Various works of art leading up to the Renaissance period in Europe tell a story of persecution that is carefully preserved on canvas through form and light-and-shadow. A careful examination of these works makes it clear that the artists who created them had an important message they wanted to communicate in a way that would not be readily available at first glance. The message is rather reserved for those in the know or with the skill and patience to read between the lines of form and color in order to discover the obvious answer to a riddle missed by the untrained eye. Recent popular conspiracy-theory adventure movies such as The DaVinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s National Treasure have made a point clear: when one looks beneath the surface of some of these works of art, such as Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, one can in fact find hints of hidden truths that challenge traditional views.
A few unique examples illustrate this fact and show us a common thread between them, a common message despite very different historical context and raisons d’être. These works even come from different continents that were isolated from each other at the time they were created. The hidden message we can potentially distill from them was often under attack by the powers of their time, forced underground and safeguarded through works of art. This is not the work of fantasy or a conspiracy theory, but the real common effort of a group of diverse individuals across the globe.
The connection between a serpent and the brain in art, however farfetched or barbaric it may appear at first sight, can be found today in the world of medicine, in the ancient caduceus of Greek mythology.
One such individual was Doménicos Theotokópoulos, or El Greco, the famous painter of Greek origin during the Spanish Renaissance. Common themes easily recognizable in El Greco’s most famous paintings are the mystery of death, the afterlife, and the thin veil that separates heaven and earth and shrouds the divine from the human world. Even though the majority of his works were commissioned by sponsors, they clearly show a trend beyond the mere desire to express classical truths of divine nature. Paintings by El Greco demonstrate his interest in the human element, the virtue of humanity in its own right, and the meaning of the divine for the human. This trend is in harmony with the great humanists of the time that were largely responsible for the Renaissance itself in Europe. El Greco was keenly interested not only in Christ’s resurrection, for example, but in Mary’s dormition and assumption into heaven, the belief in a unique human being who transcended death and journeyed to the realm of the divine in bodily form.
In The Burial of Count Orgaz he loads the scene with hints somewhat easy to decipher that express his thoughts on the subject of death and the afterlife. An uninformed viewer may simply see the beautiful portrayal of an important funeral with Christ and the company of saints in heaven above, majestically gazing down from the clouds. If we look more closely we see that the clouds are not meant to be simply clouds but resemble the scene of a woman in labor ready to give birth — but in reverse. The angel directly above the dead Count Orgaz is basically serving as a midwife and in its hands holds the hint of a ghostly newborn baby, the soul of the Count journeying through the womb in the clouds into heaven to Christ. The message seems simple and in line with traditional Christian beliefs.
The hidden message is now revealed more clearly when the text of this book and the sketch are viewed together from this perspective: The ascent to God has something to do with the brain’s latent potential and the various paths one can freely choose in exploring it.
As it is common of any riddle, there are often various layers of meaning to be discovered. Riddles are often more than a mere intellectual abstraction; they contain an experiential element. They are a personal journey of discovery that challenges our preconceptions and broadens our perception to see a new landscape before us. This experiential element of personal transformation is important, as we will see later in the works of the Spanish mystic from the Renaissance, Juan de la Cruz. El Greco was living in Toledo at the time of this painting, the highest ecclesiastical center in Spain during the most savage years of the Inquisition, where not even the son of the king was spared from suspicion of heresy. This was certainly a time where riddles in poetry and art had to replace an open discussion of certain topics for safety’s sake.
Is there a deeper layer of meaning in El Greco’s funeral painting? On the Earth plane, to the left of the painting, we find a famous Augustinian monk, mystic, and contemporary humanist Fray Luis de León, who is questioning what is taking place there with Saint Augustine at the center of the funeral scene. This could have been interpreted as a reckless offense against the church, since Augustine was one of the Fathers of the Latin Church and the symbol of true faith. What happens to the soul of just people after death was not up for questioning, especially not during this dangerous time for free thinkers. Luis de León was indeed a rebel. He was tried twice by the Inquisition — an all-time record, as almost no one survived their first try — for his involvement with humanist ideas and with the works of Spanish mystics and reformers, Theresa of Avila and Juan de la Cruz. Apparently no one paid attention to this irreverent questioning of the faith and it went safely unnoticed.
Fray Luis de León was imprisoned for close to five years by the Inquisition for translating books of the bible to the vernacular that describe — again in code and concealed in poetic imagery — the spiritual journey and transformation of the human into the divine. He wanted to make this knowledge available to common people, individuals he loved and cared about, a typical trend among many humanists of the time. In a way, he was a rebel doing the opposite of painters like El Greco, who instead of translating the message for everyone to clearly read in their common vernacular tongue, skillfully veiled and hid it in their paintings. The bloody trail and sickening stench from the fires left behind by the so-called Crusades against the infidel are enough reason why the message had to be safeguarded and encoded in art. The artists not only had to protect their lives from being destroyed, but also the knowledge and message they wanted to communicate.
This message dovetails with the message of the humanists from the Renaissance, who wanted to bridge the gap between heaven and earth and restore the rightful place of human nature as a gift with great potentials.
Both Juan de la Cruz, Fray Luis de León’s pupil at the University of Salamanca, and Michelangelo offer us a cipher for their veiled messages. I first became aware of the deeper meaning of Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment in the early 90’s, when Ramtha described to the students the elements that clearly help identify God the Creator inside a human brain, stretching his arm out through the frontal lobe, commanding the creation of Adam with his life-giving finger. The angels surrounding God resemble the folds of the brain’s neocortex, the reddish cloak enfolding the divine beings, including Eve right next to the creator, delineate the shape of a skull, and the greenish cloak draping the back of an angel at the base of the scene brings to mind the spinal cord of the brain.
Interpreted this way, the message is somewhat clear: God resides inside the individual and the divine power of creation is exercised through the brain and the power of thoughtful intention, as the frontal lobe has now been discovered to be the place of decision making and conscious awareness. This message dovetails with the message of the humanists from the Renaissance, who wanted to bridge the gap between heaven and earth and restore the rightful place of human nature as a gift with great potentials — not an evil curse — capable of knowing the mysteries of life and the universe and sharing in the power of creation through the exercise of will and personal thought.
The map in The Ascent to Mount Carmel drawn by Juan de la Cruz is another version of the same message we find daringly painted on the Sistine Chapel. In this case, quite ironically, the cipher is the self-portrait of Juan de la Cruz himself. If you pay attention to the map, the two windy roads at the bottom bring to mind the neck on the monk’s cloak, revealing the spinal cord in the middle; again leading up to the brain and the frontal lobe, just as in Michelangelo’s painting. The top of Mount Carmel in the drawing has scarce shrubs and growth there, just like the monk’s own bald head in the painting. I guess the monk did have a sense of humor, after all!
The artists not only had to protect their lives from being destroyed, but also the knowledge and message they wanted to communicate.
Juan de la Cruz went a bit further with his daring revelation. As well as the map of Mount Carmel, he created a more detailed sketch of it that he included in the same book. This sketch clearly shows the sketch of a human figure, the torso, the shoulders, the arms at the sides, the neck and head. By no means is this the sketch of an actual mountain. Further, this sketch has six divisions like ribs along the torso’s sides, denoting the various paths of spiritual evolution to the divine, with a seventh path right in the center of the body moving right up to the brain in the head. Remember this sketch is from the 1500s, although it could easily be compared to any Hindu chart of the various chakras in the human body. The hidden message is now revealed more clearly when the text of this book and the sketch are viewed together from this perspective: The ascent to God has something to do with the brain’s latent potential and the various paths one can freely choose in exploring it.
From a different corner of the globe come some further examples. The art of the Americas was obviously not influenced by fear of persecution but has unfortunately remained veiled from modern understanding. Its original purpose and meaning have faded like colors in an old painting through the passage of time. The head of the fiery serpent, Xiucoatl, displayed today at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, is astonishingly similar to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and The Ascent to Mount Carmel. The head of the serpent has what look like bulbs or eggs along the top, moving from the lower back of the head to a place that would correspond to the frontal lobe. Interestingly, there are seven bulbs, though due to some damage they have not been preserved completely.
The hidden message we can potentially distill from them was often under attack by the powers of their time, forced underground and safeguarded through works of art.
The places where they begin and end remind us of Michelangelo’s painting. The number of bulbs portrayed reminds us of Juan de la Cruz’s sketch and the Hindu traditions. The eye of the serpent stands out, prominent in the center, as does God the Father in Michelangelo’s painting. The fiery serpent head also has courses of sculpted sequences that flow from the base of the head, through the mouth, up to the forehead, cresting backwards along the path of bulbs that end right in the center of the top of the head, right above the all-seeing eye. The connection between a serpent and the brain in art, however farfetched or barbaric it may appear at first sight, can be found today in the world of medicine, in the ancient caduceus of Greek mythology. The serpents wind along a center pole similar to the spine, with a globe on the top, which could be the head or the brain. This is our cipher in this case, which astonishingly links the old and new worlds, before the European discovery of America.
The heads of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent from the pyramids of Teotihuacan — the city “where humans become Gods” — outside of Mexico City, seek to bridge heaven and earth and tear down the thin veil between humanity and the divine, as we found in the paintings of El Greco. The feathered serpent joins into one the creatures from the sky with those who course the earth. This poetic and bucolic way to express this human longing, just as the humanists in Europe did, draws from the imagery of nature. Xiucoatl provides a more extensive script for the adept that maps out the journey of this ascent, just as Juan de la Cruz attempted to accomplish with his work.
We can see clearly now there is more to these works than meets the eye, and we have just briefly scratched the surface. From Europe to the Americas, they all agree on one thing. The hidden truth safeguarded from persecution and forgetfulness through artistic expression in stone or canvas or whatever nature provides is ultimately buried inside the person, inside the extraordinary creative potential of the human brain, which is waiting to be discovered and experienced by those capable of deciphering this ageold riddle.
Paintings by El Greco demonstrate his interest in the human element, the virtue of humanity in its own right, and the meaning of the divine for the human.