
Figure 7 shows a 16th century woodcut of the vision of Ezekiel. On the left we can see the representations of the four evangelists – Matthew as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as an ox, and John as an eagle – and behind is God the Father as the driver of the chariot. On the right is one of the chariot’s wheels, which is extremely hard to depict given the description in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel:
As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. (Ezekiel 1:16-17, English Standard Version)
Obviously the wheel in the woodcut is just one of the four double wheels which are able to go in any of the four directions at once. And while it is not exactly reproduced by Flammarion, it is quite similar, as we can see in a comparison of the wheels in Figure 8. In the original engraving the rim of the wheel has eyes, which is also described in the Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:18), though Flammarion does not include that feature. However, he does appear to copy the flared shape of the spokes and also how they join in the middle. This is not the only woodcut of Ezekiel’s vision from the 16th and 17thcenturies that might have inspired Flammarion – and several of them have flared spokes (Stærk, 2003; Adler, 2018).
Figure 8. Ezekiel’s wheels – a comparison
In Number and Time, von Franz uses the same black and white borderless image as does Jung, and the caption under the illustration reads: “The hole open to eternity: the spiritual pilgrim discovers another world” (p. 262). According to von Franz, the idea of the ‘hole open to eternity’ comes from medieval alchemy, in particular from the 16th century alchemist Gerhard Dorn, who in his writings referred to the spiraculum aeternitatis. As von Franz explains: “Spiraculum is an air hole, through which eternity breathes into the temporal world” (1980, p. 109). In addition to the spiraculum aeternitatis, von Franz also mentions the fenestra aeternitatis, the ‘window into eternity’, another important concept in medieval alchemy, which came to be associated with the philosopher’s stone (1974, p. 260).
Not only that, during the Middle Ages, including in certain official ecclesiastical hymns, the Virgin Mary was known as ‘the window of eternity’ (von Franz, 1980, p.109); also the ‘window of escape’ (from the world) or ‘the window of enlightenment’ (von Franz, 1974, p. 260). Thus, the idea of a ‘hole’ or ‘window’ in the fabric of the world was a very real one, especially prior to the modern era, and it is understandable that Jung might have thought the engraving to have been created in the 17th century.
Nevertheless, in whatever way the Virgin Mary might be conceived, either then or now, it by no means requires her presence to explain the pilgrim’s breakthrough from the world of duality – which we can see symbolised by the sun and moon under the dome – to the eternal world outside time, via the spiraculum aeternitatis, the ‘hole open to eternity’. Von Franz gives the following interpretation to accompany the illustration in Number and Time:
In the picture the spiritual pilgrim leaves ordinary space-time behind and gazes through the ‘window of eternity’, into the world of timeless order… Through this ‘window’, man touches the eternal in himself and at the same time the eternal can reach into his time-bound world in the form of synchronistic events (1974, p. 261).
SYNCHRONICITY AND THE UNUS MUNDUS
Before getting into the details of how von Franz connects the image to the workings of synchronicity, it is worth attempting to clarify the concept of synchronicity itself. In 1952, during an interview with the religious historian Mircea Eliade, Jung described synchronicity as a ‘rupture of time’ that “closely resembles numinous experiences in which space, time and causality are abolished” (McGuire & Hull, 1980, p. 223). Accordingly, during a synchronistic experience – in other words a coincidence in which the meaning is immediately apparent – the distinction between the subjective psyche and the external environment disappears, which for a split-second allows the timeless to come streaming through. That would surely have happened for M. Deschamps later in life when he was about to eat a plum pudding as a special rarity, and in staggers an aged and decrepit M. de Fortgibu.
From a reading of the literature surrounding Jung’s development of the synchronicity hypothesis (esp. Jung 1951/1991; von Franz 1992), there appear to be three key ingredients in a synchronistic occurrence that distinguishes it from a chance coincidence. These are: an equivalence of meaning between an external event and deep psychological processes in the individual involved; an accompanying feeling of numinosity experienced as an emotional charge; and a flash of totalinsight or, as Jung called it, ‘absolute knowledge’ (Browne, 2017, p. 105). This is an instant knowing, prior to any analysis or conceptualisation. To illustrate further, here is another example of a synchronistic event, one which comes from a letter written to the New Scientist in 1973 in response to a request from Arthur Koestler for people to send in their coincidence stories:
One of the most remarkable coincidences I have experienced was one day before the last war. I happened to be reading a passage from Goethe’s Gesprӓche mit Eckermann and I switched on my radio which happened to be tuned into a German station. To my astonishment the man was reading from the same page as I was (Hardy, Harvie & Koestler, 1973, p. 164).
Like M. Deschamps when M. de Fortgibu walked in just as he was about to dig into his plum pudding, the correspondent, Ivone Kirkpatrick, appears to have been profoundly moved by this coincidence. He is reading a passage from Conversations with Eckermann, an outstanding accomplishment of German culture and scholarship; the distinct possibility of war is in the air, and the vile behaviour of the Nazis is a stark contrast to Goethe’s humanity and brilliance. Kirkpatrick, clearly a German speaker, turns on the radio and hears, from the Nazi propaganda machine, exactly the same passage he is in the process of reading. Without question Kirkpatrick has experienced a powerful meaning-equivalence, and according to von Franz, in that split second, the everyday distinction between the inner world behind our eyes and the outer world in front collapses, and the original or primal unity of the two is momentarily revealed. And this is why, she says, synchronistic experiences are so remarkable:
The most essential and certainly the most impressive thing about synchronistic occurrences, the thing which really constitutes their numinosity, is the fact that in them the duality of soul and matter seems to be eliminated. They are therefore an empirical indication of an ultimate unity of all existence, which Jung, using the terminology of medieval natural philosophy, called the unus mundus (1975, p. 247).
The unus mundus or ‘one world’ refers to the undifferentiated unity of the world where mind and matter are not yet separated. Jung held that the unus mundus is the underlying condition of our existence. It was also his view that when synchronistic events occur, the unus mundus breaks through into the consciousness of the person experiencing it. For von Franz this is very much what the Flammarion engraving symbolises. And, incidentally, it was also from the alchemist Gerard Dorn that Jung derived the concept of the unus mundus (Meier 2001/2014, pp. 128-29). Dorn regarded the unus mundus as the highest stage to be attained within alchemy, and also referred to it as ‘the One and the Simple’, the res simplex, the simple thing (Jung 1963/1970, pp. 533). Commenting on the significance of this Jung writes:
Always we shall have to begin again from the beginning. From ancient times the adept knew that he was concerned with the ‘res simplex’, and the modern man too will find by experience that the work does not prosper without the greatest simplicity. But simple things are always the most difficult (Jung 1963/1970, pp. 532-33).
The ‘work’ Jung is referring to here is obviously not alchemy in the usual meaning of the term but rather the inner work of self-transformation, which we might describe as metaphorically alchemical with the object of becoming aligned as much as one can with the unus mundus. But as he says, the simple is not easy.
In the engraving, as already mentioned, the pilgrim’s right hand stretches out towards Ezekiel’s wheel in the top left corner. There is no real reason for him to do this unless the wheel has a deliberately symbolic meaning. It is certainly evident to any careful observer that the wheel is a technical impossibility. If the two wheels did rotate, they would destroy each other. However, the symbol of a double wheel is quite common around the world and, according to von Franz, it denotes a double mandala. Double mandalas, or wheels, have traditionally been used as symbols for the intersection of linear time with the timeless and were regularly employed in divinatory practices, usually with one wheel fixed, and the other over it, moving (von Franz, 1980, p. 99).
The double wheel from Ezekiel’s vision represents a common way of modelling the intersection of the wheels of time and eternal order. Even though the representation implies that one of the wheels is moving, in engineering terms this is impossible. Because we cannot imagine how they are functionally linked, we cannot therefore conceive of a rule or fixed law for their coordination (von Franz, 1980, p. 108). This, for von Franz, is a clue as to why regular laws for the occurrence of synchronistic events, which in Jung’s theoretical model occur when there is a spontaneous and unpredictable coming together of the two realms, cannot be established. In her book, On Divination and Synchronicity,she provides a diagram to depict the intersection of the wheels (1980, p. 108), as demonstrated in Figure 9.
Figure 9. Double Mandala or Wheel
For von Franz, the place where the two wheels meet is analogously similar to the hole open to eternity in the Flammarion engraving. The only place the wheels meet is at the hole at the centre of both of them. In alchemy such a meeting place also represents the connection point between psyche and matter, and the unity of the two – in other words the unus mundus – spontaneously manifests during a synchronistic event. For an instant – and always completely unexpected – psyche and matter become one, as when Kirkpatrick turns on the radio. Von Franz has more to say about this, and the following paragraphs constitute the heart of her use of the Flammarion engraving as a symbolic image for the elusive phenomenon of synchronicity. The pilgrim stretches his hand towards the double mandala in the distance: perhaps he is pointing from the hole through which he has just emerged to another hole, the one at the centre of Ezekiel’s wheel, where again the realms of time and the timeless intersect:
Certainly all the models of the timeless as well as the time-bound mandalas possess an internally ordered structure, but the manner in which they contact each other remains obscure. When they consist of wheels, for instance, they do not work in unison but are contiguous at the centre, which is a technical impossibility. The two systems are incommensurable. From this we can only conclude that the moments of contact occur when a spontaneous action emanates from their common centre (1974, pp. 261-62).
The mysterious point of contact between the two systems appears to be the centre or a sort of pivot where psyche and matter meet. When an individual enters into relation with the forces of the pivot, he finds himself close to the source of ‘miracles’ which seemingly could not occur without a corresponding attitude on his own part…
When such a constellation exists and eternity breaks through momentarily into our temporal system, the primal unity actively manifests itself and temporarily unites the double structures into one… This is how the unus mundusbecomes revealed in the phenomenon of synchronicity. But immediately afterward the flow of events resumes its course on the track of the ordinary temporal pattern, and the timeless order falls back into the latent condition once more (1974, p. 263).
In the illustration the pilgrim is shown in an awkward position which he cannot sustain, which suggests that he must return to the normal world of duality. In other words, the synchronistic experience is not sustainable but rather fleeting and momentary. Synchronistic events are sporadic and unpredictable in their occurrence, and always take the beholder by surprise. In the Jungian conception, to emphasise, during a synchronistic event psyche and matter are momentarily revealed as one reality, the unus mundus, which can be conceived of as a ‘primordial background’ where “all opposites are still unified” (von Franz, 1992, p. 217). The person experiencing the synchronicity gets a brief glimpse of this timeless realm but soon returns to the world of everyday duality, symbolised in the Flammarion engraving by the sun and the moon.
THE MOST SUBLIME HARMONY
Figure 10. Atom and Archetype: The Pauli-Jung Letters, 1932-1958
In 2014, Princeton University Press published the first paperback version of the correspondence between C.G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was one of Jung’s most important collaborators and helped him to formulate his theory of synchronicity (Jung 1955/1991). The illustration on the cover of a double mandala being carried by a large bird, with four figures on the horizontal disc, is from one of Pauli’s dreams that he communicated to Jung in the earlier stages of their relationship. Pauli called it “the great vision – the vision of the world clock,” and it filled him with what he described as “the most sublime harmony.” Jung wondered at this and also why the mandala did not have a sacred image at the centre. Indeed it was effectively empty (Miller, 2010, pp. 151-53). But as we have seen from von Franz’s explanation for Ezekiel’s wheel, the emptiness at the centre of the two wheels also represents the point where psyche and matter meet, where the unus mundus can suddenly and spontaneously manifest itself. Perhaps it was the harmony and balance of these two factors within this vision-like dream of Pauli’s that filled him with such great happiness.
In her book On Divination and Synchronicity one of the examples von Franz gives of a double mandala is in the circular configurations of the I Ching trigrams and hexagrams, with what is called the Older Heavenly Order, also called pre-heaven, representing the timeless, and the Younger Heavenly Order, also called post-heaven, representing time. The diagram in Figure 11 (Gnapp, 2019) includes both the heavenly orders, with the pre-heaven arrangement of trigrams as the inside circle and the post-heaven arrangement outside. We can see that the trigrams are vertical in the inner circle and horizontal in the outer circle, and this could well represent vertical and horizontal circles, as in the double mandala diagram in Figure 9. As with all double mandalas, one of the wheels represents the timeless and the other time (von Franz, 1980, p. 99). In her discussion of the implications of the Flammarion engraving in regard to the revelation of the timeless in the spontaneous meeting of psyche and matter, von Franz quotes [her italics] the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu: “The way of Heaven and Earth… may be declared in one sentence… They are without any doubleness, so they produce things in a manner that is unfathomable” (von Franz, 1974, p. 263).
Figure 11. The Older and Younger Heavenly Orders
THE VISION OF GIORDANO BRUNO
Another and more recent application of the Flammarion engraving is to be found in the TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil de Grasse Tyson (Braga, B. et al., 2014). In the first episode there is a ten minute section on the renegade Italian philosopher and cosmologist Giordano Bruno, who was tried and convicted for heresy by the Roman Inquisition. He denied both the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary, and furthermore espoused the idea of reincarnation. At his trial Bruno refused to recant any of his beliefs, with the result that he was burnt at the stake in 1600. Some 20 years earlier, when he was 30, Bruno had had a vision in which he ‘saw’ that the universe was infinite and had no centre. An animated version of the Flammarion engraving is used in Cosmos is to portray this vision: Bruno has a vivid dream one night, in which he awakens in a world apparently confined to an inverted bowl of stars. These are the same stars as can be seen under the dome in the engraving. In the next part of the dream Bruno lifts the hem of the starry firmament and stoops to enter into the realm of the celestial wheels and heavenly spheres. Unlike the pilgrim in the illustration, he does not just gaze into that realm but enters into it completely. But soon after his arrival he leaves the Flammarion-inspired heavenly scene and enters into what we would recognise as a normal depiction of stars, suns and orbiting planets. And as he flies around in an exalted state, he says:
I spread confident wings to space and soared towards the infinite leaving far behind me what others strained to see from a distance. Here there was no up, no down, no edge, no centre. I saw that the sun was just another star and the stars were other suns, each escorted by other earths like our own. The revelation of this immensity was like falling in love (Braga, B. et al., 2014).
Unfortunately, things went downhill for Bruno from there, and in the rest of the Cosmos portrayal of his life there are graphic scenes, again all in animation, of his public rejection, his imprisonment and trial, and finally his burning at the stake at the Campo de’ Fiori, a city square in Rome where there is now a large statue of Bruno.
Figure 12. Giordano Bruno in flames next to the Vatican; behind them the Flammarion engraving
I have not been able to find the source of the image in Figure 12. It is not from the Cosmos series, though may have been inspired by it. On the left is part of a portrait of Bruno surrounded by flames; on the right is the Vatican; and behind both is a coloured version of the Flammarion engraving. The positioning is presumably deliberate: while the Vatican remains under the dome of stars and thus within the world of duality, Bruno is caught between the two realms. The upper part of his head is situated beneath the heavenly spheres, with one of them acting as a halo, while most of his body remains in the everyday world.
It should be mentioned that Bruno’s vision as articulated in the Cosmos animated sequence is a far cry from what we might describe as the ‘unus mundus’ interpretation of von Franz. If we examine the quote from Bruno as presented in Cosmos, he is certainly not talking about “the original non-differentiated unity of the world” (Jung, 1963/1970, p. 462), nor “the transcendental unus mundus, the potential world outside of time” (Jung, 1963/1970, p. 505). Powerful though his vision may have been, it was more an intuition of the vastness of the physical universe. Nevertheless, elsewhere there are sayings attributed to Bruno that suggest that he was greatly concerned with transcendent reality, quite apart from his conception of the physical universe, for instance: “The Divine Light is always in man, presenting itself to the senses and to the comprehension, but man rejects it” (Turnbull, 1913, p. 40).
AN ILLUSTRATIVE MASTERPIECE
Flammarion himself might have been bemused by these diverse and often intricate interpretations. But considering the underlying conflict between his abiding fascination with the paranormal and his public reputation as a populariser of science, these distinctive interests may have fortuitously come together in an illustrative masterpiece that has stood the test of time. A similar juxtaposition, and one of much greater artistic and historical significance, can be found in The Karamazov Brothers, which Freud described as “the most magnificent novel ever written” (Dostoevsky, 1880/1994, back cover). Dostoevsky’s primary aim was to explore the nature of goodness, particularly though his ‘hero’, Alyosha (1880/1994, p. 5), but the fascination of the work lies primarily in the portrayal of his deeply flawed father and brothers.Similarly, while Flammarion may have commissioned the engraving to demonstrate the folly of the medieval conception of the universe, so much more has been read into the image than he could possibly have imagined. For when conscious and unconscious energies are displayed in artistic harmony, the result, at its best, is an intrinsic completeness that is naturally able to communicate itself to the eye of the beholder.
The rendering in colour of the illustration in Figure 5 was commissioned by a friend who has long had an interest in kaleidoscopes, also selling them to the public. For him the symbolism of the Flammarion engraving was obvious: the beautiful shapes and patterns you see when looking through a kaleidoscope are an analogy for the beauty and depth that lies within the heart of a human being. Indeed, he has used the coloured image to wrap around many of his scopes, an example of which can be seen in Figure 13. And when one does a search on the internet for images associated with the engraving, so many different items come up for sale: mugs, t-shirts, placemats, iPhone covers – and even a Flammarion watch, no doubt to remind the wearer of the timeless! And the list goes on: ankle socks, coats for dogs, jigsaw puzzles, and even a Flammarion tattoo. But none of these trinkets can take away from the magnificence of the Flammarion engraving nor the creativity of the various interpretations, in particular that of von Franz and the idea of the ‘hole open to eternity’, through which we are able access the unus mundus, which Jung described as “the eternal Ground of all empirical being” (1956/1970, p. 534).
Figure 13. Flammarion kaleidoscope (designed by Günther Schöll)
Laurence Browne, Ph.D., is an Honorary Research Fellow within the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of The Many Faces of Coincidence (2017, Imprint Academic).
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