Fire & Eye

1. Fire

In Andrei Rublev, the cinematic masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky set in medieval Russia, a young man must cast a giant bell for the prince of the land and its dominant all-pesrvasive church. Having already followed the wanderings and wonderings of the eponymous painter, Rublev, the narrative now sets unerring focus on the monumental task laid before our bell-maker boy, Boriska. It is the culminating act of this meditative and monumental epic. A fulminating, vortical enterprise with a timeless historical message concerning the combining creative forces of elementary fire and human spiritual vision. A fundamental understanding which has been given universal weight both in ancient myth and sci-fi futuristic imaginings. 

The survivor of a plague-ravaged village, Boriska’s just deceased father – the master bell-maker – has bequeathed him the secrets of this most challenging and physically exacting of crafts. Or so we are led to believe. For as we follow him in his preparatory dilemmas it  becomes clear that in many ways he works blindly – seemingly uncertain as to how his decisions might eventually affect the no doubt unruly alchemy of bell-making. Thus throughout his endeavour he hides his doubts amid brash assertions and the bold risk of youth, hovering perilously above a stark manichean fault-line dividing midasian triumph and the oblivion of ruinous failure. But it is within the forceful gale of frenetic activity, and at a central key moment, that he is in some sense granted an unlikely reprieve. With heavy earth dug deep to fire the bell’s casting mould high upon a valley-top eyrie (a Breughalian valley, with the perspective of an all-seeing eye), his unwaveringly loyal craftsmen ignite the overlain pyre into a tyrannical,  dyspeptic blaze. The overwhelming force of this unwieldily conflagration is such that it conversely permits welcome relief from the mounting strain of expectation. During this repose, Boriska becomes almost bewitched or enchanted – returning as he does to the comfort of play that is childlike in its mischievous, rebellious spirit: his laughter forked of tongue and hiccup-blushed.

Beneath these sky-blistering flames we are granted audience with the many extraordinarily peopled faces who have come to witness this promethean act. And it is before them that we are simultaneously reacquainted with the peasant jester, who theatrically reappears from an earlier scene where we witnessed his pitiful arrest. Callously denounced to the authorities by Rublev’s travelling companion – the rather janus-faced and spiteful fellow-monk, Kirill – the jester has crawled back from a no doubt harsh prison punishment of Siberian torment. All for mocking conventions through mere bawdy song and drink-doused rabelaisian revelry. Traditionally the jester is granted freedom of expression at the observed ruling courts of kings and queens, but not when delivering truths to a deprived and hungry peasantry, the touch paper rabble. This earlier tableau, a microcosm carnivalesque play, is filmed with extraordinary planar perspectival tricks of dollhouse-like distortion. At a singular instance of calm a strangely doleful, intoxicating hymn merges with image to become indistinguishably porous (they seem to drink in one another as though impelled by the uniform press of outside rain), while foreground figures are subtly warped within a reality-defying, lenticular prison. It is nice to think that we are here granted momentary, privileged access to the prismatic vaults of Rublev’s painterly icon eyes as they distill subject and form. At the firing of the bell, however, our jester serves to enact an angry venting scene for the injustice done to him. The scolding blaze a pullulating addendum to his panicked invective – like a trailing comet that has followed him all the way back from the hell from which he has returned.

Tarkovsky was making his magnum opus in post-Stalin Russia, when the chill of regime censorship still prevailed with a dull bureaucratic thud. Hounding him on the abstruse nature of the film it was cut and mangled, frustratingly shown five years after completion. His jester therefore presents as an unlikely and uncanny harbinger of Tarkovsky's later self-imposed exile in foreign lands. 

The jester is a conjurer much like Boriska, Andrei Rublev and the director himself. They all depend on light to fashion their art, as much from shadows as from the luminance of illumination. In Rublev he also serves as an important Falstaffian figure, and if more laughed at for his bluff incantatory nature he is also possessed of a biting  wit that is, of course, ill received – as Touchstone might lament:  ‘More’s the pity fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly’. The fool, or idiot – the word deriving as it does from ídios, which is Greek for one’s own private thoughts, idiosyncratic – is perhaps to be better understood as one who foregrounds otherwise hidden, unwelcome truths. This then is Tarkovsky’s tenebrist theatre where tragedy and pitiful farce, light and dark, are never apart. Where what we often demand as serious and sacred can sometimes only be met with the reset ease of laughter. For laughter is the cordial solvent for the pent-up soul – a pressure valve release of indecorous antimatter to momentarily annul formal strictures of law and custom. The jester’s weather-gnarled audience is likewise in sway to these extremes of emotion, as he tilts from murderous intent to mocking joviality. Such that the entire sequence (from Boriska's turn to the jester's drama) captures with breathless economy the narcotic verse that is human enchantment – in thrall, as we indeliably are, to the pitch and roll of narrative flux.

As night draws over, Boriska’s men are barracked relentlessly to smelt the combining metals for the mould that has just been fired deep beneath the earth. Giant bellows are seesawed hard to oxygenate the furnaces hot as the tracking camera cants over this industrious hive to reveal the still enraptured night-lit audience – ever-bedazzled and transfixed by the collective force of creative will. The shape of the crowd ribbons tightly up and around the trunk of a stolid lone-standing tree. Its branches scratch rabid, dendritic scrawls deep within the heart of this heartless, unforgiving medieval world: half-crazed and punitively formed. Where Bruegel again serves as a close inspiration, the scene is also redolent of Goya – with the painter's night-lit lamp illuminating the condemned pleading faces in the execution of The Third of May, ‘Then night, the surest nurse of troubled souls’.

Pregnant in both the viewer’s and Boris’s mind is that if the bell eventually fails to ring he will also face the executioner. He even whispers a faint orison prayer pleading for elixir as the molten metal is poured, gurgling down the carved out funnel. As if out of the fires of the chthonic earth’s core should emerge a heavenly orpiment jewel. If it works he’ll cast an eternal messenger of bold bronze and heavy iron – thronging sombre carillon out across the land, through thicket forests and open planes. All elements are at play: fire, water, wind and earth, in numinous accord. But it is surely fire that is here all-powerful, all-consuming. The Italian author Umberto Eco effortlessly conveys in sonorous cadence something close to what Tarkovsky evokes in fluidity of image:

And if things are created from an irradiation, nothing can be more beautiful on earth than fire, which is the very figure of divine irradiation. The beauty of a colour, which is something simple, is created from a form that dominates the obscurity of matter and from the presence in color of an incorporeal light, which is its formal reason. For this reason, fire is beautiful in itself more than any other thing, because of its intangibility of form: of all bodies it is the lightest, to the point of being almost intangible. It always remains pure because it does not contain within itself the other elements that make up matter, whereas all other elements contain fire within themselves: they, in fact, can be heated, whereas fire cannot be cooled. Fire alone, by its nature contains colours; other things receive their form and color from it, and when they distance themselves from the firelight they loose their beauty.


if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes. Pull out his eyes, Apologize.

2. Eye

In another cinematic image this formless nature of fire is magically depicted in immediate communion with an all-consuming, all-seeing eye. In the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film,  Bladerunner, burn-off gas fires – released over the expanse of a dramatically imagined future-dark LA city – are reflected in an ultra close-up shot of an outward-staring human eye: a shimmering, celestial, blue-laved canvas. Within the curvilinear cradle of this miracle of biological design, the explosive gas-flame ejection is wonderfully captured crawling up around the cornea – burnishing in the viewer's imagination a neuromantic oriflamme of dystopian armageddon. This aqueous, ocean-blue orb shines defiantly before a heavily polluted, corpuscular environment: inhabiting a planet where the oceans are forever starved of colour-enriching solar light.

Far from Rublev’s peasent-teeming blaze, this is an oriflamme herald of an all-seeing artificial intelligence. Perhaps a perfected android eye? The perfect bio-mimesis of the human eye where mimesis takes place? This motif of vision and mimesis is grafted onto the following sequence when the eye of the android Leon undergoes intense scrutiny in a test designed by the authorities to determine whether an individual is a human or a replicant (dilation of the iris, capillary flush response etc). Again, it also hints to a more important later scene where the android ordained with god-like ability, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) points out to the designer of his nexus eyes: ‘the things I’ve seen with your eyes’. The primal spark of ruminative reflection, and the recursive power necessary to cradle it, is here presented as no longer the monopoly of human consciousness – it has been through human agency returned to the gods.

As if to drive the point home, Roy paraphrases from William Blake's America A Prophecy ‘Fiery the angels fell, deep thunder rolled around their shores, burning with the fires of an orc’. An exhilarating  pronouncement, the android uses it to capture the biblical weight of the moment – holding bio-engineer, Choo, in terrified awe (pointedly redacting Blake’s ‘rose’ with ‘fell’.) Therein, this chilling performance displays the irresistible charismatic force that attracts us to the miltonic fallen angel. The magnetic attraction of those who dare to rebel. The creation of Roy – through, if you like, Eve's unlocking of the crucible of knowledge in Eden – embodies the ultimate in human understanding and therefore means that he is also the ultimate anti-hero who breaks every natural law. It is perhaps with a similar understanding of power that Milton celebrates the rebel Eve when in Paradise Lost she reasons her transgression with a deft, devastating logic: 'And render me more equal and perhaps | A thing not undesirable, sometime | Superior; for who inferior is free?' 

And like Milton's fallen angel, Roy, too, has experienced heavenly, fiery battles:
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.”

In Blade Runner’s most intense scene where Roy meets his maker, Eldon Tyrell, his eyes flash with a marvellous golden haloed glaze (not unlike those halos often found in Rublev's saintly depictions) – matched only by Tyrell’s artificial owl, whose tungsten gilded irises happen to oversee this informal congress. It is then Tyrell’s eyes that Roy violently gouges out when he discovers quite quickly that his maker hasn’t got what it takes to stay his biological deterioration. The gouging of eyes is also depicted with brutal force in one of the forest scenes in Andrei Rublev, where the craftsmen of the prince are hunted down for agreeing to work for his brother. 

The name Roy, indeed, comes from the French for king, roi – and it was the earliest christian French king Clovis who was first to ride into battle with the fiery red oriflamme of St Denis – literally a golden, spiritual flame. But if both anti-heroes, Boriska and Roy, are fictional imaginings who strive to control the flame of creation and avoid extinction, it would be an historical figure who would literally walk the fires of hell to realise her ecstatic vision. One whose legend still embodies the truest, creative rebel fire – a suzerain-slaying wonder. One who would also carry with her the fiery red oriflamme of St. Denis.


A thing not undesirable, sometime Superior; for who inferior is free?

3. Vision

When the Greek philosopher and writer Longinus says ‘it would have been more characteristic of Amphicratis than Xenophon to speak of the pupils of our eyes as modest maidens’ he is referring to how we weigh up a person by their eyes. How we might determine the essence of who they actually are: 'the eye, which is the window of the soul'. And if they capture, as it were, ‘modest maidens’ it is because as scholar T.S. Dorsch explains ‘it reflects a tiny image of the person gazing into it. The pupil of the eye was called kórē, or maiden’.

Another modest maiden, known as the Maid of the fifteenth century Anglo-French wars (Hundred Years War) between the Anglo-Burgundians and the Armagnacs, was of course The Maid of Orléans or Joan of Arc. During her early adult life Joan of Arc was to be the recipient of many divine visitations, or beatific visions. One of which was from St Michael, God’s archangel warrior known as the 'weigher of souls’. Michael seems to have sown in her imagination the immovable conviction that she had been chosen to redirect the narrative course of Anglo-French history. Such that her Armagnac king, Charles VII, should rightfully be ordained king of all France – and that she, herself, would actually lead the Armagnac army into the incinerating cauldron of war.

Besides the small matter of war, the task would have been politically fraught, to say the least. Any declaration of communion with heavenly angels more often put mystics in perilous danger. Joan would’ve  automatically promoted herself to the unenviable rank of probable heretic – an anarchic and dangerous individual, like a Jan Huss or a Wat Tyler – and she forthrightly, if unintentionally, kindled a defiant flame of dangerous dissent, if purely for the love of God. She therefore needed at all times to maintain the confidence of a no doubt skeptic and equally unnerved nobility always wide to such self-assertion. She had to marshal a delicately balanced image of both warrior spirit instructed by God, and that of humble, earthly servant, to both crown and church – not an easy thing to do. 

So how did she deal with the Armagnac aristocracy and clergy, how would she convince them of her as truly anointed? 

The initial oddity of her dressing in male garb (battle ready) subsequently gave way to the more stabilising effect of projecting her identity beyond the bounds of conventional ‘female’ stature, and served as a sort of theatrical screen of separation. This is described by the author of Joan of Arc, The Image of Female Heroism, Marina Warner, as entering “that androgynous zone,” which, according to the historical record, had before Joan an established, if sporadic, tradition. But in this extreme political context, Joan’s tight-rope antics – the balancing act of merging virginity and transvestism – would have, with an ingenious sleight of hand, freed her from the gridlocked dogma that held women as inferior to men. They may have resigned themselves to the fact that she could be neither – accepting her as a celestial angel (like Roy Batty), bestowed with heavenly powers. The fact that the morale of the the laity had been lifted by her arrival – during such a catastrophic war – would also have played an immeasurable part in her immediate ascent.

The whole endeavour understandably demanded a mind of ice with a burning heart, and the result leaves us with an enigma of earth shattering brilliance. An anti-heroine model who seemed stupefyingly  self-possessed – equipped with a peerless understanding of symbolic projection (her sword and oriflamme banner are icons inseparable from her image). This was obviously no ordinary backwater mystic. Joan was all rebel angel, born of hilt-armoured guile and unremitting ambition. So much so that, like Boriska, she danced that cruel manichean fault-line with otherworldly fervour. 

When eventually leading an under-resourced battle-fatigued Armagnac army against the far superior Anglo-Burgundians at Orléans, she, like the first king, Clovis, held the oriflamme high with the fliers-de-lis of France. Emblazoned onto a background light of piercing celestial blue. Her freeing of the city was seen as nothing short of miraculous and a clear sign that God had truly anointed her. She had led with her banner directly at the head of the army ‘proving herself in the furnace of war’ as historian Helen Castor memorably remarks.

Going on to win more extraordinary battles she eventually succumbed and was captured by the enemy in Compiègne, near Paris. Over a protracted and gruelling inquisition by the Burgundian clergy she was repeatedly subjected to hours of cross-examination by a battery of intimidating theologian prelates led by Bishop Cauchon. She would have been made to repeatedly answer on her visitation from St Michael, God’s archangel warrior – of 'weigher of souls’ fame. 

Michael, as historian Robert Bartlett describes, ‘is depicted quite literally, holding a pair of scales, with a human soul on one side, while often the devil, with his intrinsic sense of unfairness, is trying to pull down the other.’ The historian proceeds to explain that Joan 'was asked at her trial whether St. Michael had been carrying scales when he appeared to her, she replied that she did not know’. Such was the punishingly exact theological questioning, over and again in tandem with repeatedly ordering her to explain every detail of her saintly communions. This bore the obvious, crippling intention of faulting her deposition as inconsistent – framing her as a fabricating fraud, a heretic and a witch.

The clerics would no doubt have had emoluments as motivation, knowing that any slow-moving office advancement they sought would be further greased by satisfying the favour of the Anglo-Burgundian court. With many weeks of testing pressure they eventually decided they had enough to charge her with – and thus a litany of caricatured religious crimes were deemed satisfactory ammunition to have her burnt alive at the stake. 

In a documentary film made by Tarkovsky, Voyage in Time, he is asked by the Italian poet and writer Tonino Guerra about unrealised projects he’d like to at some stage explore. One idea the director recounts is about a man who sets fire to his wife. Even though they are very much in love and have a loving relationship, he cannot deal with her inveterate propensity to lie. But he, nor she, can understand why she must do so. As Tarkovsky has it, lies are unimportant. But the artist here distracts, because lies are of course a shining light on the necessary workings of the human imagination – through the artifice of creation, we in turn lie. Just as Boriska understands that he must dissemble in order to make the bell, the jester must be punished for telling the truth. Tragically, as the director tells it, his protagonist ‘ties her [his lover] to a tree and sets her on fire' like, he says 'Joan of Arc’. 

The vision, the spark of cosmic energy held by Joan of Arc is incredibly difficult to understand. But it seems that this was an explosive genius that couldn’t be held back, even in this patriarchal society where women had no voice of authority. Other figures such as Hildegard of Bingen or the New Spain poet Sor Juana Ines similarly represented this need for creative redress and release within a stifling society – dogmatically fused to repress such female creative expansion. It is possible, important even, to think that this repression manifests itself with such outward expressions of preternatural force. In Joan of Arc’s case the explosive uncoiling of pinioned energy would not be tamed by the fires of hellish war, but through a corrupt religious fire of unyielding, dogmatic retribution. Her early visitations, hearings and other inexplicable experiences were a wholly creative source of her power – it was her art. These were clear projections of the creative mind wishing to liberate a precocious soul from constrictive repression.

According to Herodotus, ancient Egyptians regarded fire as ‘a living creature, one which consumes everything it takes hold of until at last, when it is sated it dies along with the object it has been devouring’. After her death, against all the propaganda unleashed to defile and desecrate the memory of her, the Armagnac people resolutely kept their maid’s memory alive. But as Helen Castor details, in her history of the maid, this also reemerged with a lazarushian artistic turn by the Burgundian people of Arras – during the brutal winter of 1434:

‘in the duke of Burgundy’s own town of Arras, a hundred miles north of the French capital, the inhabitants decorated the streets with elaborate sculptures carved out of snow. Their subjects were chosen from myth and legend; among these frozen tableaux, laced with the excitement of the supernatural, the only one taken from life was the figure of la grand Pucelle, the great Maid, at the heart of her soldiers. The people of Arras had seen Joan in person four years before, when she was brought to their town as captive on her unhappy journey to Rouen and the stake’

The melting of this sculpture would have eventuated deliquesce transformation, as if in opposition to Boriska’s transformative smelting of metal into fixed jewel. In a recent article on Andrei Rublev in The New Yorker, Alex Ross writes ‘The bell sequence is, finally, a parable of the creative process: great art rests on some murky mixture of luck, lies, and witchcraft’. Witchcraft, indeed. It is Boriska’s peasantry who witness his creative annunciation, and it is the peasantry who annunciate Joan of Arc. All of these creators, Roy included, are low born into their world (we are now considering attitudes toward future robots), but like the jester they all speak truth to power by harnessing creative thought and the most powerful element of fire.  

Our eyes hold images which the warm fires of the sun enable us to see, the energy of light is existence, it is culture, which Roy Batty captures so well when paraphrasing Blake. Something another vaunted artist, while within the incandescent eye of his own creative storm, stated like no other:

‘I launch forward on an easy wave of tepid speech: Swedenborg, the pseudo-Areopagite, Miguel de Molinos, Joachim Abbas. The wave is spent. Her classmate, re-twisting her twisted body, purrs in boneless Viennese Italian: Che coltura! The long eyelids beat and lift: a burning needleprick stings and quivers in the velvet iris’