In Symbola Aureae Mensae, Michael Maier uses a supreme hunter, Maria Prophitissa, and a systematic thinker, Aquinas, to reveal his knowledge of 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 fundamental storyboard in Symbola Aureae Mensae.
The reason why the importance of the gaseous state is here so emphasized will be understood as we will go. Alchemy is all about fumes, smoke, and vapors and cannot be prescinded from them to the extent that even the more spiritual part of our sacred art sees them involved.
These two engravings should not be examined separately, although they cannot be considered in order. But I would be amazed by the contrary, of course. On this occasion, too, “learning by eyes” (1), or 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. Sometimes Maier gives the impression of using the attributed Merian’s work to tell us another story. Anyway, the artistic part of this illustrated treatise is too important not to be considered 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 a metallic sky, which is a strange construction indeed. In addition, as we will see, a kind of supreme alchemical purpose is involved.
The supreme purpose is here twofold: a practical one and a spiritual one. And there are not so many differences between the two. The strange thing is that Michael Maier starts his considerations from a superstitious belief that seems to have been an indisputable chemical axiom at his age. 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 minds for eternity. So we cannot ignore it.
I will begin with the picture Michael Maier dedicates to Thomas Aquinas or, better, Tommaso d’Aquino. A leading personality of the Dominican order, there is no evidence he was interested in Alchemy. Still, supposedly since during his lifetime ( thirteenth century), Alchemy could be assumed as an esoteric culture. Catholicism was the exoteric one. However, very hard, the founder of the 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 appears reasonable that Aquinas points out that the two works are similar and discharge gaseous emissions. But let’s have a closer look: the alchemist’s furnace gives off a single fume, while in the inner of the cave, two clouds of smoke seem to encounter and merge against the ceiling. These two fumes are tagged one by the Sulfur symbol and the other by Mercurius. An alchemist on the hill is working and discharges a fume of smoke. What we can do now is to search for an explanation all along the written part in Symbola Aureae Mensae:
“… ex sulphure et argento vivo, ut natura, sic ars producit metalla…“. Like in nature, Art makes metals from sulfur and Quick Silver (Mercurius). For those unfamiliar with this site, I will tell you 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 somewhat convoluted one and this makes no wonder since, back in the seventeenth century, nobody would have dared to use my words. But there is 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 the marriage of a virgin. The virgin is a supposed primordial impossible Mercurius (4), a kind of white “Guhr” as the main component.
Maier tries 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… “. Our Sulphur and Mercurius are made by industry, are Hephaestus’ children, are created by the Sun and are run by chemical operations.
Alchemists work with Sulphur and Mercurius in the sense that they produce them inside vessels. Still, despite that, they can see only the evidence of these ineffable substances, or they see the appearance, which is molecular. They can see the change in colors that form without any apparent reason. No modern chemist can say why white color occurs after black ( which apparently could be strong oxidation) and then red. Not to mention the peacock tail. These colors don’t occur employing common chemistry but through repetitions of it. We know that metals are not made by the ancient “Guhr”, while modifications within their electronic clouds probably form them. But this is not the purpose of the eighth chapter, which is the fabrication of the metallic sky.
Margarita Novella quotes: “… 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 the 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 reminds me of another one, belonging to the distant past, by Olimpiodorus: “very ancient alchemists identified the dry vapor as Sulphur. The humid vapor as Mercurius. So they developed the theory that Mercurius and Sulphur make up all metals”. Like volatile Spirit and Soul. And by chance occurrence, Sulphur is also considered the Soul of metal, while Mercurius is the Spirit of Life. In fact, in the deep of the earth, we can see sulfurous and 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.
In Maier’s time, alchemists believed that Nature was not perfect, and alchemists worked to perfect it. The formula to which they referred was the superstitious one I have mentioned above: gaseous Sulfur and Mercurius do indeed 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 superstition, the consequence is an Alchemy key and axiom. We alchemists, even the modern ones, do believe that human beings, as well as an animal, as well as minerals, are born with a Spirit of Life and a Soul. But, and that’s another key and axiom, these two are just vaguely joined; it is easy to divide, producing the death of minerals. Then the alchemists’ supreme purpose will be to extract the gaseous and flowing Spirit and Soul to reunify them 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 uses distillations, sublimations, and putrefactions. All operations in which fumes, smoke, 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.
Maria Prophitissa. 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 consider it and instead fits Moyse’s sister in a not-so-comfortable script. The first pages also gather evidence of alchemical significance to the main character; the alleged Moyses sister has to witness her actual existence. The first part is an interesting disquisition on ancient mythologic personages playing the role of Sulphur and Mercurius, namely males and females.
Maier also points to Venus (White Sulphur or Mercurius), her lovers, and children or subsequent colors, especially red ( 8). This paragraph is not without interest because the herb within the fumes is white. All circumstances head to our White Sulfur, Venus (9), unripe Sulphur, or the beginning of color rotation (10). Maier says that the white rose of Venus can tinge purple, which 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, the term Mountain means their vase, their furnace, and any metallic material. Nevertheless, we will see in Orthelius’s 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 is not for Art. Nature doesn’t distill the spirit of wine but the Art. Nature doesn’t make cheese, bread, or glass, but Art. Hence Nature cannot make our Tincture act on the matter… the imperfect metals in nature tend not to remain in their state but always 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, and lead, are already perfect. Maria argues they cannot be considered perfect since only the optimum produces the optimum. She adds: “si species non esset perfecta, continue ea adspiraret ad speciem perfectiorem… “. If the species is not perfect, it always aspires to perfection. But what does Maria mean?
She explains: “quod illa metalla sint perfecta non ad ultimum finem, sed intermedium”. These metals seem perfect, while they are only in the middle of the road. Since the absolute perfection to tend to, or supreme purpose is their seed or first cause.
The opponents: metallic transmutations are fake if nature cannot transmute from one specie to another. Maria: as Apuleius said ( how on earth can Maria talk of Apuleius?), an ass cannot bear a lycanthrope, and a woman cannot bear a wolf. She here adds the famous latin motto: cane canem. Or from a dog, just a dog. We say that lead and tin can generate gold, but it’s the seed. That’s to say, when reduced to metallic seeds, they can generate other metallic seeds. In this sense, the metals above, when perfectly cooked, produce gold. Since in metallic gold, the seed, first cause, first matter, or Mercurius, finds its natural home. ” ergo ea perficiuntur in aurum… tum quoque ex vaporibus metalla sunt generata.
” natura facit ex lignis cineres, ars ex cineribus vitrum”. Nature makes ashes out of wood, but Art makes glass out of ashes (13). And that’s our alchemical glass, produced by the four elements at complete. Strange enough, a fume produces earth. That’s to say air-water ( a fume flows indeed) produce the earth. Finally, our element fire is restrained in the earth. Maier doesn’t make Maria Prophitissa say that perfection dwells in this operation. Our Secret Fire comes from potential to power when it continuously passes from a volatile to a 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. Maier has failed to say 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 ;