Čiurlionis, Esotericism and Theosophy. 3. “Theosophical” symbols

The works of the Lithuanian painter have several symbolic references that can be attributed to Theosophical influences, but the relationship remains conjectural.

by Massimo Introvigné

Article 3 of 3. Read article 1 and article 2.

Čiurlionis, “Serpent Sonata: Finale” (1908). Credits.

In the previous article in this series, stemming from the international conference on Lithuanian painter MK Čiurlionis, held in Druskininkai, Lithuania, July 1-2, 2022, I discussed possible connections between the artist and theosophy in examining historical considerations and documentary sources. They tell us that he was deeply influenced by the most prominent Polish theosophist of his time, the symbolist painter Kazimierz Stabrowski, who was his teacher, and that he read the works of another leading theosophist, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion.

Besides Čiurlionis’s biography, scholars such as Di Milia, Kazokas and Andrijauskas also tried to find Theosophical references through iconographic analysis. As a rule, Čiurlionis did not explain the meaning of his paintings, and his rather complicated symbols derive from multiple influences.

The Druskininkai lecture explored in depth the serpent symbol, which has a plethora of metaphysical, mythological, archetypal, and even erotic meanings. It is certainly an important Theosophical symbol, but it also plays a key role in ancient Lithuanian (and non-Lithuanian) mythology, medieval heraldry, Eastern religions, and the Bible, all sources accessible to Čiurlionis.

Čiurlionis, “Thoughts” (1907).
Čiurlionis, “Thoughts” (1907). Credits.

Also in other cases it is difficult to determine which beliefs and themes came to Čiurlionis from the esoteric influence of Stabrowski and which came from Lithuanian popular culture. Čiurlionis was a collector of popular Lithuanian songs called daïnos from the Druskininkai region, and he arranged around 40 of them into new musical versions. They also influenced paintings such as “Thoughts” (1907).

In Čiurlionis’ “Sonata of the Stars” (1908), “Andante” shows a pyramid-shaped structure surmounted by a bird-shaped angel. A horizontal band represents the Milky Way. The Milky Way, also known as the Way of the Birds, played a prominent role in pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. This is where the souls of the deceased dwelt. Pyramids and the different levels of the divine world were also recurring themes in Theosophical literature.

Čiurlionis, “Sonata of the Stars: Andante” (1908).
Čiurlionis, “Sonata of the Stars: Andante” (1908). Credits.

Čiurlionis believed in the reincarnation and pre-existence of human souls, two central Theosophical tenets. To his future wife Sofija, he writes that “our beginning is somewhere in infinity before all ages” and that “a very long time ago, and certainly not once, we have already changed shape. But the memory is weak, and remembering it requires extraordinary concentration.

Čiurlionis, “News” (1905). Credits.

Interpreters have seen in “News” (1905) the soul portrayed as a bird caught at sunrise – or perhaps at sunset – between one life and the next. Let me stress that this is, again, a plausible but speculative interpretation.

Čiurlionis, “Gemini” (1907). Credits.

There may also be something like the Theosophical idea of ​​souls mysteriously connected to each other in “Gemini” (1907), a painting of Čiurlionis’ zodiac cycle. We have a twin soul, but to reach it we must cross a burning abyss – the same abyss we see in the Andante of the “Serpent Sonata”.

Čiurlionis, “The Offering” (1909). Credits.

Angels also play a prominent role in both Theosophy and Čiurlionis, and are often depicted with non-Christian symbols, notably in “Angels (Paradise)” and “Angel (Prelude)”, both from 1909. An angel also appears in “The Offering”, also from 1909 and the artist’s last completed painting before his final illness.

Ciurlionis, “Rex” (1909). Credits.

The “Supreme Being” of Čiurlionis is called Rex. In “Rex” (1909), we discover that there are in fact two hierarchically ordered Supreme Beings. Kazokas writes that “the light-colored unit, comprising the planet [Earth] and Rex, is surrounded by a larger image of a second Rex. It may not be orthodox theosophy, but it is not Christianity either, and retains a certain theosophical flavor.

One of Čiurlionis’ major works is the cycle of thirteen panels “Creation of the World” (1905-1906). “I’ve had the idea of ​​painting it all my life – he writes –. It is the creation of the world, only not ours according to the Bible but another fantastic world.

Čiurlionis, “Creation of the world”, second (or first) panel (1905-1906).
Čiurlionis, “Creation of the world”, second (or first) panel (1905-1906). Credits.

It is not the Bible, indeed. In particular, the second (or first) panel, conveys the thoroughly theosophical idea of ​​a primitive energy field propagating through the first movement of the universe.

Atlantis, a favorite Theosophical place, has been located almost everywhere. Not far from Druskininkai is the picturesque Raigardas Valley, a source of fascination for Čiurlionis, who depicted it in a triptych of 1907-1908.

A dream of Atlantis: the valley of Raigardas as it appeared in 2022 to the participants of the Druskininkai conference and as Čiurlionis painted it in 1907 (credits).
A dream of Atlantis: the valley of Raigardas as it appeared in 2022 to the participants of the Druskininkai conference and as Čiurlionis painted it in 1907 (credits).

Local lore, still preserved in tourist information kits and certainly well known to the artist, maintains that in the valley “once stood a great city, later sunk into the earth”. yet another, albeit minor, version of the ubiquitous Atlantis story.

Čiurlionis, “The Fairy Tale of Kings” (1908-1909). Credits.

“The Fairy Tale of Kings” (1908-1909) is one of the few paintings that the artist cared to explain, and a reference to the time when the Lithuanian monarchy had two kings. Here, in the darkness and beauty of a Lithuanian forest, kings hold in their hands a dome radiating light and enclosing other constructions, which, Čiurlionis explained, “represents the radiance of Lithuanian culture, which is called by history to have its say.” On the other hand, the transition from darkness to light is, at the same time, a recurring subject in Theosophical iconography and worldview.

The last Sonata cycle painted by Čiurlionis is “Pyramid Sonata” (1908-1909). It consists of three tables: “Allegro”, “Andante” and “Scherzo” (or “Finale”). We can divide paintings into planes and sub-planes, representing the past, present and future. The pyramids are places where humans can experience the intervention of higher cosmic powers, which among other things prepare for reincarnation.

Čiurlionis, “Sonata of the Pyramids: Scherzo” (1909).
Čiurlionis, “Sonata of the Pyramids: Scherzo” (1909). Credits.

Ancient structures – including, on the left side of the “Scherzo”, some Kazokas considered “very similar to the ruins of Vilnius Castle” – are depicted alongside fantastical and modernist buildings.

As a scholar of new religious movements, let me also mention the Merkinė Pyramid, not far from Druskininkai, an alternative spirituality center built in 2002 by Povilas Žekas.

The Pyramid of Merkinė, photo by Massimo Introvigne.
The Pyramid of Merkinė, photo by Massimo Introvigne.

Žekas’ mother is an amateur painter familiar with Čiurlionis’ work, although Žekas himself claims that he built his pyramid as a result of divine revelation rather than being inspired by Čiurlionis’ pyramids.

In conclusion, I do not claim that Theosophy was the only influence on Čiurlionis. The occult circle of Stabrowski, a committed theosophist, played a role. However, echoes of Lithuanian folklore, Lithuanian nationalism, philosophy of Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Japanese art, especially Hokusai (1760–1849), symbolism of Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901 ) and others, have also been found. in his work, and some of these influences may have been no less important than Theosophy.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) was a member of the Theosophical Society and, at least at one stage in his life, explicitly attempted to create “Theosophical art”. Lawren Harris (1885–1970) was another card-carrying Theosophist. He said his art didn’t “preach theosophy,” but he did, most notably through a radio broadcast, and the echoes in his paintings are unmistakable. Unlike Mondrian, Harris, Delville, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) or Stabrowski himself, Čiurlionis never joined the Theosophical Society, nor did he create icons that explicitly depicted Theosophical concepts. His contact was indirect, through Stabrowski and his entourage, and Flammarion’s books.

Although he mentioned Flammarion, Čiurlionis never mentioned Theosophical leaders such as Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) or Annie Besant (1847–1933) in his known writings, nor did he discuss his experiences in Stabrowski’s occult circle. As Andrijauskas suggests, this can be explained either by the artist’s protective attitude towards a sphere he perceived as private and intimate, or by the fact that letters and notes (including diaries) were lost or possibly destroyed – which would not be surprising within the political context I discussed in a previous article.

Professor Andrijauskas and author Massimo Introvigne in the Valley of Raigardas, with the ancient stone believed to be the gateway to the world of the dead.
Professor Andrijauskas and author Massimo Introvigne in the Valley of Raigardas, with the ancient stone believed to be the gateway to the world of the dead.

Questions remain, and it is always possible that new documents will be discovered. For the time being, the thesis of an “indirect” influence of Theosophy on Čiurlionis remains the most probable. We must also remember that he was a man of profound spiritual experiences, which may have paralleled those of the Theosophists and led him to come to similar conclusions intuitively rather than through their doctrines.

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