DISCOURSE on SYMBOLISM
The following is an adaptation of a discourse on "Symbolism and the
Mystical Artist" prepared and presented by Melchior at a metaphysical
conference in June, 1989.
Man is distinguished from animals by his ability to symbolize.
Memory, imagination, and psychic impressions all use the symbolizing
function of the mind. Religion, science, mysticism, and mythology all
make use of symbols, as well as dreams, allegory, fairy tales, and
A symbol is a story told by a familiar sign. We are familiar enough
with the devices used to direct the traffic of our city streets and our
railways, and we recognize at once the manufacturers. All these things
are symbols. A symbol, therefore, can also be a mark of identification.
The symbol functions both psychologically and mystically.
Psychological functions are mental functions such as perception and
emotion. They pertain to the individual and his reactions and
responses. Mystical functions arise from and express mystical
experiences and reactions and responses to them.
Since they represent the nature of man, the cosmos, and God,
symbols are a product of man's understanding and an aid to further
Symbols are a means of representing basic mystical principles, such
as the relation of opposites or the resulting third element.
The essence of symbolism lies in the recognition of one thing as
standing for another and in the relation between them normally being
that of concrete to abstract, particular to general. The relation is
such that the symbol, by itself, appears capable of generating and
receiving an effect otherwise reserved for the object to which it
refers - and such effects are often of high emotional charge.
A complete symbol consists of form and meaning. In terms of the Law
of the Triangle, the form is the first point, the meaning is the second
point, and the symbol itself is the third point. The form of the
meaning may be realized in the mind as when a dream is recalled but not
told to someone else. We may think of the Sign of the Cross without
expressing or using it.
The form or the meaning or both may be expressed in some other
ways; by writing an account of the mountain and its meaning, or by
drawing the form of the mountain or the triangle. In the latter case,
the meaning may be explained or left to the viewer to realize.
Basic archetypal or transcendant spiritual patterns are expressed
in many forms in mythology, religion, literature, and art. The
archetypal plan or pattern is manifested in created or mundane types
which are realized by man in his awareness of the universe, himself,
and the symbols he creates. These symbols, however, are influenced by
the society and culture in which the individual lives, as well as by
his own nature and personality.
Because symbolizing is fundamental to many mental functions, it is
used in formulating ideas, emotions, and so on. Without symbols, man
would be unable to understand fundamental natural and Cosmic laws. His
religious and philosophic beliefs depend on his symbolizing ability.
Each individual's own particular reality depends on the symbols he uses
and the meanings he gives them.
The symbol is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Used
as an end in itself, it may inhibit the individual's development by
keeping him from the genuine understanding and experience which it only
represents. Used as a means to that end, it can assist in attaining
Symbols serve various purposes: the need for order, communication
with others, preservation of knowledge, self- expression, remembering
and instructing, meditation and concentration, promoting psychological
and mystical development.
Symbols may be considered as individual, collective, or
transcendental. A symbol which is derived from a person's own
experience and is peculiar to him is an individual symbol. Collective
symbols are those used by groups such as religious groups, fraternal
orders, social groups, educational or sports groups. Political symbols,
such as flags, are also collective symbols. Transcendental or
archetypal symbols are those which are common to many people in
different times and places. These symbols all transcend either
individual or collective uses of them, even though they appear in
For example, There are over four hundred forms of the cross. Of
these, about fifty have been used in Christian symbolism. Many of them
undoubtedly had their origin in heraldry, and are included in most of
the standard books on the subject of Christian symbolism.
Symbols may be classified in other ways, such as being either
natural or artificial. Or, alternatively, they have been classified as
Objective, Subjective, or Subconscious/Archetypal.
The cross when used to symbolize the four directions is an
objective symbol. When it stands for persecution, it is subjective. It
is subconscious as used in the Rosy Cross. Categorization, therefore,
is seen to depend not on the form, but on the meaning associated by the
Mystical symbols are primarily archetypal and, therefore, are
psychic. Psychic symbols, impressions, and experiences are a product of
the individual's own understanding, even when they have an outside
source. Their main value is in self- understanding and in the expansion
of consciousness. They represent part of the individual's experience;
they symbolize and arise from:
l. Meditation, attunement, and intuition.
2. The individual's own psychological and psychic or mystical
3. Psychological, intellectual, and spiritual desires.
4. Telepathically received impressions from others.
5. Instruction or suggestion from others.
6. Self-suggestion from what one sees, hears or reads.
7. Imagination and Fantasy.
8. Wishful thinking.
9. Previous incarnations.
The range of objects and actions used as symbols suggest that the
things in themselves are not of primary significance and that the key
to an understanding of their symbolic quality lies in circumstances to
which they refer or of which they are a part. It is not their
particular nature but their relationships which account for their
selection as symbols. At the same time, one cannot completely ignore
the character of an object used as a symbol because certain classes of
objects tend to stand in certain types of relationship to given
At this point it is important to distinguish between a symbol and a
sign. As we have discussed, a symbol represents something else. A sign,
on the other hand, identifies or indicates something rather than
represents. An example is a sign on a store. A sign may be defined as a
symbol which indicates or identifies something perceived or conceived
either in the objective world or in the mind.
There are two kinds of signs. The first is derived from the
material or objective world, while the second is a degenerated symbol.
By this it is meant that it was originally a true symbol which
represented something different than itself and which was not a simple
The differences between signs and symbols may be outlined as:
1. Single meaning Multiple meaning
2. Identifies or indicates Represents
3. Tends to be conscious Tends to be unconscious
4. Based on perceptual level Based on reactional level
In order to be considered a true symbol, several criteria should be
met. If any of the following criteria is either lacking or deficient,
the symbol tends to degenerate into a sign or a mere signal.
1. A symbol should have an individual meaning.
2. It should originate in the subconscious.
3. Both polarities, form and meaning, should function
4. The form and meaning should be reversible to some extent.
5. A symbol should have more than one level of meaning, if not
actually, then at least potentially.
6. The meaning is projected to the form and again assumed by the
perceiver of the symbol, to be reprojected, etc.
7. The symbol transmits meaning to its users, and it transmutes
the consciousness or experience of the users.
Symbols can be classified as communicative, artistic, and
ritualistic. Communicative symbols are what the name implies, those
which are used specifically to communicate knowledge and information.
Although all symbols are designed to communicate, this category refers
to those symbols which are intended primarily to convey concepts, ideas
and emotions, similarly to the exercise we did earlier. Mystical
symbols are sometimes used to instruct the student in certain
principles. The symbol then is both mystical and communicative.
Artistic symbols are those which are used in art forms for esthetic
purposes. The quality of the art is not a criterion for deciding
whether a symbol is artistic. If the symbol is used in painting,
sculpture, architecture, or literature, it is an artistic symbol. A
symbol may e communicative in one usage and artistic in another, or it
may be a combination of both.
Ritualistic symbols are those which are used either in a ritual
itself or to evoke a ritual in the mind of the initiate. Rituals of
fraternal orders use symbols as do religious, political and social
The processes of looking for symbols and discussing them have been
important in the study of painting and other graphic arts. The
interpretation of the symbolic qualities of Christian religious art of
the early medieval period in Western Europe can be used as an
illustration. In fact, the structure of church buildings themselves
were held to represent the human body, with the chancel being the head
and the transepts the arms. Additionally, it was also held to represent
the Cross of Christ.
Developments of symbolic form in the religion and art of Western
Europe for several centuries, and its effects have not completely
disappeared. Furthermore, a study of this symbolism reveals some points
of additional interest.
The quest for symbols operated in the Middle Ages as it does today.
That is, it was a search for some concrete representation of what is
not evident to the senses but is felt to be of prime meaning.
Additionally, there was a recognition of the difficulty of symbolic
transfer or ensuring that the object created or selected by one person
as a symbol is identified by other persons as having the same meaning.
This difficulty is increased when, even though the creator of the
symbol deliberately set it up as such, he is long since dead and no
check can be made of the inferences as to his intentions. This
difficulty exists in another form when dealing with unconscious or
archetypal symbolism, which needs most careful collateral evidence to
substantiate and verify. This is necessitated because the reference of
a religious symbol is beyond human moral and value experience and its
authentication can take place only within that experience.
Religious symbolism, much more than scientific symbolism, is, in
its essence, metaphysical in character, and formed from the language of
myth. It is always distorting the intuition in order to suggest and
represent the infinite and transcendental, and is an intensely personal
To the mystic, art is ideally the expression of man's union with
God or the Cosmic. It is a product of and symbolizes that relationship.
In more practical terms, art is the symbolic record of man's growth,
the evolution of his inner being toward that mystical union. As the
artist develops, so does his art. Art uses form to symbolize meaning,
just as any symbolism does. The form represents what the artist is
trying to convey to the viewer.
Artistic creation is a symbolic transformation of experience or of
inner reality by the objective, psychological, and psychic functions of
man. It is an imaginative re-creation, whether it is representative or
abstract, of some elements of experience, and the re-creation may
change these elements so much that they are not readily recognized as
A work of art is a symbol in itself. It may, therefore, be
individual, cultural, or archetypal; objective, or subconscious;
natural or artificial. It may originate in cultural tradition, personal
experience, borrowing, intuition, telepathy, or memory from past
In visual art, symbolism can be employed through abstractions
without parallel in visual experience and can operate by direct effect
on the unconscious or intuition. One of the most notable techniques of
this type, surrealism, utilizes a process of artistic activity opposing
conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, deed and dream.
Surrealism deliberately undertakes manufacture of 'the object
functioning symbolically' as part of an attempt to multiply the ways of
reaching the most profound levels.
The symbolism in this art form is implicit, not explicit. The
process of exploration, identification and labeling of symbolic
patterns is done by observers and interpreters, unacknowledged by and
often unknown to the artist concerned. Symbolic meaning is viewed as
preferable to realistic portrayal because it is viewed as capable of
conveying more general and more profound meanings.
Problems of the relation of private symbols to public symbols are
raised especially in such art. That is, the process by which the
individual vision of the artist becomes translated into set of symbols
which are accepted by the public.
Some modern artists are attempting to eliminate, as far as
possible, the element of personality from the interpretation of their
creations. The individual, personal component is always there in the
selective integrative act of creation, but it is only the individual as
creator-artist that is intended to be recognized; not the individual as
a particular person with sex, temperament, or social background.
The artist is the conceiving mind behind the creation, not
necessarily even the executer, since such work may have been done by
assistants following out minutely laid down instructions. The artist
virtually forces the observer to interpret the painting in their own
way, and in terms of their own experience. The artist, however, is not
totally eliminated as the interpreter. The personal aesthetic of the
artist is always recognized. Furthermore, even in the most advanced
fields of modern art there is still curiosity on the part of art
critics and publics as to what the artist 'intended' by the work. The
work of art is a complex product in a system of relationships in which
artist and viewer are integrally involved.
Art is the expression of man's union with God or the Cosmic.
Because self-integration is part of that union, artistic creation is an
aid to psychological development. Artistic creation should be a
continual process of self-discovery and God-discovery. The creative
process, itself, requires a unity and balance of the intellectual,
emotional, and spiritual elements of the artist.
The interpretation of a work of art by the viewer is not
necessarily that of the artist. Whether it is mystical or not depends
not so much on the form as on the nature of the artist and his
Artistic creation can be an important aid in mystical development.
It objectifies what the individual thinks and feels. It clarifies these
thoughts and feelings. He may alter the form and give it new meaning.
The mystic does this by attunement and integration within himself, and
attunement with nature, other people, and the Cosmic. The actual
creation of the work is necessary for self-development.
As an instrument of expression, symbols are the supreme tools of
the artist. They serve as stores of meaning to help overcome the
problems of communication over time by aiding recall and diminishing
the need for a reformulation of ideas, and give a common reference
point for a variety of originally disparate ideas.
The process of symbolic representation abstracts some quality
common to both referent and symbol and allows one to perceive more
clearly, more imaginatively, a particular type of relationship. The
symbol reveals certain aspects of reality, the deepest aspects, which
defy any other means of knowledge.
Art in its highest aspect and function is the symbolical expression
of otherwise unexpressible ideas. No other faculty or power of man can
do this thing. Since the ability to apprehend reality is, perhaps, the
most discriminating mark of mankind, art is his most priceless
attribute and possession.