Michael Maier in Symbola Aureae Mensae uses a supreme hunter, Maria Prophitissa, and a systematic thinker, Aquinas, to reveal his knowledge on alchemical fumes.
In the two engravings we are examining, presumably Merian’s oeuvre ( although the artistic continuity with other more certain works is not so evident), fumes take a leading role. So to become a real storyboard in Symbola Aureae Mensae.
The reason why the importance of gaseous state is here so emphasized will be understood as we will go. For the moment you have to know that Alchemy is all about fumes, smokes and vapors and cannot prescind from them. To an extent that even the more spiritual part of our sacred art sees them involved.
In my opinion these two engravings should not be examined separated, although they cannot be considered in order. But I would be amazed of the contrary, of course. In this occasion too, the “learning by eyes” (1), or the learning by oneself through insight, will be necessary.
Symbola Aureae Mensae, or “the gold bench’s symbols” in latin, is well known for its engravings rather than for Michael Maier’s comments. Probably because the written part often seems to be scarcely related to pictures. In fact sometimes Maier gives the impression to just use the attributed Merian’s work to tell us another story. Anyway the artistic part in this illustrated treatise is too important to not be taken into consideration on its own.
The first engraving on the top of the page is in the eighth chapter, dedicated to Aquinas. The second one introduces Maria Prophitissa and the second chapter. Both present fumes and are about the construction of metallic sky, which is a strange construction indeed. In addition, as we will see, there is a kind od supreme alchemical purpose involved.
The supreme purpose is here twofold: a practical one and a spiritual. And there is not so much differences between the two. The strange thing is that Michael Maier starts his considerations from a superstitious belief which seems to have been a real chemical axiom back at his age. In fact we can find it in many other alchemical, or rather chemical, works. But here we are before a picture to carve the theory in our mind for eternity. So we cannot ignore it.
I will begin with the picture Michael Maier dedicates to Thomas Aquinas or better, allow me since I’m italian, Tommaso d’Aquino. A leading personality of Dominican order, unknowingly precursor of “Santa Inquisizione”, which so many had send to stake. There is no evidence Tommaso d’Aquino was interested in Alchemy but supposedly, since during his life time ( thirteenth century) Alchemy was the only esoteric culture. Catholicism being the exoteric one. And very hardly the founder of dominican order could deviate from the second.
I will spare you all Maier’s dissertation on the evidence for the italian count and monk Tommaso d’Aquino to be an alchemist, which takes various pages, as well as a long list of italian hermetic authors, from Petrus Bonus to Augurello (2). I will instead get immediately to the point. In the picture Aquinas stands and points at a sectioned hill. Inside a cave of metals, outside on the top a chemist works at a furnace. Both the chemist and the inner of the cave emit dramatic fumes. It appear reasonable that Aquinas points at the fact that the two works are similar and both discharge gaseous emissions. But let’s have a closer look: the alchemist’s furnace give off a single fume, while in the inner of the cave two smokes seems to encounter and merge against the ceiling. These two fumes are tagged one by Sulphur symbol, the other by Mercurius. An alchemist on the top of the hill is working and discharges a fume-smoke. What we can do now is to search for explanation all along the written part in Symbola Aureae Mensae:
“…..ex sulphure et argento vivo, ut natura, sic ars producit metalla……“. From sulphur and Quick Silver (Mercurius), like in nature, so the Art makes metals. For those who are not familiar with this site, I will tell that Sulphur is a product of operations on Mercurius. And Mercurius is nothing more than our Secret Fire extracted from raw matter, the same as coming from stars and suns and still dwelling in our bodies (3). Michael Maier doesn’t seem to give this explanation, but a rather convoluted one, and this makes no wonder since, back at seventeenth century nobody would have dared to use my words. But there is also another reason: a chemical superstition, namely the theory that some primordial Sulphur and Mercurius would have made all metals inside mines. Sabine Stuart Chevalier calls this superstition as the marriages of a virgin. The virgin being a supposed primordial impossible mercurius (4), a kind of white “Guhr” as main component.
Maier makes effort for us to understand that they are not common Sulphur and Mercurius, and quotes Aquinas quoting Lull or Lullius: “Sulfur commune ipsis inutile visum est, quod circa aliud sulfur quae sieverunt longa investigatione, magno que labore…….Lullius meminit in Theorica testam. nempe solis coelestis, arificis ingeniosi & Vulcani filius, a sole creautur, ab artifice gubernatus & a Volcano educatus….”. That’s to say our Sulphur and Mercurius are made by industry, are children of Hephaestus, created by Sun and run by chemical operations.
Alchemists work with Sulphur and Mercurius in the sense that they produced them inside vessels, but in spite of that they can see only the evidence of these ineffable substances, or they just see the appearance, which is molecular. They can see the change in colors which form without any apparent reason. No modern chemist can actually say why white color takes place after black ( which apparently could be a strong oxidation) and then red. Not to mention the peacock tail. These colors don’t occur by means of common chemistry, but by means of repetitions of it. Today we know that metals are not made by the ancient “Guhr”, while probably they are formed by modifications within their electronic clouds. But this is not the purpose of the eighth chapter, which is the fabrication of the metallic sky.
We can find here a quote from Margarita Novella: “…corpus in unione cu spiritu & anima, sulfur respectu argenti vivi…..forma hominis est anima rationalis. Forma compositi philosophici est etiam anima, at quia nulla in eo vita est proprie dicta, nisi analogice, potius corporea substnatia dicenda venit, quia haec sustinet, ut magis firma & fixa, partes volatile, easque ut corpus animam, complectitur corpus……” or the body is union of Spirit and Anima (5), hence the form of a man is given by his/her rational Soul. Alchemists ( here called magi) get Spirit and Soul to be fixed in a body, although they are volatile. This last sentence remind me another one, belonging to the very distant past, by Olimpiodorus: “very ancient alchemists identified the dry vapor as Sulphur. The humid vapor as Mercurius. So they developed the theory that all metals are made up by Mercurius and Sulphur”. Like volatile Spirit and Soul. And by a chance occurrence Sulphur is also considered the Soul of a metal, while Mercurius is the Spirit of Life. In fact in the deep of the earth we can see a sulfurous and a mercurial fumes to be joined together.
Maier picks up an Aquinas sentence versus those deprecating Alchemy: ” Praecipuus Alchymistarum scopus est, transmutare metalla, scilicet imperpecta, secundum veritatem & non Sophistice. Idem : Metalla transmutari possunt unum in aliud, cum naturalia sint & ipsorum materia eadem.”. Ancient alchemists supreme purpose was to transmute the so called imperfect metals into one another, according to their nature. I will soon get to the point: the perfection of a metal is its reduction to Mercurius, or First Matter-Materia Prima.
“…..In libro eius antedicto Chymico duo imprimis cosideranda veniunt; primo quod in praefatione deducit, pulchro illo Optices exemplo, quo per concava specula radii solares condensantur adeo, ut incendant quaecunque combustibilia obvia, coelestes virtutes ab astris, utpote sole descendentes communicari & easdem esse cum elementalibus inferioribus, cum in illo igne sic incenso & alio communi nulla sit differentia: unde patet coelestem assentiam in hisce inferioribus elementis posse conservari, quali est forma illa aurea miscibilis metallis omnibus, imperfectiora ex illis in aurum reducens………..ut enim radii solis coelestis in speculis dictis multiplicantur & quali corporei & tractabiles, ut ignis, sint, ita solis terrestris radii cum coeunt & in se reflectuntur, quod primo quasi spirituale & impalpabile erat, sit corporeum & palpabile, quoque primum eius punctum sole & coelo productum erat, eius circumferentia a nostrate igne sev Vulcano perficitur & continuatur…….”. In the book of the above mentioned chemist ( the last mentioned was Lull or Lullius) two considerations come: the first is about a suitable example in optics, in which by means of concave mirrors sun beams get to condensate and put fire to every ignitable substance, celestial virtue from asters, the descending sun communicates with the inferior elements, in fact the sun makes no difference between wood or incense whatever, so to keep the celestial essence in the inferior elements, which is that a gold form is mixed with every metal so to have their imperfections reduced in gold…………and as solar beams get moltiplicated in these mirrors and become corporeal and feasible, so fire, as reflecting terrestrial sun beams. At first spiritual and impalpable, then corporeal and manageable. In the same way Volcano, Hephaestus, fire takes to circumference. My translation is as less verbatim as possible here, since Maier is voluntarily very convoluted. To be honest Lull said different things about concave mirrors. In fact he used them to explain Mercurius Duplicatus (6), while Maier in Symbola Aureae Mensae uses solar beams as cooking tools, quite a furnace. To make it simple: A good cooking reduces every metal to its real essence and the first purpose of the art is to make this celestial impalpable essence to be turned into a corporeal and manageable substance.
Back at Maier’s time alchemists did believe that Nature was not perfect, and alchemists work to perfectionate it. The formula to which they referred was the superstitious one I have mentioned above: if is true that gaseous Sulphur and Mercurius do compose metals ( and we have seen that being a chemical superstition), so we can say Sulphur and Mercurius are metals Soul and Spirit ( and that’s another issue). If the first is a superstition the consequence is instead an Alchemy key and axiom. We alchemists, even the modern ones, do believe that a human being as well as an animal, as well as a mineral are born with a Spirit of Life and a Soul. But, and that’s another key and axiom, these two are just vaguely joined, in fact it is easy to divide producing the death of minerals. Then the alchemists supreme purpose will be that of extract the gaseous and flowing Spirit and Soul to have then reunified in another body. We believe that the Spirit of Life is the first to be extracted ( Mercurius) and then helps to kill, extract and reunify Soul (Sulphur). The whole proceeding is by means of distillations, sublimations, putrefactions. All operations in which fumes, smokes and vapors are king. This is the metallic sky. Nevertheless this metallic sky is bound to return really “metallic”, or corporeal. (7). And fumes do play a primary task again.
Now let’s Maria Prophitissa pick up the baton. The engraving is almost the same as in Hortulus Hermeticus number six. The title of this Symbola Aureae Mensae second chapter is the latin motto around the same Hortulus specimen. The unique difference is the presence of Maria pointing at the scene. The circumstance would head to the little treatise of Maria and the dialogue with Aros. But Maier seems not to take it into consideration and instead fits Moyses sister in a not so comfortable script. Here too the first pages are all to gather evidences of alchemical significance to the main character, in addition the alleged Moyses sister has to witness her real existence. The first part is an interesting disquisition on ancient mythologic personages playing the role of Sulphur and Mercurius, namely males and females. Maier points moreover on Venus (White Sulphur or Mercurius) and her lovers, and children or subsequent colors, especially red ( 8). This paragraph is not without interest, because the herb within the fumes is white and all circumstances head to our White Sulphur, or Venus (9), or unripe Sulphur, or beginning of colors rotation (10). In fact Maier says that the white rose of Venus can tinge purple and this happens in “vasculis chymicis” or in the chemical vascular system, namely in vessels. We have already seen that in Hortulus Hermeticus (11). Dom Pernety, in his Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermétique, says: “….Quelquefois les Alchymistes ont entendu par le terme de Montagne, leur vase, leur fourneau, et toute matière métallique.” Sometimes Alchemists by the term Mountain mean their vase, their furnace, and any metallic material. Nevertheless we will see in Orthelius commentary that we need the calx of these little hills (12).
Page 78, Maria: “ ………quod non sit per naturam, id neque per artem fieri potest: quia videmus multa fieri per artem, per artem, quae per solam naturam non fiant: ut, natura non reponit luxata, ars sola reponit: natura non distillat spiritum vini, sed ars: natura non facit caseum, panem, vitrum, sed ars: ita natura non facit Tincturas agentes abstractas a materia patiente, licet cum materia faciat……….metalla imperfecta apud naturam non manent suo statu, sed semper per tendunt ad perfectionem”. What seems impossible for Nature, it is not for Art. Nature doesn’t distill the spirit of wine, but the Art. Nature doesn’t make cheese, bread, glass, but the Art. Hence Nature cannot make our Tincture to act on the matter……….the imperfect metals in nature tend not to remain in their state, but always to to perfection. Here Maier imagines Maria occupied in a diatribe against those opposed to Alchemy, who say that the so called imperfect metals, like tin, iron, lead are already perfect. Maria argues they cannot be considered perfect in their essence, since only the optimum produce the optimum. In fact she adds: “si species non esset perfecta, continue ea adspiraret ad speciem perfectiorem…..”. If the species is not perfect, it always aspire to perfection. But what does Maria mean?
She furthermore explains : “quod illa metalla sint perfecta non ad ultimum finem, sed intermedium”. These metals seem perfect, while they are only at the middle of the road. Since the real perfection to tend to, or supreme purpose, is their seed or first cause.
The opponents: if nature cannot transmute from a specie to another, then metallic transmutations are fake. Maria: as Apuleius said ( how on earth can Maria talk of Apuleius?) an ass cannot bears a lycanthrope and woman cannot bears a wolf. She here add the famous latin motto: cane canem. Or from dog just dog. As a matter of fact we say that lead and tin can generate gold, but its seed. That’s to say when reduced to metallic seed, they can generate other metallic seed. In this sense the afore mentioned metals, when perfectly cooked, produce gold. Since in metallic gold the seed, or first cause, or first matter, or Mercurius, finds its natural home. “ ergo ea perficiuntur in aurum……..tum quoque ex vaporibus metalla sunt generata.. Consequently the perfection dwells in gold much more than in other metals………metals are generated from fumes in the deep of the earth. So we can say that Nature operates on the four elements, since when operating with fumes we works on the four elements, as it happens in laboratory when from the fumes containing the four elements we achieve perfection. As said above fumes are ubiquitous and necessary in Alchemy.
” natura facit ex lignis cineres, ars ex cineribus vitrum”. Nature makes ashes out of wood, but the Art makes glass out of ashes (13). And that’s our alchemical glass, produced by the four elements at complete. Since, strange enough a fume produces earth. That’s to say air-water ( a fume flows indeed) produce the earth. Finally our element fire restrained in earth. What Maier doesn’t make Maria Prophitissa to say is that the perfection dwells in this operation, because our Secret Fire comes from potential to power when continuously passes from volatile to fixed form. That’s another Alchemy key and axiom.
It is not by chance that Michael Maier chooses Maria Prophitissa, the supreme operative alchemist, to explain the highest purpose of fumes perfection inside vessels, masterly passing through all elements, till the achievement of the metallic sky, or Philosophers Stone. As well as he selects Tommaso d’Aquino for the ultimate purpose, namely the separation and reunification of Sulphur and Mercurius, Soul and Spirit of Life. What Maier has failed to say is that this operation too shall pass through all our four elements. In the ultimate case the vase will be humankind.
- See also Francesco del Cossa and the New Eyes of a Painter ;
- See also Augurello and the Art of Making Gold ;
- See also Philosophia Reformata, Father Sun and Mother Moon , Sun and Moon at the Turn of the First Millennium , Weidenfeld and Basilius Oleum Vitriolis , Giorgione, Tempest and Aqua Pontica , Thesaurus Hermeticum and Dry Pythagorean River ;
- See also Stuart Chevalier and a Virgin’s Marriages ;
- See also Eros and Psyche in a new Alchemical Body ;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens and Mercurius Duplicatus ;
- See also Wenceslaw Lavinius and the Sky and Earth Properties ;
- See also Kamala Jnana, Introduction to a Live Secret , Hortulus Hermeticus, Beware of the Red Laton;
- See also Botticelli, Venus Birth & Primaterialistic Subject ;
- See also Codex Marcianus Ouroboros , Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel;
- Hortulus Hermeticus and Love Between Fumes ;
- Orthelius Commentary on Maria Prophitissa. Part 2 ;
- See also Lancillotti: Glass and Oil according to Currus Thriumphalis. Part 1 ;