The Lithuanian painter’s works include several symbolic references that may be attributed to Theosophical influences, but the relation remains conjectural.
by Massimo Introvigne
In the previous article of this series, which originates from the international conference on Lithuanian painter M.K. Čiurlionis, organized in Druskininkai, Lithuania, on July 1–2, 2022, I have discussed the possible connections between the artist and Theosophy by looking at historical 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 read the works of another leading Theosophist, French astronomer Camille Flammarion.
Apart from Čiurlionis’ 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 its paintings, and his quite complicate symbols derive from multiple influences.
The Druskininkai conference explored in depth the symbol of the serpent, 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, Oriental religions, and the Bible, all sources accessible to Čiurlionis.
In other cases too it is difficult to determine which beliefs and themes came to Čiurlionis from Stabrowski’s esoteric influence, and which came from Lithuanian folk culture. Čiurlionis was a collector of the Lithuanian popular songs called daïnos from the area around Druskininkai, and he arranged some forty of them in new musical versions. They also influenced paintings such as “Thoughts” (1907).
In Čiurlionis’ “Sonata of the Stars” (1908), “Andante” shows a pyramid-like structure topped with a bird-like angel. A horizontal stripe represents the Milky Way. The Milky Way, also known as the Way of the Birds, played a prominent role in pre-Christian Lithuanian religion. It is where the souls of the deceased dwelled. Pyramids and the different levels of the divine world were also recurring themes in the Theosophical literature.
Čiurlionis believed in reincarnation and the pre-existence of human souls, both central Theosophical tenets. To his future wife Sofija, he wrote that “our beginning is somewhere in the infinity before all ages” and that “a very long time ago, and definitely not once, we have already changed our form. But the memory is weak, and to recall it requires extraordinary concentration.”
Interpreters have seen in “News” (1905) the soul depicted as a bird caught at sunrise—or perhaps sunset—between one life and the other. Let me emphasize that this is, once again, a plausible but speculative interpretation.
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 in order to reach her we should cross a burning abyss—the same abyss we see in the “Andante” of the “Sonata of the Serpent.”
Angels also play a prominent role both in Theosophy and in Čiurlionis, and are often depicted together with non-Christian symbols, including in “Angels (Paradise)” and “Angel (Prelude),” both of 1909. An angel also appears in “The Offering”, also of 1909 and the artist’s last completed painting before his final illness.
Čiurlionis’ “Supreme Being” is called Rex. In “Rex “(1909) we discover that in fact there are two Supreme Beings hierarchically ordained. Kazokas writes that, “The light-colored unit, comprising the planet [Earth] and Rex, is enclosed by a bigger image of a second Rex.” This may not be orthodox Theosophy, but it is not Christianity either and keeps a certain Theosophical flavor.
One of Čiurlionis’ major works is the thirteen-panel cycle “Creation of the World” (1905–1906). “I have had the idea of painting it all my life—he wrote –. This is the creation of the world, only not ours according to the Bible but some other fantastic world.”
It is not the Bible, indeed. Particularly, the second (or first) panel, conveys the quite Theosophical idea of a primeval field of energy spreading through the first movement of the universe.
Atlantis, a favorite Theosophical locus, has been located almost everywhere. Not far from Druskininkai lies the scenic Raigardas Valley, a source of fascination for Čiurlionis, who depicted it in a 1907–1908 triptych.
Local lore, still preserved in information packages for tourists and certainly well known to the artist, maintains that in the valley once “stood a large city, later swallowed into the earth,” yet another, if minor, version of the ubiquitous Atlantis story.
“The Fairy Tale of the Kings” (1908–1909) is one of the few paintings the artist cared to explain, and a reference to when the Lithuanian monarchy had two kings. Here, in the darkness and beauty of a Lithuanian forest, the kings hold in their hand a dome radiating light and encasing other constructions, which, Čiurlionis explained, “represents the radiance of Lithuanian culture, which is called by history to say its word.” On the other hand, the movement from darkness to light is, at the same time, a recurring topic in Theosophical iconography and worldview.
The last Sonata cycle painted by Čiurlionis is “Sonata of the Pyramids” (1908–1909). It consists of three paintings: “Allegro,” “Andante,” and “Scherzo” (or “Finale”). We can divide the paintings into planes and sub-planes, representing the past, the present, and the future. The pyramids are places where humans can experience the intervention of higher cosmic powers, which inter alia prepare for reincarnation.
Ancient structures—including, on the left side of “Scherzo,” some Kazokas regarded as “very similar to the ruins of the castle of Vilnius”—are represented next to fantastic, modernistic buildings.
As a scholar of new religious movements, let me mention also the Pyramid of Merkinė, not far from Druskininkai, a center of alternative spirituality built in 2002 by Povilas Žekas.
Žekas’ mother is an amateur painter familiar with Čiurlionis’ work, although Žekas himself claims he built his pyramid following a divine revelation rather than after being inspired by the pyramids of Čiurlionis.
In conclusion, I do not argue that Theosophy was the only influence on Čiurlionis. The occult circle of Stabrowski, a committed Theosophist, did play a role. However, echoes of Lithuanian folklore, Lithuanian nationalism, the philosophy of Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Japanese art, particularly by Hokusai (1760–1849), the symbolism of Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) and others, have also been found in his work, and some of these influences may have been not less important than Theosophy.
Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) was a member of the Theosophical Society and, at least at one stage of his life, tried explicitly to create a “Theosophical art.” Lawren Harris (1885–1970) was another card-carrying Theosophist. He said his art was not “preaching Theosophy” but he did, most notably through a radio program, and the echoes in his paintings are unmistakable. As opposite to Mondrian, Harris, Delville, Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), or Stabrowski himself, Čiurlionis never joined the Theosophical Society nor did he create icons explicitly illustrating Theosophical concepts. His contact was indirect, through Stabrowski and his circle, and the books of Flammarion.
While he did mention 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 the occult circle of Stabrowski. 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 journals) were lost or perhaps destroyed—which would not be surprising within the political context I mentioned in a previous articles.
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 should also remember that he was a man of deep spiritual experiences, which may have paralleled these of the Theosophists and led him to come to similar conclusions intuitively rather than through their doctrines.