De Lapide Philosophorum

Alchemia by Andreas Libavius (1606)

It was in May 2011 while reading Adam Maclean’s ‘The Alchemical Mandala’(1989) that I first noticed there were a number of  distinct similarities between an illustration reproduced entitled De Lapide Philosophorum to the Layer Monument . 

Hidden away on the west wall of the church of Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, Norwich, the Layer monument is a large slab of  polychrome marble sculpture dating from the early 17th century which commemorates the life of Christopher Layer, a civic dignitary from Norwich long past.

There’s a certain amount of  symbolic play on the very word ‘stone’ and the many philosophical and religious ideas surrounding the symbol of stone. One thinks of Christ’s words in the Gospels – the stone which the builders have rejected has become my corner-stone  - But also of the exhortation by the alchemical author Gerard Dorn - Transform yourselves into living philosophical stones. 

The Italian Renaissance artist and sculptor Michelangelo mused upon the art of sculpture-

The marble not yet carved can hold the form
Of every thought the greatest artist has,
But no conception can yet come to pass
Unless the hand obeys the intellect.

There are other marble sculptures in the city, one thinks of Anne and Patrick Poirier’s 2007 homage to Sir Thomas Browne at the Haymarket consisting of a giant brain in white marble and another large block of white marble with an eye carved on one side it at Hay Hill. Nor can one overlook mentioning the architect George Skipper's splendid Marble Hall of 1912 which uses over 15 different types of marble.

There are even other funerary monuments in Norwich which have four statuettes attached to them.  In the Church of saint Peter Parmentergate there’s the Berney monument a 17th century plaster funerary monument with the female figures of Faith, Hope and Charity accompanied by a old Father Time complete with large sickle,  all standing on the top corners of the monument.

However only the Layer monument with its four statuettes upon its two pilasters  represent  a highly original,  profound  and intriguing example of the religious symbol of the quaternity. Collectively their shared symbolism is a rare example of how the ideas of alchemy and Hermetic philosophy  at times infiltrated and integrated with Christian iconography.

2. Sources

It seems to me that the insights into the symbolism of works of art and literature by C. G. Jung remain among the profoundest and most rewarding of all. Jung’s pioneering work in comparative religion, his study of symbols and their relationship to the psyche, his deep analysis of esoterica such as astrology, cabala, hermetic philosophy and above all else, alchemy, make him a scholar and thinker of some stature. Quite simply Jung’s writings are valuable tools for  our understanding the mindset of many artists and writers, in particular those from the 16th or 17th centuries, more especially any who can be detected as employing themes, symbols or images originating from the western esoteric tradition. I first discovered this when reading Browne some two decades ago. Many of the images, concepts and symbols encountered when reading Browne can be better understood through reference to Jung. Indeed the two physicians have an interesting relationship. One example of how Jung’s writings can enhance our understanding of Sir Thomas Browne’s extraordinary imagery occurs at the apotheosis of the discourse Urn-Burial where Browne declares- Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible sun within us.

Browne’s image of an ‘invisible sun’ lay cold and dormant for centuries. Only in the 20th century was this image remotely understood. Through C.G.Jung's commentary upon books which were once in Sir Thomas Browne’s library, its possible to detect the source of Browne’s symbolism, in this case it’s from the Theatrum Chemicum, a vast anthology of alchemical writings containing the writings of Gerard Dorn, one of Paracelsus’s firmest advocates and author of the image of  an invisible sun  or an imago Dei or image of God as Jung defined it.

More recently the scholarship of Frances Yates and Adam Maclean have enhanced our understanding of  western esoterica and its associated symbolism.  Yates in her pioneering work- ‘The occult philosophy in Elizabethan England’ of 1979, was the first British scholar to take the philosophy of Hermeticism and its place in intellectual history seriously. In more recent times the Glaswegian scholar Adam Maclean, one of the foremost living British scholars of esoterica has devoted many years in the study of alchemy, in particular  to its rich visual imagery. It was while casually browsing through Adam Maclean’s ‘The alchemical mandala’  that I noticed there were a number of distinct similarities between an  illustration reproduced in Maclean’s book to the Layer Monument .

Adam Maclean reproduces all three versions of an illustration entitled ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ taken from a book by the Belgian chemist, Andreas Libavius. The third and final version of these three illustrations throws  new light upon our understanding of the symbolism of the four figurines of the Layer Monument.

 3. Who was Christopher Layer ?

Christopher Layer was descended from the Layers of Bury in Suffolk, the fourth son of William his father who was the first to settle in Norwich and in which city he attained the rank of Sheriff in 1526 and Mayor in 1537.

Christopher Layer was born in 1531, he and his brother Thomas  followed in their father's footsteps by becoming grocer’s in Norwich like their father before them. Christopher  Layer became a Freeman, of Norwich in 1559,  a common councilman by 1564, sheriff of Norwich in 1569-70, an alderman in 1570, a mayor 1581-2 and again 1589-90. He was also a Burgess in Parliament in 1585 and 1597. During his second Parliament term the burgesses for Norwich were appointed to committees concerning navigation, the bishop of Norwich, land reclamation, cloth and malt. It’s recorded that in April 1585 he petitioned for a subsidy of new stuffs made at Norwich.

During his Membership of Parliament Norwich paid him wages of 5s. a day. Christopher Layer imported goods from the Netherlands, investing his wealth  in land and houses in Norwich, at Theberton and elsewhere in Suffolk and at Booton, Cawston, Cringleford and other places in Norfolk.

His attempts to enclose the common at Great Witchingham led him into a long series of lawsuits. He was described by a contemporary  as - ‘a very politique and worldly minded man most regarding his own private commodity’. He and his wife Barbara who was a  daughter of Augustine Steward, had eight children, all  of whom are carved on his monument here.

It’s recorded that the youngest son paid for and supervised the monument’s installation  here. The name of Barbara and her death –date, 1604  has been added at a later date to her husband Christopher’s death Christopher Layer died 19 June 1600 aged 69. The faded Latin inscription upon his monument informs the reader that-

This Urn of cold marble covers Christopher Layer who bore Christ in his heart along with Imperial Minds, Numa known for his justice, Fabius for his legal robe, and Cato for his strict morals.

Numa was the legendary King of Rome,who lived circa 700 BC Fabius  a Roman censor and jurist and Cato a moral philosopher with a Stoical outlook. These ancient Romans reflect Christopher Layer’s own somewhat austere  view-point.

Remembering, as the evidence on the inscription here suggests, that Christopher Layer was an admirer of Classical Roman antiquity it should not be too surprising that the top pair of statuettes Gloria and Pax are distinctly dressed in classical attire of the Roman era. Its of singular importance that Christopher Layer is described as 'bearing Christ in his heart along with Imperial Minds'. His public testimony of Christian faith alongside reverence for the wisdom of Imperial Rome, is an extremely revealing statement which needs to be placed in context of his times.

4. A brief history of the esoteric

The Italian Renaissance scholars Marsilino Ficino and Pico della Mirandola were the first generation of Renaissance scholars to revive an interest in Plato, Pythagoras, the cabbala and  Hermetic philosophy in general.

While Ficino was the translator of Plato’s highly influential philosophical discourse the Timaeus and a body of works collectively known as the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of texts attributed to the mythic Hermes Trismegustus who was  believed to have lived in some remote  past of  remote pre-history,his younger friend Pico della Mirandola promoted the study of Pythagoras and a Christianized form of the Cabbala.

From the late 15th century to the late-seventeenth century, the Neoplatonic tradition as initiated by Ficino’s translation of Plato’s writings alongside a Neo-Pythagorean tradition as endorsed by Pico della Mirandola influenced many artists and thinkers throughout Renaissance Europe, including Norwich’s own Christian hermetic philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne who writing in 1643 boldly declared- I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras, and the secret magic of numbers.

At the centre of the Layer Monument is a family portrait of the Layer family at prayer. Christopher Layer faces his wife Barbara kneeling. The importance of prayer in all strata of Elizabethan and 17th century  society can hardly be over-stated. The seventeenth century Norwich physician Thomas Browne wrote of his relationship to prayer thus- 

To be sure that no day pass without calling upon GOD in a solemn formed prayer, seven times within the compass thereof; that is, in the morning, and at night, and five times between; ...To pray and magnify GOD in the night, and my dark bed, when I could not sleep; to have short utterances whenever I awaked; and when the four o’clock bell awoke me, or my first discovery of the light, to say the collect of our liturgy,

Eternal GOD Who hast safely brought me to the beginning of this day .

To pray in all places where privacy inviteth; in any house, highway, or street; and to know no street or passage in this City which may not witness that I have not forgot GOD and my Saviour in it; and that no parish or town, where I have been, may not say the like.

To take occasion of praying upon the sight of any church, which I see or pass by, as I ride about. Since the necessities of the sick, and unavoidable diversions of my profession, keep me often from church, yet to take all possible care that I might never miss Sacraments upon their accustomed days.

To pray daily and particularly for sick patients, and in general for others, wheresoever, howsoever, under whose care soever; and at the entrance into the house of the sick, to say The peace of GOD be in this place.

In tempestuous weather, lightning and thunder, either night or day, to pray for GOD’S merciful protection upon all men, and His mercy upon their souls and goods.

Upon sight of beautiful persons, to bless GOD in his creatures, to pray for the beauty of their souls, and to enrich them with inward graces to be answerable unto the outward; upon sight of deformed persons, to send them inward grace, and enrich their souls, and give them the beauty of the resurrection. [1]

One wonders given the fact that Christopher Layer was well-read in latin whether he knew of classical latin texts associated with the esoteric. These include Macrobius’s account of Scipio’s soul- journey through the planetary spheres,  and his hearing of the celestial  music of the spheres, and the sole surviving novel from the Latin era, 'The Golden Ass by Apulieus. In 'The Golden Ass' the protagonist is transformed into a donkey, the reader shares a donkey’s perspective upon humanity before the narrator eats a bunch of roses during a ceremony of the cult of Isis  to become human once more.

What is certain is that Christopher Layer achieved his aim, exhibiting his wealth, status and taste for over 400 years now. He clearly wanted to be remembered to posterity-  not only as a pious person but also as a man able to appreciate and afford the very latest in  art . Remembering Christopher Layer’s liking for ancient Roman authors, its not  too surprising that two of the figurines here are  distinctly attired in a Classical  Roman style of dress.

It’s quite exciting to think that for over 400 years the source of the Layer monument’s symbolism has been unknown and hidden. Christopher Layer himself may have delighted in secretive symbolism, indeed there’s a certain amount of playfulness in the many hidden clues in the monuments symbolism.

Like a giant esoteric crossword puzzle, or the known half of a symbol searching for its unknown other half, there’s a playfulness here. Just look how certain symbols are duplicated  and scattered elsewhere, for example the spade, helmet and cherub figure are all duplicated elsewhere on the monument.

There’s also a number of Nationalist symbols on the monument  which allude to Christopher Layer’s patriotism and to Britain’s greatness following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588-   these include the red Rose of the Tudors , the Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland. Which brings us to the question, what kind of art can the Layer monument be defined as ?

5. Mannerism

 The four statuettes of the Layer monument are a quite rare example of the art movement known as  Mannerism, more specifically, Northern Mannerism  in their artistic style.  In his 1967  John Shearman  defines Mannerism as - An artificial style, a style of excess, art for connoisseurs, - Mannerism’s main thematic concerns included the infinite variety of antiquity, especially Roman antiquity, its refinement, elegance and grace.

Shearman noted that Mannerism originated in Rome about 1520. The style continued with undiminished vigour and conviction in secular and especially decorative works in Italy until about 1600, and in the Northern courts (especially Paris, Munich and Prague) until about 1620. The last truly vigorous manifestations were in the North, in a group of Dutch artists from the schools of Haarlem and Utrecht. Shearman lists these characteristics of Mannerism  - Hidden classical references, refinements, interlacing of forms, the unexpected and departures from common usage. Shearman also noted helpfully towards our understanding of the Layer monument –Our distrust of analogies was not shared by the sixteenth century, which inherited from antiquity a habit of drawing parallels as  a matter of course.

But perhaps the most apt of all John Shearman’s observations upon Mannerism with the Layer monument  in mind is his observation that –

Mannerism in religious art is a double offence against the classical concept of decorum. First, it is art which does not primarily express the subject…..second, Mannerism so often leads to exhibitions of nudity and artifice that are not only superfluous, in the functional sense, but also contrary in effect to what is proper to their position. [2]

The art-critic Arnold Hauser defined Mannerism as the particular form in which the achievements of the Italian Renaissance were spread abroad. 

Hauser defines the artistic style of Mannerism as aristocratic, catering for an essentially international cultured class, a refined and exclusive style, with an intellectual and even surrealistic outlook and there is indeed a slightly surreal element to  these four quite different figurines. Hauser noted of Mannerism –

At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse’. 

Most significantly  in identifying the Layer monument’s symbolism Hauser noted - Mannerist art itself delighted in symbols and hidden meanings, its portraiture was animated and widely-varied. With it liking for mythology and lively movement and inclination towards the abstruse in symbolism, there can be little doubt that the Layer Monument is an example, a very rare example of Mannerist art, specifically of Northern Mannerist art. [3]

The Layer monument’s quartet of statuettes would not, one suspects, have been totally out of place in the kunstkammer or art-collection of Rudolph II who reigned as  Holy Roman Emperor of the Hapsburg empire until 1612. During his reign Rudolph was great patron of several Mannerist artists including famously, Archimboldo. His court became a magnet and melting-pot of hermetically-inclined scientists, painters and sculptors and scholars . Rudolph himself was a keen student of the esoteric and a generous host to John Dee when the magus travelled through Bohemia during the 1580’s .

In England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth  the Royal Court and  popular imagination was fond of all manner of riddles, enigmas, puzzles and anagrams. Knowledge of such secretive forms of expression sometimes included a familiarity with the Neoplatonic and Hermetic traditions. Such secrets were not only highly advantageous to communicate beliefs which the Church discouraged the study of, but even infiltrated Christian iconography, including symbolism on funerary monuments.

6.  John Dee

The great British  magus of the 16th century was John Dee.  Born in 1527 and therefore only four years older than Christopher Layer born in 1531, Dee studied mathematics, and was famed for his translation of Euclid’s geometry. His great work is the Monas Hieroglyphica of 1568 a curious glyph which found itself reproduced in books written by his scattered followers throughout Europe in the wake of his extensive travels.  Dee also found favour with the court of Queen Elizabeth.

It was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth from 1558 to 1603 that court masques were staged and performed in which the planets, elements, forces of nature and virtues were allegorized and personified. Elaborate in costume, decor, music and allegory, masques were staged for Elizabeth by her court astrologer, the magus John Dee. Dee also  immersed himself in the study of the Cabbala, the writings of the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus and  Ficino's translation of Plato's  Timaeus.  Hermetically inclined thinkers such as Dee endeavoured to prove that the wisdom of 'the divine Plato', far from being opposed to Christianity was in fact harmonious and compatible to Christian belief.

Plato’s discourse the Timaeus was one of the major sources of the esoteric beliefs of alchemists and Hermetic philosophers alike.. It offered an alternate Creation myth to the Hebrew account in the Book of Genesis and alluded to the lost civilization of Atlantis, it speculated upon sacred geometry and number and crucially for our understanding of the Layer monument Plato proposed the existence of the 'eternal forms' or archetypes. Such types included human types. Plato’s Timaeus  wielded a heavy influence upon the Renaissance  imagination throughout the 16 and 17th centuries throughout Europe.

Alongside Plato and Pythagoras the 16th century saw a interest in the writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Even when the writings attributed the the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus were scholastically identified as written some time after Christ’s birth by Gnostics of the 2nd 3rd CE and were not was widely believed,  part of the great golden chain of an ancient theology passed down from the Egyptian god Thoth inventor of number and letters,  to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, to Moses and Plato and Pythagoras,  Hermetic thought  influenced the thinking of many artists and  thinkers  scattered throughout Europe until the eighteenth century.

As late as 1635 the physician Thomas Browne for one could boldly declare-  The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes. [4] 

7. Paracelsus

The other great figure in the history of the  esoteric from the early 16th century is the Swiss physician and alchemist Parcelsus.  Theophrastus Bombastus Paracelsus believed that the true purpose of Alchemy was not for the vulgar purpose of making gold, but rather for the production of medicine. He enjoyed inventing new words to describe his peculiar form of alchemy which included a form of embryonic psychology using astral imagery. He coined the word  'Spagyria', deriving from the Greek words spao and ageiro, meaning  to 'separate and to combine' to describe his distinctive form of alchemy.

Paracelsus  also wrote of the mysterious Scailaoe,- four  different kinds of virtues or psychic entities. He also favoured the number four proposing that in the  four elements there lived four mythic creatures, namely, salamanders, sylphs, gnomes and sprites. We have Paracelsus to thank for the Garden Gnome who is a direct inheritance from his deep interest in the folk-lore and the health of the Austrian mining community.

Paracelsus’s influence upon both medicine and alchemy was immense and long-lasting. Though many have denied it the Norwich physician Sir Thomas Browne was himself  a critical follower of Paracelsus. Browne not only possessed an edition of the complete works of  Paracelsus but also many books by his followers. Most remarkably of all the very word Spagyricci which described Paracelsus’s type of alchemy can be found inscribed upon Browne’s coffin-plate which translated from Latin reads- –sleeping here his spagyric body converts the lead to gold.

Paracelsus was by all accounts, a verbally out-spoken advocate of his own brand of alchemy so it’s not too surprising that he attracted many critics, one such critic was Andreas Libavius.  

8. Andreas Libavius.

Andrea Libavius was a German academic and chemist who was influenced up to a point by the new teachings of Paracelsus in that he accepted and advanced the use of the new chemical remedies in medicine as advocated by the Swiss physician, whilst adhering theoretically to the traditional Aristotelian and Galenist teachings.. It’s Aristotle and Galen who appear in place of honour on the title-page of his main work, the Alchymia which was first published at Frankfurt in 1597.

It’s far from improbable that Christopher Layer either owned or knew of Andreas Libavius’ Alchemia,which was a European best-seller going through several editions, each has  a differing illustration of  symbolism surrounding the acquiring of the Philosopher’s Stone  In Alchemia. The German academic attacks and criticizes all form of Paracelsian mysticism in his best-seller Alchemia while also revealing himself  as well-acquainted with the Swiss physician’s esoteric ideas.

Frances Yates noted of Libavius - Libavius is strongly against  all theories involving correspondences including the macro-microcosmic harmony, against Magia and Cabala, against Hermes Trismegistus (from whose supposed writings he  nevertheless makes many quotations), against Agrippa and Trithemius — in short he is against the Renaissance tradition.’

There’s one chapter in Libavius’s book Alchemia  entitled The Philosopher’s Stone with an illustration of the stages and processes  of acquiring the Philosopher’s Stone. It has a distinct similarity to the four statuettes  of the Layer monument.

In total there are 3 variants of the De Lapide Philosophorum, a complex illustration explaining the  procedure on how to  acquire the fabled Philosophers Stone.

When in 1943 C.G.Jung assembled his lavishly illustrated book of alchemical imagery, selecting imagery from various historical epochs, he chose the second of the three variations of the illustration De Lapide Philosophorum in which the King and Queen are shown hold a Lion and an Eagle respectively.

Although this third version with its labels of GLORIA and LABOR  confirm Libavius’ best-seller as being the probable  source of  the symbolism of the Layer monument, Version 2 is  also critical in identifying and confirming the Layer Monument’s symbolism.

9.  Pax and Gloria

Standing approximately 9 inches/ 25 centimetres high, all four figurines are extremely animated with their bare feet standing upon a different base.  Although they are personifications of specific Christian spiritual entities, they’re best appreciated without too much attention to the restrictiveness of the stamped label above each of them, labels often confine the imagination. A word or two upon how the monument was constructed and erected. It consists of several pieces, a ledge and pediment above. The background of clouds and sun would, one imagines, have been painted before the family statuary at prayer was installed. The two pilasters may have been worked on quite separately. It’s not improbable they could have been transported from a mainland studio via ship to Norwich.


The figure of Pax holds a palm symbol of Victory while treading the weapons or war underfoot. There’s a distinctly downwards thrust to his movement as with Labor.

The figure of Pax is associated with Christ who in Isaiah is known as 'the Prince of Peace' .  In Psalm 46 there is the verse - He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in fire.  The Peace of Christ was cherished by the early  Greek Fathers as a state of spiritual contemplation and in early Christian liturgy Christ was called Sol invictus (invincible sun). Christ's 'solar' nature as Sol invictus is  reinforced in his destroying the weapons of war.

In essence the symbolism of Pax is just as would be expected of Hermetic thought,  an  integration  and conflation of  the figure of Christ to the archetype of the hero and ‘wise ruler’ of the  pre-Christian era. The figure of Pax here could as easily be seen as representing King Cyrus, Alexander the Great, the Roman Emperors Augustus or  Julius Caesar or even the Greek god Apollo

Gloria- a bare-breasted woman standing upon a crescent moon. She’s pointing toward heaven and holds a sprig of myrtle a symbol of compassion in her hand. Note the skillful sculpture of drapery to achieve a diaphanous see-through effect and the five gold tassels upon her midriff.. In many German churches a Mundsickle Madonna can be found standing upon a crescent moon. But equally a woman standing upon a crescent moon also frequently  occurs in alchemical iconography. Once again  the allusion to the Virgin Mary  here is far from clear, she could as easily be mistaken as a  ‘Great mother’ figure of antiquity such as Diana, Artemis or Isis.

The words Pax and Gloria here may be a shorthand allusion to the liturgy of Gloria in Excelsis et in terra Pax. (Glory to God in the heavens and on earth peace).

Together  Pax and Gloria represent not only the reward of Peace and Glory for the faithful Christian believer  but may also be interpreted, as is evident from Libavius’s example,  as representing one  of the most common-place of all alchemical symbols, the Conjunctio, or Chemical Marriage, the  Hieros gamos or sacred Wedding between Sol et Luna. symbolizing the completion of the alchemical opus.

The lower pair of Vanitas and Labor on the Layer monument are  equally potent in their symbolism-

The figure of Labor represents the human condition. Although old, as indicated by his grey beard and hair,  nonetheless   he’s engaged in hard manual labour as anyone who has ever wielded a spade knows.  A skull rests at his feet. The human condition is depicted here as one in which necessity and a close relationship with the earth is mankind's lot, as the masterly portraiture of his care-worn features indicate.

But the most important of all for an interpretation of Mercurius is his relation to Saturn. Mercurius senex is identical with Saturn, and to the earlier alchemists especially, it is not quicksilver, but the lead associated with Saturn, which usually represents the prima materia.... In Khunrath Mercurius is the "salt of Saturn," or Saturn is simply Mercurius..Like Mercurius, Saturn is hermaphroditic. Saturn is "an old man on a mountain, and in him the natures are bound with their complement [i.e., the four elements], and all this is in Saturn". The same is said of Mercurius. Saturn is the father and origin of Mercurius, therefore the latter is called "Saturn's child". Quicksilver comes "from the heart of Saturn or is Saturn......Like the planetary spirit of Mercurius, the spirit of Saturnus is "very suited to this work".  [5]

The figure of Vanitas a  playful and chubby bubble-blowing boy with soap pipe and bowl  another popular vanitas symbol upon early 17th century funerary monuments. Here he could not be more allusive to the alchemical deity of Mercury in  his symbolism if he tried. The figure of a boy standing upon a golden ball or rotundum to represent his world-wide influence and winged communication is a motif  frequently encountered in alchemical art.

10. Skull and Sun

There are many other lesser symbols on the Layer monument . The Cross-quartered spade and sickle and  bones complete with four –fold decorative foliage emphasis and reinforce a sense of symmetry and  four –square or four-foldedness as does the  upper pair of cherub and rose, it’s as  if Christopher Layer himself is  informing us that he  himself is a four-square kind of man.

Among the most common of all momento mori (remember Death)   vanitas symbols are the  skull - a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay, bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches,  hourglasses  and musical instruments all  of which symbolize the brevity of life; Fruit, flowers and butterflies can also be interpreted in the same way.
The Layer monument is crowded with Vanitas symbols - not only is there  a skull at its very centre, but  there are also bubbles as well as over-ripe and decomposing pomegranate fruit  complete with worms crawling out of them.

One of the commonest of all symbols representing God in both Christian and alchemical imagery is  that of the Sun. Typically, on the Layer monument this symbol of God is fittingly only half-visible or discernable to the viewer, its hemisphere  which is highly stylized and with numerous wheel-tooth flames may allude to the 72 names of God of the Hebrew Kabbalah. The clouds from which the sun is emerging gives us a good clue as to the painting skills of our anonymous Antwerp master, if indeed they too were painted by him.

The skull in addition to being a frequently encountered Vanitas symbol in the alchemical tradition may also be interpreted not only as a symbol of rememberance of death but as a symbol of the cycle of initiation through the death of the body is the prelude to rebirth at a higher level of life  in which spirit rules. As a symbol of physical death, the skull is similar to the alchemical apparatus of the Crucible or  the Vessel  from which, like from the grave the new man rises and from which the old man is annihilated in order to become transformed. In this respect the skull as a symbol of the vessel is the place where the opposites reside, clash and are reconciled .In this respect there’s a relationship between the Vessel and the womb as places of incubation.

There’s a certain amount of diagonal tension between these four statuettes, the eye is constantly pulled between the two golden motifs shared by Vanitas and Gloria, both of whom indicate a certain amount of upwards motion in body posture, and the diagonal pull of the much darker in coloration pair of Labor and Pax, both of whom have a downward thrust to their motion as indicated by their legs.  The eye is constantly drawn towards the skull which occupies the very centre of the monument.  There is thus a tension between the fourness of the quaternity and the 4 plus one in the centre pattern of the Quincunx.

11. On symbols

C.G. Jung once remarked that symbols were living experiences and not intellectual opinions but originally the term "symbolism" comes from the word "symbol" which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, which in turn originate from classical Greek symbolon, an object cut in half which was used as a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two halves.

In ancient Greece, the symbolon, was a shard of pottery which was inscribed and then broken into two pieces which were given to the ambassadors from two allied city states as a record of the alliance.

According to Jung a symbol is an image which contains a concept or inner meaning. Just as a plant produces flowers, the psyche organically produces its own symbols. Like music, symbols are more immediate and transcendent than words.  Religion itself is a system of symbols which incorporate ideas and beliefs which are accepted as true, even though they cannot be verified empirically.

.Jung's  integration of hermeticism and  alchemy's symbolism to his analytical psychology opened the door for it and  interrelated subjects such as Gnosticism, Astrology and the Cabbala to be respected as worthy fields of enquiry to understand the workings of the psyche; at least amongst the open-minded. It was Jung who observed that the same definite motifs reoccur in the myths, fairy tales and legends of World literature and such mythological figures were defined by him as Archetypes.  During the Renaissance Christian theology had no clear-cut view, consideration or answer to psychological concerns. Alchemists and thus alchemist-physicians such as Paracelsus, Gerard Dorn and Sir Thomas Browne were able through the employment of symbols to debate upon topics considered near heretical to the dogma of the Christian faith, namely the workings of the mind and the existence of the unconscious psyche.

12. Four Elements

The  rich symbolism of the Layer Monument may  be interpreted as expressing a totality- in this case as a Mandala of the self  consisting of  four quite distinct spiritual components which together make up a totality. It can also be discerned that the four figurines of the Layer Monument  correspond to one of the most commonplace of  all Creation templates, the four elements. Gloria clearly has a symbolic relationship to the moon and therefore with the tide and the element of water, so too her counterpart Pax  who is utterly solar in his symbolism  can be nominated as representing the element of Fire. It follows from the quite explicit activities which the lower case pair of figurines are engaged upon, namely blowing bubbles and digging earth that they too represent  elemental forces in the medieval schemata, namely  the elements earth and air.

This interpretation is confirmed by the fact that in  version 2 of Libavius’s illustration, the King and Queen encased in a bubble are each shown holding  upon a leash an animal associated with the Tetramorph namely the Lion and the Eagle. C.G.. Jung reproduces the ‘explanation’ and ‘key’ to  version 2 of the illustration  De Lapide Philosophorum thus -

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.
The queen, crowned with a silver crown, strokes a white or silver eagle standing beside her. [6]

The Lion represents Leo astrologically and the Element of Fire while the Eagle rules the Watery sign of Scorpio as well  representing the Gospel of Saint John.

C.G. Jung recognized that the four elements were a symbol of totality observing-

Like the four seasons and the four quarters of heaven, the four elements are a quaternary system of orientation which always expresses a totality.  [7] 


Just as Planetary symbolism can be detected and designated to the upper pair of Gloria and Pax  in the form of Sun and Moon so  to the lower-case pair representing the human condition can be interpreted as having quite specific planetary symbolism.

In the realm of alchemical and astrological correspondences the planet Saturn is the ruler of time and old age, melancholy, grey beards and even of digging and agriculture. Saturn is also the planet of the solitary and imprisoned as well as the deepest  insight of the scholar. A more fitting example of Saturnine attributes could not be found in the statuette of Labor with his highly expressive of suffering features

C.G. Jung would one suspects, immediately have recognised why Vanitas and Labor are paired together, for he noted-  Graybeard and boy belong together. The pair of them play a considerable role in alchemy as symbols of Mercurius. [8] 

14.  Four 

It’s well worth remembering that at the heart of the western esoteric tradition lay the time-honoured schemata of correspondences and analogy  which ranges through the created order of minerals,  metals, vegetables, animal, planetary kingdoms and included human moral or psychic entities. So it should not be too surprising that correspondences within each of the four figurines here also occur, especially when one contemplates each without too much attention to their  label, a great restriction to the imagination.

Collectively they consist of a quaternity of four. The symbolism of fourness is explored in great depth by C.G.Jung who even based his psychology upon four psychic components. Jung defined the  quaternio thus-

The quarternity 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 dividing 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. [9]

15. Tetramorph

One of the most common example of a quaternity of symbols occurs in the Tetramorph. The origins of the tetramorph (an ugly word simply meaning four shapes from tetra-four  and morph-shape ) can be traced as far back as pre-history. The earliest surviving example is the Egyptian sphinx  which is a composite creature of bull, lion, eagle and man. Babylonian sculpture also depict such composite four-fold beasts and it is in all probability from the Babylonian example that the most common and frequent quaternity that the Christian symbolism has evolved from . In Christian symbolism the tetramorph is associated with the four evangelists of the Gospels  They consist of three animals, and one angelic form and are alluded to by Jewish prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah in their visions. They also feature in the 27th and last book of the New Testament in the apocalyptic vision of Saint John of the 'end times'.

By 200 AD the early church Father Irenaeus argued that it was just as natural for four Gospels to exist as there are four winds and four quarters of the earth. It was however  3rd century  early church father Saint Jerome who  was responsible for nominating the symbols of the lion, the bull, the angel and the eagle to represent each of the four evangelists in Christian iconography  and  as attributes of Christ’s qualities.  By the 8th century of the Christian era the symbols of the tetramorph found themselves depicted upon many intricately illuminated manuscript including the Book of Kells. At the centre of many tetramorphs the figure of Christ is shown indicating that he is a Pantokrator or ruler over all.

 The perfect human body of Christ was originally represented as a winged man, and was later adapted for St Matthew in order to symbolise Christ’s humanity. In the context of the tetramorphs, the winged man indicates Christ’s humanity and reason, as well as Matthew’s account of the Incarnation of Christ. The lion of St Mark represents courage, resurrection, and royalty, coinciding with the theme of Christ as king in Mark’s gospel. It is also interpreted as the Lion of Judah as a reference to Christ’s royal lineage.  The ox, or bull, is an ancient Christian symbol of redemption and life through sacrifice,  signifying Luke’s records of Christ as a priest and his ultimate sacrifice for the future of humanity. The eagle represents the sky, heavens, and the human spirit, paralleling the divine nature of Christ.

However the symbols of the Tetramorph in fact originate from the astrological Zodiac of Babylonian astrology and collectively  represent the 'Fixed' Cross of the zodiac. Even though the King of Insects the Scorpion has been substituted for the much better-known Regal creature, the Eagle, at the heart of the Christian tetramorph the four zodiac signs of Leo, Taurus, Scorpio and Aquarius can be detected.

The Christian tetramorph is a symbol which binds together Old Testament prophets with New Testament evangelists  and is thus a symbol of unity which symbolically links  and connects the two halves of the Bible Old and New together  as a unity.  The Christian tetramorph is also a fine example of syncreticism, that is, how symbols can change their meaning and significance over time to different peoples and cultures - sometimes quite dramatically from their origins –

The collective symbols of the Christian tetramorph can be found in many Churches, including at Saint John Maddermarket, Norwich in its stained glass windows. both in the east and west windows and carved in the  gates of the nave.

Although the tetramorph is the best-known example of all quaternity symbols expressing a totality there are many other quaternio symbols. The Layer monument  itself is a fine example of a quaternio of symbols, which express a collective totality. Although outwardly a product of Christian iconography, the Layer quaternio is in fact a highly syncretic fusion of Christian and  esoteric symbolism.

Crucially the four statuettes of the Layer monument  may also be interpreted  as a quaternio or four-fold symbols which represent  the Self in its totality. They each  express quite different  archetypal components of human spiritual life and activity.

16. Four Archetypes

The  origins of the archetypal hypothesis date back as far as Plato. In the seventeenth century Francis Bacon and Sir Thomas Browne used the word 'archetype' in their writings, Indeed Browne in The Garden of Cyrus attempts to depict  the archetypes in his citing of symbolic proper-names,  and I will return to Browne’s archetypal endeavours later.

Plato's eternal ideas or concepts  were proposed by the Greek philosopher as  pure mental forms that were imprinted in the soul before it was born into the world. They were collective in the sense that they embodied the fundamental characteristics of a thing rather than its specific peculiarities.  C.G. Jung himself compared his concept of the archetypes to Platonic ideas and in his psychology the archetypes are unconscious symbols which express collective models and deeply influence humanity. As they are collectively shared by humanity they are relatively unaffected by cultural bias; the self-same archetypal figures frequently appear not only in fairy-tales and world mythology but also in the unconscious world of dreams. the Archetypes - the perennial, yet ever-changing dramatis personae of the human condition include such figures as the lover, the hero, the old wise man, the great mother, the trickster and the helpful animal.

As they represent all forms of the human condition the Archetypes are limitless and cannot be definitively listed . They have the power to unite the opposites and  to mediate between the unconscious and the conscious mind and accordingly throw a bridge between present-day consciousness and the natural unconscious instinctive wholeness of primitive times. [10]

Perhaps the reason why the elements and planetary symbolism can be detected in the Layer Monument is ultimately because each figurine represents  a quite distinct archetype. These  I suggest are- -

 'the wise ruler'  or hero figure - here portrayed  in super-human form, opposed to war and treading its weapons underfoot;

-   'the great mother' standing upon a crescent moon she compassionately  points towards heaven ,

-  'the old man', - here complete with gray beard enduring the effects of time. He may well represent Primordial or Adamic man.

And finally- The child/trickster figure, here playfully blowing bubbles, as Mercurius  the guiding psychopomp of  the recently deceased as well as  the  elusive major 'deity' of alchemy.

17. Alchemical symbolism of the statue

 In a lengthy foot-note Jung lists numerous  texts from antiquity and the Renaissance in which the statue is featured. In the middle Ages Thomas Norton  in his Ordinall of Alchemy (1477) depicts the seven metals/planets as statues. The Palatine alchemical author Johann Daniel Mylius  in his Philosophia Reformata of 1622 wrote -'It is a great mystery to create souls, and to mould the lifeless body into a living statue,' while in an anthology of alchemical texts Aurora Consurgens (1566 ) Mother Alchemy or mater alchemia is likewise a statue of different metals.  So are the seven statues in Raymund Lully, while Senor in his  De Chemica states, 'We warm its water, which is extracted from the hearts of statues'  and also, 'Venerate the souls in statues for their dwelling is in them'.

Jung summarized the various ways in which the statue is associated with  alchemy stating-

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 .  [11] 

The symbolism of Number along with colour is embedded deep in the human psyche as primordial of all symbols. It can be argued that every number is of some particular psychological significance.. Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testament number symbolism is frequently encountered . The numbers 7, 12 and 40 being much favoured.

The number four was of especial interest to C.G.Jung and Jung even based his psychology upon the number four declaring that- The orienting system of consciousness has four aspects which correspond to four empirical functions.: thinking, feeling, sensation (sense-perception), intuition. This quaternity is an archetypal arrangement.  [12]

Jung’s four empirical functions correspond well to the Layer monument and as if with the Monument in view he once stated-

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.  [13] 

As if one could doubt the Layer Monument's significance as an example of a complexio oppositorum that is a complex of opposites, Jung once more as if describing the Layer monument quaternio remarks-

Like all archetypes, the self has a paradoxical character. It is male and female, old man and child, powerful and helpless, large and small. The self is a true 'complexio oppositorum'.  [14]

Among the many opposites contained within the Later Quaternio include - Young/Old, Time/Space Heavenly/Earthly, Male/Female, Pleasure/Suffering, immortal and mortal - the trivial pursuit of bubble-blowing is contrasted to the essential survival activity of digging.

It should be remembered that Polarity that is, the linking of opposites was a primary quest and technique of much alchemical symbolism.

Just as the upper pair of Pax and Gloria contrast in terms of spatial location, the eternal 'heavenly' realms, so to the figures of Labor and Vanitas represent a temporal dimension of time in  mortal, earthly existence, thus the essential co-ordinates of Time and Space may be attributed to the Layer Monument. C.G. Jung explains this essential relationship in the quaternity-

Space and time form a psychological  a priori, an aspect of the archetypal quaternity which is altogether indispensable for acquiring knowledge of physical processes.   [15] Vol 9 ii: 40

18. Conclusion

Although the template of the symbolism of the Layer monument originates from a highly critical author of Paracelsus, namely Libavius, the ideas of Paracelsus provide us with further insight into the quaternio’s symbolism. The portraiture, posture and gesture of each figurine in contrast to Libavius’s wooden figures is however quite dramatic and active in posture.

 Collectively the  four figurines may each be interpreted as expressing archetypal components of human spiritual life and activity.

It’s interesting to note that in the Swiss physician Paracelsus's writings one encounters  the four Scaiolae who are defined as - Spiritual powers, qualities, virtues, depending on the quality and quantity of the elements that produce them. Such powers are thought, love, hate, imagination, hope, fear.

Martin Ruland who compiled a dictionary of alchemy in 1606 under Rudolph the second’s patronage and had a wide knowledge of contemporary Paracelsist literature, defines the scaiolae  as - “spiritual powers of the mind” qualities and faculties which are four-fold, to correspond with the four elements. [15] 

C.G. Jung noted that the god associated with alchemy, Hermes is often associated with roundness and a squareness. Hermes is also called quadrangular and in general is connected with the number four. Jung continues ‘ It is east to see why such qualities made Mercurius an eminently suitable symbol for the mysterious transforming substance of alchemy: for this is round and square, i.e. a totality consisting of four parts (four elements). Greek depictions of Hermes often portray him as having four faces symbolizing his world-wide influence.

In the old  alchemical treatise the “Consilium it is explained that the “philosophical  man” consists of the ‘four natures of the stone’.CW12:209  while in the alchemical anthology entitled the Rosarium  of 1550 one reads  ‘Our stone is from the four elements’.  [16]

Layer upon layer of meaning and interpretation can be discerned within the Layer monuments complex symbolism– what,  for example of the four-fold schemata defining the whole person as consisting of  body, mind, spirit and soul . These too arguably, can be interpreted as clicking firmly into place in the esoteric template of the Layer Monument as can the four definitions of early Greek science hot, wet, cold and dry.

 There is the possibility that the placing of the skull at the very centre of the monument is central to any interpretation of the Layer Monument as a mandala. Nowadays the word ‘Mandala’ is used to denote any pattern or design which maps the psyche and its components. The skull at the centre of the Layer monument is the pivotal point around which  the symbolism of all four figurines revolve. For C.G.Jung-

'the Mandala encompasses, protects and defends the psychic totality against outside influences and seeks to unite the opposites and is an individuation symbol' [17]

Jung acknowledged that 'The quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx ) does occur as a symbol of wholeness ( in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely. Astoundingly however he identified the Quincunx pattern as none other than 'a symbol of the quinta essentia  which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone. [18]The Quincunx pattern is here used as  a symbol of totality and wholeness and the  self-knowledge of the alchemists.

It’s in his discourse, The Garden of Cyrus, having completed his quest in discernment of  the pattern of the Quincunx throughout art and nature,  that Thomas Browne exclaims - ‘A large field  is yet left to  sharper discerners to enlarge upon this order, to search out the quaternio’s and figured draughts of this order’.

A large field is indeed yet left to sharper discerners to enlarge upon the extraordinary  rich and profound in associative symbolism  which  is displayed upon the Layer monument.

The Layer monument is a complex fusion of Christian and hermetic symbolism. Its symbolism demonstrates how the ideas of alchemy and Hermetic philosophy at times infiltrated and integrated into Christianity and its iconography. The Layer monument is also an extremely rare example of Northern mannerism sculpture – as a work of religious art it is a complex and profound work of symbolism based upon the Quaternio and ultimately the quincunx pattern too.

In the final analysis, the symbolism of Layer monument originates as much from the Renaissance tradition of  painting and art as from the scholarship of  Ficino and Mirandola. From Ficino and Mirandola’s propagation of Plato and Pythagoras,  there followed - with much added embellishment from figures such as John Dee and Paracelsus, a deepening and widening of knowledge of  the western esoteric tradition of hermetic and alchemical thought, involving not only the time honoured symbolism of the elements and planets but also of number and archetype. Such thinking influenced artists such as Archimboldo, De Vries Wengler, Bronzini and our very own anonymous master sculptor from Antwerp to engage in a form of art known as Mannerism - an art-movement which drew it’s inspiration from mythology, symbolism and the abstruse in general even when commissioned as here in church art.

Individually each of the four statuettes of the Layer monument  are sophisticated and intriguing works of art which may be described not only as a rare examples of Northern Mannerist sculpture but collectively as four elements of an alchemical mandala.  As noted earlier, C.G. Jung's collected writings contain numerous insights applicable to such an interpretation.

Frances Yates - The occult philosophy in Elizabethan England’ pub. RKP 1979
Adam Maclean -The Alchemical Mandala

[1] Sir Thomas Browne Commonplace notebooks
[2] John Shearman -Mannerism
[3]  Arnold Hauser - Social History of Art, Volume 2: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque   pub. Routledge  1951
[4] Religio Medici edit. C.A.Patrides Penguin 1977
[5] CW 13: 274
[6] CW12:400
[7] CW 13:207
[8]  CW 9 i:39
[9] vol. 9ii. 381
[10] C.W. 9 I 293
[11] CW 14 :569
[12] CW 13:207
[13] Vol 9 ii: 245
[14] CW  9 i: 355
[15] 13:206
[16] CW12:220
[17] C. W.  18: 1602
[18]  C. W.  10:737

Post a Comment