The Passion

Matthias Grünewald, “Crucifixion”

Life and Its Meaning

The Crucifixion means many things to different people, but if we allow ourselves to delve beneath its surface meanings, we’re likely to meet a world closer to ourselves than we might have thought: not a distant event from another time, but an omnipresent reality that is our very own. For all spiritual art, whatever its form or origin, is designed to “speak” to us, using the language of the soul.

The cross—like all quaternities—represents the elements of which everything is made, the stars, planets, and galaxies, and the myriad forms of life that comprise Nature itself: the host of creatures, from the massive to the microscopic, that slither, float, crawl, gallop, swim and soar; vegetation from climates as disparate as Siberia and the Sahara, the lush canopies of throbbing rainforests and the silent sentinels of the ocean floor. All of this—all this multiplicity—is composed of the original four.

Four Rivers of Paradise               Double Vajra

Hidden in the midst of four is the fifth, the point which is both the origin of creation and the place to which all will return (dissolution). It holds the secret of the manifest universe: the central point, often overlooked, of the four-armed cross. In terms of religious symbolism, these are the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden, as described in Genesis; the same pattern is found in the double vajra of Buddhism, which also symbolizes the origin of the world.

The crucifixion, then, represents  the state of being “fixed” upon this cross of four, bound to material creation. It also represents obliviousness to the fifth point which gave birth to it all, which explains the tortured look on the crucified’s face. The centerpoint, which should correspond to the heart, is empty: inaccessible to either head or heart. Having completely sunk into the world of creation, all contact with spiritual origins has been lost.

The man on the cross is the “Jesus” in all of us, born on earth as a human being and bound to the four elements of the cross. His afflicted body merely symbolizes the dilemma of this fixation, being separated from the source, fighting against the destiny that awaits at Golgotha, unaware of the imperative of return.

Which is why the first of the Four Noble Truths is dukka, the Buddhist term used to describe precisely this phenomenon:

“life is suffering”

It’s not a statement of belief; neither is it an expression of world-weary cynicism or exasperation. Rather, it’s the first requirement for embarking upon the Spiritual Path: accepting the assertion, not as a theoretical formulation or an expression of faith, but a conclusion based on one’s life experience. Those who are unable or unwilling to take this step are not yet prepared, and so return to the cycle of life and death … until the time they recognize its truth.

Crucifixion-John-Mary-Mary           Crucifixion-John-the-Baptist
Detail. Matthias Grünewald, “Crucifixion”

The Elements: Fire and Earth

According to Agnes Hidveghy at ars sacra, to whom this post is deeply indebted, each of the human figures surrounding the cross represent one of the four elements. Since we, too, are made of the elements, these figures can also be seen as parts of our spiritual anatomy: one could say that it is the Imago Dei—the image of God—in which we are all created.

The arrangement of the elements around the cross describes certain polarities and relationships: the “active” elements (Fire, Air) are conventionally considered male, and the “receptive” elements (Earth, Water), female. Thus, we are presented with two recognizable male-female pairs.

The first and most obvious pair is on the left, consisting of John the beloved disciple (Fire) holding Mary the virgin mother (Earth). While John is clearly the active one, Mary appears to be asleep: her face is relaxed and without expression, and her eyes closed. Her posture, like the element Earth, is stiff and unmoving; she almost resembles a cocoon, her body enveloped in a cloak of white, as if she represented the cold of Winter. A hint at her belly suggests she might be incubating a hidden life within.


John the Beloved is focused completely on Mary, and his mouth is slightly twisted. While he supports her in his arms, it’s also clear he wants to rouse something in her, signalled by the firm grip of his left hand (this is significant). In this way, the Fire of John introduces the theme of duality: his activity seeking to penetrate her impassivity. This “split” is mirrored by the awkward positioning of the fingers on his right hand.

At first glance, this seems to represent an eternal and unchanging moment. But the theme of two-ness suggests their pairing can be interpreted in two different ways, reflecting the involutionary and evolutionary relationship between Fire and Earth. In one, Mary is “receptive” to Fire’s energy which acts like a quickening; in the other, she resists him, to protect what’s growing within. Her prayerful stance can represent both movements: yearning for Fire’s fertilization, or turning inward, closing herself off from all external distraction.

The Fire of the Beloved can also be interpreted in these two ways. On the one hand, he’s the force that seeks materialization in Mary-Earth’s receptiveness, restraining her with his left hand. But once his “seed” has taken root, his intent shifts to supporting her, with his other arm (right). In this second phase, Fire would be less about vigor and intensity, than upholding (and fueling) the life developing within Mother Earth.


Since movies are but an updated version of the paintings of old, it should come as no surprise to discover similar themes in the stories told on screen. Thus, action stars, symbols of vigor and strength, at some point find themselves in a role that requires them to become a different kind of hero, one that learns how to love and support a child. Comedies play off the improbable juxtaposition of a man’s brawn against the tiny children for whom he’s become responsible. The humor derives from the fact that he’s clearly out of his depth, when the tools he’s developed for himself no longer suffice. Much easier are roles in which he can remain the “action” hero, while also learning how to protect a child (e.g., Babylon A.D., Leon, Polar). But the underlying theme is the same.

The complementary path, on the other had, involves films where a woman, often after the death of her husband, must learn to take care of herself and her child, despite great odds and calamity. She’s often drawn into drama created by Fire, from which she needs to learn how to defend herself and her child (e.g., The Gift, Virginia). An intriguing version of this tale is found in Hideous Kinky, about a woman seeking love and spiritual enlightenment in 1970s Morocco, but who is constantly plagued by nightmares about her children (“Lucy” and “Bea”) getting lost or dying, forced to consider whether her search may be endangering what’s most important in her life.

When we allow ourselves to see the elements in this way, the movies can become more than “mere” entertainment, opening-up a new world of interpretation that speaks to our innermost lives. And when we allow ourselves to recognize how passionate attachments are merely unclaimed aspects of the Self, it reveals another vista about the possibilities of self-transformation.

The same processes are mapped out in the sacred arts, but they do so more clearly than films. Allied as they are with the world’s wisdom traditions, they are much better positioned to describe our spiritual anatomy, the painful process of being human, and the ways in which we struggle to reach the divine.

Crucifixion-Mary-Magdalene         Crucifixion-John-the-Baptist

The Elements: Water and Air

The nature of transformation is more evident in the second “pair” of Mary Magdalene (Water) and John the Baptist (Air). Even their postures suggest movement, in contrast to Mother Mary’s immobility. Here, the Magdalene’s gown (and hair) resembles a spring that flows from the conjunction of Fire and Earth (just as a heated stone begins to sweat). And while John the Baptist (Air) appears to be caught in mid-sentence, his book and pointed finger suggest he has more thoughts to share.

Unlike the first John and Mary, these two are separated. They’re only a “pair” by virtue of their orientation, both facing the cross: separated by the vertical beam of Fire and Earth, but united by the horizontal that connects Water and Air. While the vertical represents Fire’s descent to “fertilize” the Earth, the horizontal represents the process of transformation, as “heated” Water is evaporated into Air.

The doubling of their names—two Johns and two Marys—already hints at these two processes, each concerned with different manifestations and uses of energy. They can also be seen in the two axes of the circle, the cycle of change.

Crucifixion-John-Face  Crucifixion-Jesus-Face
Crucifixion-Mary-Face  Crucifixion-Magdalene-Face

In involutionary terms, the Magdalene is the phase of Water that grasps at the river that flows above her head. Her face is far fromimpassive, having acquired the tortured face of Jesus and John. Her head is also smaller than theirs, suggesting that, in some way, she is their offspring or creation. (The Crucified is larger than them all, i.e., the source of their multiplicity.)

She’s also the only one, on the left side of the Cross, whose eyes are open: the others “blindly” enact their elemental qualities with their eyes closed (a sign of their unconsciousness). In an important sense, then, her emotionality is related to seeing. Which might explain why she’s the only one who casts her gaze upon the Crucified, and why her pose takes the form of supplication:

“life is suffering”

She sees the one bound to the elements, probably no different than anyone else: unconsciously attached to the material world, and unable to remove oneself so that the Spiritual Journey can begin. She is bound, like Him, yearning for things to be different, yet not knowing how that might be so.

Crucifixion-Magdalene-Hands                            Crucifixion-Jesus-Hands

In evolutionary terms, the Magdalene is the capacity to relinquish her attachment to the cross of elements and the cycle of time, which is about the most difficult thing in the world. Her intertwined fingers—mirroring the fingers of the Crucified—represent the enormity of this struggle.

As Agnes Hidveghy notes, the commonly used phrase (“letting go”) fails to convey the pain and effort that’s necessarily involved, or what its ultimate purpose is. 

These fingers do not reflect a passive or painless process of “release.” Their contortions demonstrate the severe strain that’s necessarily involved. For this is a sacrifice, consciously working against one’s natural inclinations to transform trapped energy into something else. If the attachments are merely repressed or forgotten, the elemental energy is repressed as well, and no transformation will come from that.

Crucifixion-John-Mary-Mary         Crucifixion-John-the-Baptist

The Samsaric Cycle

The three figures (on the left) form a unit. Together, their outline traces a circuit of energy that culminates in the earthen jar before the Magdalene. There is a line that summarizes this accumulation: from the conjunction of Mary-John, through the Magdalene’s head and shoulders, to the jar on the ground. This marks Fire’s descent and its materialization. But the jar is closed, a sign of what all three—but especially the Magdalene—wish to keep contained, of what they’re unwilling to let go. This is the culmination of the action of Fire-Earth-Water.

John the Baptist, on the right, represents the element of Air and the capacity for thought. He’s in a position to provide a resolution to the conundrum on the other side of the Cross: the capacity to observe from a distance, not subject to the attachments that “fix” them in an endless cycle. And the big knot at his waist symbolizes Air’s ability to stem the flow of water, the place where it can be held (as clouds in the air are able to do).

But Air has its involutionary currents, as well. If he has not dealt with his own identifications, he could get sucked-in by the cycle’s momentum—following the direction of his outstretched arm—out of a sense of lack, needing another round of experience to feel fulfilled. Or his wagging finger could stop the cycle completely, bringing it to a halt under the sign of his disapproval. This stance, which condemns any and all activity associated with Fire, Earth or Water, is another face of the knot at his waist (“uptight”).


But the Baptist’s more redemptive (evolutionary) role provides an exit from the cycle and its endless repeating. His eyes are open, like the Magdalene’s; he’s better able to see what’s going on around him. Also like her, he’s aware of what obscures higher spiritual realities, pointing to the Cross and the form of bondage it entails. He knows there must be more. This is his function as the Baptist, forerunner to the Redeemer, explained in the Latin passage next to his pointing finger:

He must increase,
but I must decrease.

His function is temporary. Of this he’s aware. If he clings to his “book learning,” he will be guilty of obstruction. (After all, he is fated to be beheaded.) His purpose is to act as the Witness-Observer. And as the Baptist, he submerges the faithful in water, so they may be born again.

This ritual submergence symbolizes “death before death,” which marks the beginning of the spiritual path. When this is accomplished, the cycle is interrupted, and Magdalene’s jar is replaced by another, filled by the blood of the lamb. When she recognizes the helplessness of being “fixed” to the Cross, her treasure can be sacrificed, for only then can the life blood (Fire) be detached from its natural function to be sublimated into something else.

This redemptive process is marked by a line symmetrical to the line of Fire-Earth-Water on the other side of the cross. It leads from the head of John the Baptist (Air), through the knotted sash at his waist (stopped Water), through the cross of the lamb (dismounting the cross), to the chalice on the ground below. (Even the feet of the crucified point to it, in case the other signs were missed.) Unlike the Magdalene’s jar, this chalice remains open, so it can collect the energy that’s been released. This is the result of the “ultimate” sacrifice.

And this is what opens the door to another realm beyond the cycle of life and death.


On the Nature of Change

It’s important to remember that the two Johns and two Marys are merely components of the cross and the Crucified who’s “fixed” upon it. So, while it might be tempting to read our life stories into one character or another, in the end, they are just parts of a larger whole. Feeling fondly about one or another is merely an indication of where our energy is currently focused, perhaps even stuck. But, in the end, all of the elements are in us, representing different aspects of our development.

The images, as discussed, suggests that the elements form a specific sequence—Fire-Earth-Water-Air. This order corresponds to the to the qualities associated with the classical elements, and their transformation:

Elements-and-Qualities  Elements-and-Qualities-Symbols

The painter uses specific colors to symbolize this sequence and the elements’ relation to each other.

  • The qualities of Fire (Red) and Earth (White) indicate active and receptive, hot and cold (both sharing the quality of dryness).
  • Water (Orange) is presented as a blending of Fire/Red and Earth/White, tinged by Mary’s undergarment, which is a deep and dark Green. This denotes Water’s fluidity, and its capacity for commingling.
  • John the Baptist (Air) is presented as a different kind of summation, not a “blending” but the ability to “hold” what came before: Earth’s White is found in the Book he carries, while his cloak is composed of different hues of Red.

Because of Air’s capacity to “hold,” there is a mirror-symmetry across the fold of the Cross: on one side, the “red” John (the Beloved) grips “white” Mary with his left hand; on the other side, the “red” John (the Baptist) grips the “white” Book, in his left hand as well. The knot on his waist which “flows” down to the sacrificial lamb mirrors the “flow” from the conjunction of John and Mary, through the Magdalene, to the closed jar on the ground.

What was accomplished unconsciously, on the left, is made conscious, on the right, through the capacity of Air.


When viewed up close, this symmetry becomes clearer: for example, the Magdalene’s clasped hands (Water) are mirrored by the knot at the Baptist’s waist (Air), and the lines of force flow down to the containers on the ground. These are different versions of the same tale: two storylines (or arcs) that reach a different kind of conclusion.

On the left is the confluence of elements that ends with the dilemma signalled by the Magdalene’s pleading (“life is suffering”). On the right, the same story told, but which now leads to redemption. The pivotal question is how one is transformed into another.

The red waist-string that dangles from the Magdalene’s waist, and the dark folds of her dress, mimic the rivulets of blood dripping from the Crucified’s feet onto the ground. The point from which it flows (at her waist) matches the point at which John the Beloved holds the Mother Mary, and the point where Jesus’ side is pierced. The fact that the Crucified’s blood flows uncollected onto the barren ground suggests that it is “wasted.” Nothing comes of it. Nothing is gathered or transformed.

But when we shift from left-to-right, which is how we’re encouraged to “read” the picture—the same direction of the Crucified’s feet—our attention is turned to the White Lamb and the Orange blood flowing into the Chalice. This indicates how the theme of suffering can be overturned. For it presents a different relationship between the two Marys, with the second (Orange) being inverted, so she can “hold” the lifeforce that comes from her twin (White).


Breathing Out and Breathing In

It should now be clear how each of these figures represent an unrecognized facet of the Crucified, unrecognized because each draws us into its own world of drama, blinding us to the larger truth:

  • The Fire of John the Beloved is the downward movement shown by His face, the impulse toward materialization which, ironically, is also the cause of His suffering, since it implies losing contact with the divine source;
  • The frozen pose of Mary is the immobility of the Body “fixed” upon the cross, the Black nails replicated by the dark undergarment covering her arms and feet;
  • The suffering pose of the Magdalene is Water, symbolized by the flow of blood from the side of Jesus, as well as his feet;
  • The Air of John the Baptist is symbolized by the greyish sash knotted at his waist (stopping, holding), mirrored by the loincloth of the Crucified, also tied into a knot.

Since our spiritual anatomy is constituted by all these parts, we must learn to recognize each of them as a facet of ourselves. Even men must be able to appreciate the plight of the two Marys and what’s being asked of them, as Mary’s “inversion” is the pivot around which the Spiritual Path revolves: from grasping (at) to containing (within), where the energy of an “external” attachment is transformed into a force (blood) from which a new life can be born.

This explains why “Mary” is elevated in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. She is the one capable of transformation, as this is the province of Woman who carries the rhythm of life and death within. While the Masculine exercises his Being by thinking and doing, it’s the Feminine who has the capacity to mourn the ending of a cycle, and incubate the “seed” of winter for a new cycle to come. The “androgynous” Jesus is the one who recognizes these polarities and reconciles them within himself.

In many ways, this process corresponds to the Yoga practice of Pranayama, less about regulating the physical process of breathing than the “subtle” breath. When overcome by anger or passion, witness the near impossibility of controlling the breath: underneath the “physical,” and prior to it, is the “subtle.” Thus, the key is learning how to modulate these passions, perhaps even coming to understand how the process works, and the objects to which the breath comes to be attached.


This is just another name for the “reversal” involved in the switch from involutionary to evolutionary phases of the elements. Agnes Hidveghy suggests the term metanoia which has historically been understood as “repentance” but which she translates as “to turn around” or “turn back”. When understood in this more “technical” sense, Matthew 3:11, which quotes John the Baptist, comes across quite differently:

I baptize you with water for turning around [metanoia]. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I … who will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire.

Agnes Hidveghy uses the Gurdjieffian scale to trace these descents and ascents. She suggests that sacred art commonly uses “mistakes” or unusual distortions to signal a symbol that might otherwise be overlooked, a point made by others familiar with the techniques of initiatic art. Thus, if we look closely at the arms of Mary Magdalene, we’ll notice that they appear disproportionate to her body, and include an unusual bulge at the elbow.

Enneagram Descending         Enneagram Ascending

Her sleeves also bear strange protrusions, more prominent than mere wrinkles, as if she were wearing unseen bracelets underneath. And it is markings such as these that Agnes Hidveghy interprets as indicating scales that trace involutionary and evolutionary paths.

She identifies the “descending” (involutionary) octave with seams such as those found on Mary’s white dress, which functions like a giant nadi (river) dedicated to the task of materialization or grounding. But her sleeves bear the same protrusions as those found on the Magdalene. Equally suggestive are the folds of her dark undergarment, by her feet, although it’s not quite clear what these might mean.

Mary-Arms-smaller       Magdalene-Arms-smaller

What is clear, however, is that both Marys share a gesture that is close to identical, although not exactly the same. The Magdalene effectively forms a circle with her arms, her fingers clasped halfway between grasping and letting go, as if this posture was meant to signal both processes—a descending and an ascending scale—that was specific to her.

The “white” Mary, on the other hand, is not quite able to form a circle on her own, although she and the “red” John (the Beloved) could be said to form one together, each depending upon the other for the circuit’s completion. Their closed eyes suggests that this mutual dependency is unconscious, relying on their physical proximity, instead. But rather than “psychologize” this relationship, it is worth remembering their elemental associations to understand what makes this relationship “unconscious”.

If Fire is the impulse towards materialization, Earth is the manifestation of that impulse, reflected in physical sensation: the body bears the effect of Fire’s intensity. When these two form a closed circle, Earth is the “receptive” partner, receiving the “seed” of Fire’s imperative. Just as the “fire” of the thrill seeker (or addict) chases certain sensations, so the “earth” bears the consequences of Fire’s enthusiasm.

This goes a long way towards explaining Mary’s immobility and the symbolism of “black” she shares with the Crucified fixed upon the cross by nails that are also black. It is the fiery impulse that defines Earth’s orientation, focused entirely—and entirely dependent—upon the sensations she receives from “him.”

While Earth has traditionally been associated with the absence of light, we see here how “darkness” is born in her as a result of contact with Fire.


As Water, the Magdalene introduces the capacity for change. This is signalled by a shift in consciousness that is mirrored in the opening of her eyes and her gradual unveiling. The veil which she “inherits” from Mary has become partially translucent and now resembles a scarf. Its wrinkles—from the white-translucence at the top of her head to the black stripe around her shoulders—track this process of uncovering. This marks the emergence of awareness of her bondage (black) which she shares with the Crucified.

The black trim of her scarf completes the circle formed by her arms, creating a new circuit that wasn’t available before. It is a cruel achievement since it also inaugurates a period of suffering many would prefer to escape by running back to the (unconscious) dependency of Fire and Earth.

Enneagram Ascending Shocks

In terms of the Enneagram, the ascending scale (do-re-mi, etc.) is associated with—and requires the intervention of—two “shocks”:

  • Conscious Labor (3), sometimes described as Self-Remembering: the process of becoming aware of internal processes, rather than getting “carried away” or “lost” in them.
  • Intentional Suffering (6): the process of accepting and “holding” the experience of pain in order to enable its transmutation.

While not usually discussed in these terms, the descending scale (do-si-la, etc.) consists of the “inverse” of these shock points:

  • Acting Out (6), the opposite of Intentional Suffering, where pain is ejected (or imposed on another) rather than being “held” in oneself.
  • Self-Forgetting (3), the process of getting “wrapped up” or “lost” in sensation; in effect, losing one’s mind to an external source.

The elbows of the Magdalene—jutting out—resemble these two “shock” points. And the strain evident in her pose and on her face reflect the tension between these opposing cycles, one descending the other ascending. It is an impossible position to hold, and she does it with open eyes, yearning for a solution.

Only with the emergence of John the Baptist (Air) can a solution to this conundrum be found. For when he comes, he performs a baptism, an initiatic “death before death.” His capacity to “hold” water will stabilize the Magdalene and aid in her transformation: beginning the process of reversal [metanoia], so she can begin walking on the path towards redemption.

(to be continued …)

~ by mistified on October 22, 2019.

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