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Marie-Louise von Franz: Niklaus Von Flüe And Saint Perpetua: A Psychological Interpretation of Their Visions


The Vision of the Terrifying Face of God

1so Brother Klaus had his terrifying vision between the years 1474 and 1478, that is, somewhere from thirteen to nine years before his death (1487).1

Woelflin reports that, after the vision, Brother Klaus’s visitors were filled with terror when they looked at him.

On the origins of this fear, Klaus himself said that it had come about when he saw a piercing light resembling a human face.

At the sight of it he feared that his heart would burst into little pieces and, overcome with terror, he turned his face away and fell to the ground.2

Because of what he had seen, his face had become terrifying (horribilem) to others.3

The humanist Karl Bovillus describes the same vision in 1508:4

“a vision appeared to him in the sky, on a night when the stars were shining and he stood in prayer.

He saw the head of a human figure with a terrifying face, full of wrath and threats:’5

As Jung points out, 6 a comparison was quickly made between this image and the image of the avenging Christ of Revelation I:13.7

And, as Jung goes on to show,8 this vision of light is connected to the star which Brother Klaus saw before his birth and to the light which he saw in Liestal.

If we compare the three visions of light, then we see that there is a development in the sequence of the motifs:

First is the remote star, far out in the cold cosmos; then the radiant light (which stabs and wounds Klaus in the stomach, the seat of emotions); and finally, the radiant light with the terrifying face in it which turns into

a primordial experience of the divine in which God reveals Himself as a person with a human face.

However, no mention is made of this last big vision in the parish register of Sachseln.

But, as Alban Stoeckli quite rightly emphasises, this does not refute the truth of the other reports.9

Rather, it more than likely means that Brother Klaus was more reticent about this vision than he was about his other visions.

The biographer Woelflin knows nothing of the wheel image connected to this vision, whereas Bovillus does, and the latter’s aforementioned report goes on to say10

St. Niklaus saw 153 “a face and on the head was a threefold or papal crown, in the middle of which was the small sphere of the world, and on this sphere there was a cross.

The face bore a long three pronged beard. Six sword blades without handles appeared to go out from the face in different directions.

One went upwards from the forehead and penetrated the sphere and cross, with its broad end stuck in the forehead and its narrow end pointing upwards.

Two other blades emanated from each eye respectively, with their pointed end in the eyes and their broader end pointing upwards.

Two sword blades emanated

from the nose with their broader end in the nostrils.

The sixth sword blade emanated from the mouth with its broad end pointing upwards and the tip of the sword in the mouth.

All of these sword blades appeared to be the same. Brother Klaus had this vision painted in his hermitage.

I [Bovillus] saw it and my soul comprehended it and it was etched into my memory.

As its true meaning has remained hidden from me ( although, through its terrifying nature it suggests that

mankind is not threatened by small thunderbolts), perhaps you [Heiny am Grund] can better explain what it means … ”

154 Apparently, Bovillus mistook the spokes of the wheel for swords.

Nevertheless, it is apparent from his report that these “spokes” ( which he called “swords”) were connected to the terrifying face in this single image and that it is this image which Klaus had painted in his cell.11

According to Gundolfingen, however, the painting was to be found in the Ranft chapel.12

Compared with Woelflin’s report quoted above, in the reports of Bovillus and Gundolfingen mention

is at least made of the terrifying vision somehow underlying the image of the wheel.13

Jung therefore reasoned that the image of the wheel represents, so to speak, an attempt on Brother Klaus’s part “to

get his original experience into a form he could understand:’14

It was necessary for him to assimilate this terrifying original experience ”to fit it into the total structure of the psyche and thus restore the

disturbed psychic balance. Brother Klaus came to terms with his experience on the basis of dogma, then firm as a rock; and the dogma proved its powers of assimilation by turning something horribly alive into the beautiful abstraction of the Trinity idea:’15

By electing to live in seclusion and by turning inwards, Brother Klaus saw so deeply into himself “that the wondrous and terrible boon of original experience befell him.

In this situation the dogmatic image of divinity that had been developed over the centuries worked like a healing draught.

It helped him to assimilate the fatal incursion of an archetypal image and so escape being torn asunder:’16

This process of assimilation that Jung is referring to here is also reported in the so-called “Pilgrim’s Tract;’ a document written by an unknown pilgrim whom Brother Klaus visited and who later wrote a devotional tract that has survived in three different editions from the fifteenth century.17

This pilgrim cannot be identified with any certainty but is most probably Ulrich from Nuremberg whose commentaries formed the basis of the parish register of Sachseln.18

In his tract, the pilgrim reports,19

155 (and he [Brother Klaus] began to speak and said to me, (I would like to let you see my book which I am studying and whose teaching I am trying to understand:

He showed me the drawing of a wheel with six spokes as shown and he said, ‘Do you see this figure? The Divine Being is in the centre, and that is the undivided Godhead in which all saints find joy.

The three points which point towards the inner circle are the three persons of the Trinity, and they emanate from the one Godhead and embrace heaven and the whole world over which they have power.

And just as they emanate from this divine power, so do they return to it and are at one and are indivisible with this everlasting power.

That is the meaning of this figure. [ … ]20 You can see, within this wheel there is great breadth, from the inward-turning point of the inner circle that ends as a small point.

The meaning and form of the spokes corresponds to almighty God … who, in the form of a little child, entered and emerged from the most exalted Virgin without violating her virginity.

He has given us this same delicate body as a victual to partake of the indivisible Godhead.

As you can see by this spoke which is broad where it meets the inner circle and narrow where it meets the outer circle, the greatness of the all-powerful God is in the small substance of the host.21

Now observe a further spoke of the wheel which is broad where it meets the inner circle and narrow where it meets the outer, that is the meaning of man’s life, which is small and accessible.

In this short time we are able, through God’s love, to earn inexpressible joy without end.

That is the meaning of my wheel:’ After making further statements,22 the pilgrim finishes up by saying, “Thus, as Father Brother Klaus has taught me, you should pay close attention to the inner circle of the aforesaid wheel, and understand it as being the clear mirror of the true living God.”

The pilgrim’s comments omit any clear connection to the face in the vision.

Gundolfingen’s report, however, supplements them and, along with the “Pilgrim’s Tract;’ is the oldest surviving testimonial.23

((Did he [Klaus] not likewise learn in that High School of the Holy Ghost the representation of the wheel, which he caused to be painted in his chapel, and through which, as in a clear mirror, was reflected the entire essence of the Godhead?”24

Three rays25 point towards the divine countenance within the inner circle.

The Trinity’s three supreme effects emanate from this radiant divine countenance: the creation, the passion of Christ and the annunciation of the Lord from the ear, eye and mouth respectively, and all point in the direction of the broader outer circle, thus embracing both heaven and earth.

And just as the scope of the Trinity moves outwards from the points of these rays, so, too, does their scope reverse from the broad end of the three other rays and moves inwards, into the mirror of the divine.

Indeed, through our recognition of perceivable things and the responses they evoke within us,26 we can, through logical thinking, come to a recognition of the incomprehensible Divine.

The three rays that have their pointed ends touching the mirror of the divine indicate this, for indeed, our intellect moves along the broader path, that is, through our perception of things, towards the essence of the divine which is both fine and pointed.

The outer ends of the rays correspond to the essence of the incarnation of the divine in man with its all-embracing and widespread redemption … ” There follows a commentary on the outward-pointing rays which basically

corresponds to the ((Pilgrim’s Tract:’

These profound pictorial elaborations by Brother Klaus would seem to have been partly inspired by an illustrated tract (( Spiegel menschlicher Behaltnis;’

printed by Anton Sorg in Augsburg in 1476,27 which, however, is more concerned with the medallions that, as is mentioned above, have nothing to do with Brother Klaus.

This tract has relevance as a model for Brother Klaus’s wheel picture only in so far as it depicts the Godhead as a three-faced Godhead which Klaus could have seen in one of the many books of Ulrich im Moesli.

Indeed, it would seem that Klaus, too, owned such an illustrated booldet.28

Be that as it may, these sparse materials were the only outer help Brother Klaus had at his disposal to help him understand his vision.

In none of them, however, was there an image of a wheel.

The latter would seem to have arisen largely from within Brother Klaus himself.

It gave him, so to speak, a “structural” framework to connect his vision to the images in devotional books and to the descriptions he had given of his vision. Generally speaking, the motif of the wheel is the “ordering principle” par excellence29 for it is a mandala, a symbol in which the function of creating order is inherent.30

Here, as Jung points out, it serves to clarify what has been experienced.31

“Just as a stone, falling into calm water, produces wave after wave of circles, so a sudden and violent vision of this kind has long-lasting after-effects, like any shock.

And the stranger and more impressive the initial vision was, the longer it will take to be assimilated, and the greater and more persevering will be the efforts of the mind to master it and render it intelligible to human understanding.

Such a vision is a tremendous ‘irruption’ in the most literal sense of the word, and it has therefore always been customary to draw rings round it like those made by the falling stone when it breaks the smooth surface of the water:’32

… “When we consider that the mental attitude of that age, and in particular that of Brother Klaus, allowed no other interpretation than that this vision represented God himself, and that God signified the summum bonum, Absolute Perfection, then it is clear that such a vision must, by its violent contrast, have had a profound and shattering effect, whose assimilation into consciousness required years of the most strenuous spiritual effort:’33

  • •• “Brother Klaus’s

elucidation of his vision with the help of the three circles (the so-called ‘wheel’) is in keeping with age-old human practice, which goes back to the Bronze Age sun-wheels (often found in Switzerland) and to the mandalas depicted in the Rhodesian rock-drawings.

These sun-wheels may possibly be Palaeolithic; we find them in Mexico, India, Tibet, and China.

The Christian mandalas probably date back to St. Augustine and his definition of God as a circle.

Presumably Henry Suso’s notions of the circle, which were accessible to the ‘Friends of God’34 were derived from the same source.

But even if this whole tradition had been cut off and no little treatise with mandalas in the margin had ever come to light, and if Brother Klaus had never seen the rose-window of a church, he would still have succeeded in working his great experience into the shape of a circle, because this is what has always happened in every part of the world

and still goes on happening today:’35

Mandalas are indeed “instruments of meditation, concentration, and self-immersion, for the purpose of realizing inner experience … [and] they serve to produce an inner order:’

Thus, “they express the idea of a safe refuge, of inner reconciliation and wholeness:’ 36

In conjunction with this fundamental symbol of inner order which Brother Klaus placed over the image that had erupted within his soul, in an attempt, so to speak, to hold it at bay, he also formulated the explanations outlined

above, the historical significance of which Stoeckli has already detailed.

It seems to me that the fact that Brother Klaus’s symbol of the circle is a six-spoked wheel is of particular significance.

In traditional number symbolism, six is considered to be a perfect number because it is equal to the sum of its divisors.

One side of a hexagon within the circle corresponds precisely to the radius.

This is why six plays a special role in the cyclical measurement of time ( 60 minutes, 60 seconds, etc.).

Thus, the hexagonal division of the circle has especially to do with time.

This aspect of six, consisting of two sets

of three, is given special emphasis in number symbolism.

Allendy says37 that the Ternarius represents creative logos.

But, in the number six, the living creature reacts to it, so that six represents the opposition of the living creature to its creator in an uncertain equilibrium.

In antiquity, six was the number of Aphrodite and of marriage and, in the Christian tradition, it is a symbol of harmony and perfection.38

Nevertheless, the latter seems to me to have been understood as being above all a dynamic phenomenon, as an action reaction, that is, as a dynamic interaction of two principles.

I consider this dynamic aspect to be essential for in Brother Klaus’s own explanation, the effects of God and his creation, the ingoing and the outgoing of the divine, is particularly emphasised.

Thus Klaus’s wheel represents a process rather than a goal, which in turn lends significance to a further aspect of the wheel as a symbol, namely, the idea of motion.

Rhys Davids says that, in India, the wheel was thought of as a symbol of becoming.39

A victorious king, for example, was referred to as “the wheel-turner” because his victorious campaigns extended throughout the entire world.

Its meaning is positive in the sense of progressive becoming but negative in the sense of not getting anywhere.

This same dynamic aspect can be found in the ‘ivy~ symbol of late antiquity.

The latter is a “magical wheel” which was used to enchant one’s beloved, or even as a synonym for ardent desire.

1s9 Thus, when Brother Klaus uses the wheel to keep the image of the terrifying divine countenance at bay, it is, in my opinion, an attempt on his part to understand this divine being as an experiential process, not, as it were, ((in itself;’ but rather in the effect it had upon him.

In this context, a further fact draws our attention: The concept of motion is inherent to the wheel.

But here the wheel is still, and the dynamic events which Brother Klaus describes take place within the wheel itself, as an interaction between the flowing movement of the spokes.

Psychologically speaking, this would seem to point towards an intense introversion of psychic energy within which is the power to heal.

This is what is required to make the shock of the terrifying vision easier to bear.

160 In this respect, M. -B. Lavaud has pointed out that this terrifying primordial image of the divine can also be understood from the standpoint of the Christian tradition.40

He cites Se use who in his ((Horologium Sapientiae” (I, VII) says, (( quad divina sapientia amabilis sit pariter et terribilis.”41

Daniel and Job were also terrified by the countenance of God,42 as was John in the Revelation of St. John (Rev. 1:17).

St. John had an experience of this dark, angry, and vengeful God when he was an old man, about which Jung says,43 (‘In confinio mortis and in the evening of a long and eventful life a man will often see immense vistas of time stretching out before him. Such a man no longer lives in the everyday world … but in the sight of many aeons and in the movement of ideas as they pass from century to Century:’

Thus it happens that ((the spirit of God itself … blows through the weak mortal frame and again demands man’s fear of the unfathomable Godhead:’

Apparently, this is precisely what happened to Brother Klaus, too, in his solitude.

Although the ((terrifying countenance” can be readily understood in connection with the Judaeo-Christian tradition,44 in my view, it also seems to be related to the motifs of the dreams and events that preceded it.

For this

vision seems like a final, powerful self-revelation of that unknown

god who had previously become manifest in such Germanic and

Wotan like ways.

This terrifying face is indeed the face of the same

god who appeared at Brother Klaus’s baptism as the unknown old

man, who was suggested in the star and glowing light and, finally,

who was revealed in the “Berserker” and the “Truth” which the

people could not bear.

The word “Wotan” is connected to the old Nordic

root word “othr” which, as an adjective, means “raging,

raving, violent:’

Added to this is the Gothic word “wads” (possessed,


As a noun with the same etymological root, it means “gifted

poet;’ “poem;’ “soul;’ “mind/spirit:’ and “intellect:’ Related to this is

the modern Norwegian word “oda” or “ode” ( storm, courage, hotheadedness,

lust, sperm)45 in which the motif of “ecstatic courtly,

intimate love” resonates once more.

161 This terrifying element is so central to the god Wotan that a

German glossary explains the word “daemon” (god) as “terrifying


“To have the helmet of terror in one’s eye;’ in Icelandic, means

something like “to look at with piercing, flashing eyes:’

The German

word “Drache” (dragon) is related to “derkein” (to look with flashing


Thus, terror, light, and the terrifying countenance are all

mythologically intimately connected.

The “Glow of Terror” is what

a Nordic skald calls his sword, and we recall that in Brother Klaus’s

first vision of light, he was so filled with pain, as if his stomach were

being slit open with a knife.

Thus, we can, then, quite literally talk

of an “incisive” experience. Brother Klaus’s experience brings to

mind Nietzche’s poem “The Lament of Ariadne;’47 which, as Jung

has shown,48 is, in point of fact, dedicated to the god Wotan:

Stretched out, shuddering,

Like a half-dead thing whose feet are warmed,

Shaken by unknown fevers,

Shivering with piercing icy frost arrows,

Hunted by thee, 0 thought,

Unutterable! Veiled! Horrible one!

Thou huntsman behind the clouds.

Struck down by thy lightning bolt,

Thou mocking eye that stares at me from the dark!

Thus I lie,

Writhing, twisting, tormented

With all eternal tortures,


By thee, cruel huntsman,

Thou unknown – God!

163 Nietzsche quite rightly felt that this divine figure which he called

Dionysus49 was meant as a Deus absconditus, whose claim on modern

Christian man we can hardly grasp, but about whom we could

perhaps say one thing:

He appears to represent a psychic image of

God and of wholeness that extends into the cosmos. 50

This spontaneous

aspect of extending into and being within nature is essential.

It can

be seen as a compensation for the onset of our European

uprootedness, along with our alienation from nature that has come

about through technology, as well as our loss of Christian faith.


breakdown of a tradition is, as Jung says,51 “always a loss and a

danger; and it is a danger to the soul because the life of instinct-the

most conservative element in man52-always expresses itself in

traditional usages.

Age-old convictions and customs are deeply

rooted in the instincts.

If they get lost, the conscious mind becomes

severed from the instincts and loses its roots, while the instincts,

unable to express themselves, fall back into the unconscious and

reinforce its energy:’

This can, among other things, lead to the

destructive mass phenomena which we are experiencing today53 and

which was personified in the image of the “outsiders” in Brother

Klaus’s fountain vision.

The individuation process, however, is a

compensation which nature has apparently brought about in

response to such a profanity.54

It is expressed in Brother Klaus’s

visions in, for example, the figure of the Berserker and in all Klaus’s

repeated experiences of light. Perhaps we are now better able to

understand the fact that the Self ( the four lights) seems to ask of

Brother Klaus that he be tied down to one particular place.

That the

Self demands a committed relationship to others, indeed, often to

particular people, is an empirically provable psychological fact.55


here this required individual relationship is extended to include


It seems to me that here we have the answer to the question

that was touched upon at the beginning, namely, how are we to view

the seemingly pagan Germanic aspects in Brother Klaus’s visions?

To assume, on the one hand, that we are simply dealing with

surviving remnants of pre-Christian paganism or, on the other hand,

with a regression into paganism, is, in my view, not convincing.


whole context of the visions speaks against this; for example, the

motif of the three divine visitors burdening Brother Klaus with the

task of being the bearer of the cross; the fact that in one vision the

“spirit of Truth” appears as a person wearing a bearskin, while in the

next vision Klaus is introduced to the Christian kingdom of heaven,


Thus, one explanation is perhaps more readily to be found in

some facts which Jung pointed out to me, namely, that the image of

Wotan as a god has two characteristics which Yahweh does not have:

firstly, an intense relationship to cosmic nature; and secondly, the

practice of casting of sticks or bones and the throwing of the runes, a

realm Wotan is master of, in other words, his alignment with the

principle of synchronicity.56

These two characteristics are almost

completely missing in the figure of Yahweh, yet they are, apparently,

a part of a complete god-image which would seem to encompass not

only darkness and evil, but also cosmic nature and its meaningful

manifestations in synchronistic events.

It is only when these aspects

are taken into account that an individual encounter with the divine

hie et nunc is possible in which the genius loci and nature that

surrounds it come together in a meaningful way within the psychic

realm of an individual, allowing him to perceive everything as being

part of the one cosmos.57

However, psychologically speaking, this

represents a tremendous increase in the value placed upon the

meaning that is found in each individual’s life-an increase which

brings him to the brink of deification and places supreme importance

upon both his conscious understanding and his ethical behaviour.

164 The relationship Brother Klaus had to nature, which was

constellated through invasive archetypal contents, meant that he

represented not only a typical Christian saint, but that he

simultaneously embodied the ancient image of the primitive

medicine man, the Nordic shaman and the prophet.

It is as if an

ancient “pattern” of the individuation process had returned, but on

a higher level, so that it might be reconciled with the spiritual

development of Christianity, thereby broadening the latter to include

this new dimension of nature.

Accordingly, Brother Klaus’s inner

experiences and his lonely effort to realise them map out the

individuation process of modern man.

His visions, however, reveal

with impressive clarity certain basic tendencies of the collective

unconscious that strive to further develop the Christian religious


Thus, they act as points of reference that show us where we

stand and where the unconscious psyche wants to bring us, namely,

to a deeper realization of the problem of the opposites and thereby

to both a greater nearness to God and to a greater fear of Him. ~Marie-Louise von Franz, Niklaus von Flue and Saint Perpetua, Page 109-124