Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Dr. Browne and the alchemical mandala

When first appraised as a two-in-one, unified work, literary critics declared Thomas Browne's discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) to be 'a paradox and a cosmic vision' and 'one of the deepest, complex, and most symbolically pregnant statements upon the great double theme of mortality and eternity'.

However, when those perceptive comments were made, almost 300 years after the first  publication of Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, Browne's relationship to Western esoteric traditions had been little, if ever, discussed. Its only relatively recently that the many misapprehensions and prejudices which once surrounded Western esoteric disciplines such as Hermetic philosophy and alchemy have evaporated, primarily through  the demise of Christianity as the dominant arbiter of spiritual values.

Primarily through the ground-breaking scholarship of writers such as Frances Yeats and Adam Maclean in Britain, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman in America, and above all others the Swiss psychologist, C. G. Jung, we now possess the analytical tools necessary to understand and appreciate the vital influence which Western esoteric disciplines once wielded upon 'alchemystical' philosophers such as Thomas Browne. 'Though overlooked by all', Browne's discourses, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are now revealed to be supreme works of Hermetic philosophy in the canon of English literature.
A quick perusal of the many esoteric titles listed as once in Browne's library swiftly dispels the notion that the philosopher-physician's interest in Western esotericism was merely casual, nor is there any reason to believe he ever deviated from his declaration in Religio Medici (1643) that-

'The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible'. [1]

And in fact Browne makes allusion and reference to concepts associated with Western esotericism in each and every one of his writings. 

Composed during the 17th century, the 'Golden Age' of alchemy, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus tick each and every box required of a mandala. Their polarity and symmetry, alongside their visual imagery, as well as the multiplicity of geometric forms and numbers encountered in The Garden of Cyrus permit a confident identification of Browne's diptych as forming an alchemical mandala, ingeniously crafted and unique in Western Literature. Crucially, Browne's discourses Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus engage the reader in the mandala's highest function, as art objects of great beauty, inspiring contemplation and capable of imparting spiritual wisdom to a receptive beholder.  

This essay discusses how Sir Thomas Browne's two discourses are structured upon templates associated with mandalas, namely circularity, symmetry and polarity. It concludes with a look at the historical background influencing Browne's creative motivation in writing two philosophical discourses and analysis of  the symbol of the Quincunx;  both of which take on new meaning when viewed through C. G. Jung's understanding of alchemy. Firstly however, its worthwhile clarifying what exactly a mandala is. 

The word 'mandala' originates from a Sanskrit word meaning 'disc' and many mandalas are circular in shape. Defined also as a geometric configuration of symbols which can be used as a spiritual guidance tool, mandalas are universal, they can be found not only in Tibetan Buddhist religious art, but also in Christian iconography, as well as the iconography of Western esoteric traditions such as alchemy, astrology and the kabbalah. Although usually associated as visual art-works, mandalas are not exclusively visual. The German composer J.S. Bach's late musical work Die Kunst der Fuge  (The Art of Fugue BVW 1080) with its  meditative and abstract, yet thematically related canons and fugues, is in structure, content and function an aural representation of a mandala [2]. In nature many species of flower have radiating, wheel-like petals and circular centres, making them mandala-like in structure with their beauty inviting contemplation. In India there's a dance known as the nyithya dance which is named the mandala dance, whilst in the French choreographer Maurice Bejart's interpretation of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, a mandala  is formed by dancers with their sacrificial victim at its centre (below).

In 'The Alchemical Mandala: A survey of the mandala in the western esoteric traditions' (1989) leading British authority on alchemy, Adam Maclean (b.1948, Glasgow) discusses over thirty mandalas taken from the iconography of 17th century European alchemical literature. Each Western esoteric mandala is accompanied by the author's insightful knowledge of alchemy's rich and complex symbolism. Maclean notes that Western mandalas are an important but neglected aspect of art history which urgently require the attention of scholars and historians. From his generous reproduction of all three mandala variants in Andrea Libavius' Alchemia (1606) conclusive evidence of the seventeenth century funerary monument known as the Layer monument was cemented in 2013 [3].

Returning to the dominant themes and imagery of Urn Burial and the Garden of Cyrus. Inspired by a recent archaeological discovery in Norfolk, Urn-Burial opens with a survey of the burial rites and customs of various nations, highlighting Browne's comparative religion studies. Imagery of darkness, night, sleep and the invisible pervade its pages. Life's ending's and beliefs about death are sombrely surveyed, and Browne the doctor reminds his reader of their mortality, the inevitability of their death and the unlikeliness of their being remembered very long. Urn-Burial has been lauded throughout the centuries for its stately, ornate Baroque flourishes of prose. Whilst being the strongly Christian and stoical half of the diptych it also includes mention of ghosts, spirits, vampirism and even altered states of  spiritual consciousness. Urn-Burial has been described as a threnody to the dead of the English Civil war. At a time when England's population was estimated to have been a little over 5 million its estimated that over 200,000 lives were lost in the seven year period of the English Civil war (1642-49). Exceeding anything England has ever experienced to the present-day.  English society was further psychologically traumatised when living under the experimental, Puritan Republic of Cromwell (1650 -59).

In complete polarity, The Garden of Cyrus examines life's visible beginnings, including germination and growth in botany. Its hasty in style and playful in tone, whilst also repeatedly demonstrating the ubiquity of the number five and the Quincunx pattern in art, nature and religious symbolism. Imagery involving Light, optics and growth crowd its pages. Overtly hermetic in content,  its alludes to several esoteric disciplines which  Browne subscribed to, including Paracelsus, physiognomy and the kabbalah. The discourse also features Browne's highly original proper-name and place name symbolism, often originating from Biblical and Ancient world sources; whilst its central chapter is crowded with numerous sharp-eyed botanical observations, botany being an essential pursuit for physicians at the time. 

Just how The Garden of Cyrus hasn't been positively identified as a literary writing influenced by hermetic philosophy before now remains a great mystery; its very first page features major themes, symbols and preoccupations associated with western esoteric traditions. Opening with the patron "deity" associated with Paracelsian alchemy, namely Vulcan, featuring Browne’s study of comparative religion, employing highly original spiritual-optical imagery, speculating upon the Creation and life’s beginnings, citing Plato’s discourse Timaeus, (the supreme authority for Hermetic philosophers) and finally, conjuring the potent alchemical 'coniunctionis' symbol of Sol et Luna, Browne could not spell out the esoteric theme of his discourse harder if he tried.  Little wonder  that for three and a half centuries its pages have baffled most and delighted few, such as the Romantic poet, Coleridge for example. [4]

Browne reconciled the wisdom of Western esoteric traditions such as alchemy and the kabbalah to Christianity in exactly the same way as the vanguard Renaissance advocates of esotericism, Marsilio Ficino (b.19th October 1433- d.1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494); by giving credence to a Prisca Theologia, a belief in a single, true theology shared by all religions and whose wisdom is passed on in a golden chain through a series of mystics and prophets which included Moses and Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato. In particular, the mythic Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus or ‘thrice greatest’ (being the greatest priest, philosopher and king) was appropriated by Hermetic philosophers as a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christ. In reality the writings known as the Corpus Hermeticum  attributed to  Hermes Trismegistus originated from the early Christian era, and not before, as believed. Such imaginative comparative religion sanctioned the study of pagan philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, and justified the Bible's antiquity, wisdom and  superiority to devout Christians.  

It was Frank Huntley who is credited as the first to identify the circular nature of Browne's discourses. Huntley saw evidence of Browne's creative intent of the circle uniting his two Discourses in the penultimate paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus where imagery  involving night, darkness, sleep and death returns; thus Browne's essay on life's beginnings, The Garden of Cyrus unites with Urn Burial with its thematic concern of life's endings and imagery of darkness, night and sleep. Huntley viewed this return of Urn-Burial's theme and imagery as evidence of  Browne utilizing imagery of the tail-eating snake of alchemy, known as the Ouroboros, shaping his twin Discourses' overall structure [5]. Browne had reflected upon the tail-eating snake or Ouroboros in his medical essay A Letter to a Friend  (c.1656) -

'that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho' Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it. 

The conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus uses imagery distinctly allusive to the Ouroboros. Browne reassures  his  reader,  both contemporary and future, of a return to social and political stability.
'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven'.                                                                                                                               
An early visual realization of the Ouroboros has the motto Hen et Pan (One is All) inscribed at its centre (below). The Ouroboros was adopted by Gnostics of the early Christian era and later by Renaissance alchemists as symbolic of their art and its considered to be the basic mandala of alchemy. Note how in the Gnostic illustration below duality or polarity is highlighted through the use of black and white, not unlike what is termed the basic mandala of eastern esotericism, the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol.

One of C.G. Jung's greatest achievements was his discovery that at its deepest strata human consciousness is undifferentiated, thus symbols originating from civilizations remote to each other in time and geography nevertheless often display striking similarities. The symbols of the Greek Ouroboros (above) and the Chinese Yin Yang symbol (below) express the self-same duality or polarity, and balanced view of the total forces of good and evil, life and death.

If Urn-Burial  with its grave meditations upon human mortality and death can be said to be the gritty and dark underbelly of Browne's literary serpent, then The Garden of Cyrus with its repeated demonstrations of 'how God geometrizeth and observeth order', is surely the decorative, designed upper half of Browne's Ouroboros. And indeed, along with the menagerie of birds, insects and animals mentioned in The Garden of Cyrus  several species of snake are included, thus -

 'A like correspondency in figure is found in the skins and outward teguments of animals, whereof a regardable part are beautiful by this texture. As the backs of several Snakes and Serpents, elegantly remarkable in the Aspis, and the Dart-snake, in the Chiasmus and larger decussations upon the back of the Rattlesnake, and in the close and finer texture of the Mater formicarum, or snake that delights in Ant-hills; whereby upon approach of outward injuries, they can raise a thicker Phalanx on their backs, and handsomely contrive themselves into all kindes of flexures: Whereas their bellies are commonly covered with smooth semi-circular divisions, as best accommodable unto their quick and gliding motion'.

C.G. Jung noted that -The image of the circle was regarded as the most perfect form by Hermetic philosophers  since Plato's Timaeus, the prime authority for Hermetic philosophers'. And of the circular figure of the Ouroboros he stated - 'In the age-old image of the ouroboros lies the though of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself.  The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite i.e. of the shadow. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings to life, fertilizes himself an gives birth to himself.  [6] 


The Labyrinth is closely related to the mandala in several ways. Unlike a maze, a Labyrinth offers no alternative route, its unicursive path however, always leads to a centre, a feature common in many mandalas. Symbolic of pilgrimage during the Medieval era, labyrinth paths were laid out in ground plans of monasteries, cloisters and churchyards and walked as symbolic of ascending towards salvation. Walking their twisting turns, one loses track of direction, time and the outside world, calming the mind and inducing contemplation. Walking a labyrinth is therefore not unlike physically stepping into a mandala for spiritual exercise. 

The earliest of all known Western mandalas originates from Ancient Greece, namely, the Cretan Labyrinth of Knossos along with Homer's descriptive account of Achille's shield in The Illiad. Both are featured in The Garden of Cyrus. 

Throughout the Renaissance the study of numismatics provided easy access to the ancient world for collectors such as Browne. Coins from the Classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, supplied the antiquarian with a wealth of information. A numismatic depiction of the Labyrinth of Knossos sparks Browne's creative imagination in chapter two of The Garden of Cyrus, 

'And, though none of the seven wonders, yet a noble piece of Antiquity, and made by a Copy exceeding all the rest, had its principal parts disposed after this manner, that is, the Labyrinth of Crete, built upon a long quadrate, containing five large squares, communicating by right inflections, terminating in the centre of the middle square, and lodging of the Minotaur, if we conform unto the description of the elegant medal thereof in Agostino'. [7]


One of Western civilization's earliest mandalas originates from the poetry of the ancient Greek author Homer (circa 500 BCE). Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, not unlike Browne's discourses, are also a two-in-one literary work, the masculine theme of the Trojan war in The Iliad  differs starkly to the adventures and affairs of the heart of The Odyssey, with its hero Odysseus endeavouring to return to his wife, Penelope. Both of Homer's epic poems are mentioned in Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. Its at the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus that Browne alludes to the weaponry of the Greek warrior Achilles, shortly before delivering his scientific credentials -

'Flat and flexible truths are beat out by every hammer. But Vulcan and his whole forge, sweat to work out Achilles' his armour'

Homer’s long and detailed description of the  Achilles' shield  of over 100 lines is utterly mandala-like in concept. Angelo Monticelli's visual realization of  Achilles’ shield (circa 1820) divides the shield into five concentric rings. From its centre it depicts the whole universe, with constellations and planets, as well as human life, including a wedding, a marketplace and tribunal. Wartime is represented by a victim of a siege, peacetime by sowing, a harvest and dancing. The stream of Oceanus encircles the land mass. The twelves signs of the zodiac and Apollo riding a chariot of four horses can be seen at its centre. [8]

In alchemy the primordial symbolism of colour is represented by the colour schemata of Nigredo and Albedo (Blackness and Whiteness) . There's a strong case to be made for Urn Burial as a symbolic realization of the Nigredo stage of alchemy. As the first of four stages in the alchemical opus, the Nigredo  (Blackness) represents the psychological state of melancholic gloom and despair which the adept faced beginning the alchemical opus.  The historical circumstances in which Urn-Burial was written,  its many grave and sombre meditations upon Death, mortification, putrefaction, embalmment, funerary urns and monuments,  its repeatedly condemnation of the vain-glory of  being remembered after death as a futile hope,  makes it utterly exemplary of the Nigredo . Browne's poetic phrase, 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing' encapsulates the Nigredo stage of alchemy, which  C. G. Jung  describes thus-

'the Nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a journey to the underworld as Dante experienced it'. [9] 

It should come as no surprise that several of the 'Soul Journey's of Classical literature are named in Urn-Burial, for mandalas often symbolize the spiritual journey of the soul. Homer's Voyage of Ulysses, Plato's myth of Er, the Roman poet Macrobius' 'Dream of Scipio' and Dante's descent to the Underworld are all works of ''Soul Journey' literature  named in Urn Burial. 

In contradistinction to the Job-like suffering of the Nigredo, the albedo or 'Whitening' the alchemical opus represents a return to innocence. Closely associated with Biblical accounts of the Creation and of Paradise, we can be confident in interpreting The Garden of Cyrus as representative of the Albedo  stage of alchemy. Not only does Browne open The Garden of Cyrus with the Creation,  he then swiftly moves onto Paradise, speculating on the location of the Garden of Eden. According to C.G. Jung -

'By means of the opus which the adept likens to the creation of the world, the albedo or whitening is produced.'  [10]

'For alchemists Paradise was a favourite symbol of the albedo, the regained state of innocence'. [11]

The Hamburg based physician and hermetic philosopher Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605) synthesized symbolism from Christianity, the Kabbalah and the mystic Rose of alchemy to form the mandala reproduced in his Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae  of 1595 (Above).

The gordian knot of  how and why  of Browne's creative motivation in writing two 'conjoyned discourses remained uncut for centuries. In  a typical self-depreciating manner, Browne states simply of the relationship between his two Discourses-

That we conjoyn these parts of different Subjects, or that this should succeed the other; Your judgement will admit without impute of incongruity; Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave.

This solitary clue far from explains Browne's creative motivation for the multiplicity of polarities or complexio oppositorum  in his diptych Discourses. 

There's a multipicity of opposites or polarities in Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus their primary thematic polarities being Time and Space, Darkness and Light, Decay and Growth, Invisible and Visible, Accident and Design, Conjecture and Discernment,  Microcosm and Macrocosm among others, as well as oppositional imagery and literary style. Such distinctive polarity alerts those familiar with basic tenets of Western esotericism,  for polarity features strongly in nearly all esoteric schemata. One of the basic maxims of alchemy, solve et coagula for example, which exhorts the alchemist to 'dissolve and coagulate'  loosely approximating to the biology of decay and growth, is itself a polarized maxim which corresponds to the dominant themes of each Discourse respectively, Urn Burial being a meditative soliloquy on decay and life's endings, whilst The Garden Of Cyrus lyricizes upon life's beginnings and growth. 

C. G. Jung's radical interpretation of the psychological importance of alchemy did much to alleviate  prejudices against Western esoteric traditions. When he died in 1961 the publication of his collected writings gathered apace. The very title of Jung's late magnum opus work, Mysterium Coniunctions: An enquiry and synthesis of the psychic opposites in alchemy', first published in 1963, has relevance to the psychic opposites of melancholy in Urn-Burial and cheerfulness in The Garden of Cyrus. In its foreword Jung trenchantly states - 

-'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [12]
The growing popularity of Jung's psychology throughout the 1960's was such that he was included in the  pantheon of writers, artists, poets, pop and film stars assembled in Peter Blake's photomontage artwork for the Beatles album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club. (1967). The British singer/songwriter David Bowie (1947-2016) also paid homage to Jung in his  1973 song 'Drive-in Saturday' ('Jung the foreman/prayed at work').

Amusingly, there's a slender connection between the 'fab four' landmark album Sgt. Pepper to the phantasmagoria of The Garden of Cyrus in as much as both can loosely be defined as psychedelic art-works (that is, in the original Greek meaning of the words, Psyche Mind/Soul + Delos 'Clear, manifest'). The rapid, near kaleidoscopic procession of examples from art, nature and religious mysticism related to the Quincunx symbol in The Garden of Cyrus has indeed a psychedelic dimension. Throughout its pages the active imagination of the alchemist in operation is visibly manifest. Little wonder therefore  that The Garden of Cyrus has astonished and bewildered countless readers for centuries. 

Concluding this digression of loose associations to psychedelia in general, its also in The Garden of Cyrus that Browne introduces the medical word 'Hallucination' into the English language.

Thomas Browne possessed the ability to lucid dream, that is, the ability to manipulate and control the fantasy world of dreams at will.  He informs his reader of this ability in Religio Medici  

'yet in one dream I can compose a whole comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests, and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof. Were my memory as faithful as my reason is fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams'.  [13]

Browne's gift of lucid dreaming is of great significance in the light of C.G. Jung's observation that,

'with the help of dreams, the unconscious produces a natural symbol technically termed a mandala which has the functional significance of a union of opposites, or a meditation'.  [14] 

C. G. Jung's ground-breaking study of alchemy illumines interpretation of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as an alchemical mandala. Structured upon the basic templates of life, namely Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) there's a multiplicity of polarities, or  'oppositional conjunctions'  in Browne's 'twin' discourses in their subject-matter,  imagery , truth and even literary style. Any serious scholar of esotericism would immediately be alert to this fact, for polarity plays no small part in almost all esoteric schemata; the alchemical maxim solve e coagula (decay and growth) the declaration of the mythic Hermes Trismegistus of, 'As above, so Below,' the time-honoured schemata of the Renaissance of Man as Microcosm inhabiting the vastness of the Macrocosm, the alchemical colour symbolism of Nigredo and Albedo (Black and White) all utilize polarity in their symbolism and are fundamental templates to Browne's 'twin' discourses. Indeed,  its from his study of magnetism that Browne, a vigorous coiner of new words, is credited with introducing the very word 'polarity' into the English language. Fundamental imagery involving Darkness in Urn-Burial and Light in The Garden of Cyrus pervade the respective pages of Browne's discourses. 

According to C.G. Jung the opposites play a decisive role in the alchemical process [15] In his view, 'the real subject of Hermetic philosophy is the coniunctio oppositorum [16]. One simply cannot think of a better examplar of a Hermetic philosopher delineating polarised opposites in highly original optical-spiritual imagery than Browne in his alchemical mandala. 

The Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman for one, explains why polarities such as Light and Darkness exist in alchemical literature thus- 

'The linking of light and darkness sets the stage for a fundamental and recurring theme in both alchemy and Jungian psychology, namely, the coniunctio oppositorum, the unity of opposites, a bringing together of light and darkness into an illuminated vision'.[ 17]

Johannes Daniel Mylius (c. 1583 – 1642) was a composer for the lute and writer on alchemy. The mandala reproduced in his Opus medico-chymicum dated 1618 (above) synthesizes symbolism taken from the Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, avian symbolism and mythology. At its centre there stands an alchemist in a grove of trees representing the planetary metals. A raven symbolizing the Nigredo and the Swan  representing the Albedo in the lower hemisphere along with a celestial choir in its upper hemisphere are only visible once the page  unfolded. 

The 1650's decade saw the greatest volume of esoteric literature ever published in England. Many important esoteric titles were translated or made available in English for the first time under the liberalisation and relaxation of printing press licensing laws during the Protectorate of Cromwell. The antiquarian Elias Ashmole tested the waters of this new liberalisation in order to publish in 1652 his anthology of British alchemical authors, the Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, a copy of which is listed as once in Browne's library. It was followed by Cornelius Agrippa's influential Three books on Occult Philosophy and by Thomas Vaughan's translation of the Fama and Confessio of the Rosicrucian Fraternity. Incidentally, the spiritual alchemist Thomas Vaughan (c.1621-65) who knew of, and admired Thomas Browne, may have had the diptych Discourses in mind when alluding to the dominant symbol of  each Discourse he declared Mercurius, the patron 'deity' of alchemy, to be, 'not only a two-edged sword, but also our true, hidden vessel, the Philosophical Garden, wherein our sun rises and sets'. And a copy of Vaughan's evocatively titled A Hermetical Banquet drest by a Spagyrical cook (1652) is listed as once in Browne's library. [18]

It must have been nigh on impossible for an avid bibliophile such as Browne to be unaware of this publication trend throughout the 1650's decade. And the temptation to add his own influential voice to the chorus of esoteric literature which poured forth from England's printing presses, must surely  have  inspired him. This creative urge, along with experiencing extreme psychological distress from the uncertainty and vulnerable social status of being a defeated Royalist with a profession to protect in order to support his large family, may well have induced Browne, consciously or unconsciously, to construct his own personal mandala, for according to Jung-

'the Mandala encompasses, protects and defends the psychic totality against outside influences and seeks to unite the opposites and is an individuation symbol'. [19] 

Individuation symbols such as those produced by the mandala were in Jung's view spontaneous products of the psyche which arise whenever the psyche is in crisis and in need of transforming or protection. C.G. Jung observed that alchemical symbolism frequently incorporated geometric forms stating -

Alchemical symbolism has produced a whole series of non-human forms, geometrical configurations like the sphere, circle, square, and octagon, or chemical configurations like the Philosopher's Stone, the ruby, diamond, quicksilver, gold, water, fire, and spirit (in the sense of a volatile substance). [20] 

Urn-Burial focusses almost hypnotically upon the symbol of the Urn or Vessel which in alchemy was the womb-like matrix where the Philosopher's Stone incubated. ('Incubation' being yet another Of Browne's neologisms).  In complete contrast The Garden of Cyrus is jam-packed with symbols, geometric forms, numbers and hieroglyphs - the triangle, square, hexagon, pyramid, Egyptian Ankh, the letter X as well as the Quincunx pattern , all of which are utilized by Browne in his demonstration of the interconnection of the worlds of art, nature and religious mysticism. For Jung such symbols were none other than variants upon the foremost symbol of the psyche, the mandala , writing - 'Empirically the self appears spontaneously in the shape of specific symbols and its totality is discernible above all in the mandala and its countless variants'. [21] 

C. G. Jung was a keen scholar of comparative religion. He became familiar with the Quincunx symbol from his long study of alchemy. Originally, little more than a unit of measurement  of 5/12th in the Roman era, the Quincunx gained its esoteric associations when the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) named it as an aspect of both astronomy and astrology. Kepler's books are well-represented in Browne's library. [22] 

Although its unlikely that C. G. Jung knew of The Garden of Cyrus other than from hearsay, Browne's discourse being utterly untranslatable,  nevertheless he did know 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.' [23]  

Jung even utilized the Quincunx pattern for his own purposes, stating in an essay, 'Their union in a quincunx signifies union of the four elements in a world-body' [24]. Astoundingly, in 'Flying Saucers: A modern myth' (1958) Jung likens the Quincunx to be, 'a symbol of the quinta essentia which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone. [25] 

As the centrepiece of Browne's mandala, the Quincunx pattern is thus a symbol of totality and wholeness, representing the achievement of Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists. As Jung succinctly observed - 'The self is a complexio oppositorum itself'. [26]  

Browne's creative motivation in penning his twin discourses is to share his psychological understanding of the Self, the true Philosopher's Stone, in order to provide his reader with an unique spiritual text. His alchemical mandala is both a portrait of himself personally with his hobbies of archaeology and botany and of the Collective Self, with all the irrational fears and inspired ideas we share; it operates upon the reader primarily through the effects of synergy, which is defined as - the interaction of two or more agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects'. 

Like all good empirical scientists, Browne knew that simply by juxtaposing object A with object B, a new perspective upon each object is gained, inasmuch as differences and similarities are heightened whenever objects, or indeed whenever philosophical discourses are placed within close proximity to each other. As C.G. Jung puts it - ''A judgement can be made about a thing only if its opposite is equally real and possible'. [27]

Its the resultant synergy from reading these two quite different discourses which generates Browne's alchemical mandala and which effectively operates upon the reader. The individual reader's conscious and unconscious association of Browne's highly original, home-grown symbolism, their comprehension of his many Classical and Biblical references along with receptivity towards the dominant themes of each respective discourse which contribute towards psychic realization and activation of Dr. Browne's alchemical mandala.

To repeat, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus adhere to mandala symbolism in their circularity and symmetry as well as their frequent usage of symbolism. Crucially,  they engage in the mandala's highest function - as art-objects of great beauty worthy of contemplation and which remind their beholder of their own 'soul- journey' and place in the cosmos, thus bestowing spiritual enlightenment.

Augmenting and summarizing in Adam Maclean's words- 'Hermetic philosophers such as Thomas Browne can be said to be pioneering proto-psychologists who were open to their inner worlds and perceptions which they 'projected' onto outer symbols, in doing so they discovered a universal language which transcended words to communicate their experience of the soul's architecture. Thomas Browne's ability to lucid dream is a vital contributing factor in this alchemical act of active imagination.  If we choose to contemplate the symbolism of alchemical mandalas, whether they are visual, auditory or couched within literary works such as Thomas Browne's two philosophical discourses, they can lead us deep into the mysteries of our inner world. Thus, far from the received wisdom of Urn Burial being a gloomy antiquarian essay, with an essay on gardening appended, in order to bulk out for the printer, as was once believed, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus can be conceptualized as an alchemical mandala, capable of unlocking the mysteries of the soul's architecture. [28]     


[1] Opening quote from Heideman M.A. 'Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus' A Paradox and a Cosmic Vision'  University of Toronto Quarterly, XIX 1950 . 

Next -  Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Their Work, No.108 1959)  followed by Browne  Religio Medici 1:12

[2] Recommended recording : Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) - Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi 2011

[3] See Wikipedia    The Layer Monument 

[4] Collected Works of C.G. Jung vol. 11: 92

[5] Huntley,  Frank . Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, Ann Arbour 1962

[6]  Collected Works  11. 92 and Vol 14 :759

[7]  Agostino's book is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's Library p. 38 no. 5.  The full title of Agostino's book  is - Ant. Agostini Dialoghi intorno alle Medaglie, Inscrissioni & altre Antichita Romanze tradotti di Lingua Spagnola in Italiana da D Ottav. Sada, e dal Medisimo accresciuti, con Annot. & illustrati con disegni di molte Medaglie &c. Rome 1650. 

[8]  Link to Book 18, lines 478-608 of Homer's Iliad  .https://poets.org/poem/iliad-book-xviii-shield-achilles

[9] C. W. 14: 93

[10] C. W.  vol. 9 ii :  230

[11] CW ?   373

[12] CW 14 Foreword

[13] Religio Medici  Part 2 Section 11

[14] CW 11:150

[15] CW 12:557 

[16] CW 11: 738

[17] The Soul's Code James Hillman  Bantam 1991

[18]  A list of esoteric authors in Thomas Browne's Library

[19] CW 10:621 

[20]  CW 11:276

[21] CW 9ii:426 

[22]  See  1711 Sales Catalogue  page 29 no. 18  S.C.  page 29 no.34  S.C. page 28. no. 13

[23] C.W.  10:737

[24] CW 11:190

[25] CW 18:1602

[26]  CW 11: 92

[27] CW 11:247

[28]  Adam Maclean's words adapted from 'The Alchemical Mandala'.

See also   

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing

Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

The statue in alchemy

Books Consulted

Thomas Browne: Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. OUP  2014

Adam Maclean  -The Alchemical Mandala : A Survey of the mandala in the western esoteric traditions

James Hillman - The Dream and the Underworld pub. Harpur 1979

James Hillman - Pan and the Nightmare pub. Phanes 1989 second edition 2002

C.G. Jung Collected Works vol.  11 Psychology and Religion

C'.G. Jung  - CW 9 part one   - 'Concerning mandala symbolism' 

C.G. Jung - Collected Works vol. 14 Mysterium Coniunctionis   

1711 Sales Catalogue of Edward and Thomas Browne's libraries -J.S. Finch pub. Brill Leiden 


Unknown said...

Kevin, I have finally had time to read it. Very interesting indeed. So he coined both polarity and incubation? Such essential words! How Shakespearean of him.
I love the idea of constructing the essays as symbols, too - one dark, one white.
I am not sure I understand solve et coagula in the same way, though.
Thank you again for an enlightening read.

Kevin Faulkner said...

Your words and thoughts are always welcome here Monika, thanks. Glad it was of interest to you.