Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Layer Quaternity

Almost hidden from view in the church of Saint John Maddermarket Norwich there's a highly theatrical and dramatic Monument - the Layer monument, a large slab of sculptured marble in polychrome is an early seventeenth century funerary momento mori. The symbolism of its fascinating, yet enigmatic quartet of statuettes  is  complex, but well worth analysis.

The strictly literal-mindedness of our age, combined with the Layer monument's relative obscurity has prevented  it from being identified as an art-work which  utilizes esoteric symbolism. The narrow belief that the Word, in this case the moral label which accompanies each statuette, is a fully-developed definition has effectively blinded viewers from actually looking closely at each statuette.

Each of the four statuettes of the Layer Monument corresponds to a specific archetypal figure. They are Pax 'the wise ruler' here depicted treading the weapons of war underfoot, Gloria,  'the Great Mother', frequently associated with lunar imagery, Labor, 'the old man' complete with grey hair and beard, and Vanitas, 'the child/trickster' figure, not only a cherub and psychopomp of the  recently deceased but also the messenger of alchemy, Mercurius,  who is often depicted standing upon a Rotundum in alchemical illustrations. 

The psychologist C.G. Jung who wrote at great length and depth upon alchemy and its symbols noted,

'the statue plays a mysterious role in ancient alchemy'. (CW14:559)  and that, 'The statue stands for the inert materiality of Adam, who still needs an animating soul; it is thus a symbol for one of the main preoccupations of alchemy . (CW 14 Para 569)

One is encouraged in interpreting the Layer Quaternio as a work which utilizes esoteric symbolism when reading C.G.Jung's observation-

Graybeard and boy belong together. The pair of them play a considerable role in alchemy as symbols of Mercurius. (CW 9 i:39)

Number, along with colour, is embedded deep in the human psyche as  primordial of  all symbols. The number four and its geometric arrangement in the form of four corners or points upon the figure X  was of especial significance to C.G.Jung . He  defined the  quaternio thus-

The quaternity is an organizing schema par excellence, something like the crossed threads in a telescope. It is a system of coordinates that is used almost instinctively for diving up the visible surface of the earth, the course of the year, or the collection of individuals into groups, the phases of the moon, the temperaments, elements, alchemical colours, and so on.  (CW 9ii. 381)

As if with the Layer Monument in view, Jung states of the quaternio -

We have then, two contrasting pairs, forming by mutual attraction a quaternio, the fourfold basis of wholeness. As the symbolism show, the pairs signify the same thing: a complexio oppositorum or uniting symbol  (CW Vol 9i: 245)

Reinforcing the Layer Monument's significance as an example of a complexio oppositorum that is, a complex of opposites, Jung once more as if  having the Layer monument quaternio in view remarks- 

 Like all archetypes, the self has a paradoxical, antinomial character. It is male and female, old man and child, powerful and helpless, large and small. The self is a true complexio oppositorum. (CW  9 i: 355)

Polarity and the union of opposites along  with its resultant synergy was an essential  tool of alchemical symbolism. There are numerous opposites within the Later Quaternio - Young/Old -Heaven/Earth -Male/Female, Time/Space and Pleasure/Suffering are discernable.

Just as the upper pair of Pax and Gloria  represent the eternal 'heavenly' realms, so to in contradistinction the figures of Labor and Vanitas represent the temporal dimension of time in earthly existence, thus  the essential co-ordinates of Time and Space may be attributed to the Quaternio. Jung explains this essential component  of the quaternity thus-

From the lapis, i.e. from alchemy, the line leads direct to the quaternio of alchemical states of aggregation, which, as we have seen, is ultimately based upon the space-time quaternio. The latter comes into the category of archetypal quaternities and proves to be an indispensable  principle  for organizing the sense-impressions from which the psyche receives from bodies in motion. Space and time form a psychological  a priori, an aspect of the archetypal quaternity which is altogether indispensable for acquiring knowledge of physical processes.  (CW Vol 9 ii: 40)

It can also be  discerned  that together the four statuettes of the Layer Monument  correspond to  a commonplace  template of antiquity, the four elements.  The crescent moon which Gloria stands upon is often associated with the element of Water.  Pax, a Christ-like figure who closely corresponds to Sol Invinctus  represents the element of Fire. It follows from the  activities which the lower case pair  Vanitas and Labor are engaged upon, namely blowing bubbles and digging earth,  that they symbolize the two elements of Air and Earth.

In essence  the four statuettes upon the two pilasters of the Layer Monument  represent  a highly original,  profound and intriguing religious symbol. They are none other than a quaternio or four-fold whole of archetypes which represents the Self. Plexiformed in their  relationship and ostensibly a product  of Christian  iconography, the Layer quaternio are in fact a syncretic fusion of both Christian and  esoteric symbolism, a rare and important  example of how  the  symbolism of Hermetic philosophy occasionally infiltrated and integrated with  Christian iconography.

An essay upon the symbolism of   the Layer Monument and the intellectual history of its era can be found here.

Postscript 23rd Oct: The lavish production  of Ken Follett's 'The Pillars of the Earth' set in Medieval England  now on Channel 4, states for  the synopsis of episode 2  - 'Jack's statue of the cathedral's saint has a shocking effect on the King'. One couldn't make up the timing if one tried!
Post a Comment