The Tempest by Giorgione is an authentic compendium for Secret Fire becoming Mercurius, Mercurius Philosophorum, or Aqua Pontica. The Thunder, then, is not symbolic at all.
Kicking off my Alchemy blog with the Italian painter Giorgione ( 1477-1510 ) is quite a natural choice for me. Mainly for two reasons: Giorgione was born in Castelfranco Veneto, just a few miles from my place. Secondly, I have always regarded the Tempest as my first approach to Alchemy.
So the Tempest. Painted by Giorgione on an uncertain date, perhaps in 1505, while living in Venice and being patronized by some learned aristocrats. At dawn in the sixteenth century, Venice was regarded as a hermetic hotspot; Manutius was printing his daring books (thanks to the help of noble and cultured patrons such as Bembo, Barbaro, Barbarigo, the nephew of Pico della Mirandola, and others who deserve a separate article); and would-be alchemists, as confirmed by Salomon Trismosin, were going there to start their Alchemy tour. At first sight, Giorgione’s Tempest might appear as a fine renaissance landscape. However, in a certain sense, the scene is suspended or waiting for some event, which can only come from the sky: the arrival of the storm is awaited (in fact, this is the title of the painting). The incipient storm is so important that it overshadows everything else, which instead deserves an in-depth analysis, given that it is a rather evident alchemical symbolism:
Why is a naked white-mantled woman breastfeeding a baby near two outlandish half-columns? Why do these columns look different from each other? Still, why is the woman breastfeeding in stormy weather? Wherever is the lighted woman receiving irradiation from in such a stormy dark environment? And why does a white-red man holding a long rod seem to guard her and her baby? Why is a bridge arching over a pond and not over a river, as one would commonly expect? Why is another pond, or better, a dark puddle, lying between the man and the woman? Should we make the two ponds a sort of an interrupted river?
Unlike one could expect in any frivolous esoteric painting, in Giorgione’s Tempest, the river is nonexistent. Here, only two separated ponds can be seen. Thus the scene is divided into two parts: a superior one with naturally occurring stormy weather and an inferior one with a dark puddle. Let’s analyze the “putrid” pond. Much darker than the pool beyond the bridge, the black pool seems deep and lies between the two main characters: the white woman and the red man. Very bizarre puddle indeed. It looks like it was a natural well. Still, any ideal connection between earth and sky is yet not interrupted.
Doesn’t the dark pond recall “aqua foetida”, rotten water? That is to say, putrefaction? The first appearance of perfect black at the end of the preparatory works? Here the dark puddle seems to perform an essential role along with a man, a woman, and a child. Their shading into one another will be a long journey and lead to Mercurius Philosophorum.
The white female character sitting on the pond’s edge enters the scene. The woman comes first, not for a form of courtesy, but because the dark puddle, the putrefaction, has born the naked white woman, who stands for Mercurius ( this time not extracted from Materia Tertia, rough matter). The woman represents the light coming out of the dark. Indeed all light currently enlightening the scene stems from the naked white woman, who bears… surprisingly not the child but the grown-up man in red. In fact, Mercurius can now afford the second cooking or Main Work ( in that phase, we will get the red man. See an Opus Magnum scheme).
The man in the scene is holding a wooden shaft, which can be either a piercing or a thrashing weapon ( do you remember Fulcanelli’s Latin quote, “ si non percussero terrebo”? If I am not to beat at least I am to frighten you?) In hermetic symbolism, there’s quite a difference between the two terms. The thrashing action is an allegory representing, to some extent, what will happen when chemistry ends, and Alchemy starts. Piercing has something to do with Cadmus and the dry-way wooden spear. But the presence of “colors“ white e red – set the scene irremediably in the wet path instead. In the final analysis, sulfur holds the stick/rod/baton/staff, that’s to say, the whole and complex symbology standing memory, at least the reminiscence and carrying the seed on it.
Now we can analyze the bridge that unites the two main characters. Apparently useless, the bridge divides the scene in the middle of the painting. Dom Pernety, in his Dictionnaire Mytho Hermétique, 1787, told us about the aqua pontica eau pontique, bridge-ish water—Pontus, ponte, and pont in Latin, Italian, and mean French bridge.
A bridge can suggest a connection, a union between two sides otherwise too far to be reached: in Alchemy, a man and woman can stand for different colors, phases, or operations according to the rule of the multiplicity of meaning.
Look at the man’s clothes: they are not totally red but white and red – of course, the shirts were white, but had it been an insignificant detail, the male character would have presented the red jacket closed and not open wide open. Now he is red-male, but with some records of his previous white-feminine existence: In fact, the Mercurius Duplicatus implies the union of two white Mercurii to obtain a red. A real metamorphosis has occurred from white to red. Indeed Mercurius Duplicatus is also known as aqua pontica; the bridge is intended to unify two Mercurii to become single bridge-ish water.
Let’s focus on the breastfeeding scene: the same agent who causes a solution in Alchemy can feed too. The red Sulfur needs to take food to grow up and get to the last Cooking, just like a child. Here we are not dealing with an easily perceived intercourse leading to natural childbirth. But a strained metamorphosis from the dark puddle-well through the woman and the man to the child. For in Alchemy, only males strangely produce real offspring, and this should provide some further hints at the outlandish sexuality of our performers.
Giorgione’s Tempest is divided into the superior and the inferior. Explanations like “as above, so below” can mean nothing and all and might become pure evocative poetry. So the superior scene may be the natural and effortless process outside the vessel ( nature is an alchemical laboratory) and the volatile part inside a closed vessel. While the inferior scene, not lower in rank, has just been the site for a wild fight. In lab Alchemy we talk of Macrocosm and Microcosm, of their searching for each other. We can’t help but address the other symbols on the canvas as well.
The column in the middle left of the canvas, or instead the two columns, can have more than one meaning: as ruins, they are a common symbol for tradition as a whole, an ancient name for Alchemy, our Tradition; differences in column size do point to differences in operations, indeed just the opposite, that is to say, our “Solve et Coagula”, a sort of piece of the foundation, so they stand for the foundation of our Work; ultimately, I don’t remember where I read the quote that I’m going to do now – I didn’t think I would ever make a website – but some Neoplatonist philosopher said that the column is a symbol of the drum of the earth.
The drum finally brings us to the thunder of the storm. Or rather the expectation of the storm and thunder. Let’s return to Fulcanelli’s Latin quote, “ si non percussero terrebo”. In this sense, the sentence would fit perfectly into the concept of thunder. We can now understand the other meaning given to Die Sonne von Osten’s thunder: “That is why the Hermetic Philosophers say that their Materia is being born like the thunder and leaves behind similar signs”. Thunder pierces the silence and announces Genesis in small, which should be the alchemist’s supreme goal. Ultimately thunder could unite Heaven and Earth, Macrocosm and Microcosm.
See Kamala Jnana & Introduction to a Live Secret for the white-red alternation, and Cabala Mineralis; Atalanta Fugiens & Mercurius Duplicatus for joining the two Mercurii; Testamentum Fraternitatis for the union in operative Alchemy of Macrocosm and Microcosm; Cesare Ripa: Wheels, Spindles and Celestial Pointers for thunder intruduction.