The Archangel Michael as Weigher of Souls
The Church of St. Michael in Altenstadt near Schongau in Upper Bavaria, West Germany is a late Romanesque building which, in 1966, was elevated by Pope Paul VI to the rank of a Papal basilica. In the great choir of this church there can be found a small fresco dating from the 14th century which was discovered in 1938 in the course of restoration work. This essay concerns this work of sacred art--not from an art-historical nor from a theological standpoint-- but rather in asking what can be said of this work from the point of view of Christian Hermeticism, and what, on the other hand, this work of art has to say to Christian Hermeticism. It is hoped that these reflections can contribute to a better understanding of what Christian Hermeticism is and, perhaps, point to a method by which other worlds of art in museums and churches may be approached.
When in the chancel of St. Michael's Basilica, you raise your glance to the left-hand wall of the great choir, you see a small fresco dating from early Gothic times, The Archangel Michael as Weigher of Souls. The fresco shows an angelic figure standing on a threshold. In his right hand, he holds a raised sword and, in his left, a pair of scales. The scales consist of a ring-formed hanger held by the angel, a beam of balance, and two pans of different sizes. In, and also under, the larger pan are two figures which, although they bear a remotely human shape are in a state of degeneration and deformation akin to caricature. One of these figures, a female, is seeking a hold inside the pan and is lying in a conspicuously horizontal position; the other, a male, is also in a horizontal position, but clutching the pan from below.
In the other, much smaller pan, a man and a woman are kneeling in prayer in an upright, vertical position. Both are noticeably smaller and less corpulent, as well as more youthful-looking than the older, misshapen figures on the other side of the scales. Although the weight of the smaller pan and of the praying couple is obviously much less tlian that of the other, larger pan with the two larger figures, the small pan sinks downward and the larger one rises up.
The angelic figure with the sword and scales is looking in the drawing our attention to something unusual, or even shocking; namely that there exists a weighing for which massive, corpulent or heavy objects are of less weight than inconspicuous, small or light objects. 'Weight' as determined by the angel must follow entirely other laws than those which are familiar to us in ordinary life, in which quantitatively larger and heavier things would sink while lighter, smaller ones would rise. The weight determined by the angel is weight on some other level. And in the fresco, this level is symbolized as beyond or above the threshold on which the angelic figure is standing. This level is that of quality.
The angel's message is that on the qualitative level other laws hold good than on the quantitative level; for there, small, insignificant objects can have more weight, more importance, than large, massive objects. Quantity and quality, what are the laws valid on these antithetical levels, and how can we know about the laws according to which the angel weighs?
It is part of our daily experience that there are heavier and lighter, larger and smaller objects. Daily, every moment, we compare sizes and relate them with one another. This relating of sizes to each other involves the process of causality--the proceeding from cause to effect--and reflects the usual manner in which our minds work. This 'normal' structure of our minds, which we obey to the extent that we master the 'art of right judgment, of correct inference and combination,' ordains that cause and effect shall always move on the same level. On this level, our minds work horizontally. This is formal logic.
There exists, however, another kind of logic, one which works on the vertical plane, and which establishes a different kind of cause-effect relationship. Here the cause is found on a higher level than the effect. This is moral logic.
formal logic = cause== effect
moral logic = cause
Moral logic consists in experiencing the higher motive for a future moral deed and in transposing the perceived and understood moral content down into the world of thought and deed. This moral content, therefore, arises on a higher level of consciousness than our everyday one, on a higher hierarchical level, as it were, described by religion or Christian esotericism as the sphere of the Angels. A free moral action can be performed, therefore, when a man raises his thinking to the sphere of the angels, where he may, in a real meeting with the angel, take in the moral content of, and incentive for an action--bearing it down then onto the level of everyday consciousness in which he lives. Because this ascending and descending is a living process of thought-formation, it is reasonable to call it 'logic.' As this process can be rightly or wrongly performed, for instance, when one's 'insights' are mistaken, we can speak of laws belonging to this logic which need to be observed. And as these laws determine the correct grasping and realizing of a moral content, it is appropriate to speak of 'moral logic'---an expression first used by Valentin Tomberg.
This whole process can be viewed as a metamorphosis of the thousands of years old teaching preserved archetypally in the Tabula Smaragdina of Hermes Trismegistos:
"What is below is as that which is above,
and what is above is as that which is below."
For the ascent of thinking to a higher level and the grasping of a moral content on that level signifies that what is below (our thinking in ordinary day consciousness) becomes as that which is above (the thinking of the angel). And the descent, that is, the integration into thought of the moral content with its realization in moral action, signifies that which is above (thinking on the angelic level) becomes as that which is below (our thinking and acting on the level of day consciousness). That is to say, moral logic is used in the process of the ascent of human thinking into the world of spirit and in its descent from the spiritual world into the world of day consciousness. This is the logic of Christian Hermeticism as a metamorphosis of ancient Hermeticism. This vertical logic can grasp with its thinking all those 'objects' which possess a vertical dimension and can advance into ever deeper and higher realms the more moral it becomes.
If we now return to our primary question: What are the laws which differentiate the level of quality from the level of quantity?-- we can now say: for the quantitative level the laws of 'horizontal' formal logic are valid, while for the qualitative level the laws of 'vertical' moral logic are valid.
Now in as much as the angel of the fresco weighs in such a manner that the vertical apparently lighter figures in the pan to his right are found to be weightier than the horizontal obviously heavier figures to his left, and in as much as he is an angel, that is, a higher hierarchical being with a consciousness higher than our everyday one, he shows us that the laws according to which he weighs are the laws of moral logic, and he says to us:
All thinking which is directed toward the horizontal plane, toward what is sense-perceptible and measurable knocks up against a boundary, against this threshold where I am standing. If this thinking proceeds further along its habitual lines, if it remains as it is, then it must remain outside of that world whose threshold I am guarding, even if it throws onto the scales the entire mass of present-day scientific knowledge with its logical concepts and conclusions, and however much it has developed and extended the organs and instruments of sense-perception until scientific sleuth-noses have become snout-like and the avid hearkening to the news has produced elephant-like ears!
To our question, how can we know of the laws according to which the angel weighs?--we may now answer: inasmuch as our thinking, our logic undergoes a metamorphosis. For when our horizontal, quantitative way of thinking is lifted upright into the vertical, then formal logic--amoral and ethically neutral--can become a logic with moral content. But how is this metamorphosis to be achieved?
We may begin by asking ourselves what effect does scientific-empirical thinking with its formal, horizontal logic have on our soul-sensibility? In other words, through it do we bump up against an element of unfreedom, or constraint? In such remarlcs as that is logically imperative' and 'the laws of logic compel' a certain experience comes to expression. The intellect and its laws are valid in a general sense--they compel and command, that is--they do not leave us free. Freedom is foreign to the nature of formal logic, and because of this we can get on with each other in everyday life in a moderately reasonable manner, and only thus can science arrive at generally valid and binding results.
It is otherwise, though, in the realm of moral logic. For whether or not I activate a moral consideration and deed lies entirely within the sphere of my freedom. Moral logic does not compel: it waits to be apprehended. It is an individualized logic, which is a step higher than formal logic. In order for reason to metamorphose into the vertical plane, it must decide upon a free deed. This decision means leaving the level of compulsion and rulership appropriate for formal logic-- first having fully measured its domain, that is, after having reached its bounds--in order to then place itself fully in the service of morality. This means that an old experienced mind may have to become a young, inexperienced mind, for at first it knows nothing about the vertical dimension--the world of spirit seems to it entirely dark. A rich, commanding mind must become a poor beseeching mind. This is the first stage of metamorphosis: sacrifice brought by the intellect insofar as it renounces its wealth and its sovereignty after having achieved them.
The second stage consists in the mind which has become 'poor,' opening itself to the voice of the heart, to the warmth and compassion which are the logic' of the rhythmic system. The logic' of the heart is the wisdom of the unconscious: the instinctive feeling for right and wrong, for truth and lies and for what results from them. It is the intimate, whispering voice within the heart, the Bath Kol of the Jewish sages and the Sophia of the Platonists. But how can the intellect and the inner, whispering revelation of wisdom come together? Through prayer. For in prayer, both of them turn toward a highercommon factor. This process of free sacrifice by the intellect and marriage with its own opposite, the unconscious wisdom of the heart, is precisely the process of birth of moral logic. Therefore the Guardian in the fresco tells us:
Only when the cold, horizontal, male intellect stands upright and grows young, when he sacrifices his wealth and his rights of sovereignty in order to become a prayerful intelligence; and when he is married to his opposite, the warm wisdom and compassion of the heart, only then can he find his way over the threshold!
For this reason, in the pan to his right, a young praying couple are depicted. It is prayer, he would tell us, which unites opposites: male and female, mind and morality, intellect and compassionate love, scientific belief and revelation. For this reason the right-hand pan (from the angel's point of view) is held in place by three bands and the left-hand pan by only two. For there exists a negative duality of conflict, and a positive duality of synthesis--of co-operation, of affirmation of a joint goal--which unites opposites and forms the third element both have in common. In other words there is a duality of fruitfulness and a duality of unfruitfulness. The scales tell us that synthesis, and unity in prayer in the vertical direction, have more weight than analysis, and division in the horizontal direction. Therefore the small pan with the couple united in prayer sinks down, while the pan holding those divided goes up.
Does the picture of the figures on the angel's right reveal to us something of our own dilemma today when scientific consciousness and formal logic--after their victorious march over the whole earth and with their prevalence in all spheres of life--appear to come up against a boundary, to approach another threshold? Is not division, divorce, and despair a characteristic sign of our times, just as the two figures of the left-hand pan are divided from each other, the one inside, the other outside the pan? Are our moral passivity (the heavy reclining female figure in the pan), and our scientific technical activity (the downward dragging male figure under the pan), not thereason for our desperation? And do our souls not get ever further dragged down and sick so that our will (the lower parts of the body and misshapen feet), our feeling (the abundant exuberant breasts in the one case, the caved in chest in the other), and our thinking (the degenerate heads) become ever further debased, until the will is either unrestrained or filled with fear, the feeling voluptuous or impoverished, and the thinking shallow or skeptical to the degree of caricature? And does not the other pan reveal to us that the remedy lies in the sacrifice of one's own will, or 'obedience', (the feet in the pan being invisible), in the purity and devotion of feeling, or 'chastity' (the pious attitude), and in the prayer of our minds for knowledge, or 'poverty', (the youthful faces and attitude of prayer)?
Now, the two pans are held together by the beam of the balance, so that the upward movement of one is not possible without the downward movement of the other. And just as there is nothing stationary in the movement of the scales, neither is there in history. There is only ascent and descent, regeneration or degeneration, metamorphosis or deformation. For everything which touches its zenith, which reaches its limits, must be transformed. If it does not change, it goes down hill--it degenerates and becomes caricature. Even scientific consciousness and formal logic will not be spared this destiny, for they too have reached their limits and are at the point of over stepping them--they are slipping out of human hands and becoming ever more attached to instruments and machines. If formal logic, if scientific consciousness, are not transformed into moral logic--into spiritual-scientific consciousness--then they will be doomed to remain behind and go down hill. Then logic will degenerate into sub-logic, which will no longer serve the interests of truth or even of correctness, but whose semblance of truth and correctness will be made use of and misused by other interests, for instance by the will to power. Therefore the angel of the fresco tells us:
God's divine thinking shall one day be given wholly into the hands of man. Up to now man has acquired the first stage of that thinking, formal logic. It is an empty shell, a passing stage, and must be filled with content. This shell can be filled with content and newly structured either from above or from below. Therefore human thinking is a battlefleld where angels fight with demons. If man lifts himself up to the level of the angels, the structure and content of his thinking will become moral and he himself truly human.If he remains where he is, his thinking will slip from him. Then formal logic will no longer be ruled by him, but rather by sub-human powers. It will become sub-logic.
But the Angel holds not only the sword of discrimination between above and below, but also the scales of justice, of divine justice. Therefore he goes on to say:
But it is precisely moral logic which brings the degenerate sub-logic to the light of day. And it is precisely the methods of thinking in the realm of sub-logic which lend weight to moral logic.
Just as Mephisto says in Goethe's Faust: "I am a part of that power which always wills evil and yet does good."
So too, the movement of the scales shows us that although the figures in the right-hand pan are directing their attention upward to the spiritual world, the pan itself moves down toward the earth. It is as if to say:
He alone stands truly on earth who turns his soul to God. In reverent spirit-beholding is the true nature of all things revealed.
On the other hand the two misshapen figures attempt to press and drag the other pan down, earthward, and yet it nonetheless moves upward. For while the horizontal intellect and horizontal perception stay in the earthly realm as if "creeping on the ground and eating dust" (today we would say atoms), like the serpent in Genesis, in truth they withdraw ever further from the essence and reality ofthings. And it seems as if the Soul-Weigher on the fresco would say:
Only if you seek to rise up with the force of your entire being into the divine-spiritual world, only if you desire self-transformation and seek for synthesis, will you become a true citizen of the earth.
And so does the Angel confirm the words of Goethe:
And so long as you have not known this death, and this rebirth, you are but a guest alone on the darkened earth.
Who, then, is this mysterious figure of the Soul-Weigher, the Guardian of the Threshold presented to us by the fresco? Looking closely we see a winged being of enormous human shape, holding a sword in its right hand, whose point reaches over the angel's head. The left hand holds the ring-shaped hanger of a balance at the region of the stomach, or navel. The two pans of the scales are tied on by means of cords to two rings situated on the beam. The angel's head appears separated from the V-shaped edge of his gown (which is scattered over with Sun-symbols) in a sun-like aureole of which one of his eyes forms the center point. The distance from the pommel of the sword to the hanger of the scales is equal to that from the eye to the point of balance. The two hanger rings on the beam are also equidistant from the point of balance. There arises, therefore, an incomplete geometric figure; namely, an open pentagram at whose crossing point is the ring shaped hanger of the scales--this point also being the center point of the entire fresco.
The eye is drawn, then, in a definite way towards the balance point which is situated at the height of the navel of the winged figure. In this particular region of the body there is a supersensible organ well known to Eastern and Western esotericism. This region is known as the ten-petalled lotus flower (or ten pettaled chakra) and is traditionally regarded, above all, as an organ of conscious and unconsciousperception. If the conscious world is systematically expanded, it may appear as the ethically indifferent or amoral knowledge of present-day science. If the unconscious world, on the other hand, is purged, then from the depths of the soul's night a voice becomes audible, the 'voice of conscience.' United with this voice, the heretofore morally neutral knowledge of science becomes moral and compassionate: consciousness becomes conscience. This is why the Angel holds the scales of conscience in the region of the navel.
But why is this balance point at the same time the crossing point of an open pentagram? In order to answer this question we may turn to the work of the great Austrian thinker and seer Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. In the course of his spiritual-scientific investigations, Rudolf Steiner delineated world and human historyinto particular epochs and time-periods. Between the submergence of the continent of Atlantis, described in the Bible, and our own time, he identifies five such time-periods: the Ancient Indian, the Ancient Persian, the Egypto-Babylonian, the Graeco-Roman and the Fifth Post-Atlantean Epoch. Rudolf Steiner places the beginning of this Fifth Epoch in the last part of the 14th and start of the 15th centuries. He says of this period (in which we are now living) that in it a scientific consciousness is developed primarily, and that by means of this scientific-materialistic consciousness, which functions naturally within boundaries, man achieves the consciousness of his own personality which is, likewise, bounded and finite.
This stage, necessary so that man can develop a real ego consciousness is, however, only a transitional state; for with this ego consciousness man must again become a witness and citizen of the spiritual world from which he originates. Now there is a danger in this Fifth Epoch, that man may learn to love his finite personality too much, that he may begin to fear the infinite, boundless world of spirit and thus wish to forget it--a danger that he become a materialist and an atheist.
The point when the shift to our present evolutionary stage occurred, Rudolf Steiner indicates, was when the old platonically tinged philosophy of the 11 th and 12th centuries A.D. (known as the philosophical stream or school of Realism) faded out, and the conceptually sharp, intellectual method of scientific investigation and rational judgement arose, in the 14th and 15th centuries. The latter is known as the philosophical stream of Nominalism and it has expanded and developed up until the present--forming as it does an ocean of scientific belief and consequent remoteness from God.
This spiritual controversy, realism vs. nominalism, and its development can be seen working in the background of history and can be compared to the movement of a balance: an old world view based on self-oblivious revelatory knowledge sinks down and a new world-view based on self-conscious, God-oblivious, intellectual knowledge rises up. And in this fresco, dating from the end of the 14th century, the Guardian of the Threshold shows us this movement: self-oblivious, platonically tinged, vertical and synthetic knowledgedevoted to the spiritual world sinks down (the two figures in the right-hand pan) and self-conscious, horizontal knowledge based on sense perception and discursive thinking ascends (the two divorced figures of the left-hand pan). And it seems as if the Guardian of the Threshold wants to say:
In order that the knowledge of ancient times, which was open to the divine spiritual worlds, may become fruitful for the earth, may appear again on the earth, a knowledge must first arise which is purely earthly and knows nothing of the spirit. The wisdom of revelation must descend into the darkness of forgetting. Intellectual Knowledge must arise and awaken clear day consciousness. Both movements, however, lie in my hand, and the beam of the scales joins them together. Through this connection the wisdom of revelation becomes more profound and, at the same time the 'fear of the heights' of intellectual thinking is revealed as its true weight. For in the Fifth epoch, the period of the pentagram--whose crossing point is at the place where I hold the balance--clear, day consciousness awakened by the intellect must be brought together with a new earth-devoted revelatory wisdom.
But the Fifth epoch is that of freedom. Therefore I hold the sword lifted up with no intention of a blow: it admonishes and warns, but does not compel. So I watch and hope that human beings will in freedom decide to transform themselves and their world morally. If they do this, then the Fifth epoch will have fulfilled its task. The outcome off this epoch, therefore, is open, for all depends on the free decision of human beings. For this reason my posture is that of an open pentagram.
So the Guardian of the Threshold, The Angel with Scales and Sword indicates to us the great task of our Fifth epoch: there must take place an alchemical transmutation of the old logic into a new moral logic and ethically indifferent scientific consciousness must be transformed into conscience. There must be a marriage of opposites: of intellectuality with spirituality, of intelligence with wisdom, of science with revelation, of esotericism with religion. In short, true peace must come to realization.
Moral Logic, Conscience, and Peace, these are the three tasks, the fixed points, the three shining cords which hold the pan of truly human thinking--the marriage of intelligence and wisdom--in rest and in balance. And it is the cords of doubt and fear which set the pan of hypothesis and speculation fluctuating.
Moral Logic, Conscience, and Peace. Christian Hermeticism regards the realization of these three great tasks as its Task. It lays no claim in this to exclusiveness, but rejoices in every contribution toward the realization of these goals. Above all, however, Christian Hermeticism regards the Guardian of the Threshold, as depicted in the fresco of St. Michael's Basilica, not only as an admonisher and repeller, but above all as a friend and protector.
But the Soul-weigher, with Sword and Balance, shows us only one aspect of moral logic. He indicates what the necessary conditions are for ascending with our thinking into the world of spirit. As we said above, the logic of Christian Hermeticism, as a metamorphosis of ancient Hermeticism, applies not only to the process of the ascent of human thinking into the spiritual world but also to its descent from the spiritual world into the world of everyday consciousness. The second part of the process of moral logic is not shown to us by this Guardian of the Threshold who guards the mysteries of death, who reveals to us how the intellect grown old must die if it is to tie return and made young again in the spiritual world. But, how then does the process of descent or birth of spirit into the world of everyday consciousness take place ? What are the laws of such a birth? And who is the Guardian of the Mysteries of Birth?
END PART I