Saturday, September 26, 2015

Examination of a Mystical Figure Sheds Some New Light on Esoteric Beliefs of Ephrata Cloister

Mystical Figure from Jacob Martin Papers, Ephrata
The drawing on the left (which for the sake of convenience, I will refer to as the “Mystical Figure”)   part of Ephrata’s collection, is part of the papers of Jacob Martin, a married member of the Ephrata Congregation.  Little of Jacob Martin is known before his association with Ephrata which can be documented no earlier than 1761. He was born in Europe on June 10, 1725 and died as a “Good Christian” (as stated on his tombstone) on July 19, 1790. The tombstone also states that he was a “High Philosopher”.

The papers of Jacob Martin contain Astrological charts and writings with Alchemical  and spiritual themes. Some of these writings have been translated by Elizabethtown College professor, Jeff Bach, and they are addressed in his book, Voices of the Turtle Doves(2003), but  little attention was given to the drawing of the Mystical Figure at the time, and it was set aside for later consideration.

My first encounter with this figure was about 2 years ago when I was researching possible connections between Ephrata and the early Mormon Church. I was reading a book, Early Mormonism and the Magical World View, an important book in Mormon scholarship, by Michael D. Quinn (1987). Quinn was here at Ephrata in the 1980’s researching the book in which this image is included. His interpretation of the image was as follows:
        “a member of the Rosicrucian Ephrata commune, in Lancaster Pennsylvania, in the late 1700’s drew a picture of a man wearing a religio-magical garment featuring the salamander.  The astrological symbol for Saturn was on the man’s crown and the symbol for Jupiter on his far head.  On the left breast of his garment, surrounded by flames, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a stick figure of an ascending bird (apparently either the Christian symbol of a dove as the Holy Ghost or the mythical Phoenix symbol of resurrection), and on the garments right breast was a stick figure of a four footed reptile – obviously a salamander, which figured prominently in the Rosicrucian philosophy of elemental spirits that the Ephrata commune had mixed with its Christian mysticism.” 
Earlier scholarship on Ephrata was greatly influenced by the German American Historian, Julius Sachse, an important source on Ephrata, but some of his conclusions and claims, based on questionable, non-documented, or non-existent evidence, leads to the conclusion that his writings should be carefully read. Many subsequent writers seemed to take Sachse completely at his word, and Quinn appears to be following in this vein.  Quinn goes on to write,
              “At the crown of the head is an astrological symbol for Saturn, on the forehead the symbol for Jupiter.  Over the left breast, surrounded by flames, is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is dripping sanctifying blood upon the planet earth.  From the heart is the stick figure of an ascending bird (the Christian symbol for the Holy Ghost or the mythological Phoenix). Over the right breast is the stick figure of a four-footed reptile (representing the Ephrata Commune’s Rosicrucian theology of the salamander as the elemental spirit of fire). The sash belt reflects descriptions of both biblical and magic vestments.  However, the Ephrata garment was of skin-tight, wrist to ankle construction, with fastening seam from chest to navel.
I don’t claim to be an Ephrata scholar, or specialist on Alchemical or Rosicrucian history, but I do know a good deal about the history of Ephrata and some elements of what Quinn wrote regarding the Mystical Figure, appeared to me to be completely wrong. Subsequent scholarship on Ephrata has called into question the Rosicrucian connection, and the actual description of this “religio-magical” garment featuring the salamander was extremely questionable. There is simply nothing like that garment in any of the depictions of Ephrata clothing or garb at the time, nor in the art work, or in any firsthand accounts of what they wore. The heavy significance of the salamander is also something that I’ve never encountered before at Ephrata. I just assumed that Quinn was following Julius Sachse and E.G. Alderfer on faith without looking into any more recent scholarship.  I asked our Curator Kerry Mohn to look at the Jacob Martin papers, and finally saw the actual drawing up close and in person.  I thought the drawing was very interesting and assumed there may be some spiritual and possibly alchemical influences, but at the time, I was more interested in other things Quinn had to say about the early Mormon Church, so I let the issue of the Mystical Figure slip from my concern.
"Awakening Man", from Gichtel, Eine kurze
Eroffnung, 1696. An  individual on the
 spiritual path, engaged in spiritual struggle
About 6 months ago I was reading Wisdom’s Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition, by Arthur Versluis, and was startled to find this same Mystical Figure staring back at me from the page. I believe the illustration from the Jacob Martin papers of the Mystical Figure pictured above is a depiction of the illustration on the left. This illusration was published about 70 years earlier than the Jacob Martin creation, but I believe that they are one and the same.

The illustration  on the left is actually from a series of 4 plates and it comes from a treatise published by Johann Georg Gichtel in 1696: Eine kruz Eroffnung und Anwesung der drei Prinzipien und Weltenim Menschen – (“A brief Opening and Demonstration of the three Principals and Worlds in Man”)
Johann Gichtel,  (1638-1710) was a writer, visionary and theosophist, who promoted the work of early 17th-century visionary and mystic Jacob Boehme and compiled the first complete edition of Boehme’s works.  He also distilled the ideas and writing of Boehme and was extremely important in spreading Boehme’s ideas and thought to Conrad Beissel and other radical pietists.  The illustrations and writing by Gichtel depict planetary symbolism and the process of spiritual transformation on the body. Other Alchemical and symbolic representations also appear.  The Mystical Figure from Ephrata is a representation of the 2nd plate, “Awakening Man. Arthur Versluis also describes this figure as “an individual on the spiritual path, engaged in spiritual struggle.” 

What what was the significance of Jacob Martin's Mystical Figure? Why was it created and what purpose did it serve the religious beliefs of Jacob Martin and The Ephrata Community?  In the next blog I will delve further into the meaning of Gicthel’s illustrations and compare his interpretaions of the figure with that of  D. Michael Quinn, and speculate on the the significance it held for Jacob Martin and Ephrata. 

Nick Siegert

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