A study of serpent shaped croziers iconography development during middle ages. Between modern liturgic uncertainties and ancient hermetic symbolism.
Christian abbots-abbesses and bishops being joined to repelling animal creatures seems in fact to have covered a variety of cases. In so doing fitting a likewise wide range of alchemical circumstances.
You can see a Gallery on the last page.
As a matter of fact medieval iconographers did not seem so frightened and outraged by serpents and dragons entering religious art. But in 1842, when abbot Barrault and archaeologist Arthur Martin wrote “Le Baton Pastoral” (1) or the pastoral crozier, it had already been very probable for clergy persons to have irremediably diverted from the ancient hermetic symbolism. I know that may irritate some religious feelings, but here I’m simply resuming and commenting the perplexities of a french abbot living in the first half of nineteenth century. His inability to deal with these strange iconographic cases, together with a sincere attempt to give them a conventionally popular elucidation, is based and characterized by the methods and principles of science. In fact, after having found an acceptable explication for a kind of crozier, abbot Barrault never tries to refuse of taking notice of another type denying the precedent truth. He is definitely a really valuable person, capable of making sacrifice of himself to reason and logic.
Concerning the symbolic convergence of Christian and Alchemical symbolisms, I simply observed the rule by which old disciplines are an inspiration to newer ones and contrary is very unlikely to be. The reading of the precendent Croziers & Ringlets of Serpents 1 is necessary to understand the hermetic symbolism involved in all the pictures I, and Barrault, are going to comment. All the pictures taken from his book, indeed a huge number, are all manually drawn by Barrault or other previous researchers, since photographs haven’t been invented yet.
“In the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan we can find the first display of a bishop holding both temporal ferule, or staff of power, and a curved pastoral.” Here on the left crozier curve is not serpent shaped, but two serpents intermingled on Ambrose back featuring, quite a caduceus (2), failed to be noticed by Barrault. Here the chair iconography is very byzantine, being the bishop of Milan under Byzantium religious ruling back at fifth century. Serpent is a basic alchemical iconography being an allegory for our Secret Fire/Mercurius extracted from matter or arriving from sky. Both snakes and Secret Fire featuring the flowing action.
Croziers tops ending with a coiled serpent are by no means a paradoxical rarity lasted only for a short period of time. Indeed one can say that it is a common ornament for a crozier. Very properly abbot Barrault states: “It is impossible that a symbol so persevering in such a serious art is not a reflection of a deeper and more popular. So let us ask to penetrate this secret and analogies, since the old liturgists consulted have failed to reveal it.”
Our authors can’t help to wonder how could the evil symbol par excellence become the savior symbol? They try to give an answer: ” The serpent or dragon used in countless ways in christian art as well as in pagan represents several meanings. This was taken for a symbol of prudence ……..” Here abbot Barrault takes prudence literally and not in allegorical and emblematic sense, and tries to understand what snakes typical behaviors may be taken as examples of prudence (in the previous Croziers & Ringlets of Serpet 1 we have read Fulcanelli comment on Notre Dame Prudence emblem as a caduceus symbol). Then Abbot Barrault and Arthur Martin begin to analyze ancient scriptures and remember that Moyses took a rod that turned into a serpent to destroy the magic of Egypt. Then they proceed to examine serpents and dragons as the guardians of earth treasures. And finally recall how the Middle Ages processions were brought before by representations of two suspended dragons. They wonder whether it is all about a survival of pagan beliefs among Christianity. But why these figures have survived?
Here below some examples they use to substantiate their assertions, from left a copper crozier found in the old church of Angers, one in ivory of Toussaints in Saint Lizier, the third one is an ivory specimen with a bovine like head belonged to the bishop of Lyon, and the last one was also an ivory found in Saint Lizier presenting a curious unicorn-like head. All croziers date from eleventh to twelfth century. A logical deduction of our authors is that all these snakes are actually impaled on the cross as, in their opinion, the cross is proceeding from the mouth. What if, and I say if, the crosses instead of impaling the serpents would on the contrary be devoured by them?
Strange enough, in hermetic symbolism, devouring and disgorging are allegories for fixing and dissolving operations. Since fixed and volatile are surprisingly able to contend each other as an equal in quality or strength, they act reciprocally. Or they turn reciprocally into each other.
In fact ancient symbolism representations used to put on display the whole plot. Quite a transmutation stair or Scala Transmutationibus (3) The Ouroboros devouring its tail has been created to paint the whole fixed-volatile situation (4) since while one is volatilized the other is getting fixed. At this point the best to do is looking over an Opus Magnum scheme, just to get where we are, and we could be in at least three different phases or operations. But mostly our snake-like moving Secret Fire/Mercurius/Spirit of Life, extracted during labors of Hercules can in its turn extract and then incrudate a metallic Soul/Sulphur. Cross (5) is a fixed rendition and here is representing the “granum fixum” which can only be extracted by our Mercurius, or product of reiterated salts volatilizations, and paradoxically is to get fixed by Mercurius. Who that follows the dry way can have a more precise idea of what a granum fixum may possibly be.
The first crozier on the left well represents a volatile substance, the serpent being winged. The third one is more likely to be taurus headed, no wonder since Taurus is a symbol for the “ tremendous and furious power extracted from matter”, our Secret Fire. In fact on this crozier shaft Abbot Barrault reports to have found a latin inscription: “ Cum iratus fueris, misericordie recordaberis” or when you’ll be angry, remember piety. The last crozier, or the first on the right, is a serpent unicorn headed. Unicorn is a legendary rendition for our pure and rare Mercurius. Although unicorn horn has an underlying meaning.
Above we can observe two examples of serpents Secret Fire/Mercurius with a fava bean in their mouth. The first ivory crozier on the left has been found in the cathedral of Bayonne, while the other bronze one is undetermined from the region of Puy. It is clear enough that a fava bean cannot impale a serpent, thus Abbot Barrault hypothesizes to be before the serpent eating apples in Eden. While, from an hermetic point of view, there is no symbolic substantial difference between a cross and a fava bean, and thus we can apply to the case what aforesaid about serpent devouring a crosses.
For the first time we can notice the ringlet curling with an undulating motion on the surface. Litteral and real sea waves. On the right a modern italian crozier taking in Santa Rufina procession. In this case the concept of Secret Fire/Boat/Water which cannot moist hands here is wonderfully and literally put on display.
Concerning the various examples of croziers with serpents in the act of devouring other animals, often sheep or goats ( below from left to right a crozier owning to Soltikov collection, a crozier in Chapelle Royale de Trophime, and one belonged to Erhart of Hidesheim. All in ivory and dated 11th to 12th century) abbot Barrault’s logical explanation is of sacrificial immolation of the lamb. Our hermetic explanation would rather be of lamb as a synonymous for cross and fava bean/Sulphur/Soul/Primaterialistc Subject. Mind that white lamb is to be sacrificed (6) to get something red out (7). Thus, if to devour is a rendition for to be transformed into, now we have all alchemical metamorphosis from Mercurius to perfect Sulphur.
In the same way we can explain the image on the middle shows a dog-lion very interested to poor lamb, but in turn devoured by a serpent-dragon. In this case the Authors assume a lamb triumphant on animal cruelty. I prefer an hermetic volatile Mercurius (winged dragon turning into fixed Mercurius (dog-lion) then turning into unripe white sulphur then lamb’s blood or a cross or red sulphur.