Around 1901, well into this period, Picasso undertook a series of works depicting inmates at the infirmary of Saint Lazare. These subjects are often shown wearing the Mithraic or Phrygian cap, the bonnet worn by Mithra which, for centuries, had been one of the hallmarks of the alchemists. Later, due to the Mithraic influence on occult political groups, the cap had been adopted as one of the principal symbols of the French Revolution. Picasso, would almost certainly have associated the symbolism of the cap, with the plight of the poor and downtrodden during the so-called "Blue Period." As an anarchist, he, like many of his friends, sought a lasting solution to the problems posed by greed and corruption in the privileged classes and rampant industrialization. Apart from violent revolution, a more subtle approach was being opted for by the more romantic Anarchists, many of whom were artists. They believed they could help bring about the much need change in society and its values through art and the use of symbols. Their solution, was a magical one, involving a variety of occult practices and alchemy, intermeshed with art production.
"The Unknown Masterpiece," due to this influencial period in Picasso's life, contains a high level of Mithraic symbolism. The bullfight, the crucifixion, the seven stepped ladder upon which he is climbing, and the Tau cross above his mistriss, Marie-Therese, and some other more obscure details in the composition, are all, in a sense linked, with the ancient cult of Mithra.
The cult of Mithra had been one of early Christianity's most important rivals. It spread throughout the Roman Empire from Syria, Anatolia and Phrygia around the 1st centrury of the commone era. It was an exclusively male cult that practiced a secretive form of sun worship, involving astrology. There were seven grades of initiation, symbolized by a ladder with seven steps that would lead to immortality. Most important in these steps, was the slaying of the bull, a re-enactment of the god Mithra, slaying the cosmic bull of creation, which, in turn, represented the conquest of evil and death and the attainment of liberty. Mithra's cap symbolized the resulting freedom. Another of the cult's important symbols, was the Tau cross, signifying a uniting of opposites, a concept that is one of the central principals in alchemy. The Mithraic cult was to become extremely popular with the Roman military and merchant classes over the following two centuries and, as a consequence, it was highly influential, politically. Around the 4th century, with the rise of Christianity, the cult became onee of the targets of persecution and eventually, it died out. Behind the scenes however, the cult's symbolic legacy continued to live on in the proscribed practices of Alchemy and magic. Surprisingly, a high degree of Mithraic symbolism was also transfused into Christianity. The early Roman church, in their ambitious desire to conquer the Empire of Rome, conflated the stories of Mithra and Christ to serve political ends. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that Mithra's birthday had been celebrated on the 25th of December, and that he had a virgin birth, was crucified and resurrected on the third day. Mithra also had an earthly mission and performed miracles. He was attended by twelve disciples. Even the celebration of the Eucharist, one of the central mysteries of Christianity, is derived from the cult of Mithra. At the all important cult-meal, bread cakes, marked with the cross, were ritually consumed along with wine, as part of a transformative, symbolic blood- sacrifice.
The symbolism of Mithraism was extensive and has been remarkably enduring. Aside from its massive influence up on Christianity, it's symbolic legacy can also be traced, to an astonishing degree, in the esoteric disciplines of Alchemy, Kabbala and the Tarot, all of which were areas of major interest to Picasso.