The Daily Heller: Barking Up the Kabbalistic Tree

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I’ve long appreciated the spiritualism and occult in the paintings and drawings of illustrator/artist Jonathon Rosen. He recently sent me one of his sources, The Kabbalistic Tree / האילן הקבלי by J. H. Chajes, a book about Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible using esoteric methods such as complex diagrams. “The drawings function as an interface to another dimension,” Rosen says.

Interior spread from The Kabbalistic Tree

I admit to a keen fascination with Kabbalah … but zero literacy or fluency. Rosen told me he incorporates Kabbalistic ciphers and configurations into the work that he does now. His art always has a strain of esoterica running through it, so in this chat I have challenged him to unlock some secrets lying beneath the surface of his graphic veneer and attempt to make me (us) understand.

Give me a crash course into the symbolic representation in your work.
My recent painting Asherah, the Queen of Heaven on Life Support (above) is based on the divine consort of God that the biblical prophets railed against. Asherah was a Canaanite fertility/mother goddess associated with sacred trees. This Asherah does photosynthesis. She makes copies of DNA. As a symbol for mother nature, she’s totally stressed out and on life support.

The Kabbalah tree of life motif, or ilanot (Hebrew for trees), was the final element I had been searching for that would aesthetically and symbolically tie the whole composition together. I had been laying bits and pieces of black and red paper over the painting as a kind of atomic structure, or as something like acupuncture points, which over time gradually and unconsciously began to coalesce into the ilanot shape itself. Incorporating these diagrams was in total synchronicity with the subject. Ilanot have hundreds of variations but I chose maybe the most familiar form and added my own variations to that. My main source for reference was from the great online Ilanot Portal by J. H. (Yossi) Chajes, author of the recently published magisterial volume The Kabbalistic Tree.

Do you have any relationship with this symbolism, or are you simply appropriating it for the form?
In no way am I an adept at using or interpreting these symbols, however I do have a huge attraction to control panels, interfaces and triggers and I see the Kabbalistic diagrams as representing an interface to another dimension, a higher plane of existence, as well as functioning as an infographic of the divine. The fact that these diagrams were an invention by medieval believers as a map of God just adds to the appeal, as I am attracted to the power and magic of art made by and for believers, even if I may not necessarily share the same beliefs. 

I’d like to imagine this work probably resonates for me through some genomic memory—and the use of the Kabbalistic diagrams along with the exploration of the crucial female divinity aspect in Hebrew faith as a way to explore, root around in, reevaluate and reenter my roots. 

You’ve incorporated Egyptian and biblical references (among others). How and why are these ingredients used?
I started working on these pictures during the worst part of the pandemic. They are a form of meditation on mortality and time travel and have relevance for understanding some of the roots of the present-day culture wars.

To some extent these symbols are a mashup of references which are meant to express the crossover between Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Greek mythologies concerning life, death and the afterlife and specifically the shared cultural crossover traits of female goddesses. My main reference for that was The Hebrew Goddess by anthropologist Raphael Patai. The images are stacked so as to exist in no one location in time and space. It’s everything all at once. Among other things, Asherah is surrounded by Egyptian Ka spirit and “false” doors representing the passage between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The tree leaves on the life-support tubes reference the Canaanite’s sacred Asherah poles, erected in high places and near altars, apparently one of the many subversive ways they violated God’s command to have no other gods or to worship a created image (Ex 20:3-6).

To a large extent these paintings are self-forming entities, and the placement of images comes from the deliberate use of accidents and the use of stream-of-consciousness techniques.

You call the Asherah painting the offspring/descendant of another time travel painting. Please explain.
I was commissioned by a private collector to do a piece based on (the above) Apries/Wahibre Haaibre (589–570 BC), the only pharaoh mentioned by name in the Bible. Known as Hophra in Jeremiah 44:30, that painting is the Apries/Hophra Time Slip.

I knew very little about Egyptian cosmology or who this queen of the heavens was that Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others spoke of, and this research sent me down a very deep rabbit hole, which subsequently led to the Asherah Queen of Heaven painting. Jeremiah’s book was intended as a message to the Jews in exile in Babylon, explaining the disaster of exile as God’s response to Israel’s blasphemous worship of the queen of the heavens.

After a spectacularly disastrous military campaign to help the Israelis resist the Persian invasion, Apries was overthrown and mutilated by his own people, supposedly on the orders of God himself.

The Egyptian goddess Qetesh features prominently in this painting as a tribute to her semetic roots and her sometimes association with Asherah. I also included images which relate to the use of an Egyptian Apries obelisk in Rome, which was later excavated in the renaissance with an added base designed by Bernini. So really, a lot of time slipping going on there …

Are you a mystic yourself, or do you just feel the auras this kind of imagery exudes?
The material I’m drawing from exudes major aura, for sure. I’m definitely not a mystic, although sometimes I feel as if I am functioning as a medium by channeling this material and allowing the work to tell me what it wants to be.