© 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Helen and Simon appear as a snake charmer (note the reptile around her neck) and a sad clown in this mid-20th-century painting (later called Two Circus Artists) by German artist Max Beckmann.

According to the church fathers, Simon claimed that Helen was a reincarnation of Helen of Troy, and that she was created as the “first thought” from the magus’s divine head. During the creation of the world, Helena was attacked by demons and was forced to move from body to body until she ended up in a whorehouse. Simon, as the supreme god above all gods, rescued her from there.

Beckmann would have known Simon’s reputation as the founder of Gnosticism, a school of thought Beckmann himself adhered to. According to Gnosticism, humans are part of the divine world, but they usually don’t know it. Salvation comes through knowledge (gnosis) of one’s true origin. Beckmann saw artists (and, apparently, snake charmers and magicians) as keepers of divine knowledge and representatives of the spiritual life.