In Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia we find two different canons of feminine beauty: a bearded and an ineffable one. Which may fit with our two kind of Mercurius.
You can find and introduction to “Iconologia” in the previous post on the world machine engraving. But before getting on with Cesare Ripa let me introduce some necessary, in my opinion, notions.
Petrarca, a Dante contemporary, wrote in an age in which the remembrances of “Amor Cortese” still provided scripts to hidden hermetic truths through poetry. He loves a Laura who is like Proteus, she can take every forms and after her death she can even resurrect from her ashes. A very strange girl, having very close resemblances to our Mercurius becoming perfect Sulphur, indeed. Thus Petrarca unveils us to have encounter for the first time the ineffable Laura at the dawn of an April day, at an hour which he calls “Laur’ora”, or the hour of Laura, playing with the italian word “aurora”, or dawn, or golden hour in latin. After the death of Laura he will always celebrate that hour with a sense of intense love. We know that under the term Love, or “Amor” we have all the actions in which Mercurius is involved, even its dissolving exploit.
When Theseus won the minotaur he conquered the mind of Zeus, or Eiresione Εἰρεσιώνη whose name probably derives from ἔριον or erion, wool. The girls of Athens used to walk in procession at the dawn of the year, that’s to say in Spring, holding sticks or olive/laurel branches. They sang songs for Eiresione to bring gifts to Athens in the wool time, or Spring, or Aries. In fact in mythological iconography Eiresione was often represented wrapped in a wool. Now we are ready to read the Cesare Ripa’s explication under the engraving of the bearded woman:
“Woman having her head among clouds, and the rest being little visible, due to the splendor surrounding her. She protrudes a hand off splendor, with which she holds a lily, while the leaning other holds a ball and a pair of compasses. Beauty is depicted with her head hidden among clouds, since it is not a thing to be talked about by mortals and less to be known by human brain. Beauty is nothing less, metaphorically, than a splendor coming from the light of God’s face, as it is defined by platonians, causing it to be at one with him. The first beauty transmits to creatures the idea of God. But like those watching themselves in a mirror suddenly forget, as San Giacomo said in his canonical letter, in the same way we see beauty in mortal things. We cannot raise to look at that pure and simple clarity , from which all clarities take origin, as Dante said in 13 of Paradise: “ What is not dying and what is dying cannot but being the splendor of that idea giving birth, while loving, our King. Thus one shall depict in the aforementioned manner. The tracts of beauty and the colors of her feminine body being defined by the protruding hand with a lily, that containing the most of beauty in earth shared, as we have said above.”
These elegiac and elegant verses summarize the cause and functions of a girl who, as Petrarca’s Laura, has much in common with our Mercurius, or Light coming out of black. In fact Mercurius is also called “Beauty”, since its apparition is really a splendor. This Beauty/Mercurius/Secret Fire is defined as a piece of God by Ripa. The roots of this strange light from inside the matter are the same of that one coming from moon and stars. It is only different in density, and probably in something else. Mercurius is often called mirror, for many reasons: it looks like a white transparent mirror, when it gets duplicated it is called mirror, it calls light from stars in a way similar to mirrors, as well as awake from potential to act in a similar way (1). But, as San Giacomo wisely states, we have to avoid to focus exclusively to this light, or little artificial star in our vessel. We should try to look at the sky instead. And wait for a star to come. This girl/Virgin/Mercurius has just to dissolve, or love, our king/metal and then give birth to a new alchemical body. Being a dissolving Virgin she is well inside a fixed Mercurius Philosophorum and ready to mirror or duplicate. Here Cesare Ripa is all but precise and of course he doesn’t aspire to that.
The lily flower is a symbol for the white virginal mercurial color par excellence. The pair of compasses here not only points at the Sun and Stars Path, that’s to say at external influences, but at the other meaning of the term signatures never to be underestimated: what I rather prefer to define as weight or chemical proportions. The ball globe supporting both interpretations. In fact:
“In the other hand she shall hold a ball with a pair of compasses to demonstrate that every beauty is constituted by measures and proportions, that agree with time and place. The place cause the beauty to be spread in the architecture of all things subjected to the human eye, as well defined colors with proportioned quantity and measure and other simile things. As time goes by harmonies get determined, as well as sounds, voices, requests, down hearts and other things which are determined with measure and are acceptably called beautiful. And as the lily moving sense and awake spirits by means of the smell acuteness, so beauty moves and awakes souls to love and delight. Over that a gentle spirit composed this sonnet”.
Here Cesare Ripa is not only expressing his special power of imagination on beauty, but is precisely portraying the necessary conditions of alchemical work. Now we should have to bear a sonnet too. But do not be scared since I will trim all the italian passion for you:
“The light which having been born from the first splendor in thousand rays scatters. And vibrating and taking part in what in sky for eternity shines. It often changes color, now white and now black. This light, difficult to be depicted even by a skilled hand, wins over every think and work. Like a sacred temple where knowledge and goodwill stand out. Just a single spark was showed to the world, and of this divine imagination the stars were notes and the sky chart”.
If you remember my post on Hypnerotomachia Poliphili a round temple was used to represent the Mercurius in all its functions.
Finally we arrive at the first, more catching eyes and peculiar feature of the Cesare Ripa Beauty engraving: the girls’s beard. Since this girl is unquestionably wearing a big white beard. Even if Cesare Ripa refuses the evidence and defines it as “Clouds”. On the right I produced the same subject engraving from another edition of Iconologia, that one published in Venice in 1645. And the girl is perhaps among clouds but still wearing a beard. My introducing mythological notes on Eiresione now can come useful. In addition it is interesting to know that in some alchemical ways the prolonged volatilization of salts may lead to the achievement of a strange wool like or beard like substance. The Terra Alba Foliata as alchemical soil to be sown is not so far (2). The iconography of women with a masculine bearded head are not a rarity in hermetic pictures.
Below this general definition of beauty, Cesare Ripa sets a definition of feminine beauty, as though the engraving on the top did not really represent a female specimen. In alchemical symbolism male and female often stand for fixed and volatile. A naked woman usually stands for a volatile Mercurius, namely a mercurius that need to be more or less fixed, becoming a Mercurius Philosophorum, to be more easily handled by humans. Sadly Ripa does not provide any figurative representation for this kind of beauty, but only a written one.
Cesare Ripa: FEMININE BEAUTY
“A naked woman, hatted with a lily and privet garland, with a dart in one hand and a mirror in the other, extending it out without mirroring, she will sit above a frightful dragon. Lilys are the ancient hieroglyphics of beauty, as Piero Valeriano (3) said, perhaps because among the other flowers lily has the three qualities recognized by a florentin gentle woman in a statue carved by a less practical artist, in fact when asked what she thought of it she answered the statue being surely beautiful since the intrinsic qualities of the marble, that’s to say white, firm and soft, were the same for a beautiful woman. And the lily flower, among others, has the aforementioned qualities, as Vasari said”.
Ripa here seems to point at other Mercurius features, since this kind of Mercurius is more unripe. As a matter of fact the Verginal girl is here not ready to mirroring or duplicating, she is just a too volatile girl/Mercurius. The dragon stands for the strong power Alchemy can get our of raw matter. A dragon is said to be a legendary fire spitting animal, and the force of Alchemy lies in Fire indeed. A girl or virgin/Mercurius is able to extract a dragon from a chemical salt. The image on the left, known as the Virgin of Nantes, has been used by Fulcanelli to summarize the concept. The dart represents the penetration force of our girl/Dissolvent. Note the marble of the sculpture. White, firm and soft. But positively able perform its dissolving (wounding action). In the next sentence below Ripa interestingly describes our Universal Dissolvent cruel and struggling penetration. Some state darts and arrows featuring the dry way, other on the contrary state they stand for wet way. But surely this allegory represents the penetration-dissolution. See and Opus Magnum scheme.
“At first a dart wound is not so painful, but increases with penetration, and it is very difficult to be extracted then. In the same way who starts loving a woman does not suffer at the beginning, but as he/she goes”.
Then the mirroring action and function, in Alchemy so important and enigmatic:
“The mirror, since the feminine beauty is like a mirror, in which everyone can see him/herself and often falls in love with that image as reflected images are the most perfect. The dragon reveals that one must not excessively trust on beauty, since often poison may be hidden inside”.
Poison is usually a symbol standing for “ Tingeing” virtue or capability to give a color after a “washing” soaking (4). Thus after, or inside, Mercurius there will be Sulphur.
“The woman is naked since she doesn’t want to be covered, as Vergilius said: of a beautiful girl nobody trusts the colors, in fact when white blossoms fall, begin black wastes. And Ovidius from his Ars Amandi ( the art of love): Forms are fragile over the years, flowers are not forever violet, or lilac, nature retakes its space and the dropped rose then gets frozen in a spine”.
Usually a woman/volatile is rather reluctant to be fixed, o get properly dressed. I mean a molecular compound, of course.
- See also Atalanta Fugiens & Mercurius Duplicatus;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens & Terra Alba Foliata and Michelangelo & the Mumia-Skin in Last Judgment;
- Piero Valeriano wrote “Hieroglyphica” in 1685, a treatise on symbols from ancient Egypt to renaissance age;
- See also Guido Montanor & the latin verb tingo-tinxi;