Swedish Sprituality: Johannes Bureus & Hilma af Klint
Johannes Bureus and Hilma af Klint; two Swedes, separated by three centuries, but intertwined with the same mysterious current of spiritual thought. One was a scholar of the highest order, revolutionizing the Swedish language and wielding great authority in the academia of his day. The other was a reclusive and obscure artist who barred the publication of her works until twenty years after her death. And yet, in some of their most acclaimed creations through their varied careers, they produced strikingly similar pieces that hint at a shared understanding of a secret symbolism.
Johannes Bureus (1568–1652), often called the “father of Swedish grammar”, was a towering intellectual of the Northern Renaissance. He made towering contributions to Swedish history, linguistics, (shockingly) grammar, and several other fields, often serving as an advisor to important political figures and securing himself as a titan of Swedish intellectualism for all time. Bureus himself, however, thought his most important work to be that which he did in his esoteric studies; namely, documenting and attempting to revive the runic writing system, leading to the creation of a runic symbology of his own. Often associated with, but never definitively tied to, the divisive and decisively esoteric Rosicrucian school, controversy was a constant for Bureus, whose self-proclaimed most important works were largely forgotten after his life in favor of the memory of his less “out-there” academic contributions.
Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), by comparison, had a much less illustrious and much more mysterious career. Born of a well-to-do Swedish family, her father (perhaps surprisingly) supported her artistic endeavors and financed an education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Whilst in school, she grew steeped in spiritual and esoteric topics of all kinds. Specifically, she undertook serious studies of seancing, channeling, Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. At one point, she and four friends even formed a group cleverly called the Five with the intent to speak with spirits. And apparently, they succeeded, with af Klint claiming to make contact with a supernatural being named Amaliel. Such esoteric activities continued through to her death, and they did a great deal to inform the themes of the paintings that were her life’s work. An impressive 1,200 paintings can be attributed to her, with countless thousands of pages of notes to accompany them. Maybe most famously, af Klint created a 193-painting series called “The Dove”, and it is in this that our investigation begins.
The staggeringly long series contains a great variety of proto-abstract shapes and symbols, with some common motifs woven in and out. Purportedly, the paintings as a whole are an artistic take on expressing human evolution through duality. Even if the series has at least some direction given as to its meaning, though, the themes of individual paintings — namely, The Dove, №1 & 2 — are much more open to interpretation. These two are undoubtedly af Klint’s most famous paintings. №2 is even currently being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and for good reason; within the details appears to lay a treasure trove of symbolism.
In №1, a double helix runs the entire height of the painting — a shape that, before the discovery of DNA’s double helix, was most commonly associated with the caduceus, healing staff of Hermes. And in №2, though they may be hard to see unless up close, a red and violet serpent intertwine at the very center of the painting where the two halves of the heart shape come together. The rainbows emanating from the bottom of them both, as well as the overall shape of an upside-down cross, above which is a heart-like shape, within a larger circle, all point to a similar, albeit also similarly mysterious, message being conveyed. Such commonplace shapes all on their own may not mean much. When combined with the context of Bureus’ work, though, they reveal a symbolism dripping with the perennial beliefs of the Swedes.
It may seem a stretch to claim that turn-of-the-century proto-abstract art relates in any meaningful way to Northern Renaissance occultism just because of a shared nationality. All will quickly become clear once we analyze such occultism on its own, though, and thus, we must proceed to talk about what Johannes Bureus himself deemed his greatest work; the Adulruna. Extravagantly called by Bureus the “place where the creator’s holiest name is revealed”, the intricate symbol purportedly contains hidden in it an entire fifteen runes of Bureus’ choosing in its many intertwined lines. Succinctly, the Adulruna is a vaguely heart-shaped ring, around which is a circular ring, above which the Hagal rune — the mother rune of the cycle of creation and destruction that rules all reality — is superimposed. Just inside the outermost ring is inscribed: “Physico-agria ━ Physico-chemia ━ Physico-medicia ━ Physica ━ Theosophia ━ Kabala ━ Hyperphysico”, seeming mostly self-explanatory enough, though I couldn’t be trusted to translate it all.
Now, as this is supposed to be Bureus’ be-all and end-all of symbols, its interpretations are surely endless. Still, there are several things we can conclusively take away from it. The use of the Hagal rune as a centerpiece is a callback to the creation of the world. Hagal comes from the same root as our English word hail, as the original rune was said to have been a piece of salt licked from the great block of ice in the space before the world, in which lay frozen the giant Ymir and the first of the Aesir, by the primordial cow Audhumbla. Why this all-important rune is within a three-ring system (excluding the outer ring around the written words) stays mysterious, but it should be noted that three and nine were, by far, the most significant numbers in pagan Scandinavia. These often represent either the hypothesized three-caste system of old Indo-European societies, the three states of physical, mental, and spiritual, or even the three (possibly one tri-faced) main deities of ancient Sweden, Odin, Thor, and Tyr. All of this, coupled with what seems to be a list of spiritual practices around the symbol’s outer edge, may lead one to believe that Bureus here is trying to convey a spiritual practice centered around renewing the creation of the world; what seems, from scholarship, to be among the oldest forms of both Scandinavian and pan-Indo-European pagan practice.
With all of that established, we may finally move on to dissecting the striking similarities between Bureus and af Klint, though the picture should already be getting clearer. The general shape of both works are clearly reminiscent of each other; with the heart-shaped ring sitting within larger circular rings as perhaps our most obvious link. Now, whether this means to be symbolizing life, love (though sadly not laughter), or some sort of runic symbol is up for debate. Still, the likeness, however vague, is obvious, and it doesn’t end there. Snakes, as mentioned earlier, are ever-present in The Dove, both literally in №2 and in a more metaphorical callback in №1. We may also note the word “Kabala”, modern English Kabbalah, referring to the early modern Jewish esoteric belief system, inscribed on the outside of the Adulruna. Now, Kabbalah’s most famed symbol is the Tree of Life — a symbol, like Bureus’, said to be the be-all and end-all of their symbology — around which is often coiled a serpent of wisdom, who climbs the tree in a helix pattern. That’s not to mention pagan Scandinavian associations between the serpent and the tree, of course, as it’s a strenuous connection already, but the point is not that af Klint was making conscious references to Bureus, Kabbalah, or paganism, though none of that is out of the question. The point is that symbolic language always endures.
In the Adulruna, interestingly, we see a cross in the center of the symbol as part of Hagal, with the lines of said cross being symmetrical and within a circle, not unlike the popular pagan symbol of the solar cross. Worthy of note, though, is that Christians also often used the solar cross to represent their faith — especially in the medieval period out of which the Renaissance sprung — and that we can thus see Bureus as either just ignoring or even reconciling Christianity’s strained relationship with ancient paganism. The Dove, meanwhile, takes a different approach. As the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the dramatic weakening of Christianity’s hold over Europe, af Klint aligns both versions of The Dove with an upside-down cross. On top of this inverted cross lay her heart ring, double helix, and in №2, her intertwined serpents, telling us that whatever her message here is, it’s one of overcoming, instead of appeasing, Jesus. The pre-Christian imagery in both their works is as clear as day, but with the change of the times seems to come a change in the attitude of Christianity’s place in esoteric worldviews.
Now, none of this is to claim there to be a definitive direct relationship between the artistry of Bureus and af Klint — indeed, no such evidence for this exists other than that I’ve laid out above — but it all points to something profound nonetheless. At the very least, what we can say is that every nation — defining nation as a historical, cultural, and political people-group rather than a nation-state — has its own symbolic language developed through the centuries. And, no matter what oppressions, conversions, conquests, or exiles that nation endures, so long as the nation lives, its symbology lives with it. We cannot say for sure whether af Klint was consciously drawing from Bureus’ work to make The Dove, and by extension, that abstract art can claim descent from Renaissance esotericism. But we can say for sure that the collective unconscious of a nation dies hard.