Christophle Glaser is the only chemist of his time who dares using pictures taken from hermetic collections for his book frontispiece. As a matter of fact Solve et Coagula is the most essential ingredient of Glaser’s time chemistry.
We should not comment on his “ Traitè de la Chimie”, Treatise on Chemistry, without having a look at his clueing frontispiece. The whole is in Glaser’s style: plain, rational and getting to the point. Just allow him some baroque frames which, being venetian, are so familiar to me. Indeed a painting with a frame like this had been in front of my childhood bed. But this is not the only reason I love this engraving.
Glaser here reduces the whole hermetic symbolism in two basic round framed allegories. A symbolism definitely suitable also for spagyrical proceedings. We can notice a little symbolism between the two round framed pictures, to the point that they seem to be somehow unified by that: a circle with a triangle inside. Under two round frames a long drape is curtaining something not to be unveiled: Does Glaser contemplate Alchemy as a forbidden chemistry extension?
The two round framed images had not been newly engraved and remind us of a dejà vu. Indeed they have been taken from a very important hermetic collection, which may have been either “Hermetico-Spagyrisches Lustgartlein”, Frankfurt 1625, (in which 160 engravings are gathered together in ten sheets. This collection has been simply known as Hortulus Continuus. Every picture is dedicated to an alchemist of the past along with a latin motto epitomizing it. Some of them are also contained in Basilius Valentinus “ Azoth” 1659), or from “Hortulus Hermeticus Flosculis Philosophorum” 1627. Stolcius was the author ( Daniel von Stolcemberg) and engraver unknown (1).
Picture on the left. Glaser does not use the full motto as in original Hortulus Continuus frame, but a summary. “Superius et Inferius jdem” ( idem in roman time latin). Definitely Glaser’s motto is less poetical than Stolcius original. Anyway you may have understood that we are before the very incipit of Hermes Tabula Smaragdina. And here, because of the rule of three ( a symbol may stand for at least three different meanings) we could find a list of appropriate concepts as long as your arm. But now we need Glaser’s. That’s to say a laboratory concept. Or, if you prefer, some hints to get us through Labors of Hercules or preparatory work ( see an Opus Magnum scheme).
God’s hand is the natural solve et coagula or the process of Nature, or better the power of Secret Fire to cook itself. Note the mountain on the background , the place where Secret Fire can be found in abundance. Snow, rain, dew. Top mountain are also plenty of cave and mines, and sun and moon beams are strong. This picture represents “ Superius”. Nature naturally operates in Alchemy and just waits for alchemist’s work ( inferius) to turn it on “De potentia ad Acto” or from potential to act.
Note that God’s hand keeps hold of the solar ecliptic or sun path. This leads to signatures or timing: every day of the year is different and peculiar for gathering or cooking. This concept is a foundation of alchemical work and, what’s more, it draws a basic distinction between chemistry and Alchemy, as early as Glaser’s time. This concept is definitely an hermetic one and could not be seen as an heritage of the past. Glaser here suggests the intervention of two undetected substance: Secret Fire and time. Both unknown and useless to chemistry.
The second picture too is a well known allegory for Solve et Coagula. But Lions and Eagles lead us in a human environment or work.
Sun and Moon are a chief symbolical foundation for the concept at large (see here for a Sol et Luna quite exhaustive featuring listing). In Laboratory Work, Sun, the man, is in charge for sublimating. While Moon, the woman, is in charge for dissolving. To tell the real truth they are these very actions. Most of the symbolism code we are to encounter in Alchemical texts will run along these lines. Indeed in every phase of the work we have a Solve et Coagula. Lion is not a synonymous of Sun and Eagle of Moon. But we will go into details when examining the very picture in a next post.
The whole alchemical science is volatilizing the fixed and then fixing the volatile. Volatilizing and fixing is, as one would expect, Solve et Coagula. Mercurius Philosophorum, along with our following Sun Stone, can be obtained in that way. If I did not mention Mercurius there have been a reason. Don’t you think? Problem is to know what ancient alchemists intend for “fixing” since “volatilizing” is pretty intuitive. In addition the whole operation must be “ rotated” inside a close space. This is the famed “ Descensus per lato” or sided descent. Not to lose any eagle. Over and over again. To get Secret Fire to the surface. And solidified it. Of course this operation can be contrived only after reducing Materia Tertia or raw matter to chemical salts. Another reason what Labors of Hercules are for.
“Sine Igne nihil operamur”. Without Fire we will uselessly operate. This motto seems such an outlandish one for a chemist who does usually work with heating. So why bother put it in evidence? Perhaps because the needed fire here is that one represented in the left picture?
On page two of his treatise ” Traitè de la Chimie“, Glaser tells us about what he means for chemistry. And we are going to have some unexpected statement. Briefly: “etymologically the name of chemistry means to melt, so the philosophy is called melting,…. that is to say to extract the internal juice of bodies and this is why it is also called spagyria or separating and assembling, Some call it Pyrotechnics, or technique of fire ( do you remember the greek Fire Technikon?), because its operations are accomplished by fire, other call it art of distilling, for this operation is that which we most serve. Still other hermetic art, for that Hermes is one of the most famous and oldest inventor of it. We add the particle al to purely say Alchemy, in imitation of Arabians, which use it to express pure excellence of things ; May not stop us with different names, we keep to that of Chemistry.”
Finally, we get to the little symbol of a circle and a triangle, I will quote Rosarium Philosophorum: “get man and woman to make a circle, draw on it a square, and from the square get a triangle, another circle and you are to get the Philosophers Stone.” In Glaser’s picture we have just a circle and a triangle. For he is not that ambitious. Triangle here is a synonymous for Mercurius-Sulphur-Salt. Our three principles. Nevertheless we did see in a previous post that Glaser uses five principles . By the way Mercurius is Moon and Sulphur is Sun. Salt is the final product of the two ( Azoth). This triangle roughly means……Solve et Coagula. But we can not operate without continuous passages or rotations of state. That’s enough. Let’s see if Glaser will be unselfish with details on all that on next posts.
1. John Ferguson, Bibliotheca Chemica.