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The Vision of Hermes
It chanced once on a time, while I was meditating on the things that are, my thought was raised to a great height, yet my bodily senses had been put under restraint as in sleep, though not such sleep as that of men weighed down by fullness of food or bodily weariness. Me thought a Being more than vast, in size beyond all bounds, called out my name and said:
"What would you hear and see, and what have you in mind to learn and know?"
"Who are you?" said I.
"I am the Pymander, Divine Mind of the Sovereignty, the Shepherd of Men. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere."
"I long to learn the things that are", I replied, "and comprehend their nature, and know God. This is what I desire to hear."
"Hold in your mind all you would know," the Shepherd answered back to me, "and I will teach you."
from The Divine Pymander by Hermes Trismegistus
Alchemy in the Western world was largely based on Hermetism, the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes' teachings were believed to lead alchemists to the knowledge of the unity of the All and to the discovery of the innermost arcana nature, whose possession was eagerly desired in order to improve one's own life. Whatever its material and concrete operations, the aim of alchemy was to produce an agent of perfection which could transmute metals into gold and grant perfect health and even rejuvenation to human bodies. The underlying idea was that the access to the secrets of nature which Hermetic philosophy granted. This would lead to an operative knowledge capable of transforming that same nature on which it was grounded and of producing something superior to what nature herself could ever bring forth.
The material world has a spiritual essence, known as the anima mundi, the Soul of the World. Alchemists regarded the World Soul as a pure ethereal spirit diffused throughout all nature, the divine essence that embraces and energizes all life in the universe. This Spirit is intelligent, and if the alchemist could make contact with it, he could learn the secrets of nature. The alchemists also understood that there is a connection between the anima mundi and the soul of man. The source of the wisdom and knowledge of the all-pervading essence of the anima mundi was available through the innermost divine self of man.
This essence is also called lumen naturae, the light of nature, that could be experienced through revelation and spiritual practices. Alchemists are sometimes seen, in engravings and paintings, to pray, to be in ecstasy, to be in wonder. It would not be a surprise if some of them also took hallucinogenic substances. This would have been in strict secrecy as to not run the risk of being branded a witch. In some paintings of alchemists we see a reference to this Light of Nature that breaks through and becomes visible to the alchemist.
De Lapide Philosophico
De lapide philosophico, das ist, Von dem Gebenedeyten Stein der Weysen oder Chemia , by Johann Bernhard Hildebrandt, 1618
This is the first emblem in the book, showing that prayer for enlightenment is a prerequisite for the alchemical work.
God, as King of the World, holding the globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb, symbol of authority) reveals himself in the clouds, blessing with his right hand the praying alchemist.
Natura Rerum, means the Nature of Things. Quinta Essentia is the Fifth Essence. The symbols on the page show that the books are alchemical books. Sun and Moon on the left page; Mercury on the right page.
Alchemists believed that praying to God was necessary to succeed in the Great Work.
The text underneath:
Jesus, the Most High Son
Holy Spirit on his Throne
Help me / and bless me
So that I not displease you.
Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, by Heinrich Khunrath
Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, by Heinrich Khunrath, edition probably from 1600
The Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, or Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom, is Khunrath's most famous work, and deals with the mystical aspects of alchemy. Heinrich Khunrath was a theosophist, cabalist, and a Hermetic mystic. This work illustrates the many-staged and intricate path to spiritual perfection.
This engraving contains many clues to the hermetic work of alchemy, and it is worth while to go a little deeper into the secrets displayed by the author.
At the top of the tent, is written Oratorium, underneath 'Felix cui a consilus' , with the Hebrew name for God, IHVH.
In this engraving we see the alchemist kneeling and spreading out his arms in the hope of receiving divine revelation. In front of him, a sign is hanging up with the text Ne loquaris de Deo absque lumine (Do not speak of God without the Light).
On the table inside the oratory there are two open books, in one you can see two pentacles, in the other you can read the words "timentium", "YHWH", "voluntate" and "P.145". It is verse 19 of Psalm 145 (psalmus in Latin): "God will do the will of those who fear him, and he will answer their prayers, and he will save them". In addition to establishing the need for prayer as an operational means, this verse leads back to the writing on the first of the three steps that are necessary to enter the Temple according to the ABC of the Rosicrucians: on it is in fact engraved "Timor Domini" (have fear of God).
Under the oratory table there is a skull and an hourglass surmounted by the words Disce bene mori (Learn to die well). This sentence has two meanings: the first is that time passes quickly and it is necessary not to waste it if you want to reach the end of life. Make sure that you have obtained a minimum of continuity of consciousness that can allow you to pass unscathed through the abyss of death. The second is linked to the practice necessary to reach the initiatory death while alive.
Although the alchemist's temple displays some minor alchemical apparatus, and some glass vessels, his altar is the most important aspect. The oratory (left) is opposite the laboratory (right).
On one of the wooden architrave beams of the ceiling is the inscription Sine afflatu divino nemo unquam vir magnus (Without divine inspiration no man (was) ever great). Below there is a chandelier in the shape of a star with seven rays, symbolizing the seven alchemical operations.
Also notice the table with musical instruments, referring to the art of music, and the importance of harmony. A balance on the table refers to need for equilibrium.
Next to the table you can see three appliances: the Maturandum, which is used for cooking in a bain-marie; the Festina-Lente (Hurry slowly), which is used for slow cooking, and a still on which you can read Ama et Spt (Soul and Spirit) from which smoke comes out.
On the side panel of the roof of the laboratory we read Sapienter retentatum, succedet aliquando (Trying again wisely, in the end we arrive). It means that we should never give up.
On the left side, on the drapery is written: Hoc Hoc agentibus nobis, aderit ipse Deus (When we attend strictly to our work, God himself will help us).
The bottom of the two pillars to the right: Ratio (Reason) and Experientia (Experience).
Above the inscription Laboratorium you can see a rooster overhanging a helmet under which there is a triangular plaque on which the symbol of Salt ( astar) is drawn. The rooster with its song heralds the advent of the light of the sun that illuminates it, and is therefore a prelude to the achievement of the work. Higher still we read Nec timere nec timide (neither with fear nor cautiously).
Near the first column you can see the bellows which, with its breath, is an essential tool for feeding the alchemical fire. On the bucket full of coal we read: Ne pudeat carbonum (do not be ashamed of the remains of combustion). We often find a reference to not throwing away the dross or ashes that remain at the bottom of the vessel, a refrence to the physical, animal body that we still need to be alive and be able to perform the Great Work.
Over the doorway in the back is written Dormiens vigila (While sleeping, watch). The door leads to another room with a bed. This is a reference to always be aware.
On the top of the roof of the laboratory, and on the shelves, are stills, two tetractys formed by weights. The vessels on the shelves have labels with signs and names of alchemical substances. The tetractys is primarily a Pythagorean symbol, that is associated with planetary motions and music.
Basilica chymica, by Oswald Croll
Basilica chymica, by Oswald Croll, 1609
An intricate frontispiece, with the portraits of six alchemists. At the top we have the light of the divine trinity, represented by a triangle surrounded by the names of the different orders of archangels. The Hebrew YHVH, or Yahweh, the name for God, is in the center of the triangle. The bottom displays the composition of the created world. To the upper left of this circle, we have the alchemist on his knees praying, and beholding the divine light breaking through. In the center of the light is the Hebrew YHShVH, or Yahshuah, the Hebrew name for Jesus.
Although Basilica Chymica is a summary in the author's researches, methods of preparation, and studies into chemical medicine or iatrochemistry, the image of the praying alchemist shows that the author considers the seeking of spiritual revelation also as a necessary requirement. Also notice the lute to the upper right of the circle. Music elevates the spirit. We see musical instruments also in other alchemical engravings.
Speculum sophicum rhodostauroticum by Theophilus Schweighardt
Speculum sophicum rhodostauroticum, The Mirror of Wisdom, by Theophilus Schweighardt, 1616
Theophilus Schweighardt is the pseudonym of Daniel Mogling.
The alchemist in his tent, before his altar, is stretching his hands out in prayer in order the receive the enlightenment of God. One hands reaches out to a book, signifying book knowledge, the other hand reaches to the heavens, seeking spiritual wisdom.
The Hebrew name of God, YHVH, is at top of the tent. The text around is ERGON CVM DEO, therefore being with God.
On the pillar is inscribed: hinc sapientia, hence (comes) wisdom. Wisdom is repesented by the angel above.
On the book next to the river : LABORE, hard work.
The scene on the lower right represents the work of Physical Alchemy. Above the athanors: Arte natura, art by nature. The letters T.S.C. above the alchemist's head are the initials of the author, Theophilus Schweighardt Constantiensem. Around his head is again the word of God, YHVH. The way he holds the flask, means success in his work.
The Alchemist at Home in his Study, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
The Alchemist at Home in his Study, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1652
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
This etching was long mistaken as Doctor Faust. It is actually an alchemist in his studio, with books, papers, a skull and a globe. He is an old man, and thus has many years of study behind him.
The skull is the symbol for Nigredo, or Blackness. It is the first stage of putrefaction. Everything has to die before it can be reborn.
The sphere is a firmament globe, pointing the importance of astrology in the work, that is, the influence of the universal, stellar and planetary energies.
It actually an alchemist studying in his books, when a spiritual light breaks through in his room, displaying three circles with text. The three circles usually represent the three worlds: the material, the spiritual and the divine world.
The words in the two other circles are cryptic and it is generally believed they stem from the Jewish Cabbala.
The inner circle: INRI. The initialism is an abbreviation of the Latin inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, meaning "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." This might be an allusion that the Light that is appearing is coming from Christ.
The middle circle: ADAM TE DAGERAM is an anagram of ADAM ET MERADAG.
The outer Circle: AMRTET ALGAR ALGASTNA.
The text in these last two circles are probably anagrams, and nobody has ever been able to give a satisfying interpretation of it. Probably Rembrandt meant it to be deciphered by certain members of mystic Cabalists.
Mutus Liber, 1677, Altus edition, plate 2
Mutus Liber, or the Mute book, was published in Rochelle, France in 1677.
The image of the alchemist and his wife praying is repeated in plate 8 and 11, both with Mercury in the glass vessel. It only contains illustrated plates, no accompanying explanations. It shows several stages of the alchemical work. The fact that praying already starts at the second plate, shows the importance of asking for divine help. While the alchemist is praying with hands together, his wife is reaching out towards the heavens with her right hand, while her left hand is in a receiving gesture.
Wasserstein der Weisen, by Johann Ambrosius Siebmacher
Wasserstein der Weisen, by Johann Ambrosius Siebmacher, 1760 edition
Frontispiece of Wasserstein der Weisen, or the Water Stone of the Wise, also called The Sophic Hydrolith, originally published in 1611.
An alchemist praying, is beholding a revelation by the divine trinity, the shining triangle appearing in the clouds. From this triangle, the hand of God extends, lightning a candle sitting on a heart. This represents the lightning of one's own inner heart/self. This heart sits on a cut-off tree trunk, an alchemical symbol that is symbolic for cutting of the old self, so a new, spiritual, tree can grow. In other words, rejuvenation. To the left, two priests walk away. Once divine revelation occurs, one doesn't need the preaching of the Church anymore.
The German text reads: Herr du erleuchtest meine leuchte. Der I herr mein Gott machet meinne finsternuss liecht. (Lord you light up my light. The Lord my God makes my darkness light.)
The Chemical Preparation of Aurum Portabile, by Sadeler II
The Chemical Preparation of Aurum Portabile, by Sadeler II, Kilian, Geiger, 1600s
Click on left image to see an enlarged version.
In this elaborate engraving, the alchemist is not praying, but the entire image is showing that the alchemical work is strongly influenced by the spiritual, celestial and divine forces, and ultimately by the grace of God, who reveals the secrets through the divine light beams that shines forth from him towards the physical world and to the alchemist himself.
The alchemist, and his helper, are inside a cave, a familiar representation in alchemical art to indicate that one has to go inside himself to perform the Great Work. A heavenly light beam shines upon his athanor. Sol and Luna, naked, (the dual aspect of the naked self) are walking in with two crowned lions (the lower nature has been overcome). nearby Mercury points upwards.
Above the cave we find a square stone (symbol of the perfected philosopher's stone) with a circle within a square within a triangle within a circle. In the innermost circle we have two figures (of Sol and Luna), with the symbol and words for trinity of Mercury, Sulfur and Salt.
Around the outermost circle we have the text longitudo dierum et sanitas gloria et divitiae infinitae (length of days and health, glory and infinite riches).
Above it another square stone with two interlocking triangles forming a six-pointed star, with the sun in the center inside a dark triangle, and the other six planetary signs around it.
Above this we have the pelican feeding his own blood to his young child.
Then we have the eagle holding the two globes of the elements Air and Water. To the left we have the phoenix holding the globes of the elements Earth and Fire.
In the middle is the Tree of Life (ARBOR VITAE), with the goddess of Wisdom, holding the book of Wisdom (SAPIENTIAE). She extends a rod with a ribbon with the text quod superius sicut inferius (What is first shall be last)
Left of the tree in the background, Sol and Luna are beating a bird, symbol of Fixation.
Left in the foreground are a black crow (Nigredo), a white swan (Rubedo), and a peacock (many colors). The text reads: ego sum niger albus citrinus et rubeus (I am black, white, yellow and red)
The banner that goes up from the goddess to the tree reads: sapiens dominabitur astris (A wise man will rule over the stars)
The tree contains the symbols for the seven planets, and above it twelve symbols of various kinds.
At the very top we have the divine light shining firth with the Hebrew name of God, יהוה, YHVH, with the lamb and the dove. Underneath is the text AB UNO OMNIA IN UNO OMNIA PER UNUM OMNIA (All things are from the One, all things are in the One, all things are through the One)
Then we have various concentric circle. The outermost contains the twelve zodiacal signs.
The second circle: ANNUS SOLARIS (The Solar Year), ANNUS STELLATUS (The Year of the Stars), ANNUS VENTORUM (The Year of the Winds)
The third circle: Mercurius Corporeus, Mercurius Vulgaris, Mercurius Philosophorum.
The fourth circle: Sulphur Aethereum, Sulphur Combustibile, Sulphur Fixum.
The fifth circle: Sal Elementorum, Sal Terrenum, Sal Central.
The sixth circle: Ignes quatuor ad opus requiruntur (Four kinds of fire are requisite for the work)
The innermost circle contains two small triangles, and the six-pointed star, with the sign of Mercury in the center.
The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, made by Johfra Bosshart
One of the illustration for The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, made by Johfra Bosshart
Johfra Bosshart (1919-1998) was a Dutch modern artist, who moved to France in 1962). He illustrated the publication of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, by Lectorium Rosicrucianum, a Rosicrucian order founded by Jan van Rijckenborgh in Belgium.
The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is German text from 1616. It was published anonymously, but later attributed to Johannes Valentinus Andreae. This text let to the formation of Rosicrucian circles.
Here Christian Rosenkreutz is visited by an angel who gives him a letter of invitation to the wedding of the King and Queen. This sets him on an allegorical path, representing spiritual requirements, and a series of alchemical works. Christian Rosenkreutz is the image of the alchemist in his laboratory; notice the alchemical flask underneath his table. His laboratory is inside a cave, the typical symbol for looking inside oneself. he was studying in books, but now he has to go the experiential path. To the lower left we have the usual symbols of the skull, a book, an hourglass, and a homunculus (here it is Mercurius) in a sealed flask. Sun and Moon are present at the top.
This is a more modern version of the spiritual revelation that hermetic alchemists seek.