Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Part 3 - Examination of a Mystical Figure Sheds Some New Light on Esoteric Beliefs of Ephrata Cloister

"Mystical Figure" , Jacob Martin
"Awakening Man, Johann Gichtel


In the last 2 installments of this blog, I wrote about the discovery of the “Mystical Figure” above on the left from the papers of Jacob Martin at the Ephrata Cloister.  I explained how this “Mystical Figure” was a copy of the figure on the right, “Awakening Man", from a publication by Johann Gichtel in 1696.  In this third installment, I will attempt to explain how the Mystical Figure was interpreted in the past and how certain misconceptions and difficulties in interpretation could have been made.  In the 4th and final installment of this blog, I will attempt to discover and present the significance that this “Mystical Figure” held for Jacob Martin from Ephrata. 

As I explained in an earlier installment of this blog, my first encounter with the “Mystical 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 his book and included an image of the “Mystical Figure” in his final manuscript. 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.”

Quinn goes on to write,

                 “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.”

D. Michael Quinn is a fine Mormon Scholar and this book is an important piece of scholarship in Mormon Studies. I read it and intend using it in my further research on the early Mormon Church. However, the writing he did on the “Mystical Figure” or as he described it, “a man wearing a religio-magical garment” contains a number of inaccuracies, probably due to assumptions he made based on previous research.  Obviously, D. Michael Quinn had no idea that the “Mystical Figure” was based on the much older Gichtel illustration. Had he known, he could have compared the two images side-by-side. He no doubt may have arrived at some very different conclusions. Let us now make a side-by-side comparison of both illustrations to see what Quinn got right, and where he went astray.

The first part of Quinn’s description of the “Mystical Figure” is correct. Both the “Mystical Figure’ and “Awakening Man” has the astrological symbol for Saturn on the crown of the head and the symbol for Jupiter on the forehead. Quinn was also fairly accurate regarding the depiction of the figure emerging out of the heart of the figure. Arthur Versluis writes that the heart inscribed “Jesus” shows a bird, maybe phoenix, eagle, or dove representing the Holy Spirit rising out of its light. Quinn is also correct about the blood dripping from the heart of Jesus, however; the recipient of that blood is actually Mercury, not the planet Earth.  The four-footed creature on the right breast is actually a dog, not a salamander, although the crude style of the artist and previous Ephrata research may have lead him to make that assumption. Verslius explains that the dog symbolizes desires and the animal self and in an earlier version of “Awakening Man”, (“Fenster Mench”) is turned toward the heart influencing it.  In “Awakening Man”, there is spiritual improvement and the dog is not longer seen facing the heart, but is turned away from the heart and now exercising less influence upon it.  

Quinn’s description of the sash belt reflecting both biblical and magic vestments is interesting. Whether the sash has any meaning in the Gichtel illustration is unclear. It may simply serve as covering for the privates. Quinn describes this sash as part of a skin-tight garment with wrist to ankle construction, and a fastening seam from chest to navel. In the Gichtel illustration, “Awakening Man’s garment disappears.  The upper and lower halves of the body are unclothed and the torso appears to be split into a “Yin-Yang”-like spiritual division.  Even if we did not have the Gichtel illustration with which to compare, Quinn’s description of this “religio-magical garment” simply does not fit. There is nothing like that garment in any of the depictions of Ephrata clothing or garb at the time, neither in the art work, nor in any firsthand accounts of what they wore. One very interesting aspect of the Jacob Martin illustration, not mentioned by Quinn, and not appearing in the Gichtel illustration is the overly emphasized hairy left arm.  In the Jacob Martin illustration, the arm is almost mammalian. Could this symbolize the “Base” mammalian instincts that man strives to suppress? Spiritual and religious literature throughout history has examples of this tendency.  

D. Michael Quinn’s association of the”Mystical Figure” with Rosicrucian philosophy is understandable. The theory that Ephrata was a Rosicrucian order most likely emerged from Julius Sachse. Sachse was an important German American Historian in the late 1800’s.  His scholarship was important and he can be credited with saving and disseminating much of the early history of Ephrata. He was also an excellent photographer, responsible for recording and preserving many of the earliest and best photographic images of Ephrata and its spinoff, The Snow Hill Monastery. His contributions to Ephrata research cannot and should not be discounted.  However; Sachse was not above elaborating, bending, manipulating, and even fabricating facts and evidence to make a good story.  One should not forget that his massive two volume history of Ephrata is subtitled, “A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers”. His book is a serious piece of research, but it was written in a more romantic literary style than modern academic history today, and it must be read with a critical eye. Unfortunately, many subsequent historians researching Ephrata seemed to take Sachse completely at his word and Quinn appears to be following in this vein.  In 1985, E.G. Alderfer published, “The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counter Culture”. This book was written in a modern academic style, but the great majority of its evidence comes from Sachse, and other authors that took him at his word.  Quinn possible accepted Alderfer’s book as the newest and most reliable source of modern scholarship on Ephrata, and his frequent use of term “commune” suggests that he was influenced by Alderfer’s book.  Quinn also cites Alderfer and Sachse frequently in the part about Ephrata. Based on the previous accepted research, Quinn created a narrative for the “Mystical Figure” that fitted his understanding of the evidence.  These are some of the problems that come from accepting the work of previous authors without looking into the primary evidence.    

Here marks the end of the third installment of my blog on the “Mystical Figure” from Jacob Martin’s papers at Ephrata. Hopefully, I have explained successfully how the “Mystical Figure” was interpreted in the past and how certain misconceptions and difficulties in interpretation could have been made.  In the 4th and final installment of this blog, I will attempt to discover and present the significance that this “Mystical Figure” held for Jacob Martin from Ephrata. Thank you for reading.

Nick Siegert

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