Sunday, January 22, 2012

De Lapide Philosophorum

De Lapide Philosophorum from Alchymia by Andreas Libavius 

It was on a bright Spring morning in May 2011, when casually browsing through Adam Maclean's fascinating book, 'The Alchemical Mandala', that I noticed there were several striking similarities between Maclean's reproductions of  De Lapide Philosophorum  to the four statuettes of the Layer Monument. 

It's recorded that Christopher Layer's youngest son erected the Layer Monument in memory of his father (d. 1600) and mother, Barbara (d.1604). Because the first edition of Alchymia (1596) by the German chemist Andreas Libavius (c.1555 -1616) does not apparently include any illustrations whatsoever, in all probability it's from a later edition of Alchymia that the Layer Monument's symbolism is developed. Although there are considerable differences between the top quaternity of figures in  De Lapide Philosophorum to the quartet of statuettes of the Layer Monument nevertheless the two works share several corresponding motifs.  In addition to shared solar and lunar imagery there is an allusion to the 'sacred wedding' or hieros gamos, often depicted in alchemy as Sol et Luna, and represented by Pax and Gloria in the Layer Monument - an inferior or 'Ethiopian' pair, represented by Vanitas and Labor in the Layer Monument  -  a figure with blackened feet standing upon a Rotundum (the Rotundum being a frequent motif in alchemical depictions of Mercurius) and the holding of identical votive vegetation in both works. But what tips the balance against mere coincidence is the fact that the labels of Gloria and Labor occur in both works.

 There are  two variation illustrations in the chapter entitled  De Lapide Philosophorum. Through the juxtaposition of versions two and three new interpretative insights on the Layer monument can be acquired. Nor can one overlook the medium of both art-works. The intriguing development of an illustration entitled the Philosopher's Stone quite literally transformed into the medium of stone in the form of carved marble is worth consideration.

NB: Pax and Gloria are situated above Vanitas and  Labor on 
the Layer Monument

The observations of Carl Gustav Jung greatly assist towards interpretative insight upon the Layer monument's complex symbolism. The second of the three versions of Libavius' extraordinarily densely-laden symbolic image is reproduced in C. G. Jung's 'Psychology and Religion' (1944). Jung is content to add yet one more intriguing image to his lavishly illustrated volume, merely remarking of version 2 of  De Lapide Philosophorum (fig.142). 


In an explicato locorum signatorum, Libavius gives the following  "explanation" of the second of the three versions of this image.

RR: An Ethiopian man and woman,supporting two higher spheres. They sit on the big sphere and according represent the nigredo of the second operation in the second putrification.

All of this is reduced and transformed in the Layer Monument to the figures of Vanitas and Labor. The blackened feet of Vanitas standing upon a golden Rotundum may be an allusion to his original Ethiopian hue. But it also leaves little doubt that the Layer monument's lower pair of statuettes represents the inferior, Nigredo stage in the alchemical opus.

a - The king, clad in purple with a golden crown, has a golden lion beside him. He has a red lily in his hand, whereas the queen has a white lily. 

b - The queen, crowned with a silver crown, strokes a white or silver eagle standing beside her.

In the Layer Monument both Pax and Gloria have golden hair but no crowns. In version 3 of De Lapide Philosophorum  it's the Queen who holds a votive palm, which in the Layer Monument is held by the King. It's interesting to note in passing that Jung designates the palm as a symbol of the soul. 

The allotting to the King and Queen in version 2 of  De Lapide Philosophorum  to the 'Regal' creatures of Lion and Eagle can be identified as representing two aspects of the Tetramorph, the most developed of all quaternity symbols in western religious symbolism. They are also the two creatures which are  associated with the 'Fixed Cross' of astrology, namely Leo and Scorpio. Because the King and Queen in version 2 are associated with Leo and Scorpio who represent the elements of Fire and Water respectively, one can with confidence assert that Vanitas and Labor also represent  two of the ancient world  quaternity or four-fold division of the elements, that of Air and Earth. This is quite overt in their respective symbolism. (Vanitas is depicted making bubbles blowing air, Labor is seen digging earth).   

In the Layer Monument Pax is not only the Christian Prince of Peace, but also a much deeper-rooted archetype in the human psyche. Utterly Solar in his symbolism and associated with the element of Fire, as well as the zodiac sign of Leo, representing one quarter of the 'Fixed Cross' of astrology, Pax as an archetype symbolises the 'wise Ruler' whose historical counterparts include - Alexander the Great, King Cyrus and the better of the  Roman and Greek 'warrior' rulers' of antiquity. 

In fact each of the four statuettes of the Layer monument are collectively archetypal in their symbolism. Individually they are 'the Wise Ruler', 'the Great Mother', 'the Child/Trickster'  and 'the Old Man'. Together the four statuettes of the Layer Monument may  quite appropriately be defined as an alchemical mandala of the western tradition, this is because they not only represent Christian moral values but also archetypal components of the psyche and its unity. 

Since studying the symbolism associated with the Layer Monument and De Lapide Philosophorum one becomes aware one is not only commentating upon art, but in fact relating to complex symbols of  psychological and spiritual depth.


Books consulted

C.G.Jung -  Psychology and Religion 1944 CW 13 RKP
Adam Maclean -The Alchemical Mandala  1989 Phanes 2nd edition 2002  

Wiki - links  Tetramorph  -  Andreas Libavius


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