Between 1938 and 1943 Aleister Crowley worked with Lady Frieda Harris to create a series of 78 paintings for the Thoth Tarot. Crowley sketched basic ideas for the cards with the symbolism and imagery that he envisioned and Harris brought them to life as paintings in gouache and watercolour. These paintings are absolutely abundant in esoteric symbolism but have an added element brought my Harris; her interest in Projective Geometry.
The Hierophant trump is one of my favourite paintings in the series:
This is trump number 5, roman numeral V, the hebrew letter is Vau (the nail). Around the head of the Hierophant are 9 nails affixing a serpent above a rose and a dove. The astrological equivalent is Taurus, the elephants and the bull seen behind the Hierophant show the Taurian nature of the card. The colours are oranges, browns, reds; the colours of earth. the Hierophant himself is an Initiator and he carries the child Horus in a pentagram over his heart. The woman who stands in front of him is ‘girt with a sword’ and represents Babalon, the Scarlet Woman who ushers in a new Aeon. At each corner are the Powers of The Sphinx, the guardians of the shrine of initiation: To know, To will, To dare and to keep Silent, represented as eagle, bull, lion and man. They also represent the 4 elements. The Hierophant carries a wand with three rings, potentially representing the 3 Aeons and he makes a sign of benediction (seen in the traditional ‘Pope’ trump) that is also a V.
In the large hexagram and the 2 smaller pentagrams you can observe Harris’s inclusion of Projective Geometry showing the movement of a potential geometry through space.
The richness of the imagery is occulted to most viewers of this painting who are not familiar with the symbolism and it’s meanings. But despite the potential lack of specific understanding, the familiarity with the colours, animals, shapes and forms could lead a viewer to have a dialogue with the artwork and receive an innate understanding of the messages within the work: the colours are earthy, the animals are strong and forceful, the Hierophant is imposing and solid, these clues all convey ideas to the viewer. With greater involvement in the ritual aspects of the symbols, comes a differing perspective on the painting and a different experience when interacting with it. Each symbol has a wealth of meaning that adds layers to the understanding of the artwork. For example, a casual viewer might see 9 nails, but an initiated viewer will see the Hebrew letter Vau and the number 9 which opens up all the symbolism associated with both of those symbols as well as the symbol of the nail. The symbols unfold before the viewer like a fractal pattern.