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 kinds of Mercurius.
This engraving is taken from a rather ancient first edition of Cesare Ripa “Iconologia”, or iconology, published in Roma 1603.
You can find an introduction to “Iconologia” in the previous post on the world of 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 Laura, who is like Proteus, she can take every form, 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 to us to have encountered 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 a 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.
Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings that symbolism offers, Aurora can therefore mean Aurora as the dawn, blue hour, rooster hour, alchemical moment par excellence, or Aurora as Aura, or etheric skin that surrounds any body. Indeed, the term “beauty” is to indicate the subtle aura.
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, Spring, or Aries. In fact, in mythological iconography, Eiresione was often wrapped in wool or made of that famous wool of the blissful herbs. Now we are ready to read Cesare Ripa’s explication under the engraving of the bearded woman.
Bellezza: “Woman having her head among clouds, and the rest being little visible, due to the splendor surrounding her. She protrudes a hand of 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 the human brain. Beauty is nothing less, metaphorically, than a splendor coming from the light of God’s face, as it is defined by platonists, 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 rise 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 a manner as mentioned above. The tracts of beauty and the colors of her feminine body are defined by the protruding hand with a lily that contains the most beautiful on 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. Mercurius is also called “Beauty”, since its apparition is 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 as that of the moon and stars. It is only different in density and probably in something else. Mercurius is often called a mirror for many reasons: it looks like a white transparent mirror, but when it gets duplicated, it is called a 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 must avoid focusing exclusively on 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 to dissolve, or love, our king/metal and 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; of course, he doesn’t aspire to that.
The lily flower symbolizes 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 supports both interpretations. In fact:
“On 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 causes 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 simple 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 moves sense and awake spirits through the smell acuteness, 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 is 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 thing and works like a sacred temple where knowledge and goodwill stand out. Just a single spark was shown to the world, and of this divine image, 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 girl’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, published in Venice in 1645. And the girl is perhaps among clouds but still wearing a beard. Introducing mythological notes on Eiresione now can be helpful too.
In addition, it is interesting to know that in some alchemical ways, the prolonged volatilization of salts may lead to the achievement of strange wool-like or beard-like substances. The Terra Alba Foliata as alchemical soil to be sown is not so far (2). The iconography of women with masculine bearded heads is not a rarity in hermetic pictures.
Below this general definition of beauty, Cesare Ripa defines feminine beauty as though the engraving on the top did not 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 of this kind of beauty, 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, 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 gentlewoman 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. The Virginal girl is not ready to mirror or duplicate; she is just a too volatile girl/Mercurius. The dragon stands for the strong power Alchemy can get out of raw matter. A dragon is said to be a legendary fire-spitting animal, and Alchemy’s force lies in Fire. A girl or virgin/Mercurius can 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 to perform its dissolving (wounding action). In the next sentence below, Ripa describes our Universal Dissolvent cruel and struggling penetration. Some state darts and arrows featuring the dry way, others, on the contrary, state they stand for the 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 are so essential 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 beauty since often poison may be hidden inside”.
Poison is usually a symbol standing for “ Tingeing” virtue or the 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 somewhat reluctant to be fixed o get appropriately 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 the renaissance age;
- See also Guido Montanor & the latin verb tingo-tinxi;