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GNOSIS AND THE NEW MONKS

 

"the noble person recognises God in everything,
the common person the form, not the spirit."

Caspar David Friedrich

 

For the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, artists of the character of Caspar David Friedrich were "the new monks", and "the higher priesthood who transmit innermost spiritual secrets." In his later self-portraits, Friedrich depicted himself in monk’s clothing, and in one of his most striking paintings – Monk by the Sea – the figure represented is that of Friedrich himself as artist-monk, clasping his hands in a gesture of silent communion with the elements of earth, sea and sky. In particular however, the flat blackness of the Baltic Sea becomes a sensory symbol of the darkness of divinity – the "dark sea of awareness" (Castaneda) that is the source of all individualised beings or ‘souls’. Notably, the Germanic words ‘soul’ (English) and ‘Seele’ (German) have a quite different derivation to Greek ‘psyche’. Souls – Seelen – meant originally "those who come from the sea". This etymology is not a testament to modern evolutionary biology but rather to a gnostic understanding of the divine as that unbounded ‘sea’ of dark potentiality within which all individualised beings or souls are conceived and from which they are born. Abjuring man-made temples of wood and stone, Friedrich fulfilled his spiritual vocation as an artist not only by painting several seascapes but giving priestly sermons by the sea-shore.

 

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