Angels: Part I - Faces of Light - Photographs inspired by Klee, Corbin, Cheethem

The Angels Part I   
Faces of Light
Photographs Inspired by the Art of Paul Klee &
The Writings of Henry Corbin and Tom Cheetham

   Fig. 1  The Angels: Faces of Light      

        When we encounter the mystery and depth of another person, whose Angel are we seeing?  In Manichean legend, when, after death, on the Bridge to the other world, the soul meets its Angel in the figure of a beautiful woman, she says, "I am thyself."  . . . The Angel Holy Spirit is . . . in each case unique.  Henry Corbin's mystic [Ibn 'Arabi] "knows that he is the eye with which God contemplates himself; that he himself, in his being, is the witness by which God witnesses himself, the revelation by which the Hidden Treasure reveals itself to itself." 
          The person of the Angel is infinite and iconic--that is, the succession of transcendences never stops. . .  The true self opens upwards, and forever.  
          The power of the creative imagination, the gift of Gabriel, the Angel Holy Spirit, enables each of us, if we consent, to give birth to the Angel, whose grace allows us to see all the world as an icon.  For we give birth not only to God, but the world itself, transfigured in the light of a personal vision.  Tom Cheetham: After Prophecy

The photographs below, and in parts II, III and VI of this project, were inspired by a confluence of related events.  In the process of working on an earlier project The Space Between Color and Black&White I revisited one of my favorite European artists of the modernist period, Paul Klee (1879-1940) and decided to include in that project excerpts from his writings.  As I re-acquainted myself with his works after so many years I became particularly fascinated by his Angel images.  They had awakened me, I eventually realized, to something I had earlier avoided.

In 2011 my wife and I took a trip to Turkey.  It was a life transforming experience for me which I have written about in detail and depth in a photography project that followed the trip, "An Imaginary Book" which consists of nine chapters, a Preface and an Epilogue.  My experiences in Turkey led me to an intense study on the sacred art of Islam and Islam's mystical tradition, Sufism.  My studies connected me with the remarkable works of Henry Corbin and Tom Cheetham.  Cheetham has written four books (a fifth is due out in early 2015) about Corbin's work.  Here is the way Cheetham introduces Corbin on his website page:

"Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life." 

Corbin, who in his mature years always presented himself as a Protestant Christian and who presented very unorthodox writings about Christology, wrote: "through my meeting with Suhrawardi [Sufi mystic, b.1155] my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed.  Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia, illuminated the path that I was seeking." 


When I was reflecting on Klee's work on the Angels (there is an entire book devoted to this most popular aspect of his work) I knew deep in my heart that I had to go back to Corbin and squarely face his ideas about the Angels.  In my initial reading of his books in 2011 I focused primarily on his work with the creative imagination and the Imaginal Intermediary World.  Though this indeed is the world of the angels, I often found myself cringing and then avoiding large sections of his books when I saw the word "angel."  I now understand that the problem was all mine; I had allowed the dumbed down popular cultural view of angels to harden me to a profound transcendent truth.  

After having completed "An Imaginary Book" and during that time in which I was able to gain some distance from Corbin and Cheetham's writing and ideas, I unknowingly must have been preparing myself to receive what I was not yet ready to hear from Corbin about the Angels and their intermediate imaginal reality.   Clearly, angelology was at the very heart of Corbin's important life's work, and now, with a more open mind, and the experience of "An Imaginary Book" behind me I was able to better to focus on the profound things he was saying about the mysteries of life, the divine, human psychology and imagination through his contemplations and revelations about the Angel.  In this project I will be sharing some of what has touched me deeply in Corbin's writing along with my own visual contemplations on the Angel.  


Corbin is tremendously challenging to read.  His many books are often like traveling though a dark, dense forest full of thick branches and overgrowth which makes the path difficult to follow at times.  There are, on the other hand, very bright moments in his writing that shine with the clear light of revelation.  These moments have helped to sustain my interest and I would keep reading on. 

But what I really needed was a "angel" who could lead me through Corbin's world and explain to me in simpler, more direct language what Corbin was getting at.  Tom Cheetham is that person.  He explains Corbin with passion, with clarity, with love, personal insight and personal disclosure, and at times with poetic grace.  I have devoted Part IV of this project to the writings of Cheetham on Corbin's angelic world, and I have included some excerpts from Corbin's writing as well.     

A Personal Visoinary Story 
As so often happens while I am working on a creative project, I was graced with several  synchronistic experiences which have shed light on the angelic world I am exploring in this project.  Synchronicity is a concept that has been at the very heart of my creative process in photography since the early 1970s while I was studying the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung for my graduate MFA written thesis on the Symbolic Photograph and its relation to the Alchemical process.  Jung clearly influenced Corbin's ideas, and then James Hillman and Tom Cheetham have carried Corbin's work forward.   After studying Corbin it has become obvious to me that synchronicity is directly associated with the what Jung and Corbin called active imagination, and what Corbin would referred to as a rupture of the transcendent world--through the graces of an Angel--into this earthly plane of time and space.  

Corbin wrote an entire book about these "ruptures" of the  Imaginal world into one's personal world of experience.  He named the revelations of such ruptures, which have been written in the first person as personal stories, Visionary Recitals.  In Part III of this project I share my personal story of the synchronistic experiences that relate directly to this project and my study of angels.   I believe my story, entitled The "Fall Upwards" qualifies as a visionary recital.

About the Angel Photographs 
There are seven parts to the The Angels project.  All but Part IV (Textual Excerpts) contain  photographs that strive to either unveil angelic presence, or the angelic function of the things of the world, or function as Icons, symbolic portraits of Angels.  Part I, Faces of Light (presented below) are relatively abstract Iconic representations of Angels.  Most are symmetrical images--mirroring the symmetry in the human face, and extending the earlier work I had done with this pictorial form in my earlier "An Imaginary Book" project.  

The Part II, Earth Angels and Fallen Angels photographs are also for the most part symmetrical images, but these images are constructed with subject matter from the earthly realm, especially landscapes.  They were inspired by Cheetham's book Green Man, Earth Angel and Corbin's book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth.  I have included several text excerpts from these and other books by Corbin and Cheetham in Part IV.  

I have also included photographs in Part III, along with my Personal Story.  These are mostly singular images (there a few symmetrical images as well) which were made in Vermont immediately following the experiences described in my personal story.  I have also included a few images from my photographic archives which relate to both this project and to Paul Klee's work.    

In Part V of the project I provide samples of Klee's work and write Commentaries on both his work, especially his Angel paintings and drawings.  I have also written commentaries on a selection of my own photographs from this project.

The Angel photographs (symmetrical and straight) in Part VI are the product of a sustained effort to continue finding angelic presence on angelic function in the things and places of the world after my fall in Vermont in mid August.  This project is something like a diary; it reports on experiences I had while traveling to Salem, Mass. and Acadia, Maine in late September, and I have included a few straight photographs made in my home which I feel unveil angelic presence.

The Angels project concludes with Part VII an Epilogue which includes five remarkable mandala-like symmetrical photographs constructed from images of rocks I took during my visit in Acadia.  


All of the The Angel photographs in Part I and many of them in Part II are re-visions of earlier photographs selected from my past projects.  I very much like the idea of  transforming old familiar images into new visoinary experiences.  Once I had gained a better understanding about Corbin's Angels (most importantly, that everything in this world has its heavenly counterpart, its Celestial Twin, and that everything has an angelic function) the process of re-vising earlier images became for me an active process of visual contemplation and active imagination, that is to say, a means by which I could  "see" more deeply into or "behind" the surfaces of the older, familiar images to their angelic hidden treasures.  Re-vision is a form of visual contemplation; it has helped me to come closer to the Creative Origin of both my images and my Self.  (ta'wil)  

Rilke's Terrifying Angel
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' 
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me 
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed 
in that overwhelming existence.  For beauty is nothing 
but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains 
to annihilate us.  Every angel is terrifying.      
 These are the first lines of the first Elegy   (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Several of my angel photographs, it seems to me, visually affirms the Terrifying Angel which Rilke writes about in his Duino Elegies.  Not unlike the Prophet Mohammad, who was overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of his first vision of Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation, Rilke, in his Elegies remind us of the divine and terrifying power of beauty.  

On the other hand, some of my photographs have a lightness, a sense of humor, or a charicature-like irony about them which is typical of what you will often find and come to expect in Klee's "angelic" works.    

My favorite photographs are the more numinous images, those which invoke the luminous, mysterious, sacred nature of the angelic world.  After all, Angels are Beings of Light, our heavenly, archetypal counterparts.  The Sufi mystics say the soul is unhappy in this world; it is searching for its other half; it must be re-united with its heavenly prototype in order to finally become perfected, whole, and thus be free to return (ta'wil) to it's Original Self.  The Creative Process is indeed a process of inward transformation. This project and my Angel photographs have helped me to approach and engage that transcendent aspect of my earthly personality.  

Regarding the Symmetrical Photographs: 
The Black Space; the Green Orbs of Light; the Red Midnight Suns
We see angels thorough the eyes of the heart, through the mirror of the suprasensory inner eyes of God, according to Corbin, Cheetham and their mystics.  The symmetrical images transform a single source photograph and its reflections into an image of Light suspended in black space.  These images are for me a visual celebration of the Unity of Being.  The  blackness in which the images are suspended is itself illuminated by the sacred light of grace represented by the green orbs on the top and bottom edges of the black borders.  When the Sufi traveler completes his inner journey back to his Origin he experiences the brilliance of the outburst of this green light, the splendor of the visio smaragdina, which announces and celebrates the Sufi's reunion with his Creator via his conjunction with his Celestial Twin, or Angel Guide. 

Regarding the suspension of the image in black space, Tom Cheetham writes in his book After Prophecy:  The imagination in us provides the necessary meeting place between this world and the Divine. . . . The Angel allows us to perceive all things as suspended between Heaven and Earth in the mundus imaginalis [The Imaginal World].  

The black space in which the image is suspended, is what the Sufis term the Light of Night, the luminous Blackness or black Light.  I like the way Seyyed Hossenin Nasr says it here:  "The black color is the symbol of that darkness which is none other than the intensity of light, the color beyond all colors which contain all colors, all forms."    

The red orbs present in some of my Angel photographs are what the Sufis call the interior light of the Midnight Sun.  These "suns of the heart" writes Corbin  . . .  announce the presence of the Angel-Logos or of one of the angelic Intelligences.  As in Hermes' vision, angelophany is associated with the symbol of the "midnight sun," of luminous Night, because the first Intelligence, the Angel-Logos, is the initial and primordial theophany of the Deus absconditus.   Corbin: The Man of Light

By passing to the "Gabriel of your being," the recognition of the Guide is authenticated by the "witness in Heaven," the reddening sun against the background of divine Darkness.  This recognition implies recognition of the Unknowable, which is to say metaphysical renunciation and mystical poverty.  Corbin: The Man of Light


Beyond this known iconography, my deepest intention as an artist is to make photographs that function for me as true symbols.  When we contemplate a photograph that functions as a symbol, or an icon, we are transformed by our vision because through the grace of the true symbol we are seeing with the opened eyes of our heart, and then as the Sufi mystics say, we are seeing what God sees: nothing but Himself:

   "God is the light of the Heavens and of the Earth" (Qur'an 24:35).  . . . what sees and what is seen are the divine Being himself.
     Semnani [Sufi saint, b 1287] perceives in another verse (Qur'an 41:53) the very principle of the inward movement whereby every outer datum becomes an event pertaining to the soul, bringing historical, physical time back to inner, psychic time.  This is the final end toward which all mystic ways converge; it is the spiritual abode where the gaze of the one who contemplates the beauty of the Witness of contemplation in the mirror of the inner eye, the eye of the heart, is none other than the gaze of the Witness: "I am the mirror of thy face; through thine own eyes I look upon they countenance."  The Contemplated is the Contemplator and vice versa.  Corbin: The Man of Light    

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Welcome to: 

The Angel Photographs   
Part I
 Faces of Light 

Textual Preface to the Images:
     The processes of alchemy are steps in the process of becoming the unique Person whose face we were born to bear.  The slow dawning of consciousness and the transformation of the natural soul begin to reveal the Face of the Angel.  
     Even a glimpse of the Angel can light the whole world so that other people can be perceived as the impenetrable and mysterious creatures that they are.  If the prison of the lower soul is never opened to the influx of the divine, the faces of others will never be more than mirrors of the ego.  
     The Angel whose Face we hope to see, and by seeing, also to be, is less an object than a relation, more a process than a thing.  In truth the Angel is the personification of feeling--concentrated manifestation of the attention the soul pays to the world.  Corbin tells us that feelings induce knowledge of entities proper to them.  The Angel is the active subject of such creative knowledge.   Tom Cheetham:  After Prophecy

     There is something powerfully transhuman in this cosmic Face of the divine.  It is the Face of the sublime--the mysterium tremendum--and it is not without danger.  In the Islamic tradition, the Names of God fall into two grand categories, the Names of Majesty and the Names of Beauty.  The cosmic Face of the Angel is the Face of Majesty.  It is not inhuman, as is the demonic, but it is trans-human, and far beyond the scope of our understanding.   
     The other Face of the Angel is more anthropomorphic: the Face of Beauty.  But it is not the figure of the Angel that is the object of anthropomorphosis--it is us. 
     The Angel as a Person is a face of beauty, and makes possible an encounter with another person so powerful as to rupture the fabric of social life.   Tom Cheetham:  After Prophecy

     Suhrawardi [Sufi mystic] says that the Spirit is a being of Light that shines in the mind.  When this light wavers, we are consumed with melancholy and the energies of life wane.  Yet even such despair is a form of presence, transformable, redeemable by the imagination.  All of life can be transformed in the presence of the figure of the unknowable Guide, who offers the possibility of seeing the true self, the Face we had before the world was made.
     The supreme paradox is this: you cannot know who you are without opening to the darkness of the unknown.  You cannot be present in the fullest sense until you are able to follow the fearsome Angel leading you on into the dark.  Tom Cheetham:  After Prophecy   

     Any being understood as an end it itself is an idol. . .  But God, the ineffable Divinity, is open-ended, unpredictable, uncontrollable and awe-ful.
     Insofar as anything is perceived as determinate and comprehensible, to that degree it is a Veil of the divinity.  And yet in truth all things are masks of the infinite, and their being is the gift of God.  All things are organs by which God contemplates Himself and are not other than He.  To overcome the Test of the Veil requires that we not become trapped in the literal face of any being, that we not idolize it but rather see in it a Face of God.
     The Test of the Veil is a necessary condition of the act of being a creature.  The paradox of monotheism is equally the paradox of individualism, for the Angel as a Face of God is linked to the soul of whom it is the Twin in a bond of love that is essential for the being of each.   Tom Cheetham:  All the World An Icon

     The Angel of the Face [is] the only God that we can ever know.  Not the deus abscondita beyond all Being, but the God who knows himself in and through us.
     [Corbin writes:]  "The Angel is the Face that our God takes for us, and each of us finds his God only when he recognizes that Face."   Tom Cheetham:  The World Turned Inside Out

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The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #1

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #2

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #3

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #4

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #5

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #6  

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #7

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #8

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #9

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #10

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #11

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #12

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #3

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #14

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #15

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #16

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #17

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #18

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #19

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #20

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #21

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #22  (variation on image #6)

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #23

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #24

The Angels: Faces of Light    Image #25


This Part I of my Angels project was first posted ithe
 "Latest Addition" section of my Photography website's 
"Welcome Page" on September 15, 2014 
 along with Part IV.   

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.