The Casa dell’Alchimista (Alchimist’s House) is sited in the village of Valdenogher (municipality of Tambre d’Alpago). The Alchimist’s House is a Philosopher’s dwelling with the symbols of the primordial forces of Nature sculpted in stone and embedded within the façade; these are reflected also in the planning and distribution of the building itself. The intent of this page is to lead the reader through the rooms of the house; what is being reported here is what is written on the boards that can be encountered across the rooms, and which can be read during the visit; at the same time, some additional information is offered, especially when the reading material is incomplete or may be the cause of confusion rather than clarification. But let us turn, first of all, to the history of the house and its restoration.
The House and its Restoration
This 16th century house, representative of an unusual episode in the building panorama of Alpago, displays a nobility almost like a small Venetian palace on the mainland, with its late Gothic and Renaissance methods and bulding elements (late 1400s -- early 1500s). The façade, featuring the large arch of the portico and the mullioned window with two Gothic arches, presents very unusual bas-reliefs carved in white and red stone, which have been interpreted as iconographically linked to the alchemical symbolism. On the ground floor, two large filled-in arches can be traced, which originally, together with the central arch, made up a three-arch portico. The stone elements on the façade were framed in the 1700s with plaster work, decorated in graphite with simple geometric motifs showing architectural ornamentation, highlighted in a delicate bichrome. In terms of distribution, the central hall leads to the side rooms, two on the right and two on the left: a typically Venetian plan, repeated on all the floors; in this case, though, the central hall was not used as a visitors' drawing room, as in noblemen's palaces, but solely to lead to other rooms, both horizontally and vertically.
What we are immediately struck by, on entering the building, is the blackness of the walls, and the beams that are covered by a thick layer of soot. This building has no trace of chimneys, which seems to have been more a question of choice rather than due to a shortage of means, which were evidently not lacking, going by the material and building techniques employed. All the internal doors have regular openings (about 20x30 cm) above the lintel, for the heat and smoke to pass through and then disperse into the stone roof. This system must have been operating for several centuries, to judge by the soot deposits, although it is not clear if fire was used for domestic purposes only. Combustion, however, must only have taken place on the ground floor, particularly in the room to the north-east, where a fireplace has been found in the middle of the room. As far as building techniques are concerned, there are no relevant peculiarities that differ from the traditional architecture of Alpago; the main walls are in local sandstone and the ceilings in wood with beams in simple lines; the internal walls are in wood and plaster, having a particular structure of vertical uprights joined horizontally by flexible hazel wood rods interlaced as in wattle (a sort of adobe technique); the roof, no longer the original, had wooden trusses and slabs of local sandstone placed in overlapping layers. The plaster was made from mortar and lime and a local sand of a warm yellow tone; the stone used for the decorative elements on the façade is the red stone from La Secca (presumably the stone known locally as Scaglia Rossa) and white stone from Cansiglio (Biancone).
Historical information on the origin of this building is rare and mixed with legend. According to popular tradition, “a political exile called Alessandro, who escaped from Alexandria in Egypt, where he was condemned to death, found sanctuary in the Venetian Republic, building his residence in what today is known as Valdenogher”. This is how the building acquired the name of Palazzo dei Lissandri (“Palace of the Lissandri”), or “Palace of the Counts of Alexandria”. The first relaible documents begin in the 18th century, when the building became the property of a certain Alessandro Bortoluzzi, whose family, originating from Serravalle, bought various pieces of land in Valdenogher. From the founding father, Alessandro, descending branches of the family continued to keep the place in their possession; in fact, from this period onwards, it was inhabited by several related nuclear families. All the Bortoluzzi cited in documents as owners are always referred to as “of Alessandro”, which is why the name “Palace of the Lissandri” can be considered to derive from the tradition of identifying this branch of the family with the name of the founder. Examination of the decorative elements on the façade during renovation led to the discovery of the iconographic motifs in carved stone, connected to Renaissance alchemic symbolism. From this, the use and purpose of the building has been deducted: it was the house of an alchimist and his laboratory.
The second phase in the construction of the building, which shows late Baroque elements, took place during the period when it belonged to the Bortoluzzi family. This phase coincides with the new decorative plaster work on the façade, which, through architectural design in graphite, reinterpreted and renewed in a purely decorative sense the original composition of the elements in stone, whose symbolical significance had meanwhile been forgotten. The same decorative taste is to be found in the plaster work and painting in the two rooms on the first floor. A third phase, with the closing of the portico and consequent reogranisation of the ground floor, indicates the need to increase the space available, due to the greater number of inhabitants. The unusual and abnormally large presence of soot can also be seen as the result of the cohabitation of several families (with maybe several kitchens) in a chimney-less house. The growing need for space culminated, in the 19th century, with the construction of another building at the back, which, while having a separate entrance and staircase, communicates with the main house at different levels. The situation remained much the same until the middle of the 20th century.
After being abandoned for decades, with consequently serious and progressive deterioration, at the beginning of the 1980s the cultural importance of this strange building was becoming apparent. Dating from this period, came the first architectural intervention, replacing the roof, organised by the Comunita Montana in 1982. At the end of the 1980s, the Cultural and Environmental Protection Authority, funded by the Ministry, took on the restoration work, which, partly due to the discontinuous funding, stretched out over ten years and was carried out in phases, dictated by what was in more urgent need of conservation. The extremely bad conditions of the main framework, on the verge of collapse, led to prioritising the structural consolidation. The degeneration consisted in: cracks in the wall, caused by the foundations giving way; gaps in the stone walls, due to the mortar not holding; deterioration of the boards and beams of the ceiling, following infiltration and seepage through the roof; the plaster inside and outside was cracked, broken and detached, following the inflow of water and rising dampness; the stone elements on the façade suffered from scaling and were loosened, since that kind of stone contains clay capillaries subject to disintegration if exposed to wet and unfavourable climatic conditions. A brief outline of the works carried out follows:
-- Restoration of decorative plaster work. The method used was similar to that employed in restoring frescoes: removing the limewash with scalpels; cleaning and filling with non-aggressive solutions; consolidating the plaster structure and surface; stuccoing and filling the gaps, trying to recover, where possible, the whole picture of the building.
-- Repairing of window and door frames. The original frames were either missing or in such a state as not to be repairable; thus they were made new, modeled on what remained of the old ones.
-- Reconstruction of the stairs and other wooden parts. The wooden stairs have been preserved in their original state, even if they are steeper than would be the use in the present day. The single parts were simply reattached with limited and localised replacements; the other wooden parts were restored using the same criteria: this applies to the shelf on the wall with hooks functioning as a door, the buckets in the room with the fireplace, the cabinet with two doors in the room with the basin and the one in the decorated room on the first floor. In some niches in the wall, the wooden shelves have been replaced as indicated by marks in the plaster.
-- Restoration of the façade. Here the marked deterioration of both the stone and plaster parts made the understanding of the composition difficult, even when studied with photogrammetry. After first consolidating the falling plaster work with injections, and stuccoing the gaps below the surface without trying to reconstruct, some irrepearably deteriorated structural elements in stone were replaced (two window lintels, a small column and part of the ledge of the central mullioned window). The restoration of the decorative elements in stone involved glueing all the pieces with injections of epoxy resin, and a general micro-stuccoing with mortar made of desalinated hydraulic lime and red stone powder was applied to all the small-scale damage, in order to seal all possible points against further penetration by water.
-- Resurfacing the roof. For static problems, the roof could not be rebuilt in slabs of stone, so a solution was found in a method used locally in the 1900s, which saw Marseilles tiles on the main part of the roof and old stone slabs along the lower part of the slope, above the line of the gutter, corresponding to the thickness of the outside walls, embedded with and interlocked in the stones of the wall below.
Who Lived in this House?
Little is known of the alchemist who built this house or “Philosopher’s dwelling”, also known as “Palace of the Lissandri” or “Palace of the Counts of Alexandria”. Tradition describes him as a noble count with the name of Alessandro, fleeing from Alexandria, in Egypt, where he had been condemned to death, who allegedly settled in the 15th-16th century in the mountains of Alpago, seeking a secluded refuge from persecution. The surname Lissandri seems to imply the place of origin in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria. Alchimists always chose secluded places in which to work in peace on their Opus, as we see in the first alchemic text translated in the West, in 1144, by Robert of Chester. Known as the Testamento Alchemico (“Alchemic Testament”) of Romeno Mariano (who, in order to dedicate himself to alchemy, lived alone in the mountains of Jerusalem), this text collected hermit Moreno's teachings to the Arab King Calid.
The Alchemist and Nature
The encounter with Nature takes place in the open, near the alchemist’s dwelling, which is usually arranged on three floors. On the ground floor, we glimpse an atanor (the alchemic stove); the matter contained in seven jars is treated in a bagno maria (bain-marie) solution, as the letters MB (for Mariae Balnum) indicate. This term comes from the technique used by the most famous alchemist in antiquity, Maria l’Ebrea (or Maria Prophetissa), also from Alexandria and allegedly Moses’ sister. On the threshold of the entrance, the words Opus mechanice remind us that alchemy is a physical, concrete activity. Nature is portrayed as a naked woman, with wings and a crown made of seven metals. The trunk of the tree on which she is sitting has a cavity in which the Materia prima (prime matter) is cooking. This tree stove grows from three large roots bearing the names Mineralia (from minerals), Vegetativa (from plants; that which vegetates) and Sensitiva (that which is linked to the senses). The branches rising from the trunk bear the names of the four elements, earth and water below, air and fire above. Higher up, the branches join in the Mixtio (mixture) and spread out; they separate and join again in the Opus Naturae with a flower of gold which opens, the matrass in its center containing the Materia ultima (ultimate matter), which receives rays of light from the sky.
An illustration from 1516 by Iehan Perreal (Lyon 1460 - Paris 1530, who painted for Margherita of Austria, was held in high esteem by the powerful, and also worked for Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I) shows a depiction of the alchemist in nature. Few of his works remain, despite the fame he achieved in his life. He came to Italy at least three times and apparently met Leonardo da Vinci. In Lyon, during a visit by Louis XII, he met an Italian alchemist called Giovanni. He certainly knew Agrippa, the great Renaissance magician-alchemist, who lived in Venice amongst other places. Vernet (1943) attributed the splendid miniature to Perreal and was the first to note that the text begins with an acrostic, in which the first letters of each line make up the name, Iehan Perreal. The technique of hiding the secrets of the art in rebus and word games is typical of alchemy, and has earned it the name of “Gay Science”, or “Cabbalistic Art”. The same technique was used in another extraordinary hermetic book printed in Venice, which will also be referred to further on in the visit: the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, by Friar Francesco Colonna, published in Venice by Aldo Manuzio in 1499.
The alchemist always follows in nature’s footsteps, as alchemists often repeat; in another illustration, Nature is depicted as a woman with her breasts uncovered, friutful and pursued by the alchemist, who, with his lantern, glasses and staff, follows her footprints in the sand. On the other hand, Philosophers state that their Art (alchemy) begins where Nature finishes, thus demonstrating that alchemy helps to complete nature’s work. For the alchemist, the meaning of Nature is different from the modern one: it is a great body, animate and sacred, always felt with wonder and elation. Thanks to this marvellous wonder, the alchemist lives in symbiosis with Nature. This formula can be found also in ancient Greek alchemic manuscripts; it is formibadle and essential: “All in the All”! And She (Nature) repays it with her wonderful gifts of Health and Riches. In figure XXVI of the Atalanta Fugiens, near the Tree of Life, Nature holds “Long Days of Health” in her right hand and “Glory and Infinite Riches” in her left hand. Meier reminds us: “There is no greater wisdom among men than that which brings riches and health”, and again: “Who has approached Her with reason, the hand will find in Her the fruit of the Tree of Life”. ‘Reason’ and ‘the hand’ indicate respectively the theory and practice of alchemy; the oratory and the laboratory which lead to the “Philosopher’s Stone”, which is also called the Tree of Life.
What is Alchemy?
Alchemy, traditionally, is the search for the “Universal Medicine” or “Philosopher’s Stone”. The “Philosopher’s Stone” is able to cure all illnesses and ‘transmute’ base metals into Gold and Silver (metals known as ‘noble’). In the oldest alchemical text to reach Venice there is an archaic portrayal of the Ouroborous, the serpent biting its own tail and thus forming a circle, in the centre of which it is written: En To Pan – that is, “The One, The All”. Alchemy is the real understanding that All is part of the All; that is, of the One. The serpent bites its tail, eats itself, feeds on itself; in other words, nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, and there is no real separation between Spirit and Matter.
Both alchemy and the Kabbalah (to which will be dedicated a separate section at the end -- but connections between the two will be explored throughout the page) are esoteric teachings in which dominates a universal afflatus towards major comprehension of our deepest Self. In both cases and traditions, this transformation cannot be reached without Knowledge of the Self. However, a common and widespread misunderstanding leads many to believe that alchemy has to do with the transformation of lead into gold, while the Kabbalah has been often rejected and considered a redundant mass of obscure writings. It is a matter of fact that a lot of false information is often published over these these two important and ancient mystical-philosophical systems. The ethical and enlightening principles contained in the earliest Kabbalah literature are as far as they can be from the current ‘teachings’ of phony practitioners -- almost as much as the libertarian and cognitive intents of the original spiritual alchemy are distant from later operative alchemy. This is a distinction over which we will have to return to, and an important point to bear in mind when reading the information contained on this page. Still, many eminent scholars have confused the original spiritual alchemy with a later, degraded form, which could be more properly defined “operative alchemy”. Luckily, in the early part of the 20th, a person of the calibre of C. G. Jung reinstated things in their proper place: “(...) For the majority of people, the idea of alchemy does not conjure up anything more than a party of elderly folks trying to make gold. But this is far from the truth. If only people bothered to go and look for the true writings of the ancient alchemists, they would find a treasure trove of wisdom, in great part still perfectly applicable to the events that take place in today's world. After all, what can be more important than the study of how the human mind works, and of how it has worked in the past? (...).”
The scholar Henry Corbin maintained that alchemy is the “physics of resurrection”. This definition can be subscribed to, as long as the term 'resurrection' is intended in its etymological, original meaning; that is, in the sense of a spiritual awakening, rather than a merely physical one. In this sense, both western and eastern alchemy, as well as the Kabbalah, can all be defined as a mystical physics of awakening to the spiritual dimension of the individual. In all three cases, there is an attempt to creatively reproduce the return to a “mysterious life before birth” (regressum ad uterum). This is reflected in the three (or four, five, or seven -- according to the different traditions) main stages of the alchemical process: in any way, the first stage is known as nigredo, or putrefactio, which implies the return to the conditions of an undifferentiated, original chaos (pleroma) through dissolution and deconstruction of matter (mortificatio), which is a necessary pre-requisite for its re-organization at a superior level. Most appropriately, the agent of transformation here is fire: with its unifying power, fire is a transmutative agent at three different levels: the fire of consciousness and enlightenment; the fire of love, and the fire -- no more allegorical, but elemental -- that ‘cooks’ the raw matter (materia prima) in order to accelerate the evolution. The same will apply to the other stages of alchemy, which we will see in more detail later; the important point to make now, however, is that the progressive refining of the matter will lead to the birth of a ‘quintessence’ (quinta essentia), which solidifies in the “Philosopher’s Stone” (lapis philosophorum). The process is long and complex, but it needs to be stressed once more that the transmutation of “vile gold” into “philosophical gold”, which frees man from the fundamental contradictions of life, has unfortunately become literal in the successive Christian and Islamic alchemical schools, more dedicated to the concrete attempts to transform metals than to the higher ideal of perfecting the individual.
The very term ‘alchemy’ alludes to a preliminary (or primitive) stage of what today we would call chemistry. Its ultimate goal was reaching self-knowledge, and the unification of a divided self. Since its very beginnings, alchemy has always had a transcendental dimension, an ethical connotation and a mystical approach. The search was more important than the goal; in fact, the search was the goal, given that self-knowledge is the prerequisite for freedom, which is the ultimate goal of alchemy. Jung often stressed that “since its beginnings, alchemy has presented a double aspect: on one hand, the practical work in the laboratory; on the other, a psychological process, partly conscious (...) and partly unconscious, projected and perceived in the processes of transmutation of the matter”. In other writings, he directed our attention to the parallel between the “transmutation of metals and the contemporary psychical transformation of the alchemist”. Jung would call individuation this psycho-spiritual process, and define it as “(...) the field (...) of processes that in the unconscious tend to the achievement of a new center of formation of personality” (...). “During the processes of chemical transformation, the alchemist projected in fact, as demonstrated by the texts and their symbolism, the so-called individuation process” (Jung, Works 12, 13, 1944).
The misunderstanding on alchemy is as old as alchemy itself. The origins of alchemy -- one of the most ancient arts of humanity -- can be dated back to the dawning of civilization. Egypt, India and China were the main alchemical centers of the ancient world; then, the “Royal Art” (as alchemy was then known) later spread in the West through hellenistic Egypt (one of the first alchemical treatises was written in Alexandria), at the beginning of the vulgar era. The degradation of alchemy from its original goal -- an esoteric search for consciousness -- to the rank of an auxiliary branch of medicine in the East, and of chemistry in the West, took place in India during the Middle Ages, as a consequence of the Islamic invasion, and in the West during the 3rd Century AC, with the decline of hellenistic Egyptian culture following the spread of Christianity. The concepts that today we commonly associate with alchemy, therefore, are not those that prevailed during its more than 4000 years of history. It is important to differentiate, once more, between what alchemy was originally -- that is, the search for a spiritual knowledge (and therefore defined “spiritual alchemy”) -- and what it has become during the Middle Ages; that is, “operative alchemy”. The two branches were already termed differently -- respectively, mystika and physica -- by Democritus. In Pre-socratic Greece, the alchemical search was called poiesis -- a term that puts together poetry and consciousness. In his search, the alchemist started by exploring the structure of matter, as understanding matter implied understanding one's body. In turn, comprehension of one's body led to the freeing of the individual, through comprehension of his own psyche.
To recap this introduction, both the Kabbalah and alchemy were tools towards an initiatory form of knowledge that aimed to lighten the way towards transcendental knowledge, which in turn implied freedom from the contingencies and contradictions of life: this knowledge started with knowledge of oneself: “Disgrace only comes as a consequence of ignorance” (R. Yehudà, Bava Batra). Let us not forget, also, that Jewish alchemists gave great importance to knowledge and learning not for the sake of themselves, but rather as a means to help others.
The Openings of the House and Alchemy’s Magic Numbers
“It is known to the wise Hero that natural Magic, after God, depends on nothing but numbers (…) this word, number, comes from Nume, which means Deity”. (Cesare Della Riviera, The Magic World of the Heroes, Milan, 1605).
Numbers play an important symbolic and allegorical role in alchemy. The ground floor of the Alchemist’s House opens with three (3) arches, the first floor has four (4) windows, and the second five (5); all together, there are twelve (12) openings. Symbolically, number 12 is related to the twelve months of the year, and it indicates a complete cycle. The first phase of the alchemic Opus is called nigredo, and it is characterised by the colour black. It is a delicate phase which may be very long, and is compared with the process of death, in which the matter is prepared, ground, beaten and cooked. At times, this tremendous process to which the matter is subjected takes the name of “Labours of Hercules”. On the ground floor, four (4) columns support three (3) arches. The elements are also four (4): Water, Earth, Wind (Air) and Fire. The qualities are four (4), too: Wet, Dry, Cold, Hot, which, paired, give four (4) new elements: Earth (Cold and Dry), Water (Cold and Wet), Air (Wet and Hot) and Fire (Hot and Dry). These are the four elements as described by the Venetian priest Augustino Pantheus, in his work Voarchadumia.
The vegetal part of the decoration should be given careful consideration too, as, in its position as central axis, it balances the two serpents and makes reference to the colour green, a further symbol of fertility – viriditas. When alchemists speak of the colour green, they use a play on words, and relate it to their vitriol, also called Olaeum vetri (Green oil; Oil of Glass), already mentioned by Pantheus on the title page of his Voarchadumia – one of alchemy’s main texts. The two serpents represent the opposing and complementary forces of nature, reconciled thanks to the central axis or axis mundi. The “Philosopher’s Stone” is sometimes also portrayed as Mercury. The alchemist works with the secret forces of nature which, like serpents, are mysterious and have in them a poison which can be transformed into medicine. The keystones represent the principles (in Greek, arché) of alchemy. The two side arches, on their respective keystones, have carvings of serpents in pairs, framing a leaf and crossing over each other symmetrically: they represent the fluid, serpentine and vital matter which the alchemists call Our Dual Mercury or Philosopher’s Live Silver (also known with the French term Argent Vif Philosophique).
Four Archetypal Models of Thought
These state that the harmonious relationship that connects the individual to the Universe is one of interdependence and interaction. At the psychological level, the split caused by the division of the Self can heal when a harmonious dialectical integration between the female and male aspects is effected (more on this later). The universality of the prima materia is the theoretical basis for the transmutation of the raw element into a subtler one; a process that represents the transformation of an un-initiated man (lead) into an initiate man (gold), endowed with “golden knowledge” (aurea apprehensio). For the alchemists (as well as the Kabbalists), two poles of a polarity are always in a relation of complementarity, rather than conflict; in Hinduism, this is reflected in the concept of advaita (“non-duality of duality”). This also refers back to the Jungian concept of individuation, to be intended here in its etymological meaning of ‘in-dividuus’ (undivided); therefore, individuation is the modern term for describing the impulse to obtain what the ancient alchemists would call “golden knowledge” (or ‘consciousness’). There is a need, which is being expressed in terms of search for knowledge and a strive for liberation. In order to enjoy such freedom, however, man must first achieve integration; that is, become a ‘Self’: “Only a unified personality can experience life (...)” (Jung, Works, 12). Also, this ‘illumination’ is always the result of a reconciliation between theory and practice, thought and action. However, to become a homogeneous being presupposed the formation of a Self; of that process towards consciousness that Jung called, as we have seen, individuation -- a very long way (longissima via), which cannot be abbreviated without risking the achievement of psychic integrity and discernment. Premature consciousness, in an unprepared individual, is more destined to blind rather than to enlighten: so the variable of time is of paramount importance here -- as it is in both alchemy and the Kabbalah.
Philosophical Gold: A Metaphor of the Initiate
We have said previously of how a lot of the confusion relative to the true nature of alchemy is derived from having taken literally what was meant to be metaphoric. When they spoke about “vile metal” (lead, or aurum vulgi), alchemists actually referred to the ignorant or neophyte, while with the expression “philosophical gold" (aurum philosophorum) they pointed to the “golden knowledge” (aurea apprehensio) that the initiate could aspire to. Also, the Jewish alchemists made a distinction between “gold as metal” and “spiritual gold”; in the Zohar (a Kabbalistic text), there are often references to the “mystery of gold”, in relation to its mystical and allegorical dimensions; in many alchemical texts, God is equated to the “gold from above” and the non-initiate to ‘earth'; the initiate, instead, when it is enlightened by the “gold from above” is equalled to the “philosophical gold”, or “golden dust”.
The Unity of the All
The philosophers of the Ionian and Elea schools, among others, postulated the existence of a primary substance (prima materia), from which derived everything. Xenophanes of Colophon wrote the famous assertion: “All things are one” (unum esse omnis). But it is in Heraclitus that we find the most complete and coherent anticipation of the fundamental elements of cabbalistic and alchemical thought. For Heraclitus, ‘totality’ was synonym for completeness at all levels. In the case of the individual, completeness implied the attainment of unity of the divided self. The harmonious relationship that connects the individual to the universe is twofold, as it implies both interdependence and interaction; in any case, the individual is an active part of the universe. For Heraclitus, the beginning of all things was fire, while Democritus anticipated Spinoza’s pantheist conception of the “two natures”: “natural nature” (natura naturans) and “natured nature” (natura naturata), which can be reconciled in the coniunctio oppositorum; the re-conjunction of fundamental polarities. In any case, the dichotomy mind-body characteristic of mainstream Greek thought, and of the later Scholastic and Christian schools, was strongly opposed by Kabbalists and alchemists alike. The same vision is echoed in the esoteric tradition, for which “spiritual and corporeal are words with which are expressed solely the level of subtlety or density of matter” (Lévi); in the Zohar, spirituality and materiality are essentially united -- like a flame is to the candle. According to Luria (a foremost Kabbalist), all the worlds were contained in the primordial man (Adam qadmon), of which Adam was the perfect microcosm: “(...) when the part knows the Whole, and attaches itself to the Whole, it can create signs and wonders from the Whole” (Ibn Ezra). The transformation of the person into a more comprehensive being is possible, as the human soul has its origin in the Universal. It has to be clarified, however, that the devequt does not imply the birth of an “unlimited being”; on the contrary, instead of allowing the drop to disperse in the ocean, it is a specific task of the Kabbalist to make so that the ocean gets into the drop: “(...) normally the ego, transformed by the experience of the numinous, returns to the sphere of human life, and its transformation implies a broadening of consciousness (...). Each time that the ego returns to the sphere of human life, transformed by the mystical experience, we can speak of an immanent mystic, which can transform the world.” (Ibn Ezra).
Let us not forget that the interdependence between microcosm and macrocosm is rooted in our collective subconscious. Paracelsus wrote: “The mysteries of the Greater and Smaller World are different only in the form through which they manifest, as they are in fact a sole thing, a sole being (...). As the Greater World is constituted by the three primordial essences, so man -- the Smaller World -- is composed of the same substances (...), as man has been created with the heavens and the earth, and it is therefore like them (...).” (Paracelsus, 1530). For Gerhard Dorn, a mystic and alchemist, the union of total man (homo totus) with the universe (unus mundus) represented the highest form of conjunction. Jung, commenting this idea, observed: “(...) For over thirty years I have studied these psychic processes in all possible conditions, and I have realised that the alchemists, like the great Eastern philosophers, refer precisely to these same experiences, and if they appear ‘mystical’ to us (as Westerners), this is mainly due to our ignorance of the psyche. In any case, we should understand that the visualisation of the Self opens up a ‘window’ on eternity (...).” (Jung, Works, 14, 2).
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson expressed this same idea, when he affirmed that “(...) the mental world is not limited by our skin (...) there is a wider Mind of which the mind of the individual is only but a sub-system (...)” (Bateson, 1972). This is being validated, today, by quantic science -- which could well be considered a modern-day form of alchemy: Bell wrote that “(...) there is not something that is ‘separate’. All ‘parts’ of the universe are connected in an immediate and intimate way (...)” (Bell, 1964). Bohm also maintained that the universe is to be intended as a “unified totality”, while the physic David Finkelstein spoke of a “form of energy”. This “form of energy” is what Bohm called “all that is”, and which preoccupied also Einstein in the latter years of his life, which he dedicated to find a unified field theory. The most recent theories relative to the origins of the universe assume that this “all that is” is in fact luminous energy. Seven centuries ago the alchemist Moshé de Leon had already predicted the discovery that light is the primordial, original substance, when he affirmed: “Each thing is a unique secret and a unique Light, which does not admit separation of sorts (...).” (Moshé de Leon, 1292). And today, Blofeld confirms: “(...) The primary way of Liberation is to recognise that there is no being or object in the universe from which we are separate” (Blofeld, 1970): alchemy and the cabbalists had already seen it all.
The “Alchemical Marriage” in Ancient Alchemical Texts
A masterpiece of Venetian Renaissance
publishing is the hermetic text, Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, or Combat of Love
in the Dream of Polyphilo, published in Venice by Aldo Manuzio in 1499. This extraordinary book
conceals its secrets well, beginning with the name of its author, which can be
deduced only by putting together the initial letters of the 38 chapters to
obtain the phrase Poliam frater Franciscus Columna permavit. The
Hypnerotomachia is a model of alchemic language and hermetic iconography, which
subtly and profoundly influenced Renaissance art. The fine drawings (attributed
in part to the great architect Leon Battista Alberti) have inspired great artists, not only during the
Renaissance, but also in subsequent periods.
Rosarium philosophorum is another anonymous text of 1550, and one of the most authoritative collections of alchemical writings. In it, the writing says: “Sun: – “O Moon, let me be your bridegroom”; Moon: – “O Sun, it is right I obey you”; Colomba: – “It is the Spirit that invigorates””; the ‘immersion’ signifies solutio (or ‘solution’, one of alchemy’s main stages of transformation). An illustration shows the two alchemic principles as they are united in marriage. This union of the two principles – the Sun and the Moon, the King and the Queen – takes place thanks to a third principle represented by a bird bearing a flower. The three interlaced flowers recall the form of the star above, symbol of the “Quintessence” of the Philosophers, and indicate the ‘medium’ necessary for the great union.
The Union of the two natures is represented in the explicit allegory of the alchemic marriage (or alchemic copula). The coupling takes place in the mare nostrum, the aqua permanens (“eternal water”) or aqua vitae (“water of life”). Note that in this phase of the Opus the Woman (Queen, Moon) is above the Man, and this aspect is stressed by the alchemists, such that they often speak of Regime of the Moon. In the Hermetic Copula the liquid, fluid and volatile aspect prevails, emphasized by the presence of the Wings. The prevalence of the colour green, once again, recalls viriditas, spring and youth (the “green age”), as well as the exuberance of vitality. Referring to this, Nicola Flamel quotes the saying from the Rosarium: “O worthy green, that generates all things: without you nothing could grow, vegetate or multiply”. They removed their clothes, eliminated the impurities and delighted in the solutio. “When the white woman is joined by her red husband, at once they embrace and, enfolded in the act of love, they blend one in the other, and they unite to the utmost, such that from the two that they were, they become almost a single body”. (Rosarium Philosophorum, 16th Century, Stadtbibliotek Vadian, Sankt Gall, Switzerland). The Rebis (alchemical man; see below) was in fact the fruit of the “chemical marriage” between Mercury (the lunar feminine principle) and Sulphur (the solar masculine principle). In alchemical representations, these two elements are often represented as Gabricus (animus) and Beya (anima).
“Giacché Beya (the Queen) mounts Gabricus and encloses him in her uterus, such that nothing of him remains visible. She has enthralled Gabricus (the King) in such love as to absorb him totally in her nature and dissolve him into individual particles”. In the Bibliothèque des Philosophes chimiques, Sinesio says: “The Female must first mount the Male, and then the Male the Female”. In this phrase of the Copula, the King is above the Queen. There are no wings, since in this second phase the Fixed, the Male prevails. Within this context, the Male principle (or Bridegroom) is equated with the uranic male knowledge, which is complementary to the chthonian feminine consciousness, and is poetically described as “Sol, Sun or Gold of the Wise”. The Rosarium says: “In hora comunicationis maxima, apparent miracula” (“In the moment of the coupling, the greatest miracles appear”).
The Union of the two natures and four elements, in which energies are released, merging every duality: this operation is in fact one, and it is called Solve et Coagula (“dissolves and coagulates”). Alchemic texts often pass from cosmic-natural expressions to interior-human meanings. This fundamental point needs to be understood: Nature is felt by the alchemist not as something outside his conscience or somehow foreign, but immanent in him. It is a wonderful force present in himself. There is no real separation between matter, spirit and nature. Nature is really “a great body, animate and sacred” – and at times, terrible. There is a sense of mystical participation among the various parts of the All, beyond the antithesis between the material and the spiritual.
Mine, Raw Material, Sulphur, Mercury, Matrix, Salt, Quintessence, Phoenix, Lead, Sky, Earth, King, Queen, Wolf, etc.: these are all symbols with multiple meanings. Let us take an example: “You are the Mine because that is to be found in you and, to confess the truth, you are yourself the one to take it and receive it. Who looks for another stone in the Opus, will be disappointed in his work (…)”. These are the words that the alchemist Morieno spoke to the Arab king Calid. In these words, it is evident that the meaning of ‘Mine’ is related to the “internal-human” aspect; to the corporeal, which somehow supports and contains the “blessed matter”. The Mine, representing the matter from which metals are formed in the bowels of the earth, acquires variable meanings: it is the mineral from which the metal is extracted, thus galena is the lead mine, cinnabar the common mercury mine, stibium that of antimony. The Benedictine Pernety, however, informs us that “many practitioners have called their sulphur the mine, because this red body is the principle and the beginning of their tincture and metals. Their White Mine is their Opus in White (…)”. The Mine for the alchemist is also their double Mercury, the pool in which the coniunctio takes place, and also the fruit! As it is written on the first figure of the Rosarium, Unus est Mercurius mineralis, Mercurius vegetabilis, Mercurius animalis (vegetabilis here can mean living, and animalis, animate); translated: “The mineral Mercury, the living Mercury, the animate Mercury, is One”. This Mercury, One and Threefold, in the figure in the Rosarium Philosophorum, gushes forth from three tubes named respectively aqua vitae (“Water of Life”), acetum fontis (“Vinegar Spring”) and lac virginis (“Virgin’s Milk”). This strange term, “Virgin’s Milk”, is found in the phylactery of the Queen in the IV illustration of the Splendor Soli.
In an image of the “Alchemic couple, Queen and King” a phylactery descends from the bride’s right hand, with the inscription lac virginum (“Virgin’s Milk”), while a phylactery with the inscription coagula masculinum (male coagulation) rises from the sceptre of the King, held in his left hand. The two figures, that go together, thus represent Mercury (“Virgin’s Milk”) and Sulphur. The Greek alchemist Zosima says: “It must be understood we are in a terrible work, trying to reduce to a common essence; that is, to marry the Natures (the active and the passive, the universal and the individual)”. Nicola Flamel tells us: “This operation is truly a labyrinth, because here we find a thousand paths at the same time, and at the end we must proceed in exactly the opposite way to how we did at the beginning, coagulating what before we dissolved (…)”. And Simon Trismosin, in the Fourth Tract of the Toson d’Oro, says of this union: “(…) since the essence of our Opus takes strength from opposite qualities perfectly united”.
Senior, quoted by Trismosin in the fourth similitude in his Toson d’Oro, says: “The spirit frees the body and, through this liberation, the soul leaves the body; then the same body becomes a soul; the soul is then transformed into Spirit and the spirit becomes body again”. Flamel summarises the Opus in White or albedo, which takes place suddenly, once this union is perfectly achieved: the Philosophers, he tells us, “call the Body the black earth, dark and obscure, which we whiten; the Soul, the other half of the Body which, with God’s will and Nature’s power, by means of imbibition and fermentation, gives the Body the vegetative Soul, that is to say the strength to germinate, grow, multiply and make itself white like a naked, shining sword. We then call Spirit the dry tincture which, like a spirit, has the quality of penetrating all metals (…). Since we have already defined the Dead as Black, continuing the metaphor we can define the White too: Life, which only returns by means of resurrection. The Black that is death, is in fact overcome and they, having become white, are now incorruptible (…) thus we obtain our White Elixir, which, from now on, will unite in itself inseparably every pure metallic nature, changing it into its finest silver nature and eliminating every extraneous impurity”.
When this work, this union of the two natures, is perfectly achieved, all is completely transformed, and the alchemist is filled with a joy without object, which makes Flamel say: “God be praised that in his goodness he has given us the grace to be able to see this sparkling White, more perfect and shining than any composed nature, and more noble – with the exception of the immortal Soul – than any other animate or inanimate substance; it is therefore a Quintessence, the purest Silver passed through the Cupel (vessel) and refined seven times (…)”. The French alchemist continues, saying that at this point it is not necessary to explain why he had also painted “two angels playing their instruments”, but this statement seems somewhat curious and attracts our attention. One traditional definition of alchemy is the Art of Music, and alchemic illustrations often depict musical instruments. There are two reasons for this: because alchemy, like music, brings Harmony to the elements, and because during the “great cooking” the matter emits strange sounds. In this context, we can look at the VI Key of the alchemist Basilio Valentino, dedicated to the royal Union of Sulphur and Mercury, and the alliance between Earth and Sky.
In this illustration, between the moon and the sun, the royal wedding is celebrated under the Rainbow, but to the left, a little in the distance and almost out of sight, we can see a swan with an open beak. This white swan is referred to, at a certain point in the text, as follows: “so that the song of the swans may be understood, and the musical tones of their farewell expressed”. From what we have just seen, we can say that whoever hears the song of the swan announcing the albedo or Opus in White, will surely be blessed.
The “Alchemical Man”: Adam qadmon and the Rebis
The Adam qadmon and the Rebis are anthropomorphic expressions of the “Philosopher’s Stone”. The male/female polarity is the model at the base for all other polarities: hot/cold, day/night, life/death, joy/suffering, etc. In the mythical androgynous figure (the Adam qadmon in the Kabbalistic tradition, and the Rebis in the alchemical tradition), male and female components are not opposed, but enhance each other. The androgynous, therefore, is not the sum of two oppositional terms, but a new state in which the essential characteristics of male and female coexist harmoniously in the double aspect of the Adam qadmon: male (the clear-coloured Father) and female (the dark-coloured Mother). The total (or whole) individual (the homos totus of alchemical tradition) is the initiate who identifies with both aspects of personality, masculine and feminine. The Zohar also explains that this is not a physical hermaphroditism, but a spiritual androgyny; the unity that both envisage is the ultimate goal of existence: the soul is created as androgynous, and not just the body (which is its physical manifestation). Immortality is the reward of someone who becomes conscious of his inner Self. This “non-duality of duality” implies that the two terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are complementary, more than in conflict. By breaking up a harmonious whole into heterogeneous parts, man has become incapable of seeing the unitive force that animates the universe. The pseudo-scientific approach of Christian and Islam alchemy, by taking literally the poetic metaphor of the transmutation of “vile metals” (the profane) into “philosophic gold” (the initiate), called off, as a matter of fact, the original alchemical premises. The goal of alchemy, as synthesised in the expression “know thyself” was thus degraded to the goal of chemistry, which only sought to ‘know’ raw (or dense) matter, rather than the subtler matter which constitutes the individual. Instead, both the Jewish and the alchemical tradition posited a holistic relationship between cause and effect; it was necessary for the noble mind of Max Planck -- Nobel for Physics in 1918 -- to prophesise that science was headed “towards a goal that poetic intuition could grasp, but which intellect alone could never fully comprehend (...)” (Planck, 1936) to restore the original goal of alchemy.
Love as Transmutation Agent
“Join male and female and you will find what is being looked for” (the “Philosopher’s Stone”): the agent of transmutation, therefore, is not elemental fire, but the spiritual fire of love. Gerhard Dorn stresses the fact that the “Philosopher’s Stone” is not to be looked for in the external world, but that it is already inherent in he who has succeeded in becoming One: “From the other things you will never make the One you are searching for; until you yourself will have become One first” (Dorn, 1602). He writes also: “the greatest treasure of man is to be searched for inside man himself, and not outside himself”. In his “Dialogues on Love”, Abravanel writes: “Love is a vivifying spirit that penetrates the whole world, and it is a link that unites the whole universe” (Abravanel, 1535).
In her alchemical recipes, Maria the Jewess maintains several times the necessity to unite the male metal with the female metal, in order to accomplish the Great Work. For Maria, therefore, the union of male and female, induced by love, is the necessary condition in order to obtain the integrity of the divided ego. With this, we go back to individuation: the feminine half (anima) and the masculine half (animus) are deeply embedded in the psychic structure of the opposite sex; for this reason, in order to reconstruct the fullness of one’s own personality, one must search exactly that person whose soul holds the hidden part of oneself -- in other words one must, literally, “fall in love”. In the Mutus liber (“Mute Book”) appears the dialectic relationship between the square and the circle (which takes on the shape of the “philosophical egg”), in which Apollo (the Sun -- or male principle) prepares to marry Diana (the Moon -- or feminine principle) under the protection of Neptune (the Sea -- archetype of integration). Male and female both observe the athanor, in which “cooks” the intellect of the profane (prima materia), ready to become “Philosopher’s Stone” (initiatory consciousness). In the alchemical practice, the athanor (or rather, fire from the vessel), represents the mental power, and it is therefore the agent of transformation of human nature. In all the depictions contained within the Mutus liber, perfect knowledge can only ever be achieved by the couple; again, the main road to integration is the longissima via of individuation, through which (figuratively speaking), the Self (prima materia) is being gradually refined through a series of distillations and separations. Thanks to love, the alchemical couple has reached integration, and golden knowledge is therefore conceded to them. From an archetypal point of view, this is represented by a circle contained within a square, which -- according to Jung -- is the synonym of a “mediator which instils peace among the enemies”. The bottom line is, “the squaring of the circle (...) is a symbol of the opus alchemicum itself” (Jung, Works 12). As an instrument of knowledge, love is also a tool of transformation for life and the world. Transforming life means transforming the individual, which implies -- in turn -- Self-consciousness. And this takes us right back to the main concepts of both alchemy and the Kabbalah, as transmutation of matter is nothing but a metaphor for the transformation of man -- and the transformation of man is achieved through acquiring consciousness. Ultimately, it is love that leads to the peak of knowledge, as it is always love that supports all parts of the cosmos, from the most external sphere within the solar system to the innermost rock buried deep within the earth’s crust. This leads to the tripartition of the psyche, based on the psychic androgyny of human nature, and it prefigures the Jungian categories of anima, animus and persona -- whereas the latter is the mediating element between ego and the world.
Heinrich Khunrath, reporting from the Amphitheatrum sapientiae, writes (these are extracts from the notes accompanying the captions): “Through the thrine process, that is, through the Natural Art, you will bring back the Macrocosm (...) and the hermaphrodite Son of the Upper World, to the simplicity of the One”. The masculine side is called “the priceless Water of Life (...) the purified Adam. The dignified King. The Solar Seed of Gabricus the Man and his Solar Juice. Mercury and the Gold of the Philosophers, which shines above all”. The feminine side is celebrated as “the Universal Virgin Earth (...), (a) purified Eve. The beautiful and splendid Queen Beya. The shining Moon. The Lunar wedding ring. Silver, and the very secret Saturn of the Philosophers”.
In the Amphitheatrum sapientiae, Heinrich Khunrath also notes, in the captions for “The Four, the Three, the Two and the One", that the transmutation agent is referred to as “the fire of love”, through which “Adam, with a fiery spirit (mentigneus), the universal, the three-in-one (trireunitus), (once) abandoned evil, will be raised by the regeneration”, thanks to the green string of the Kabbalah, which binds the Universal that must be. Only then “the man with two natures (homo binarius)” will become the “incarnated knowledge of God”.
The Alchemical Dimension of the Sephirotic Tree
(This is a short anticipation on the subject of the Kabbalah; more information will be found at the end of the page) The Sephirot are powers that constitute Divine activity. The Sephirot, taken together, form a world of light, and are conceived as a dynamic unity. The rhythm of development of the ten Sephirot reflects the creative process. As in the Kabbalah, geomancy and the “magic squares” were favoured by the alchemists too; also, in the Kabbalah one can find references to the ‘white’ and ‘red’ nature of some Sephirot, which seem to echo the colours found in the alchemical process (albedo and rubedo). There is also a clear reference to gold, which is associated with the North, also for its warmth and association with sulphur (yellow -- citrinitas). Each of the Sephirot is associated in fact with a different metal, including Mercury. Gold is also represented as a “sacred square” -- and the are further parallels: the “bride” is referred to as “golden water”, and the living God is referred to as “live gold”; at the same time, this “golden water” is the principle of “live gold” (so that masculine and feminine principles, once again, unite). There are ten Sephirot in the Kabbalah; the first three are associated with male and female principles and the primordial will (these first three Sephirot are also collectively known as “father of wisdom”). The other seven Sephirot are borne of the hieros gamos (sacred wedding) between uranian knowledge and chthonian intelligence. In the Kabbalah, another term used to define the love relationship is harmony, which also highlights a series of connections that associate Beauty with knowledge and the sexual copula.
As in alchemy, in the Kabbalah too the feminine and masculine principles are not in conflict, but complementary aspects of human nature; their relationship is dialectic and based on an absolute equality of male and female; there is neither hierarchy nor antagonism. In the Kabbalah system, also, the central Sephirot are not the sum of two opposed realities, but rather a new reality, in which the characteristics of the masculine and feminine components coexist in harmony, integrating each other. It is also highly significant that the connection lines, in the Sephirotic tree, draw a series of squares and triangles: there is always a dynamic confrontation between the circle (female) and the square (male). There is, also, a certain correspondence between the square shape of Knowledge, expressed by the consonance of the spiritual values that shape the triangles, and the four aspects of knowledge as encountered in the alchemical thought, which are expressed by Tolerance, Equality, Discernment and Action; what matters most, however, is that within the Kabbalah system the expression of knowledge is four-fold. Once again, the important aspect to point out is that seven centuries before Jung, the masters of Kabbalah (and alchemy) had already understood that the main goal of existence is knowledge of Self; only the individual (whether male or female) who is able to fully appreciate the importance of his (or her) deepest nature, can hope to achieve his or her full potential. Ultimately, the way that leads to an integrated person -- and the only possible way to hope to create an harmonious world, united in its multifold diversity -- passes through the consciousness of the real dimension of love; the common message of both alchemy and the Kabbalah, therefore, is quite simple: “In the beginning was desire; in the beginning was love”.
The Three Phases of the Alchemical Opus
The principal phases of the Alchemic Opus are three (3): the nigredo, albedo and rubedo (other traditions include two additional phases, citrinitas and viriditas). These colours correspond, respectively, to black, white and red (yellow and green would be the additional two); these three main colours are also those to be found around the visit of the house. Alchemists distinguish two principles: the Fixed and the Volatile. In the first phase, the Fixed is dissolved, making the body fluid. The Fixed and the Volatile appear in an illustration in the Rosarium Philosophorum: the alchemical couple are shown; the male, that is the fluid, is below; the female, which is the volatile, above; they are united in the alchemic fluid. In the Trismosin phial, the triple components (Body, Spirit and Soul) reveal the colours of the Alchemic Opus. The formula is simple: Solve et Coagula; or “Dissolve the Fixed and Coagulate the Volatile”. “This is the wonderful philosophic transmutation of body into spirit and spirit into body”. A warning in the word of Dorn: “You cannot realise the One if you have not been able to make of yourself a Sole Thing”. This is expressed, in the Rosarium Philosophorum, by the dictum “This Stone, yet not-stone, is a living being”, echoed by Gerhard Dorn: “Transform yourselves from dead stones into living Philosophical Stones”.
Triple is the division: Body, Spirit and Soul. Soul indicates the Spiritual principle; Spirit is the “vital energy”, which the Egyptians called ka, the Chinese chi, the Indians prana and the alchemists their Mercury, vital principle, always moving – and for that reason also called ‘Quicksilver’. On the first floor there are four (4) windows, two simple ones at each side and a central mullion consisting of two windows joined by a red column with a white capital. During the wine making process, the Tartaro delle Botti settles in precious crystals in the barrel. Fulcanelli, Canseliet and Atorené explain that from this ‘tartaro’, the alchemists used to extract what constituted one of the secrets of the initiates: the precious salt, also called “Sacred Fire”. Among the vines emerges a small round head to alert us that the vine hides something special. In the lateral reliefs two (2) vases are carved, from which vines grow. According to the alchemists, the two vases are Nature and Art: the vine is the symbol of the Tree of Life (‘vite’ – vine in Italian, which gives out ‘vita’, life).
The great alchemist Basilio Valentino shows his benevolence towards the “Sons of the Art”, and he points to a barrel from which flames emerge. The alchemists “wash with fire”: “make the fixed volatile, and the volatile fixed, and you will attain to our magistry”. Avicenna says: “Our stone or Mercury must be put in two known vases”. From the white keystone (archè) rise a series of reliefs in red stone. The lateral ones divide into two, and the central one into three, and, beginning from three (3) bases, they reach the first floor as seven (7) reliefs. Numeric progressions always play an important part in the alchemical tradition, as in the Kabbalah.
A splendid illustration by Salomon Trismosin (a mysterious alchemist who travelled widely, and experimented with alchemy in 16th Century Venice), in which he indicates the path of the alchemic opus, follows a scheme known since antiquity as children’s game and woman’s work: alchemy is defined as a Gay Science, precisely because the alchemists loved to conceal the processes by using rebus, word games and puzzles; remember that the Masters, speaking of themselves, inform us that “our art is a cabbalistic art”. The small horses the children are playing with would appear to allude to the Kabbalah. Their playing naked indicates that the matter should be ‘unclothed’ and, only when it has regressed to the primordial state (the joyful children, carefree, naked, are close to the primordial state), will it be clothed with the colours of the Opus. It is curious to notice the presence of a crow, and that the children in the foreground touch their heads in an obvious manner. Alchemic treatises use the term “head of a crow” as a technical indication of the desired passage from the nigredo (Opus in Black, first phase) to the albedo (Opus in White). Everything in Trismosin’s illustrations and alchemic treatises needs deciphering with patience and skill. Only through patient observations may the visitor investigate and discover the meanings of the numerous symbols concealed in the magnificent illustrations of the Splendor Soli.
Since antiquity, alchemic work has been wisely compared with the work of women, and the picture of the master suggests a reason: the first thing we look at is the fire in the foreground with a large pot full of lye and various black bowls. Once, an ancient alchemist, questioned by his disciples, replied: “do the work of women; cook and do not be sorry”. In fact, alchemy can be summed up as an uninterrupted cooking. The first phase, nigredo (black jars), dissolves the matter (lye). Then follows the white phase, albedo (sheets, linen). In the right foreground it is a barrel, alluding to the wine and its precious salt. The women are wearing the colours of the Opus. Two women are shown beating and washing, evoking the long work with the mortar which every alchemist knows. Following the ancient tradition, the sheets are spread out on the grass, and this should recall to the curious reader’s mind a similar scene in the illustrations of the Mutus Liber, in which the alchemist and his companion are collecting precious dew. Remember that the alchemists “wash with fire”. Altus, in his Mutus Liber (the “Mute Book”), shows even more explicitly a couple of alchemists collecting copious dew under the significant influence of the spring dawn, between the Bull and Aries. Thirdly, and lastly, rubedo (red) is the fase of coagulation, or ‘embodiment’.
The ‘albedo’ or “Opus in White”
Patiently, on his knees, the alchemist washes his body with igneous washes. Tending the fire, the artist dissolves the dirt until, high on his head, the white dove of the albedo appears. This is the much hoped-for sign that shows the artist his Opus is being achieved: the fixed dissolves and the volatile coagulates. In the foreground, Trismosin shows us the phial with the elixir, which cures all illnesses and is obtained after dissolving the body, when the soul gives it life from above. The ancient body emerges regenerated at the level of the heart and with the white dove on his head.
washes that which is dirty. It eliminates the mineral impurities and bad
odours, and renews the elixir”. An illustration from the Splendor Soli shows us the seven (7)
phases called regimes, indicated by the crown round the neck of the
well-sealed phial. The Artist must assist Nature, as Trismosin recalls: “If you
help me, I will help you. As you will do, so will do I”. The Matter in the
phial goes through the seven (7) phases, repeating below what happens above, in
relation to the astrological phases indicated by the planets, beginning with
the leaden “Regime of Saturn”: “Saturn is
the father of all (…) the men of gold and the first door to the secrets.
Succeeded by his son Jupiter (…), depriving him of his virility, with the evident purpose of preventing
him from generating children. From his male member, cast into the sea, Venus,
the most beautiful of women, was born. From Jupiter, the white lead prepared,
other planets were born: Mars from
Juno, Mercury from Maia, daughter of
Atlantis (…), the Moon and the Sun from Latona. All four were born
simply by means of cooking, which is the work of women”.
The Doctor and Alchemist Michael Maier says: “Go to the woman who washes the linen, and do as she does”, adding “you who love examining hidden doctrines, draw, without respite, all you can from this example (…)”. “It is the same for the Philosophic subject. All crudeness and filthiness found in him are purified and dissolved, if he is watered with his own water (…)”. But Maier also recalls: “For the philosophers indeed, fire is water and water fire” and “as the body returns to great clarity and perfection, so all alchemical actions such as calcination, sublimation, solution, distillation, distinction, coagulation, fixation and all the others, are reduced to ablution”.
The XI figure in the Atalanta Fugiens is entitled “Whiten Latona and tear up the books”. But what does that sentence mean, exactly? Who is Latona? The work Clangor Buccinae, quoted by Rudolf 2nd’s physician, tells us “Latona is an imperfect body composed of Sun and Moon”, and then “(…) That is why they say emblematically Latona must be whitened and her books lacerated so as not to lacerate the heart”. The XXII Figure in the Atalanta Fugiens is entitled “Do the woman’s work with white lead, that is cook”, and in the comment on the figure we learn “do not believe it is the cooking commonly practiced, even if they both have the same aim”. If we look carefully at the picture, we can see that near the woman is a tub with two fishes placed in an unnatural way. This strange arrangement is intended to gain our attention: in fact, we have already seen that alchemists love hiding the secrets of the Opus in the most obscure details.
The two fishes swimming in the tub in Maier’s illustration we find again in the first figure of the De Lapide Philosophico of the noble philosopher Lambsprinck, who states: “Note and consider carefully the two fish swimming in our sea”. (…) “The sea is the Body, the two fishes, the Spirit and Soul”. (…) “The philosophers generally say that in our sea there are two fishes completely without flesh or bones. They are to be cooked in their own water. Then will come an enormous sea, which no man can describe. This is the philosophers’ judgement: the two fishes in reality are a single thing; however, they are two and nonetheless one: Body, Spirit and Soul”. (…) “Now I say to you with certainty: cook together these three to make a great sea”. The philosopher Gerhard Dorn, disciple of Paracelsus, in Theatrum Chemicum reminds us that “Within man, and not outside him, there is a huge treasure (…)” and “(…) In man the mind is the breath of Eternal Life. The soul is an organ of the mind (…) or spirit (…) as the body is an organ of the soul, which in turn is the life of the body through natural union. Likewise, the Spirit is the life of the Soul through supernatural union. If therefore the soul, by consensus or absence, adheres more to the mind and to the body, intellection takes place and the interior man is revived”, but promptly adds “Very few people are in touch with their Spirit”.
Gerhard Dorn continues: “Intellection is suitably appeased when it happens that the mind (or spirit) and the soul, in harmony, are accepted by the body in such a way that from these three things only one, inseparable and consonant, is generated (…). That is therefore the path for unifying first the soul and the spirit to achieve intellection. The good condition of the body, though not absolutely necessary, is quite useful for real contemplation. (…) There is in fact in the human body a substance similar to ether, which keeps and preserves in itself the other elementary parts. Thus the spirit of the spagiric medicament, united with its own soul and detached from its coarse and impure body, once it has been purified and reunited with the body through the soul, transmutes the mental parts – even the fine and vital ones – into a substance similar to itself, saves the physical body from degeneration, and protects it from harm”. (…) “This is the wonderful philosophic transmutation from body to spirit and spirit to body, or, as the sages said – “make the fixed volatile and the volatile fixed, and you will achieve our magistry” (…).” (Gerhard Dorn, Theatrum Chemicum, Argentorati, 1659, vol. I).
The Supreme Accomplishment: the “Philosopher’s Stone” Transmutes the Initiate.
The engravings that follow make up an extraordinary book for the alchemist. It consists, as the title denotes, entirely of pictures which are to be deciphered according to the ancient alchemical dictum: “our science is a cabbalistic art”. The Hermetic Arcanum, Philosophia Opus, states: “The philosophers express themselves more freely and clearly in hieroglyphic forms”. The term hieroglyphic takes us back to the Mysteries of Egypt, the natives, and Hermes Trismegistus (the “Thrice Greatest”), father of the Alchemists, as the titles of two famous alchemist treatises testify: The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures, by Nicola Flamel, the most important French alchemist, and The Hieroglyphic Monad (or Of Hieroglyphic Unity), by the English physician-alchemist John Dee. “The Mute Book in which Nevertheless all Hermetic Philosophy is represented in hieroglyphic form, being consecrated to our compassionate God, thrice good and great, and dedicated exclusively to the sons of the art by its author named Altus”. The title itself appears cryptic: in fact, the last part can be read either as “(…) dedicated exclusively to the sons of the art” or “(…) dedicated to the sons of the art and the sun”. The second interpretation brings to mind the words in the Splendor Soli, where the alchemist is called “supreme architect of the Sun”.
The Sun represents the source of every illumination, and it also indicates the alchemic Gold. In ancient Greek alchemy, for the Sulphur – the igneous element – the term Theion is used, which means both sulphur and divine. Below the title, there are numbers and words which should be read, according to the kabbalistic tradition, from right to left and which refer to Biblical lines about the dew falling from the sky and about Jacob. Above is the starry sky of a clear night, with a waning moon. The phase of the moon should be read backwards and indicates the propitious moment for the beginning of the Opus. Below, against the background of a rocky landscape, the water of a sea or lake laps at the naked feet of a young man asleep, with his head resting on a rock. The water would allude to the “wet path”, rather than the “dry path”, as a way to represent the philosopher’s stone. The scene is framed by two rose branches, tied and intersecting. The roses represent the philosopher’s stone in White and Red. The intersection, in the form of an ‘X’, is the sign of the sun in the matter, being the symbol of radiation. Angels climb up and down the Scala Philosophorum (Philosophic ladder), sounding their trumpets (alchemy was also called the art of music) to call the initiate asleep on the rock (symbol of the philosopher’s stone), and connecting the sky and the earth.
In the last image, the conclusion of the Opus: Altus shows the achievement of the “Philosopher’s Stone”. From the mouths of the two kneeling alchemists, come the words oculatis abis, which can be interpreted with the double meaning of “You will leave clear-sighted”, or “Clear-sightedness comes from these”. The latter, connecting the earth and the sky, is abandoned, as is the Alchemist/Hercules, who has finally completed his labours (which reminds us that the alchemic Opus is also described as “The Labours of Hercules”) and triumphs in his glorious new body. The “Union of the two Natures” is perfectly consummated, as symbolised by the man and the woman holding hands: perfect Mystical Union. The squaring of the circle has been achieved; the circular form suggested by the position of the two alchemists’ arms and the square by the cord held by the “glorious Old Man”. Body, Spirit and Soul are perfectly united: the “Old Man” has picked the two flowers we saw in the first picture, the White Rose and the Red Rose, symbols of the two states of the Philosopher’s Stone in White and Red.
In the first picture, the Night, now the Sun is shining and rending the darkness supreme illumination! The branches of the plants forming the frame no longer have thorns, only fruit. In the ancient edition of La Rochelle, they are no longer rose, but olive branches: a plant sacred to Mercury, meaning knowledge, peace and wealth – and they are the fruit of the Philosopher’s Stone. All has become spiritual, as is indicated by the two wings joining the branches of the sacred plant; wings that reappear on the key stone of the house. Another feature present both here on the emblem and on the key stone – where it crowns the small winged face – is the shell. The Philosopher’s Stone (stone, that is, that is both matter and philosophic, as well as spiritual), indicates the complete spiritualisation of the matter; it constitutes the Opening to the All, and it makes the transmutation possible, meaning the total change of state. Hermes, father of the alchemists, says “You are All in All (…)” (Corpus Hermeticum). Basilio Valentino, famous alchemist of the same period, echoes him by saying: “To Be All Things” and “To Have All in All” (The “twelve keys”). Only now do we understand the words of the alchemists of ancient Greece, which we saw at the beginning: “One the All” and “All in the All”.
Strangely, the Mute Book, in figure 14, which concludes the various operations and sums up their elements, ends with a phrase: Ora, lege, lege, lege, relege, labora et invenis; that is: “Pray, read, read, read, re-read, work and you will find”. The figure is divided into four sections: in the bottom part, either side of the writing, we find the two alchemists – the man and the woman – one arm raised, their hands indicating an ingot mould with an upturned cup on it; their other hand is placed on their lips to indicate silence, typical of Arpocrates – the divinity set to guard the Mysteries. In the centre, above the writing, we recognise the tongs as the sign of work with fire. Above, we find the vase – with the sign of Mercury – with the dot appearing in its centre, to indicate gold and tell us that it is philosophic, and not common, Mercury. In the panel above, the Opus in White and Opus in Red are shown, the white tones being indicated by the moons in the vase and on the stove, and the red by the symbol of the sun. Remember that all the decorations in the house are in white and red stone, and naturally, the higher the decorations on the building, the greater the preponderance of red. In the centre of the figure is depicted the familiar mortar, decorated with the same symbols as the key stone of the Valdenogher house – that is, two serpents at the sides and a shell in the middle.
Nicola Flamel, the famous French alchemist, who was born in Paris in about 1330 and achieved the Philosopher’s Stone with the help of his beloved wife, Perennelle, discovered the “secret of the alchemic path” thanks to a journey to St. James of Compostella. It is common knowledge that the symbol of this saint is the shell, which we have just seen; the same shell that goldsmiths used to melt their gold. St. James is the protector of alchemists, and was present with saint John when Christ’s body was transmuted into Light. The pilgrimage to his sanctuary crossed the whole of Europe and took the name of Via Lattea (“Milky Way”). Be reminded that, to go from Treviso to San Giacomo (St. James) di Carbonera, the route follows a road also called Via Lattea (Milky way). Flamel’s journey was effected to try and decipher the mysterious book on Alchemy of Hebrew origins, bought for two florins in 1357 and entitled Book of Abraham. The pages were beautifully painted, and the first illustration showed a “young man with winged ankles and a caduceus in his hand, which had two serpents twined around it, and with which he struck the helmet on his head. He looked to me like the God Mercury (…)”. (Nicola Flamel, The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures). We can once again recognise the symbols carved on the house at Valdenogher: the Young Man with winged feet corresponds to the key of the central arch (a round-faced young man with wings), and the caduceus with two serpents to the key stones of the side arches (two serpents opposite each other, with a leaf in the centre). All these images are a reference to the Philosopher’s Mercury – the volatile magic fluid, full of vitality, which unites opposites in itself, and is Alchemy’s main theme.
However, a certain similarity between the images analysed by Flamel, the symbolism on the house and the Mutus Liber, can also be found in the second figure depicted in the mysterious book of Abraham the Jew, described as follows: “a beautiful flower was painted there (…). It had a slender stem, white and red flowers, leaves shining like pure gold (…)”. We have already seen two flowers appear in the first and last illustrations of the Mutus Liber, but we find flowers on the key stones of the Valdenogher house too, with petals displayed in an X-shape, which is – as has already been said – the imprint of light in matter and the ancient sign of the crucible. The sign of alchemical Mercury is explained by a famous English alchemist, John Dee, born in London in 1527 – alchemist, magician and astrologer to Queen Elisabeth. He was at Rudolph 2nd’s Court and on his travels stayed in Venice, where he came into contact with the Voarchadumia, the secret society of alchemists founded by the Venetian priest and alchemist, Giovanni Augustino Pantheus, who published the Ars Transmutationi Metalicae in Venice in 1519, and Voarchadumia contra Alchimiam in 1530 – the first text to connect alchemy to the Kabbalah. The Hieroglyphic Monad or Of Hieroglyphic Unity (in which John Doe quotes the Voarchadumia) is dedicated to explaining the Alchemic Mercury, the symbol of which represents the Unity correctly. The London alchemist’s thesis is that the hieroglyphic of Mercury contains in itself the whole cosmos, consisting of the primordial signs – the dot, the line and the circle –, as well as the graphic signs of all the elements and all the planets.
We can immediately distinguish the graphic sign
which appears in the ampulla of the Mutus
Liber, but in this image, taken from the Monad, Dee’s symbol has a strange
sign at its base that is indicated as the sign of Fire! In fact, in figure 14 of the Mutus Liber, the tongs for
holding the pots over the fire are shown under the ampulla, to indicate that
fire is necessary for alchemic practice. John Dee explains “thus have added the
astronomic sign of Aries to symbolise that the
Ministry of Fire is required!” (Aries is the first sign of fire). However,
we have already seen the sign carved into the house, in the central key stone –
under the winged round face – crowned with the mystical shell which, with the
serpents, we have identified as Philosophic Mercury. The sign of Aries on the
central key stone recalls spring and the beginning of the Alchemical Opus.
This is the period of the year in which that
celestial water (dew) is plentiful, and the couple in the Mutus Liber prepares to collect it, precisely between Aries and
Taurus. From what is said, we understand immediately that the dew is water
containing a Secret Fire, which
revives. It is with this water, found so abundantly in the region of Alpago, that alchemical operations may be performed.