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.
“The 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 in 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 the Philosopher makes his ablutions and albifications? To answer this, we must first remember that the Greeks used the letter gamma both for Aries and Antimony – or rather his Ruler (in Latin regulus – or “small starry King").
The central window of the last floor, with its low arch, features abundant vegetal decorations. We find vegetal decorations both on the window sill and on the capitals. At the top, level with the jambs, the decorations rise following the arch of the window, and represent two leafy plants growing out of two vases and finally framing the red figure. From the two vases — that is, the Vase of Nature and that of Art — stems the Arbor vitae, or Tree of Life, placed in the centre of the terrestrial paradise that the alchemists often tell us about, to support the Alchemist’s figure. The Alchemist himself is sculpted in red stone; that is, he is endowed with the Regal diadem: the purple.
While in the portico we found, sculpted in the key stone, serpents flowing upwards, above this, in the top part of the house, we find three shelves, holding up the roof, sculpted in a strange shape that somehow recalls open-mouthed dragons spitting flames downwards. The Philosophic tree, in the magnificent illustration from the Splendor soli, offers its copious fruits of health and wealth to the alchemist. It is indeed the Tree of Life, symbol of the much sought-after Philosopher’s Stone; its trunk carries a Golden crown and several birds fly from its branches, which are laden with fruit. In the foreground we can distinguish a black Crow on the right, a white Dove and, if we look carefully, on the left we can distinguish the red Phoenix too. These represent the 3 phases of the Opus: nigredo, albedo and rubedo. Beside the roots, a clear stream of living water flows. The initiate, in order to pick the fruit, is climbing the seventh step of a ladder, which rests firmly in the green meadow, covered in golden flowers. Two Masters, dressed in White and Red (the one in white, above, is the one who accomplished the albedo, and the one in Red, below, the rubedo), have just shown the young man the marvelous plant. The young man, dressed in Black, is shown in the act of lowering a branch and comparing it to the old Master’s golden one, to verify that it is the right plant.
Incidentally, not unlike the ancient alchemists, also the Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen often spoke of viriditas -- the greening of things from within, analogous to what we would now call photosynthesis. She saw that there was a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform it into energy and life. She recognized that there is also an inherent connection between the physical world and the divine Presence. This connection translates into inner energy that is the soul and seed of everything; an inner voice calling you to “Become who you are; become all that you are”: this is our “life wish” or “whole-making instinct.”
The Philosopher’s Stone
“All those who drink from this golden fountain will feel revived, suppress any evil, calm their blood, strengthen their hearts and achieve perfect health of all body parts, both internally and externally. In fact, it opens nerves and pores so that illness may be banished and peacefully replaced by health” (Basilio Valentino, The twelve keys to philosophy — First Key). “(…) And it is undoubtedly a universal Medicine, as it banishes evil and retains good, and intervenes using good to correct evil. Its colour goes from a transparent red to purple, from ruby to garnet red and, as far as its weight is concerned, it is strong and very heavy (…).” (Key Ten). Basilio Valentino's Key Twelve depicts the Initiate; that is, the Alchemist who has accomplished the Opus perfectly, as witnessed by the two flowers with five petals, symbols of the two opuses: the Red and the White.
Nicola Flamel, when commenting on the eighth figure, writes that when the stone is “(…) of the same scarlet red color as the seeds of a perfectly red pomegranate, it means that it is now accomplished without any distortion or deformity. It is like a lion that devours all pure Metallic Nature, transforming it into its true substance, into the real and pure gold, finer than that of the best mines. Thus it saves Man from this valley of miseries, removing him from poverty, infirmity, trouble; with its wings lifts him up over the stagnant waters of Egypt (that are the ordinary thoughts of the mortals) and — making him despise life and all immediate gains — day and night it directs his thoughts to God and the saints, makes him search for the Empyrean, and leads him to quench his thirst at the twelve sources of eternal hope (…).”
In the Philosopher (figure 82 from Viridarii Chymicum figuris cooper incise adornatum et porticis scripturiis illustratum, Frankfurt, Lucae Jennis, 1624, of Stolcius de Stolcenberg), the writing says: “I hold up, with my own arms, the Sky and the Earth, and rapidly I make a note of all things, one by one. I re-evoke the past, I know the present, and I see the future: therefore, to me, sage, each aspect is represented thrice. However, I always show myself humanly with everybody: my clothes are compared to those of a simple youth”.
Among the Iniatiates who achieved the Philosopher’s stone, we should remember Maria “the Prophetess” (sometimes also known as “Mary the Jewess”), sister of Moses, whose skill with fire we recall when in the kitchen we utilise the technique invented by her, “Bain-Marie”. Let’s see what the Alchemist Christopher, also known as “the Parisian”, wrote in 1467 to his Venetian disciple Andrea Ogniben, who had complained to his Master of having lost all matter by suddenly breaking his vase: “(…) I was so sorry (…) that I could not help you in your affairs, but I am even more sorry now, because in your last letter you told me that you heard about the vase being broken and the noble substance lost (…) and I remind you, my son, that when I sent you the sulphur — that was a third of the entire quantity — and I accomplished the two remaining parts, and fortunately made some money, half of which I gave to the poor people of Jesus Christ, to some needy monasteries and even to some secular indigents — and was distributed by a dear father of penance — and the rest of which I invested in numerous properties that generously cover the expenses and the cost of living, for us and the poor of Christ; and this I did so that fortune would never again find me unprepared — as I was before — and also because I do not intend to continue working, because at my age it is not necessary anymore: I would rather attend to spiritual matters and write about theology (…)” (From a writing kept in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice). From this precious letter to his disciple we can understand that the Parisian lived on the proceedings of the Philosopher’s stone, managing to contribute significantly to various benefactors. On the starting matter for the Opus, even the Parisian maintains the secret but, in this regard, the following reference to the Venice region appears interesting. “(…) And with your intelligence lift your mind to the celestial austral pole, leaving Venice and walking a little to the right, you will find the land revealed by the plains and you will find our Matter, licet (provided) that some of this mercury of ours can be located in other similar places and taken from there (…)” (From a document kept in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice).
We have already seen that, among the effects of Universal Medicine, there is the transformation of common metals into gold, but let’s read more of what the good Christopher tells his disciple: “(…) then put it into our physical bath to be circulated — as we will show you that we did at the time of the circulation of our simple menstruum (lit. menstrual discharge; here probably intended as in 'liquid, flow') in the glorious city of Venice, at Master Anzolo’s house — and thus let it circulate for XL (60) natural days, so that when it is close to the end time you will see your menstruum/or Mercury, which will be lustrous and odorous more than any other odor of this present century: this, my son, has the prerogative to disperse the luminary gods and reduce their power. You should know, my son, that this you will do only with the fermentation, red or white as you may choose: only with the circulation will you be able to create branches of great protection; this, my dearest son, is what our duke Raymond speaks of in his cautionary epistle, when he tells us about the dissolution of the Sun into Gold taking place, and then water being drawn from it through a very slow bath of fire; you should know, my son, that this Gold is made spiritual so that it can never be reduced to matter; if you were to add hundred parts of mercury to it, you would freeze it into real gold or according to its fermentation. Again, my son, the above mentioned frozen Gold will dissolve in any kind of water, and if given to any kind of infirm with any kind of sickness, in just a few days they will revert to their true temperament: you should know, my son, that this is what eliminates old and white hairs, as well as any sign of age, and cleanses impure youth and preserves us to the very end of our lives; you should know, my son, that if I wanted to put down in paper all the miracles and effects that can be attained with this divine Mercury ... (…)”. (From a document kept in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice)
At some point, it will have been noted that Christopher “the Parisian”, defined by Panthers as initiate (Voarchadumia), reminded his disciples of an experience “in the glorious city of Venice, at Master Anzolo’s house”. This Master Anzolo, friend of the Parisian’s, is Angelo Barovier, the greatest glassmaker of the Serenissima at the time, who obtained permission to continue to work in Murano even in August, when the furnaces were supposed to be shut because of the danger of fires. Barovier’s work was so popular that the architect Averulino, also known as Filarete, would then quote him in his architectural treatise. Angelo Barovier could make extraordinary glass thanks to the lessons in the theory of alchemy held in the Rialto school by Father Godi della Pergola, whose tomb can be found in the center of the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, in Rialto (at the heart of Venice). "The Adepts (adept: he who has realized the Philosopher’s stone) of twelve (12) different nations witness the Universality of Alchemy".
Michael Maier, doctor (graduated in Medicine in Basel) and philosopher (graduated at Rostock in 1597), since 1608 was in Prague in quality of personal doctor of the Alchemist-Emperor Rudolf 2nd. He travelled to England, where he got to know personally doctor Robert Fludd, who belonged to the Rosicrucian movement. The Atalanta Fugiens, published in 1618, can be considered the masterpiece of the Doctor-Philosopher, and the first ‘multimedia’ work, inasmuch that in one book are found gathered together splendid engravings (such as etchings on copper — the metal sacred to Venus), poetic verses and music, with the precise intent of ‘enveloping’ the listener/reader, and engage him through the senses. Maier writes: “Receive, therefore, in a sole book four things: 1) Allusive, poetic, allegoric compositions; 2) Emblems engraved in Venusian copper, and adorned with Venusian grace; 3) Highly secret chemical truths, which will be probed by your intelligence; 4) At last, some of the rarest music”. In the introduction, Maier tells us that man is a “compendium of the Cosmos” (a microcosm, or smaller world), and therefore destined to live three (3) kinds of life: vegetative life (in the maternal womb); sensitive life (when one acts according to the sensual stimuli — like animals do); and intellective life (in the other world, “by God”).
Alchemy is the “Way of Hermes”; Alchemists themselves are called the “children of Hermes”, and their language is truly ‘hermetic’. Alchemy is also known as the “Art of Music”, and the fugues — musical and poetic — of the Atalanta express, since their title (“Fugitive Atalanta”), the great Operation of Alchemy: the Fixation of Fugitive Mercury; or, according to Maier’s words: “The virgin is purely chemical: it is the philosophical Mercury, fixed in its fugue by the Golden sound”. In the fugues, or according to the musical conception of the canons by Maier, a word remains always constant, and continues to represent the fixed, around which the composition revolves: it is the point at the center of the circumference, which characterizes the graphic symbol of the philosophical Gold. The constant repetition reminds of the Kyrie in the Church, and of those techniques of ecstasy, known in the Eastern traditions as mantra, in the Arabic world as dzikr, and the techniques of constant repetition of the Divine name well known to the Oriental Church. One also needs to consider that, at a certain point in the Opus (precisely in the phase known as “Great Cooking”), the matter enclosed within the vessel emits strange noises, and these sounds are experienced by the alchemist as signs of the manifestation of the “Great Alchemic Miracle”. It is just about the case to remind that these sounds are not simple hisses, but real, effective notes that reproduce the musical harmonic scale, on which is based Maier’s work. It is an extraordinary phenomenon: a clear sign of the Unity of Everything. From what we have said, the Virgin is also the matter; the philosophical Mercury is that vital energy, that fluid body always moving, and Suplhur is the spiritual principle that the Greeks called Theion — that is, Divine. It is therefore question of understanding that we are the “underlying canvas”; the simple immediate presence to which everything belongs; therefore, let us simply open ourselves up to listening. In this room are being presented the magnificent plates of the Atalanta Fugiens; the fugues are interpreted by the Cultural Association “Antica Consonanza”, which a few years ago has executed the integral of the Atalanta, of which, however, no official registration has been made, nor have any audio recording been produced, but only amateur recordings. This one has kindly been donated by the President of the Association, Giuseppe Palmieri. In this room, the work of Maier can be seen, heard, meditated and contemplated upon: “Hail to you, who art the underlying canvas over which this show is being manifested”!
A few more words should in fact be spent, too, for Maria prophetissa, already mentioned before, sister of Moses, also known as Mary the Jewess (Maria hebraea), a pious Jewish woman who, at the beginning at the 3rd Century, was considered by the Hellenistic alchemists as the founder of the alchemical (and hermetic) art itself. This is meaningful, as it also means that woman were not shunned, and played in fact an active role in alchemical studies. The writings attributed to Maria hebraea are considered of the utmost importance within the alchemical tradition, as they highlight some fundamental principles of the doctrine. In many legends, Mary the Jewess was described as a prophetess (hence her name), to whom had been revealed the "splendid secret of alchemy" (Patai, 1994). Her dictums, as reported by the alchemists Zosima and Christian, were considered by Jung himself the "central axioms of alchemy" (Jung, Works 12); the most celebrated one sounds thus: "The One becomes Two, and the Two becomes Three, and through the Third, the Fourth accomplishes the Unity; therefore Two become One" (reported by Christian). The second dictum rings: "Join (or unite) male and female, and you will find what you are looking for" (the Philosopher’s Stone)" (reported by Zosima). In her alchemical recipes, Maria maintains the necessity to unite the male metal with the feminine metal, in order to realise the Great Opus. Reporting her, Zosima also wrote: "As man is composed of four elements, so is copper; and as man is the result of (the association of) liquid, solid and spirit, so is copper" (Berthelot, 1888). For Mary, therefore, as for the Kabbalah masters, the union of male and female, induced by and through love, is the necessary condition in order to reach integrity of the divided Self (once again, individuation).
Alchemy in the World: a short presentation.
An example of universality in the alchemic symbolism: Indian Alchemy.
The circle, with a dot in the middle — which in Western Alchemy represents Gold — can be found in the Egyptian Hieroglyphs as symbol of the sun and eternity, and we find it also in India as the geometric symbol of Shiva. The circle, with a dot in the middle, expresses the relationship between the feminine (the circumference; the volatile aspect) and the masculine (the dot in the middle; the fixed aspect). This primordial symbol can be found, as teaches A. Schwartz, “associated to gold and Shiva, in a passage in the Linga Purana, in which Shiva is greeted with the Vedic appellation of Hiranya-Garbha — that is, Lord with the Golden Womb”. As symbol of the Sun-gold, this same Shiva has curious correspondences with the Hermes-Mercury of Western tradition.
Both Shiva and Hermes are revealing the Divine secrets; they are mediators between Divinity and Mankind, and between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. Hermes is also the protector of vegetation and of fertility, and he is a pastor (in the sense of shepherd) — in the same way as Shiva is Pausupati, Lord of the Animals and Shepherds. Hermes is the psychopomp who connects the world of the living with that of the dead; Shiva “has also the task of taking the souls to the other side”. Hermes invented the lyre and the flute, and he is Lord of Music, too (Alchemy is also known as "the art of Music"), in the same way as Shiva, who among his names is called Shiva Saptasvara — which means Lord made of the Seven (sapta) notes (svara) and Shiva Vinadhara (that is, carrier of the vina — a musical instrument similar to a lute). Additionally, both Hermes and Shiva are divinities of Dream and Sleep. The symbol of Shiva is a stone phallus, and the same symbol designates Hermes, as it is testified by Herodotus, when he describes the natural monuments dedicated to Hermes, and describes them in the shape of an erected phallus (see Herodotus: Callimacus, Diegemata). Hermes is also associated with the Caduceus, which will become his main symbol, and so we find allegorical representations of Shiva in the guise of a wooden stick (linga), with a couple of snakes twining around it (which indicate Ida and Pingala; that is, the two energetic channels which rise, intertwining, along the spinal cord). Shiva is the mythical author of the most important Indian alchemical texts, as Hermes performed the same role for Western Alchemy. Shiva is also a foremost Doctor, associated with longevity and “Lord of the Balsamic Remedies”: “best of all doctors”, free from poisons, he concedes individuals the elixir of immortality — the same attributes we find in Hermes-Mercury. Shiva personifies the very alchemical science, and we find him identified both as agent of transformation (Mercury) as well as with the product of transformation itself, gold. Shiva is being saluted as the Lord of Mercury, too: Mercury itself is sometimes referred to as Shiva’s sperm!
Mercury and the Tradition of Chinese Alchemy
The word Elixir derives from the Chinese Ik-ch’i, in which ch’i: ‘soul’ and Ik-ch’i: “the soul, unique above all other”. While souls may have varying longevities, the unique soul will make who or what receives it, perennial. “However, “ch’i: soul” really means a very pure form of matter (prima materia, “primary matter”, for the alchemist), the purest part having formed the Sky, and the rougher part, the Earth” (S. Mahdihassan, Indian Alchemy, Rome 1998). We find the same doctrine in western alchemy, where primary matter is the primordial element which spontaneously changes and is in all things: in some more than in others, and — if you know the right technique — it can always be extracted. A metal can be reduced to prima materia, and so become an animate form or gold-ferment — therefore: primary matter = elixir. In Arabic, Iksir is the same as Kimiya, which derives from Kim = gold and Iya = essence, meaning essence that produces gold. This gold is really ferment-gold (gold: noble and perennial, and ferment: continually growing), a drug able to transfer its power of incorruptibility and vitality; in other words, to give immortality. When melted, the ferment died and only the gold ingot remained intact. Kimiya therefore signifies the soul that both produces gold and gives immortality: the Universal Medicine, or Philosopher’s stone. In 1500, Alessandro Farra wrote: “(…) thus I do not mean this Quicksilver or common Mercury, but in Arabic Gebero (is) the Philosopher’s Quicksilver, which is the beginning and the form of all things to be found in this Universe (…) and in man, it is the ethereal vehicle, or celestial chariot, or internal remains, that the soul in the body takes, upon descending and passing through celestial spheres; by this means, as with its real and spiritual body, it is joined to its material and corruptible body (…) no longer fugitive, but fixed, and — being permanent — it generates the famous Philosopher’s stone (a wonderful instrument in every metallic transformation) (…)”.
As for the connection with the original alchemy, the Chinese distinguished between Nei tan (which literally means physiological alchemy, or, according to the classification presented here, spiritual alchemy) and Wei tan, (practical alchemy, as practiced in a laboratory setting -- or operative alchemy). The Nei tan can be equated to an "almost yogic system in which the elixir had to be synthesised in the body of the alchemist himself", so to transform the initiate into a 'perfect' or 'accomplished' man -- an "immortal earthly creature", purified, ethereal and free.
In India the corresponding term to the Chinese elixir is Rasayama, which means "the medicine to be used for preventing aging and prolonging life”. Rasa meaning both essence and gold, and also soul. The Chinese term Iya, from Kim-Iya (Kimiya in Arabic) is identical. Rasayama can also mean Rasa = Mercury and Ayana = Path; that is, the Path of Mercury. S. Mahdihassan adds that the translation of Rasayama can be compared with Chumeia, the Greek word for alchemy, which signifies “medium containing essence” — in the sense of “source of the soul”. This similarity of terms and meanings may seem extraordinary, but remember that, to ancient Alexandria (founded in 332 BC), in its period of greatest splendor (around 200 BC), Arab traders brought Chinese silk and Chinese medicines for immortality, called precisely Kimiya (“Kimiya in Chinese is the essence that makes gold; that is, the essence similar to the soul, which makes he who takes it perennial like gold”). Kimiya was translated by the Copts into Greek as Chemeia (with the same pronunciation). In the room dedicated to the Mutus Liber, we saw — in the last figure of the extraordinary Mute Book — the Initiate (the one who has perfectly accomplished the Opus) who, leaving his earthly trappings, rises to the sky — emphasized by the writing on the scrolls: Oculatus abis, which can be interpreted with the double meaning of “You will leave clear-sighted” or “Clear-sightedness comes from these” (that is, from the two lovers united in the embrace of the alchemical marriage). Under them, exhausted by his Twelve Labours, lies Hercules, who also incarnates the alchemist. The ladder, which points to the axis mundi, erected towards the sky in order to connect the chthonian and uranic principles, is here placed horizontally, to signify that the mediation between male and female has been completed, and it has led to supreme union.
This representation of the supreme achievement recalls the first figure depicting Jacob’s dream: “He saw a ladder standing on the earth, its top touching the sky; God’s angels were climbing up and down that ladder (…) Jacob got up early in the morning, took the stone which had been his pillow and, after setting it upright, poured oil on it. This place, which once was known as Luz, he named Bethel; that is, the House of God”. Let us now look at this name — Luz, which, in the cabalistic tradition, means “an indestructible bodily particle, symbolically shown as a hard bone to which the soul remains attached after death, until resurrection”. This stone is described by Ezechiel as resplendent of a bright vermilion-coloured light. Its name in Hebrew is Yesod, “fundamental principle”, from which opens the “Door of Men”; from the same, stems the first vertebra of the spine, known as sacred (the spine would therefore correspond to the ladder which the initiate climbed to become enlightened — clear-sighted). The root Luz comes from the verb Leluz, which means “detach and/or separate” and is also the root — in Celtic-Provençal languages — of the word lux (light in Latin), Lug (name of a Celtic god), the name Luke (Luca in Italian), etc.: all names infused with an association to light. "In Chinese", notes Monica Esposito, "the character lu of wei-lu, is found in the character ex-clusa, as the door which “separates the waters” from what is ‘sacred’. Even more surprising is to find the same character lu — without the reference (the radical) to the door — in the name of the immortal who became the principle Patriarch of Chinese alchemy: Lu Dongbin, “He who, guest of the cave (dong-bin), passed though the Door (lu)”.
Let us go back for a moment to the symbol for gold mentioned previously: a circle with a dot in the middle. It is curious to note that, in representation of Buddhist saints (and Indian saints in general), there is a small circle between their eyebrows — a dot. This signifies that the person has received the descent of celestial influence into himself (the “third eye”). Professor Li Xiao Ming (doctor and master of Chi Gong) explains that in the Chinese tradition, this is called Tian Yan (“eye of the sky”), and — when this appears — extraordinary abilities (like those indicated by the alchemists) are spontaneously acquired. An indispensable condition for the Master is that a person must first of all practice himself (cultivating virtue within — and Western alchemists repeat that alchemy is a gift from the Sky). When the virtue is heightened, this extraordinary energy is likewise able to rise, so that one can “go beyond human limits to enter heavenly, spiritual dimensions”. How is this achieved? Professor Li Xiao Ming further explains: “Through the practice of Dan one must attain Jin Dan (the “Dan of Gold”)”. Dan means cinnabar, which, in traditional Chinese medicine, indicates a drug — that is, a medicine. But, to return to the words of the Master, “Jin Dan is attained when the energy inside the body can be released, and take all directions (…). For example, evidence of having attained Jin Dan is that of lighting, when gold light flashes from the head of these people” (like the golden halo of our saints, in the Christian tradition). However, “attaining Jin Dan (the “golden Dan”) is an extremely difficult exercise. As far as we know from what has been left to us by the Taoist school, only 2-3 people are known to have reached this state. These people sometimes appear and sometimes disappear”.
The words of the Chinese Master could seem truly amazing and incredible to someone whose mind is taken up with “everyday thoughts” (in the west — and perhaps worldwide, nowadays). There is more, however, as the Master tells us of a recent example: “There is a mountain called Wu Dang Shan — a main point of concentration of Taoist teachings. On this mountain once appeared a woman called Qi Mei. In 1984, Qi Mei appeared on the summit of Wu Dang. Before this, she had been a local peasant. After climbing to the top of Wu Dang, she began the extremely hard practice of Chi Gong. Everyday, she practiced Zhan Zhuang (an upright position with the hands on the Dan Tian: one of the basic positions of Chi Gong, the Dan Tian is a point below the navel, which literally means “cinnabar field”), staying immobile in this position for about ten hours. During these ten hours, people called her, brought her food, but she did not move. The people of her village, seeing how she practiced Chi Gong, also went to the summit to practice with her, and after a while they no longer saw her — she disappeared before their eyes. The people practicing with her were not able to achieve the same results (…). Sometimes she appeared; sometimes she disappeared, even while she was talking to them (…). Qi Mei had reached the state in which she no longer needed the intake of energy necessary to a human being. In 1986, the Chinese government sent a delegation to see her. No one in the delegation managed to see her (…). If someone practices Chi Gong by himself on the mountain, then he is able to see her. Attainment of Jin Dan, or golden Dan, means this: to transform oneself into the all” (From the theoretical and practical notes elaborated by Doctor Vincenzo La Bella and from the seminars by Professor Li Xiao Ming, the Chi Gong Master of the Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, published in Cortona, 1990).
Total Transmutation: the "Body of Light"
The Body of Light or Rainbow body, in which the body of the initiate literally disappears and dissolves into light, also represents the maximum accomplishment in Dongchen — the supreme Tibetan teaching. This has been demonstrated recently by Professor Nankai Notbu, who was invited to Italy by Professor Giuseppe Tucci — at first researcher at ISMEO, then at the renowned Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples. He remembers that his principle — Master Jyanqub Dorje, doctor and founder of a Dongchen community in Tibet “always answered those who asked his age 'seventy'. He said the same when I met him in 1955, seventy years after he arrived in that region. I myself asked him more than once, out of curiosity, and every time he said he was seventy. But local people calculated he must have been at least one hundred and thirty, when in 1980 I heard from three different sources that he and his daughters, who also practiced Dongchen, had died in rather unusual circumstances. When I returned to Tibet in 1981 for a visit, with my wife and children, I heard from some of his disciples that both Jyanqub and his daughters, before dying, had asked to remain closed in their room for seven days. Unfortunately, they had been disturbed before the time had elapsed. When the rooms were opened, their bodies were found, reduced to a length of about 90 cm. Thus it was clear that they had triumphantly concluded their life in a physical body, demonstrating one of the modalities of the body of light” (Namkai Norbu, “The Crystal and the way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dongchen”, Rome 1987).
Other testimonies to the actual possibility of achieving the body of light are supplied by the Tibetan Master of Bonpo Tradition, Lopon Tenzin Namdak, who states that one of the teachers of Shardza, called Dawa Dragpa, achieved the complete re-absorption of his body in 1932. Here is his story: “He asked his students to build a hut in which he could achieve the body of light, and he asked them not to reveal his position to anyone, least of all his brother, a powerful man who lived a day’s walk away — so as not to be disturbed. The students built the hut, leaving a small hole for some days; then they closed that too. Just before entering, Dawa Dragpa drank a little milk and nothing else. In the period immediately preceding his entering the hut, they say he sometimes disappeared completely from his disciples’ sights. After he entered the hut, his students heard singing, and saw rainbows of extraordinary shapes — even square and linear. After a week, they told the brother about their Master, and he appeared very annoyed not to have been informed earlier. On arriving at the place, he quarreled with the disciples, and forced his way into the hut. This had been after nine days since Dawa Dragpa had been closed in. When his brother entered, Dawa Dragpa still seemed to be there, and the man exclaimed: “Everyone says you are dead, whereas you are still alive (…).” “Then he shook the clothes, but inside there was nothing, and they fell to the floor (…).” “(…) When Shardza died in 1935, he left a body no bigger than a plate. Partial re-absorption was also achieved by his nephew (or grandson), who was his successor”.
Another more recent testimonial, of 1983, is narrated in Appendix 1 of the book by Shardza Tashi Gyabsen (“The Essence of the Heart of Dharmakaya, Dzogchen Practice in the Bimpo tradition”, Rome 2002). Doctor R. P. Kaushik — a great Indian master who died a few years ago, author of “Organic Alchemy”, Rome 1977 (a collection of his teachings in Europe and America in 1974) — recalls that, in India too, there are accomplished Masters who, if they remain in a state of contemplation, can dissolve their bodies and literally disappear. Turku Ulgien Rimpoche — the great Dzogchen master, born in 1920 in eastern Tibet — describes the achievement of other bodies of light: “Personally I know of two people who left this life, achieving the rainbow body. One of them practiced vajraiana and lived in the Derge region, the other attained the rainbow body in a cow stall near my guru’s mother home. This event had many witnesses, and it was the second Jamgon Kuntrul who told me of it, so I think it’s certainly true. This is the story: an elderly woman on a pilgrimage came to their village. When she saw a well-to-do house, she asked for a place for a brief retreat, and she was given an empty stable. She told the owners: “I wish to use it for a week’s strict retreat, and have the door sealed shut: please heap stones against the door, so in no way will I be disturbed.” The people were used to helping those who practiced their religion, and agreed with no further ado, answering: “Certainly, we can do as you wish”. They did not know who would look after her, and bring her food, and they thought she had already made arrangements with someone else. After three days, they began to see strange signs: rays of light of various colors, sparkling and whirling around, coming out of the holes and cracks in the stone walls of the stable. A light shone below the roof, while — outside the stable — spheres of light appeared, moving quickly in all directions. The owners of the house began to wonder: “What is happening there? Who is looking after the old nun? Who is taking her food?”. They asked other servants, but they had also thought that someone else had been providing the food. Finally, they found no-one who had been given this task. They thought, therefore, that she might have been cooking for herself, but Jamgon Kuntrul’s brother asked: “Is there a place for cooking, inside there?" The servants replied: “No, there’s no hearth or anything of the kind”. So they all wondered: “What is she eating? Has she any water? What do these lights mean?” At last, they decided to have a look. They removed the stones, forced open the door, and saw the body of the nun, in pieces: her hands on the ground in one place, her foot in another, her limbs detached from her body — lying scattered in pieces — while the body continued to dismember, and twirls of light — the color of the rainbow — came from the tip of her bones. Those present wondered: “What is happening? She seems dead”. Then one of them had the presence of mind to say: “Let us leave her in peace. Something special seems to be happening. She asked to be alone for seven days, so we should let her be”, so they sealed up the stable again. After the seven days had elapsed, when they opened up the stable, the rainbow lights had vanished. They found not a drop of blood, nor flesh, nor bone. (…) This is something that really happened, without a shadow of doubt”. (Turku Ulgien Rimpoche, “Paintings of Rainbow”, Rome 1997).
Professor Bhagwan Dash reports the words of the great Indian saint, Govinda Bhagavadpada: “The flame, saturated with conscience — similar to fire, ‘vidyut’ (lightning), or the sun — only appears between the eyebrows of virtuous people. It is difficult to describe the nature of this excellent flame. It bestows eternal blessedness and liberates from all suffering. This flame is perceptible: it is full of peace, and only its bearer may appreciate its attributes. The bearer must concentrate his mind on this flame, when the whole universe will appear to him as eternally vibrating conscience. He will be freed of every kind of attachment, including those deriving from previous actions in his previous life or past lives. He who reaches this state of Brahman (unity with the Universal Spirit), which is similar to amrita (ambrosia), is truly blessed”. (Bhagwan Dash, “Alchemy and Therapeutic use of Metals in Ayurveda”, Rome 1977).
Other Pathways to Alchemy: Islam and Zoroaster
In this connection, Elemir Zolla — in his introduction to Alchemy — recalls the words of Christ: “The lamp of your body is the eye. If your eye is simple, your whole body will shine” (“The Wonders of Nature — Introduction to Alchemy”, Venice 1991). Zolla visited an Islamic alchemist in Isfahan, who — after welcoming him in his laboratory-house — as he was leaving, made him this speech: “Before you go, I want to tell you the story of the great Mir Damàd and the shoemaker. One day, Mir Damàd saw a very poor shoemaker and felt sorry for him. He placed his hand on the poor man’s hammer, changing it to gold. “And now, you can sell it”, said Mir Damàd. “Why should I?”, asked the shoemaker. “You just turn it back into iron. Why did you change it into gold, if you cannot turn it back into its original state?”. Mir Damàd was mortified. So, the shoemaker told him to pulverize a lump of dry whey. While Mir Damàd was doing this, his soul left his body, wandered around Europe, and happened on a man giving orders contrary to Islam; so he shouted: “Stop it!”. The shoemaker, in return, shouted at him: “Grind your lump of whey!”. And added: “I told you to grind your whey, not wander around Europe. If you want to be able to wander around Europe, and — at the same time — grind your lump of whey, you will have to practice and study for a long time!”. Then, Mir Damàd asked if he could become the shoemaker’s disciple, and the latter turned the hammer back into iron, just by glancing at it. This means that his body had become alchemic. He had attained the state in which he could transmute with his eye”. Zolla notes that “at the center of the eye is the iris, which Plutarch — in his Isis and Osiris (Iside et Osiride) — calls ‘Chemia’, which also means the blackest mud, damp and fertile, which is equated to the heart (...)”.
Some traces of this extraordinary alchemy can be found in the west during the Renaissance, as Alessandro Farra (mentioned above), wrote: “Does man then transform himself into God? (…) I see not why man must not transform himself into Divine nature. (…) Thus man may make himself God”. When and how? Once again, it is Farra who — a little later — explains with these words: “When the soul is firm and static (…) and from the unity of the intellect (…), finally it is infused into that heavenly body, that the Platonics call the ethereal vehicle, and — passing from the near sensitive to the elementary body — makes it visible through light, and shows in the form of a shining star, immortal and so light that it can easily be lifted from the ground. Thus the face of Moses, captain of the Jews, so shone that the son of Israel could not look at it directly. So luminous were the faces of the Magician Zoroaster and Mercury Trismegistus (…). Because the soul — through the power of the father — becomes splendid fire, may its immortal depth govern you and lift all eyes together, so that then the material body itself will not be left to fall (…). Do not let this great venture slip through your hands: but turn all eyes, that is all animal virtues, together, center and depth of your intellect, feature of supreme unity (…), in that you will truly be God (…) therefore you will easily protect your material body from the precipice, that is the sensitive world (so called by the Magicians), and — lifting it, make it celestial and immortal (…)”. And again, addressing the other members of the academy, symbolized by Mercury-Hermes: “So you are entrusted with the great dignity of man, for which — induced by natural desire and rising above all other creatures, he can finally transform into God, and thus conduct in exterior matter those miracles that only God can do (…). All these things are introduced so that man, aware of his dignity, will not disdain, but flee earthly things, despise the celestial; that is, he should not consider that which belongs to the sensitive world, not make do with angelic nature, but may the All — with his Divine wings, and through the unity of His intellect — be joined to the supreme Unity. Here may he stop and achieve Deification, which God finally grants him. And so that man may occasionally remember this great venture, above the temple to Apollo at Delphi was written: gnothi seauton (Know Thyself); which means that you should know, and continually consider, that being within yourself nearly in the Small World (as Zoroaster was the first to mention, and after him Mercury, and Plato). All things — and God himself — you are able to turn into God”. (Alessandro Farra, "Three Discourses", Pavia 1564). I presented this brief account of the accomplishment of the body of light, in order to illustrate which is the real sense of alchemy — that is, a Divine gift, the aim of which is the true achievement of the unity of the all — All in the All! And, as Farra recalls, “man desires to be the all because all things, in so far as they are, are true. I hope that everyone can recognize in themselves this Primary Matter, which is the beginning, the middle and the end of the Opus!”.
Hermes Trismegistus and the Emerald Tables
The father of all alchemists, Hermes Trismegistus (the “Thrice Greatest”) is represented also in the first intarsia in the central nave of the Siena cathedral (circa 1482). The inscription at the base reads: Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus Contemporaneous Moyses.
The first translation of the Corpus hermeticum (Pimander), effected in Florence by the greatest sage of the time — Marsilius Ficinus — appears printed in 1471, not in Florence, but strangely in Treviso! Alchemy’s fundamental text appears in the extraordinary Emerald Tables, which, legend would have it, were discovered inside a deep cave in the hands of a statue of Hermes/Mercury. Reference to the colour green, which is the colour of life, appears evident right from the title and manifests itself to the alchemists in all its glory. Note how the colors of the intarsia reflect the three colors of the Opus: black, white and red (the background is antique green, a colour which alchemically is assimilated to black). The text, using aphorisms (we can also find this written on Dyas’ beautiful tablet, Tripartite Chemistry and in the Musaeum Hermeticum Reformatum, and reproduced in an enlarged version in the hall), goes like this: “It is true, without a lie, certain and most true/That which is below is like that which is above and/that which is above is like that which is below,/for the accomplishment of the miracles of the One./And just as all things are and come from the One/through meditation (in some texts: mediation) of the One,/similarly all things were born of this One, through adaptation./Her father is the Sun, her mother is the Moon,/the Wind carried her in her belly, the Earth is her nurturer./The Father of all, the Telesma of the entire world is here./He is behind all the secret virtues of this world./His power is whole if it is converted into earth./You will separate Earth from Fire, thick from thin,/gently and ingenuously./He rises from the Earth to the Sky, and then redescends upon Earth,/and receives the strength of that which is above, and that which is below./In this way, you will obtain the glory of the entire world,/thus you will be freed of all darkness./Its is the Strength made strong by all strengths:/it conquers all that is thin, penetrates all that is solid./This is how the world was created./By means of this strength, marvels will be obtained./That is why I am called Hermes Thrice Greatest,/because I possess the three parts of the philosophy of the entire world./This is all I had to say about the Works of the Sun” (second precept). Once again, the terms 'above' and 'below' refer to the uranic masculine principle and the chthonian feminine principle, thus equating them to the immortal, androgynous Rebis.
Therefore, All is One, and each thing is connected to all other parts: “That which is below is like that which is above (…) for the accomplishment of the Miracles of the One” is the first statement of the alchemist’s father. The Alchemist tries to understand the links that somehow connect the single parts of the all and observes that it is thanks to this analogy, which becomes the main rules of hermetic philosophy, that it is possible to understand the Universe. In this vast horizon, the Knowledge of Oneself, as the Knowledge of the One, the All, gains importance. “And he who knew himself gained the ultimate wellbeing” (Pimander, Chapter 1). The profound knowledge of what this science really means would suffice to make us abandon the superfluous and leave ourselves open to the unspeakable, the great Mystery! But if we look for other pointers to the Path, our good friend Hermes with his compassionate nature will tell us that the utmost wellbeing is: “that which is not tainted, that which has no color or forms: the unchangeable, the naked, the radiant, the obvious, the unalterable, the good, the incorporated” (Pimander, Chapter 13); and again: “I am in the sky, on earth, in the water, in the air; I am in animals, in plants, in the uterus, before the uterus, after the uterus, everywhere” (Pimander, Chapter 13).
Immersed in this unique and mysterious world, Hermes’ son is urged to learn Nature’s Laws, and the secret and occult bonds that link the various parts of the All. Alchemists, also known as “Hermes’ sons”, use precisely this analogy to bring about regeneration through the occult forces of Nature. It is this awareness of the organism of the all, this understanding that the secrets of the world and of nature are a great and sacred animate mass, that leads towards the knowledge of nature’s secrets. The images of the alchemic treatises show the correspondence between planets and metals. The “Path of the One and Only Truth” on the title page already shows us the correspondence between Sky, Metals and Man, and directs us to the two paths which may be followed by the disciples: the Solar and the Lunar.
An enigmatic figure, sculpted in red stone, surmounts the curious window of the second floor. It shows a face with long, wavy hair, and it recalls the mysterious Allegory of Alchemy, from the alchemic epitaph in Bologna (studied by the alchemists Barnard in “Theatrum Chemicum”, P. Borel in “Chemical Library” and M. Maier in “Symbola”). The epitaph in Bologna speaks of “Elia Lelia with curly hair, neither man nor woman nor androgynous, neither maiden nor youth nor old woman (…) but all of that (…)”. The curious fact is that already as far back as Kirker, Elia Lelia was the personification of the Alchemical Art itself, and in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, by Francesco Colonna, the hermetic text — an editorial masterpiece of the Renaissance —, Polia, who personifies alchemy, is from the Leli family, and has “curly, wavy hair”. Poliphilius makes an explicit reference to the “mounts of Treviso” (the Marca Trevigiana, according to ancient geography, covered a wide territory of the Cisalpine Gaul, or Gallia Cisalpina, bordering with Lombardy, the Romagna and Venice). One must also remember that it is in Treviso that are being published for the first time the hermetical texts, and that always in Treviso we find Aurelio Augurello, whose golden nymph Glaura dwells in a cave of the “mounts of Treviso”, where gushes forth a clear water spring. We also find, once again, precise references to the Venetian mountains and the Venetian lagoon. We can speculate that the enigmatic image with the curly red hair refers to either Elia Lelia or Polia, or even the nymph Glaura — in either case, representing the image of Alchemy. The red and curly hair recall the wind (says Hermes: “The wind took him to your womb”) and fire, also fundamental since the beginning for the Great Opus, of which La Turba says: “Burn, burn, burn, are different names, but it is one and the same thing”, and (as all the philosophers repeat, together with M. Meier): “Do a woman’s work, and therefore cook”. It is precisely with the “Great Cooking” that the stone increases its value, and from White becomes Red Living Stone.
How do these white stone ‘dragons’ come to be found under the roof, precisely where the rain water flows? “It is Living water (…) all things that are born into the world are generated by the earth through the falling of dew. So the earth will not germinate without being watered or dampened, the water contained in the dew of May washes all bodies, penetrates like rain water, whitens and creates a new body from two previous bodies” (from Artefio, “The Secret Book”, translated into “The Alchemy Book”, 1987). An explanation could be provided by the consideration that as one continues deeper into the Opus, it becomes necessary to increase the Fire regime, as is often repeated in alchemical texts. Furthermore, in order to carry out the Alchemical Opus, we need a specific fire: “celestial fire”. This celestial fire may be hidden in water, or come from the sky.
Let’s recapitulate: During the initial phases it is necessary for corporeity to melt, Mercury (for Alexandrians, the vital Spirit) envelops the body until it melts and the pores open. We must “melt the fixed” (that is, the body) and “coagulate the volatile” (meaning that the vital spirit should be perceived and made evident) or, in other words, we must “kill the living” (corporeity with its egoic crystallizations) and “revive the dead”, that which rests unconscious (as if dead) in common knowledge; that is, the vital spirit, the principle of life, which — if ‘freed’ — communicates with universal life. In this Opus, it is necessary to proceed cautiously and with Heaven’s help (the three dragons). Let’s examine the central window again: at the top of the arch we can observe that the strangely shaped opening, which in the mullioned Gothic arch of the window on the first floor is shaped like a drop, or philosophic ball, is — in this case — only just visible and carved as a bas-relief in the stone. The fluid glass, charged with vital energy, has coagulated, thus assuming the strength “of the Superior and Inferior for the Miracle of the One”. Below, the Little King’s round face — crowned with a shell and framed with wings — is held by Aries/the Ram; above, the Alchemist himself has reunited with the Tree of Life and has become “(…) Red Living Stone — En To Pan — The One the All (…)”.
The Origins of Alchemy according to Zosima -- and a Jewish Parallel
The Kabbalah literature has a rich gamut of versions of the myth of the fallen angels, and the same is true for the Christian theology of the origins. Here we will briefly present a version of the myth conserved by Zosima of Panopolis, a Greek alchemist who lived between the 3rd and 4th Century in Alexandria. Isis is the name of an Egyptian Goddess, which in this version is turned into a prophetess, while Amnael is a Jewish adaptation of the name of the famous Egyptian God Ammon (or Amen); there is a parallel between the "terrific angel" and Ammon Ipsentanho, therefore it can be assumed that it is Ammon (Amnael in this version) to be described as a "terrific angel". If that were indeed to be the case, then we would have certain proof that in a Jewish document on magic, dated before Zosima, Ammon was already the name of an angel (as is Amnael in Zosima's version on the myth of the fallen angels). Also, Origen -- in Contra Celsum -- compares Ammon to the angels of the Jews. The evidence produced so far seem to confirm the hypothesis that Ammon, around the 3rd Century, stops being only the name of a God, and goes on to designate also the name of an angel: Amnael could therefore be the Jewish version of Ammon. The transformation of a hypothetical Jewish myth (in which Ammon is a fallen angel who reveals the secrets of alchemy) into a more neutral version, such as the one provided by Zosima, could be the result of an attempt to present alchemy in a more respectable light, in comparison to its attribution to a fallen angel.
The suggested hypothesis on the existence of a myth in which Ammon reveals the secrets of alchemy, can find confirmation in a parallel with the Kabbalah texts in which Ammon of No is both one of the chiefs of the demons and one of the revealers of the "secrets of gold and silver". The relationship between late Kabbalah conceptions and preceding ancient traditions is demonstrated also by other affinities between the cabbalistic descriptions of Ammon of No and and those of the god Ammon in ancient Egypt. In many texts, Samael and Ammon of No are descending on the earth, where they take on the guise of snakes. There are also those who maintain that Ammon endured a transformation, and became a serpent in his own right (it is worth noticing, in this respect, that poisonous snakes as sacred serpents, which in Thebes were dedicated to Zeus-Ammon; Herodotus writes that they were innocuous snakes, but in fact the description he gives is that of Cerastes aegyptiacus, which is a poisonous snake). It is also interesting to add that recently was discovered a temple/sanctuary dedicated to both Ammon and Isis (despite the fact that normally these two figures do not belong to the same traditions). According to Hopfner, a common technique of divination through dreams was to sleep beside the column of Ammon-Ra. Incubation is often used as a main divination practice, and to be invoked to appear in dreams is mostly Ammon of No.
The enormous time gap between the Alexandrian theory of Ammon (or Amnael) and later Kabbalah texts cannot, for the moment, be bridged by written Hebrew sources. It seems possible, however, to speculate that a revival of Ammon in a demonic guise took place in Medieval Southern Spain, without a specific affiliation to the most ancient Jewish tradition. It is worth spending a few moments also on another Jewish myth on fallen angels, in which Ishtar seems another form of the goddess Isis, as it was identified at the time in both Syria and Phoenicia: both were Goddess-mothers and goddesses of Love. If it is this identification to be at the background of the Jewish myth, then also the version presented here seems to have an Egyptian origin. In one of the myths on Isis, it is said that she was revealed the secret name of Ra, and that -- thanks to the knowledge of this name -- she had become a great sorceress. It is possible, as already proposed by some scholars, that the particular sign on Amnael's head recalls the Tetragram that the High Priest bore on his forehead. Lastly, it is also worth reminding the strange resurfacing of ancient beliefs on Ammon in Spain in the latter part of the 14th Century, which coincides precisely with the period in which hermetic and Neo-platonic texts -- that had long been forgotten -- were being translated in Italy, and they deeply influenced Renaissance thought, at a time in which there was also a resurgence of interest for Egyptian hieroglyphs -- which was hardly a coincidence. See also the many legends related to Mary the Jewess (described earlier), who was considered a prophetess (hence her name); a person to whom had been revealed the "splendid secret of alchemy". It was also believed that Maria, just like Isis in Zosima's legend, possessed the formula for the preparation of Gold (Patai, 1994).
The Jewish Esoteric Tradition: the Kabbalah
The Esoteric and Canonic Jewish Texts: the Tanakh, Talmud and Zohar
In this section, I will give a brief overview on the complex world of the Kabbalah, the Jewish esoteric tradition. There are several important texts in the cabbalistic tradition; let us concentrate, here, on their connection to alchemy: in the Tanakh, the verbal form da'at (knowledge) indicates both sexual union and the discovery of the spiritual identity of both oneself and the other. Da'at presupposes in the One the profound, visceral knowledge of the intimate essence of the other, whose quality can only be expressed by a man and a woman becoming "a sole flesh" (Kaufmann, 1992); also, since the beginning, the archetypal sexual union of Adam and Eve is seen in this light. The Jewish texts, both canonical and esoteric, often insist on the complementary aspects of the perceptive masculine and feminine modalities. In this, there are constant references to the Sephirotic tree, which we will see in more detail later: the Talmud reveals that man represents knowledge (hokhma) and woman represents intelligence (binà), while the Zohar affirms that light and darkness are two aspects of the same transcendental knowledge and that, as "there is neither day without night, nor night without day, the two cannot be separated". In other parts of the Zohar, it is written that "only the supreme Mother had a name which reunited in itself light and darkness". Ultimately, even in the Jewish tradition, it is love that sustains all parts of the Cosmos, from the most external sphere to the rock which is inside the earth (Peri, 1972).
In the Talmud, it is written that the most elevated intellects tend also to be the most passionate: "The greater the man, the bigger his desire". The Tanakh also emphasises the right to happiness (here intended as laetitia), while the Palestinian Talmud teaches that the divine Presence dwells only in a content heart; another treatise censors whomever abstains from the enjoyment of worldly joys and pleasures. Bulka explains: "In the Jewish context, pleasure is not an end in itself, but a means directed to an end (...). The experience of pleasure becomes a religious act in itself, whether intellectual, derived from food or sensual (...). As pleasure is so essential to the affirmation of faith, Judaism incorporates the experience of pleasure within its normative system. To the correct experience of pleasure is dedicated the utmost care (...). The ultimate Jewish principle on pleasure could be formulated thus: Enjoy life, find and give meaning to any aspect and life condition according to the life-affirming principles that the Torah gives you, and you will experience the sensation of being fulfilled" (Bulka, 1987). Love is equated to unity, and the Christian term "original sin" does not exist in Hebrew, at least originally: "(...) For the Masters, sexuality belongs to the original condition of created (and not fallen) humanity". In the Kabbalah, also, is being stressed the importance of realising a harmonious relationship between opposite principles, which harks back to the fundamentally androgynous structure of the psyche, of which we have already said. Now, to introduce the next topic, we must be reminded that in the Zohar is written that the soul of each individual is composed of three elements: the first is feminine, and it represents the Sephirah Binah; the second is masculine, and it corresponds to the Sephirah Tif'eret; the third symbolises the tenth Sephirah in its aspect of Malkhut (kingdom). All this will be dealt in more detail in the section that follows, but such tripartition of the psyche, based on the psychic androgyny of the human race, anticipates the Jungian categories of anima, animus and persona by a few centuries.
The Alchemical Dimension of the Sephirotic Tree
The first formulation of the Sephirotic Tree, perfected over the course of two centuries, goes back to the first known Kabbalah text, the Sefer ha-Bahir. Each individual Sephirah is usually represented as a circle, and it is always part of a set of ten elements, structured around the Sephirotic Tree. As a matter of fact, the Sephirot are "the powers which constitute the active divinity", as each Sephirah is an emanation of the En sof (literally, the infinite). The Sephirot, together, form a world of light, and are conceived like a dynamic unity. The rhythm of development of the Sephirot mirrors the creative process, finding parallels with alchemy in the use of geomancy and of the "magic squares", favored by the profane alchemists. There are further interesting connections between the Kabbalah and alchemy.
There are parallels, for instance, between the metals and the Sephirot, which find associations with the mystical logic that sustains alchemy also (see for instance the alchemical treaty Esh mesaref). The author of Naked Kabbalah explains: "The Sephirot (…) are also (…) in that kingdom which is commonly called 'mineral' (…). Therefore, the place of Keter is here (…) occupied by the metallic Root, which has an occult nature, wrapped up in great obscurity, and in which all metals have origin. In the same way, the nature of Keter is occult, and out of it, emanate all the other Sephirot. Lead occupies the place of Hokhmah, and (…) it derives immediately and directly from the metallic root, and it is called with an enigmatic simile "the father of subsequent natures". Tin occupies the place of Binah (…). Silver is placed by all the Masters of Kabbalah under the class of Hesed, because of its colour and the use which is made of it. So far, for the white natures. Let us now move on to the red ones. Gold, according to the opinion dominating among the Kabbalists, is put in relation to Gevurah. Job places gold in the north, not only for its colour, but also for the heat and sulphur. Iron is related to Tif'ereth, as it is like a 'warrior'. (…) Nesah and Hod (…) are the places of bronze, of androgynous nature (…). Yesod is mercury (argentum vivum), as it is typically called 'live', and this living water is the foundation of all nature and of metallic art. But (…) it is to Malkhut which is attributed the true metal medicine, as it represents both remaining natures, in the metamorphosis of gold and silver, right and left, judgement and mercy (…). The three upper Sephirot are the three sources of metallic things: Keter for dense water (aqua crassa), Hokhmah for salt, Binah for sulphur (…). Similarly, the seven lower Sephirot represent seven metals: Gedullah and Gevurah silver and gold, Tif'ereth iron, Nesah and Hod tin and copper, Yesod lead, and Malkhut will be the Metallic Female and Moon of the wise, and the field in which will have to be thrown the seeds for the secret minerals, that is the Golden water (…). But be aware, my son, that in these things are held such secrets that no human tongue can pronounce. Therefore, I will transgress no more with my tongue, but will keep my mouth shut (…)" (Rosenroth, 1677-78).
The magic squares and geomancy also establish other equivalences; so gold is represented by a magic square. The magic square for mercury, here called Golden water, is one of the biggest (…). The bride is called Golden water, or that water which emanates gold. If the artist becomes engaged with her, he will generate a daughter who will be the water in the royal bath. This is the place of another epithet, Living God, and it is as if it was called "living gold", as Elohim and gold indicate the same measure. But this water (…) is the mother and principle of living gold; as all other kinds of gold are destined to perish (…). Thanks to this spring, the King is revived, and he can give life to all the metals and living things (…). Iron is called "that man and bridegroom without whom the virgin cannot be fertilized. This is the Sun of the wise, without whom the Moon would be permanently in the darkness" (Rosenroth, 1677-78).
The Ten Sephirot
The author of the Esh mesaref had individuated many among the deepest psychological values within the plethora of symbols to which each Sephirah is associated: let us now see them individually in some more detail. The first Sephirah, Keter (crown), is generally associated with primordial will, with the supreme hidden light, and the divine non-being -- in the sense of its being unknown. This Sephirah constitutes therefore the maximum point that the imagination can fathom; it is the unsurmountable barrier between the hidden God and its manifestation. The second Sephirah, Hokhmah (knowledge), indicates the Principle -- including the principle of thought. As active masculine principle, it is the cosmic seed, also called "Father of the Highest", which should fecundate the "Mother of the Highest", which constitutes the third Sephirah, Binah (understanding). Binah also represents understanding as inner light, and this association of the feminine principle with the intellect and the deepest voice of the Self testifies to the importance of the role attributed to women in the Kabbalah. The first three Sephirot form a set which is also known as "Father of Wisdom".
The other seven Sephirot are born of the hieros gamos (sacred wedding) between Hokhmah (uranic knowledge) and Binah (chthonian intelligence). The first of these is the fourth Sephirah, Hesed (mercy, or Gedullah, love), which represents the flow of benevolence and divine blessing that illuminates the lower regions like a blinding light of love. Hesed is balanced by the fifth Sephirah, Din (judgement, or Gevurah, strength). Hesed and Din describe the complementary power of the polarities love/judgement and mercy/strength, and, by extension, of all other polarities. The sixth Sephirah, known as Tipheret (or Da'at; beauty) is the harmonising principle of the Sephirotic Tree in general, and of Hesed and Din in particular. The energy of Tipheret also promotes a dynamic equilibrium. Harmony is another term used to define the love relationship, and it is precisely this Sephirah that allows to highlight the chain of associations that connect Beauty to knowledge. The seventh and eighth of the Sephirah, Nesah (eternity/victory) and Hod (reverberation/glory) are also mutually balancing. Nesah proclaims that divinity is compassionate, and that it dwells inside the human being, while Hod affirms its majesty, and detachment from earthly events. The ninth Sephirah and the tenth, Yesod (foundation) and Malkhut (kingdom) are the two terms of archetypal polarity: Yesod is the 'foundation', even the male organ, and the power out of which every form of life is generated, while Shekhinah is to be identified with the feminine and receptive side of divinity. Besides, in connection with the third Sephirah, Binah, Shekhinah impersonates the Daughter (of Tipheret), the Bride (of Yesod), and the Lower Mother ('lower', here, simply indicates that the last Sephirah is the basis, or root, of the Sephirotic Tree). It is meaningful, also, that Shekhinah (Princess, or Queen) implies the tree of knowledge; that is, chthonian knowledge, given that it represents the Earth, the Large Sea, the Moon and Darkness: the chthonian aspects of the universe.
The polar organization of the Sephirot on the tree underlines the fundamental fact that masculine and feminine principles are not in conflict, but complementary, within human nature; their relationship is dialectic, and it is based on an absolute equality between the condition of male and female; there is no trace, therefore, of hierarchic or antagonistic relationships. The complementary and egalitarian aspect of the relationship between sexes is also reflected in the Sephirotic Tree, where Binah (the primordial Uterus, or womb) can display its properties only if it is fecundated by Hokhmah, "Father of the Highest"; by contrast, in order to develop its potentiality, Shekhinah must be fertilized by Tipheret (beauty). Likewise, the male Sephirot cannot manifest without the presence of their female counterparts. The female Sephirot occupy the left side of the tree; the male Sephirot are to the right; as with the primordial androgynous, the central Sephirot are not the sum of two opposite realities, but constitute instead a new reality, in which the essential characteristics of the masculine and feminine components coexist in harmony, integrating each other. In this way, the Tree is also the symbol of the androgynous: as axis mundis which connects heaven and earth, it is the mediator between male and female principles. It is rather natural, therefore, that the components of the Tree (the Sephirot) also possess double aspects.
The Geometrical Configuration of the Sephirot
The Kabbalah writings provide details that are never insignificant, therefore the geometrical configuration of the Sephirot and the relationship between the square and the circle derived from it are very instructive. The fact that the Sephirot are generally designed as circles may be purely coincidental; it is much more meaningful that the connecting lines within the Sephirotic Tree trace a series of squares and triangles. The cosmogonic role played out by these geometric figures is evident; in the Sefer ha-Bahir, in fact, the masculine square is equated to the consonants, and the feminine circle to the vowels: it is, in all respects, a dynamic confrontation between the feminine circle and the masculine square. In the Sefer Yesira (Creation book), the cosmogonic role of the word is extended to the single signs that compose it -- in this case, the 22 letters of the Hebraic alphabet.
The central Sephirah, Tipheret (beauty and knowledge) is therefore situated at the center of the square formed by the lines that join the Sephirah Din (rigour), Hod (majesty), Nesah (tolerance) and Hesed (mercy), thus establishing an undeniable connection between the beauty of the embrace and knowledge. From the trunk of the Sephirotic Tree, which rises from the tenth Sephirah (Shekhinah) to the first (Keter) depart the branches that draw four triangles which go to meet, at their apex, the perimeter of the Sephirah Tipheret. South of that, the branch that connects Majesty (Hod) to Tolerance (Nesah) forms the base of a triangle that has its vertex in Beauty (Tipheret); in turn, Tolerance (Nesah) and Mercy (or Generosity, Hesed) form the base of the triangle to the east; Mercy and Rigour (Din) of that to the north; lastly, Rigour and Majesty (Hod) of that to the west. In the upper part of the Sephirotic Tree, the branch that connects Intelligence (Binah) with Knowledge or Wisdom (Hokhmah) is the basis of two triangles, one reversed and whose apex meets Beauty below, while the other is pointing upwards, with the vertex in Keter. In the same way, in the lower part of the tree, Majesty and Tolerance are the basis of an upturned triangle closed by Foundation (Yesod).
There is also a certain correspondence between the four-squared shape of Knowledge, as expressed by the consonance of the spiritual values that inform the angles at the basis of the triangle, and the four aspects of Knowledge that are found in the alchemical thought too, and which are expressed by Tolerance, Equality, Discernment and Action. Also, Knowledge in action is made explicit at three levels: in Righteousness of action, in the alliance of Intelligence and Knowledge, and in that of Majesty and Tolerance. The fact that all these triangles share an apex in Beauty (Tipheret) qualifies once more the importance of the four-fold expression of Knowledge within the Kabbalah system. Seven centuries before Jung, therefore, the Kabbalah masters had already intuited that the goal of existence is knowledge of the 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 hope to create a harmonious world, united in its multifold diversity -- passes through consciousness of the real dimension of love; the common message of both alchemy and the Kabbalah, therefore, is quite simple, and worth remembering once more: "In the beginning was desire; in the beginning was love".