Rudolf Steiner Archive 

Isis and Madonna

Berlin, 29th April, 1909

Goethe referred repeatedly to the fact that someone who approaches the secrets of nature longs for the worthiest interpreter of these secrets, for art. Goethe has shown in his creations his whole life through how art was an interpreter of truth to him. However, one is allowed to say that Goethe met something with this view that went as basic conviction, as basic motif through all times, through all epochs of human development.

More or less consciously or unconsciously different “languages” represent themselves in the different arts — one could say — to express certain truths, which live in the souls. These are often just the most mysterious truths, the most mysterious knowledge which cannot be easily conceptualised in rigid formulae and which then look for their expression in the artistic representation.

Such a mysterious truth shall face us today, which wanted to express itself in art for centuries, which has also found its scientific formulation in certain narrow circles that will become popular, however, for wider circles only in certain future by spiritual science. Goethe himself could approach this truth with his soul from the most different sides. I referred in one of the talks, which I held about Goethe here, to the meaningful moment when Goethe experienced such a secret. I referred to it in the second talk about Goethe's Faust how Goethe, reading the Greek author Plutarch, found the strange story of Nicias who wanted to make a city in Sicily, belonging to the Carthaginians, inclined to the Romans again and who was pursued, therefore. On the run he pretended to be mad, and one recognised by the peculiar call which he exclaimed: “The mothers, the mothers pursue me!” — that it did not concern a usual insanity, because in that region a so-called “temple of the mothers” was established in an old mysterious way, and, hence, one knew what the expression “the mothers” meant. When Goethe could put the full meaning of the term “the mothers” before his soul again, he also knew that he could not express the dreadful-nice of this Faust scene better than by the fact that he let Faust go to the mothers.

What does the way to the mothers represent? We have briefly mentioned it in that Faust talk. Indeed, Mephisto brings the key to Faust, but he cannot go into that realm in which the mothers are enthroned. Mephisto is the spirit of materialism, the spirit who is included, so to speak, in the forces and powers of the material existence. He considers the realm of the mothers as the realm of nothingness. Faust, the spiritual human being who tends to the spirit can answer: “In your Nothingness I hope to find my All.”

It follows that strange, important description of the realm of the mothers where to us is told how they weave and live in a realm from which the figures of the visible world are formed. One has to override everything that lives in time and space if one wants to penetrate to these mothers. Creation, transformation is the being of their realm. They are mysterious goddesses who prevail in a spiritual realm behind the sensuous reality. To them Faust has to descend at the moment when he should get knowledge of that which is above all sensuous, above all physical. Faust can unite the everlasting of Helen with the temporal in dignity, so that this realm of the mothers opens itself to his soul. Already in that Faust talk, I referred to the fact that Goethe understood very well that this realm of the mothers is the realm into which the human being can penetrate if he wakes the spiritual forces slumbering in his soul. This is the great moment for him in which the spiritual beings and facts reveal themselves which are always round us which one sees, however, with sensuous eyes just as little as the blind sees colours and light; where his spiritual eye and his spiritual ear is opened to a world which is behind the physical one.

One calls the entry into this realm the way to the mothers. I repeatedly referred in these talks to the fact that the human being — if he applies certain intimate processes to his soul, certain specified methods of meditation and immersion in his thinking, feeling and willing — that he receives, indeed, these spiritual eyes and ears, and with them new realms open themselves round him. I referred to the fact that someone who enters this realm is confused by the impressions which work on him. We have the objects with sharp contours in the physical world and know a lot about this, we have a bewildering feeling of creations weaving and floating into each other in the spiritual world, just as Goethe describes it in the second part of Faust. However, from this realm of the mothers has been born what is given to our senses, as from the ore in the mountains the metal is born. Because this mysterious realm of the mothers of all physical and earthly things, the realm which contains, so to speak, the divine substance of all is reminiscent with Goethe, the expression “the mothers” works so fascinating, so eerily-beautifully with him. That is why he understood what he read with Plutarch, recognised that if anybody calls “the mothers, the mothers!” he does not see like a maniac in a senseless, unsubstantial realm, but in a realm of spiritual reality. So to speak, the mother problem of the world faced Goethe when he read Plutarch, and he inserted this mother problem mysteriously, like many other things, into the second part of Faust.

Someone who wants to enter this realm of the mothers, the spiritual world, had to experience something in old times — beside all the other exercises which you find described in How Does One Attain Knowledge of the Higher Worlds? — that one has always called preliminary purification, the catharsis of the soul. He had to prepare himself in such a way that his soul from which the higher spiritual forces should be got out has no longer any compulsion, any passion for the usual, sensuous world that it has purified itself from all that attracts it to the sensory appearance and adheres the mind to the physical body. The soul must be free of it, and then it can wake the spiritual eye in itself and penetrate into the spiritual world. One calls the purified soul the higher inside of the human being where one has known something about this secret. One said about it: this does not originate from that which external eyes can observe, this comes from higher, from spiritual-mental sources, this does not have an earthly homeland, and this has a heavenly one.

One imagined this purified soul connected with the true origin of the human being. Because that which spiritual science was at all times could not speak about a purely material development, about something sensually perfect, about something sensually imperfect in the same sense. Spiritual science does not regard as wrong what one calls evolution today, the advance from a sensually lower being up to the most perfect sensual being. It completely accepts it, as I have often emphasised. The scientific evolution theory is completely accepted by spiritual science; but at the same time I have pointed to the fact that the human being himself does not amount to nothing more than this evolution that it is only the outside of the human evolution.

If we trace back the human being, we realise that, the more we go back to more imperfect sensuous figures, we arrive at the spiritual-mental origin of the human being. We have already repeatedly transported ourselves in a time of human development when the human being did not yet have physical existence, when he was still completely secure in mental-spiritual existence. I have repeatedly drawn your attention to the fact that we have to imagine the sensuous figure, the physical nature of the human being like a densification of a once only spiritual-mental human being.

That spiritual-mental human being has been condensed, so to speak, to the present human being as water solidifies into ice. I have also used this picture repeatedly. We imagine a mass of water; this condenses to ice, so that we have a certain rest of water and ice in the end; then we have the picture of the origin of the human being. With the once spiritual-mental human being, nothing of the physical-sensuous nature existed that eyes can see and hands can seize today. Bit by bit he becomes more physical up to his today's physical shaping. Of course, that time, in which external science can look back, shows the human being in that physical figure, in which we see him today. However, spiritual science looks back at the most distant past when the human being was born out of the spiritual world and still was of spiritual-mental kind. If we look at his soul today, we say to ourselves, the human soul is, so to speak, the last rest of that spiritual-mental which was once. We look at the inside of the human being, we get to know the soul and the mind of the human being and say to ourselves, as he is inside, he was once when he was born out of the womb of the spiritual world. This soul being is wrapped in the lower sensory world from without, but it can purify itself, can rise to a view free of sensuousness, and can thereby reach that spirituality from which it was born out. This is the purification of spiritual. Thus, we spiritually see the soul being of the human being, and while we speak not only figuratively, but also really, we say, if we recognise this soul being truly, we see that it is not from this world. We see in the background of this soul being a divine-spiritual world from which it is born.

We try now to translate what we have just pronounced into a sensuous picture. We ask ourselves, have we not transformed what we have just pronounced into a sensuous picture on which the spiritual world is sensualised by clouds out of which spiritual figures are born like heads of angels, which sensualise the human soul? Do we not have in the Madonna figure of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael a picture, which was born out of the divine-spiritual world?

Now we go on and ask ourselves, what originates from the human being, who has purified his soul, has ascended to higher knowledge who has developed the spiritual shapes in his soul, which enliven the divine of the world in him? The human being who bears the higher human being in the human being, a human being that represents a little world in the big world, what is he? Nothing else than clairvoyance characterises him. Let us try to visualise the soul, which the higher human being bears out of himself, out of the spiritual universe, so we only need to imagine the picture of the Sistine Madonna, the marvellous child in the arms of the Madonna. We face the Sistine Madonna as a picture of the human soul, born out of the spiritual universe; the highest has arisen from this soul that the human being can produce, his spiritual birth, a reproduction of the activity of world creation. Let us try to perceive what clairvoyant consciousness does.

Once the divine spirituality underlay our world building, because, otherwise, it would be senseless to look for a spirit in the world if this spirit had not built the world originally. What surrounds us outdoors in the world has arisen from the spirit that we search in the soul. Thus, the soul has arisen from the divine father's spirit who lives through the whole universe, bearing the son of wisdom, who is similar to this father's spirit, who is his repetition.

We understand now how Goethe approached this problem in its whole mystic meaning when he wanted to unite the whole contents of Faust in the Chorus mysticus in which he addressed the human soul as the eternally-female that draws us up to the universal spirit of the world. Goethe still stood at the end of Faust to his Madonna problem that way. Today one can hardly recognise from the figure that the presentation of the Madonna has accepted what has been pronounced now like in a picture, and which deep truth underlies. However, if we trace back this Madonna problem to its origin, we recognise that, indeed, even if often veiled, in the figure of the Madonna the biggest human problem faces us. Of course, the figures of these Madonnas have changed, from the simple figures of the first Christian centuries in the catacombs where we find the Madonna, the child grasping at the breast of the mother. From this simple figure that is less artistic it is a long way to the fifteenth century, when after multiple changes the child and the Madonna have become more and more artistic, more painterly in the modern sense, up to Michelangelo and Raphael. However, it is in such a way, as if these marvellous artists — although they did not have the complete knowledge — had a clear feeling of the deeper truth of the Madonna problem.

The most beautiful sensations come over one if one stands before the so-called Pietà by Michelangelo in the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, where the Madonna sits there with the corpse on her knees, the Madonna of that age, because Christ has already gone through death, in youthful beauty. At that time, it was often discussed why Michelangelo has shown the Madonna at this age so juvenile. Michelangelo himself was asked, and he answered — I expressly say that it should not be spoken about something believed, but about spiritual-scientific experiences —, it is an experience that maiden women keep their youthfulness until old age. Why should he not be entitled to show the Mother of God also at this age still in all youthfulness? — It is a strange view that Michelangelo expresses here! Even if not pronounced, we find it, nevertheless, also expressed in the pictures of Raphael. However, we can understand this whole view only if we go back far in the times in which was still externally alive what faces us in the Madonnas as something unaware-artistic. We could go far back and we would find the Madonna problem all over the world. We could go to old India and would find the goddess with the Krishna child at her breast; we could go to a Chinese service and find similar pictures there.

However, we do not want to go to those remote regions, but we want to adhere to that representation of old times which reproduces that most characteristically which is given to us in the Madonna so nicely. We want to consider the representation of Isis with the Horus child. The representations that have completely grown out of the Egyptian wisdom can be a key to us in a certain respect for the right understanding of the Madonna. However, we have to direct our attention to that kind of wisdom, which has led to this strange divine figure of ancient Egypt, to Isis, and what that wisdom is to us, which expresses itself in the legend of Isis and Osiris. This legend leads us profoundly into the problem of humanity if we understand it correctly. We may explore the Egyptian religion here or there, the legend of Osiris is the most significant one and full of contents. Osiris was the king who ruled in ancient times as in a golden age among the human beings. He was married to his sister Isis who has brought happiness and blessing to the human beings. A human king with divine power and divine virtue, so he stands before the view of the ancient Egyptian and rules, until his brother, the bad Set, kills him. He kills him strangely. At a banquet, the bad brother Set who was later called Typhon causes to form a box, and by stealth, Osiris is induced to lie down in this box. Then the box is shut and thrown into the Nile, so that he is swept away into the unknown. Isis, his mourning wife, searches her husband everywhere, until she finds him in Asia after long search. She brings him back to Egypt, where the bad brother Set dismembers him; the pieces are buried in many graves. Hence, many Osiris graves existed in Egypt. Osiris now becomes the king of the dead human beings, as he was the king of the human beings living on earth. From the transcendent world, a ray meets the head of Isis. She bears Horus after it; he becomes the ruler in this kingdom.

In the sense of the Egyptian legend, Horus is the posthumous son of Osiris. Horus, originated by conception from beyond, is the ruler in the earthly-sensuous world. Osiris is a ruler in the kingdom of the dead. While the soul is subordinate to the power of Horus here, while it is enclosed in the body, it comes into the kingdom of Osiris if it leaves the body — the Egyptian Book of the Dead testifies this. In an extremely typical way the soul is addressed at that court which is shown in the Egyptian Book of the Dead when it arrives beyond: “Osiris, what have you done?” and so on, so that the soul matures to become Osiris while it goes through the gate of death.

We look in the sense of the ancient Egypt at two kingdoms, at the kingdom, which we see with our senses, the kingdom of Horus, and the kingdom that the soul enters after death, in which Osiris rules. At the same time, however, we know that the Egyptian initiate who attained clairvoyant abilities enters the same fields while he is still in life that the soul can enter only after death that he can be combined with Osiris. The initiate himself becomes Osiris. He snatches himself from the physical, renounces all habits of the physical life, all passions, and desires; he purifies himself of the physical, becomes a purified soul, and is then combined with Osiris. What does this legend show? Oh, it is a childish idea if one asserts there that this legend should present the annual run of the sun around the earth. Scholarship concocts there on a theoretical basis that Osiris is the sun, and if it sets, it is overcome by the wintry physical powers, which should be characterised by Set, the bad brother Typhon; and in Isis, the moon is represented which searches the sun to be irradiated by its light.

Only someone who puts up a theory of physical myths in such a way from his head is able to assert such a thing. In reality, the Isis legend is the pictorial expression of a deep truth. When did Osiris rule over the human beings? When the human beings were still spiritual-mental beings when they still stayed in the spiritual-mental world among spiritual-mental beings. If one speaks about the kingdom of Osiris, it is not the physical kingdom, but a kingdom of the past in which the human being lived as a spiritual-mental being. The hostile brother of Osiris is that being that coated the human with the physical body, which a part of his spiritual-mental being has condensed. We see now how the once purely spiritual Osiris is put into a box. This box is nothing else than the physical human body. Because Osiris is a being who cannot descend according to his whole nature to the physical world who should remain in the divine-spiritual world, this putting into the box is to Osiris equivalent to death. It is shown here in a wider sense the transition from that spiritual-mental realm to the epoch of physical development of humanity. Osiris was not able to enter this physical realm, that is why Osiris died for the external physical world and became the king in that realm which the soul enters when it leaves the physical-sensuous world or if it develops clairvoyant forces. Hence, the initiate is combined as a soul with Osiris. What of the spiritual-mental realm remains to the human being? What has remained to the human being who did not withdraw from the physical-sensuous world like Osiris? His soul, his spiritual-mental being which will always draw him to the old origin of the spiritual-mental, to Osiris. Isis, the human soul, is in a certain respect the eternally female that lives in us and draws us up to that realm from which we are born.

This Isis, if it purifies herself and dismisses all that she has received from the physical, is fertilised by the spiritual world and bears the higher human being, the Horus, who is victorious over all lower human. So we look at Isis as the representative of the human soul, as that which is born in us as a divine-spiritual out of the father's All, what has remained in us, what searches Osiris and what only finds him with initiation or at death.

We really look at that realm which lies behind the sensuous-physical one, while we imagine this Osiris Isis legend, at that the time when the human being was still with the mothers, the primal grounds of existence. For Isis was not yet enclosed in the physical body, was still combined with her husband Osiris in the golden age. The most beautiful humaneness appears in it, the highest human ideal is born out of the human body, fertilised by the eternal world spirit.

How could something else fit into the realm of the mothers than the highest ideal, the highest humaneness that is just Christ? In Goethe's Faust, three mothers, sitting on golden tripods, face us, three mothers! The human soul went through its development in the times when it was not yet in the human body. What we today observe with sensuous eyes as human conception and human birth is only the last symbol of the former figure of the same process. In the bodily mother, we see, so to speak, the last physical figure of a spiritual mother who is behind her, and we see this spiritual mother not fertilised in the same way as this happens today, but from the universe, as well as we have also fertilised our soul with the higher knowledge from the universe. We look back at more and more spiritual forms of conception and reproduction.

Hence, one speaks, if one speaks in spiritual-scientific sense, not only about one mother, but also about the mothers, and imagines that what faces us as a sensuous mother today is the last arrangement of the spiritual-mental figure from the spiritual realm. Indeed, there are illustrations of Isis that do not show one mother, but three mothers to us. In front, we have a figure, the Isis with the Horus child at her breast, represented like the oldest Madonna figures. But behind this figure we have in certain Egyptian presentations another figure, an Isis who has the known two cow horns and carries vulture wings, passing a handled cross (ankh) to the child. There we see what is physical in front, is already more spiritualised here. Behind this, we still see a third, who carries the lion head showing the third stage of the human soul. Thus, these three Isis pictures appear to us one after the other. Indeed, our human soul carries three natures in itself: a willing nature, located in the deepest grounds, a feeling nature and a wisdom nature. These are three soul mothers; they face us in the three figures of the Egyptian Isis.

It is a profound symbol that behind the sensuous mother the supersensible spiritual mother, the Isis of the spiritual prehistoric time, appears, and that there with the figures the vulture wings, the cow horns and the world sphere are mounted in the middle of the head of Isis. Those who understood something of the old numerology have always said, the holy number three represents the divine-male in the universe. The globe and the cow horns, which are a kind of image of the Madonna sickle but, actually, an expression of the fertile effect of the natural force, figuratively represent this holy number.

The globe is the expression of the creation in the world. We would have to speak a lot about it if we wanted to represent an image of the male in the world. Behind the sensuous Isis her representative, the supersensible Isis stands who is not fertilised by her kind, but by the divine-male, which works in the world. The conception process is still shown as something that is close to the knowledge process.

The consciousness that the knowledge process is a kind of conception process was still alive in older times. You can still read in the Bible, “Adam recognised his wife, and she gave birth to ...” What we today absorb as something spiritual bears the spiritual in the soul; this is something that still shows the last rest of the old conception. What is expressed there shows us how we are fertilised today by the world spirit; we absorb it in the sense of the world spirit in the human soul to gain human recognising, human feeling, and human will.

This is shown with Isis. She is fertilised by the divine-male, so that her head fertilises itself, and not sensuous substance is passed to the child as with the sensuous Isis, but the handled cross (ankh), the symbol of life. While the physical Isis passes the physical substance of life, here the spirit of life is passed to it as its symbol. Thus, the spiritual mother of life appears behind the mother of physical life and behind this the primal force of all life, shown with the vital force as the will was behind all in the more spiritual, most distant past. There we have three mothers, and there we have the way in which these three mothers deliver the stimulating force from the universe to the sun. There we have a symbolic, if not yet artistic, expression of a deep universal truth.

In the newer time, one took up this Egyptian Isis symbol and transformed it according to the human progress by the appearance of Christ Jesus on earth. For Christ Jesus was the great model of everything that the human soul should bear out of itself. This human soul, fertilised by the world spirit, is sensualised in the Madonna. Hence, the reborn Isis faces us in the Madonna, as it were, in an appropriate manner increased and transfigured.

What we could represent at the beginning of our talk figuratively faces us as linked with the development of humanity, ascending from grey antiquity, artistically transfigured and decorated in the modern pictures which have been put all over the world before art-loving human souls. There we realise that, indeed, art becomes the interpreter of truth as Goethe says. There we realise that basically, if we look up at the Madonna emotionally, the soul receives something of the big world riddle. There we realise that our soul as the eternally female longs devotedly for the divine father's spirit that is born out of the universe and that we bear as sun in our soul.

What we are as human beings and how we are connected as human beings with the world faces us in the pictures of the Madonna. Hence, these pictures of the Madonna are so holy to us, completely apart from any religious trend and any religious dogma. Thereby we can feel it like something born out of the universe when the uncertain cloudscapes form to angel heads and the representative of the human soul is born out of the whole. The Madonna contains what can be born out of the human soul: the true, higher human being who slumbers in every human being, the humanely very best, and what as spirit flows through the world.

Goethe also felt that way when he shaped his Faust last when he let him pass the different stages which lead up to higher knowledge and to higher life. Therefore, he lets Faust go to the mothers; therefore, the word “Mothers” sounds to him so eerily-beautifully lets him anticipate that wisdom which sounds from old times. For only there, Faust can find the everlasting from which Euphorion can originate. Because just the human soul seemed to him represented by the Madonna, Goethe expresses the soul riddle in the Chorus mysticus with the words: “The eternally-female draws us upwards.” Therefore, Raphael also succeeded with his wonderful picture of the Madonna so nicely in leading back again to the fields to which the old pictures of Isis led.

From that what is spiritual, what one can no longer express as a human figure because too sensuous figures would originate, from that Isis, whose force is shown symbolically with the lion's head, we descend to the human Isis who transfers her force by the sensuous substance to the Horus child. Unconsciously Raphael expressed this in his Sistine Madonna; spiritual science will consciously lead up humanity again to the spiritual realm from which it has descended.

This year's winter cycle shall show us in two talks how the human being has descended from spiritual heights and will ascend to a raised existence again. In both talks with the titles Old European Clairvoyance and The European Mysteries and Their Initiates, it should become apparent to us in a strictly scientific way that these pictures of the Madonna and representations of the Isis are artistic interpreters of the deepest secrets of nature and spirit. They are only a paraphrase of the great dictum Plato has spoken: once the human being was a spiritual being. He descended only because he was robbed of the spiritual wings and was clothed in the sensuous body. He will escape from this sensuous body and ascend again to spiritual-mental worlds.

Plato once announced this philosophically. The pictures of the Madonna also announce this, while they are in the most beautiful sense what Goethe wanted to express with the words: art is the worthiest interpreter of the recognised world secrets. — One should not be afraid that art becomes abstract or even allegorical if it is forced again — I say “forced” — to recognise the higher spiritual realities; one should not be afraid that it becomes artistically stiff and lifeless if it can no longer adhere to external rough models.

Only because the human being has forgotten to recognise the spiritual, art is also bound to the external senses. However, if humanity finds the way back again to the spiritual heights and knowledge, it will also know that true reality is in the spiritual world, and that who beholds this reality will work lively, also without adhering slavishly to sensuous models. Then only one understands Goethe if art and wisdom go with each other if art is a representation of the spiritual again. Then knowledge and art are one again, and then their union means religion. For the spiritual works in its form on the human hearts again as a divine and produces the true devoutness as Goethe called it. “Who owns science and art, has religion too,” Goethe says, “who does not have them both should have religion.”

Really, someone who owns science of the spiritual secrets of the world and knows what speaks through the Isis Madonna sees something originally living in them, something much more living than any slavishly imitation of exterior-physical human models can express it. Such a human being who beholds through the living, which the Madonnas show, like through a veil in the spiritual can again feel devoutly without any dogmatism, without any prejudice in entire spiritual freedom. He combines science or wisdom and art in his soul and bears a real, free piety or devoutness in himself.

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