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Moreover, these themes are creatively expressed within the formal structures of Wolfson’s painting itself. In Purple Angel , modulated shades of violet and purple are interspersed with soft passages of white, while scattered hints of warm orange oscillate in faint bands that collectively project a warm, encircling radiance. Through these shifting tonal configurations, a subtle angelic body emerges, a glowing presence composed of flame-like wisps. Suggestive patterns are further formed by feathery, melting brushstrokes along the left- and right-hand sides of the composition, which variously appear as wings and haloes. Taken together, this arrangement of translucent painterly forms evokes the overlapping silhouettes of a multidimensional figural presence, one whose contours are palpably discernible yet fluidly elusive. The visual effect is that of a dissolving, etheric being that is configured through its own multiple presences and absences. Continually expanding and contracting at the glistening edges of its forms, Purple Angel is, paradoxically, solid and insubstantial, iconic and aniconic. The composite figure that emerges within this vibrant colorfield holds the space of the canvas in a manner much like a flame or a waterfall, as a luminous yet abstract presence that appears clothed in a dynamic play of ascending color and falling light.

As is the case throughout Wolfson’s oeuvre, the title Purple Angel invites viewers to imagine the bodies of angels as painted incarnations of living light. Much like the term “magic,” this description raises such questions as: What do we mean by angels, and through what conditions or means—such as the practices of visualization in various mystical traditions—might angels be seen and known in this world? On the subject of mystic visualization, it is suggestive to contemplate a passage from the gnostic Gospel of Mary, which addresses the question of whether the sacred is seen through internal (“soul”) or external (“spirit”) vision. After Jesus’ death, Mary tells the other disciples, “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’ He answered and said to me, ‘Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’ I said to him, ‘Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it through soul or through the spirit?’ The Saviour answered and said, ‘He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind which [is] between the two—that is [what]sees the vision…’” See “The Gospel of Mary” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), pp. 523-27. I am grateful to Jeffrey Kripal for bringing this passage to my attention. While references to angels are culturally and historically specific, it is nonetheless useful to begin with some preliminary definitions. According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the word angel derives from the Latin angelus , which means “messenger.” Notably, the Hebrew word for angel, mal’ak , also connotes “messenger.” The term angel signifies “a ministering spirit or divine messenger; one of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity.” J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), vol. 1, p. 458. For an analysis of “Sexuality and Gender of Angels” in biblical and classical sources, see Kevin Sullivan’s essay by this name in April D. DeConick, ed., Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), pp. 211-28. Regarding images of “the angelic body” in classical sources, see Indra Kagis McEwen, Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003). For a modern poetic meditation on the bodies of angels, see H. D.’s [Hilda Doolittle’s] incandescently beautiful “Tribute to the Angels” (1945) in Trilogy (New York: New Directions, 1998), pp. 61-110. I am grateful to Stephen Fredman for bringing this work to my attention. The expanded entry on angels appearing in the Encyclopedia of Religion notes that “the word ‘angel’ applies to ranks of spiritual or heavenly beings which serve as intermediaries between the earthly and divine worlds,” and that contemplation of angels can include “influences produced from links with alchemy, astrology, divination, and magic.” See Andrea Piras, “Angels,” trans. Paul Ellis, Encyclopedia of Religion , vol. 1, p. 343. Given that angels are described as intermediary presences interlinking the heavenly and earthly spheres, conceptions of their embodiment—in this case, their aesthetic embodiment in paintings and poems—can provide a vivid framework for their symbolic manifestation in the imaginative domain.

Moreover, just as the term “angel” is intrinsically multifaceted and comparative, so too is Wolfson’s engagement with the concept. This is particularly evident in Wolfson’s commentary on Corbin’s explications of visionary Islamic traditions concerning the mundus imaginalis , or imaginal world. As also noted in the Encyclopedia of Religion , certain Islamic traditions posit that “All sensible and material reality is created and controlled by a particular type of archangel. These archangels occupy a mundus imaginalis between the physical and spiritual worlds and can be perceived by the sage by means of imagination.” See Piras, “Angels,” Encyclopedia of Religion , vol. 1, p. 346. As Wolfson points out, the intermediate, imaginal world has itself been described as an angelic sphere. Yet this meeting point is nothing other than “the ‘world of the image’ ( ālam al-mithāl ), also identified as the angelic realm ( malakūt ), the intermediate sphere wherein the suprasensible and formless realities of the realm of spirit are configured in the sentient forms of the material universe.” Elliot R. Wolfson, “ Imago Templi and the meeting of the two seas: Liturgical time-space and the feminine imaginary in zoharic Kabbalah,” Res 51 (Spring 2007), p. 123. In turn, this mystical imagery resonates strongly with the kabbalistic conceptions of envisioning the invisible that Wolfson traces throughout Language, Eros, Being . One such formulation concerns the idea that, in the heart of the visionary, the division between inside and out—the boundary separating the internal life of the subject from the external domain of the world—can be imaginatively dissolved through a process of spiritual double mirroring. Both the power and the paradox of this formulation are striking, since together they form the idea that language, thought, and imagination can provide a creative framework to picture what cannot be pictured, to see what cannot be seen, to know what cannot be fully known. As Wolfson has written, “The locus of [kabbalistic] gnosis was typically situated in the heart/imagination of the visionary, the site where the routine division between inside and outside is dissolved in the theophanic play of double mirroring, the heart mirroring the image that mirrors the image of the heart.” Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being , p. xiii. For a related discussion of Corbin’s conception of the imago templi as “a theophanic apparition that challenges the dichotomization of the real and imagined,” see Wolfson, “Imago Templi,” pp. 121 ff.

As this suggests, Wolfson’s approach is characterized by close readings that actively promote the dissolution—and creative re-envisioning—of received patterns of meaning. As exemplified by “winged purple” and Purple Angel , subtle gradations of flowing color and sparkling light can provide an imaginative screen for tracing the intermittent visual rhythms of forms that dematerialize and recede, only to emerge anew. Engaging in this form of contemplative envisioning—unseeing the seen in order to see the unseen—is analogous to undertaking a kind of intense meditative practice, one that consciously allows for the dissolution of the stable bonds that hold any particular set of forms together. To practice such fluid viewing, or nonattachment to any given pattern, is to maintain a sense of openness to the multiplicity of the possible. With this comes the corresponding realization that opacity and transparency, formation and dissolution, collectively represent distinctive aspects of a shared state of being, as every revelation of a pattern simultaneously conceals and exposes the glimmering traces of another—symbolically envisioned as the bodies of angels, by way of twilight.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Flowering light: kabbalistic mysticism and the art of elliot r. wolfson. OpenStax CNX. Dec 09, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10611/1.1
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