The Alchemical Process and the Primavera

The Alchemical  Process and the Primavera

In his book on alchemy, Titus Burckhardt points out that, since both astrology and alchemy in their Western forms “derive from the Hermetic tradition, [they] are related to one another as heaven and earth.

Astrology interprets the meaning of the zodiac and the planets, alchemy the meaning of the elements and metals. This explanation identifies a fundamental relationship between the two occult sciences that argues for an alchemical correspondence to the astrological reading of the Primavera.

This correspondence is immediately confirmed by the medallion worp by the centra) figure. The Seventeenth Century illustration of Isis  shows her with an almost identical crescent moon. This illustration, as already noted, is from an alchemical manuscript. As already cited, the alchemical illustration that features the same kind of moon, an almost dosed, illusionistically three-dimensional crescent surrounding a firey phase of the process supports this connection. Therefore, just as the universal moon goddess as Minerva directs the astrological component of the Primavera’s message, so must she be overseeing an alchemical procedure in the name of Isis, for the Egyptian goddess is the traditionally recognized female custodian of that occult art.

Of particular importance to medieval and Renaissance alchemists was a passage that they believed had come from an “emerald tablet,” allegedly preserved with Hermes’s mummy in Egypt until its discovery during the early Christian period. In truth, this passage probably was written in the second or third century C.E. Referred to as the “credo of the adepts” by Seligmann, it is short enough to be quoted in its entirety.

“It is true, without falsehood, and most real: that which is above is like that which is below, to perpetrate the miracles of one thing. And as all things have been derived from one, by the thought of one, so all things are bom from this thing, by adoption. The sun is its father, the moon is its mother. Wind has carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse. Here is the father of every perfection in the world. His strength and power are absolute when changed into earth; thou wilt separate the earth from fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with care. It ascends from earth to heaven, and descends again to earth to receive the power of the superior and the inferior things. By this means, thou wilt have the glory of the world. And because of this, all obscurity will flee from thee. Within this is the power, most powerful of all powers. For it will overcome all subtle things, and penetrate every solid thing. Thus the world was created. From this will be, and will emerge, admirable adaptations of which the means are here. And for this reason, I am called Hermes Trismegistus, having the three parts of the philosophy of the world. What I have said of the sun’s operations is accomplished.”

The language of this document is obscure, if poetic. Nevertheless, it was thought to contain a recipe for the process whereby a base metal could be transmuted into the pure metal, gold. The enigmatic character of the inscription allowed for individual interpretations and personal adaptation. Not surprisingly, idiosyncratic practices accrued throughout the ancient and medieval worlds wherever the art was practiced. Alchemical treatises reflect the conglomerate result by describing the process with abstruse allusions and figures of speech. It is possible, of course, that at least some of the vague descriptions were intentional in order to protect the secrets of the transmutational procedures. Despite these obfuscations, modern writers on the subject have extracted what seem to be the essential components of the process and its purpose.

At its simplest level, alchemy was an attempt to produce chemical reactions that would change a base metal to gold through a step-by-step process, which could have taken several months to complete, in accordance with specific procedures. Alchemy was, however, more than that. The material transmutation that the alchemists sought was also a metaphor for the process whereby one might attain spiritual rebirth.

Even so, alchemical treatises were cast in metallurgical terms, and the experiments undertaken by practitioners probably did contribute to modern chemistry. Ironically, the antient mysticism associated with Isis may have provided the ground from which a modern science grew, one that, ironically, would help remove her name from common knowledge.

The alchemical procedures may be described in several ways, allowing for a layering of interpretations.

Burckhardt believed that the oldest method for identifying the stages of the process was based on color changes that may have corresponded to metallurgical changes. This scheme starts with a black phase; the material being transmuted then changes to white. The last stage is reached when it becomes red.

In the Primavera, a processional development from right to left complies with the three-step color scheme.

With the central figure, now seen as Isis/Venus, overseeing the process, the darkened, shadowed environs or Zephyr begin the mutation. The Graces are the whitened phase, and the culmination is expressed by the red-robed Lorenzo-Mercury.

Ordinarily the process was not so simple. Usually it was divided into a “lesser” work and a “greater” work. These tended to correspond to the blackening and the whitening phases, with the reddening designated as the “goal” of the work.

The lesser and greater works were, in turn, subdivided into three steps each, and each of these was identified bya different metal. It is here that an astrological component entered the process, for the metals that were supposed to emerge are the ones associated with the planets, with one exception, and share their symbols.

Thus, the base metal with which the alchemist traditionally began his transmutations was lead, the black metal of Saturn. The next step, dominated by Jupiter, produced that planet’s metal, blue-white tin. The third step resulted in quicksilver or mercury and was controlled by the moon. The appearance of quicksilver brought the material to the end of the lesser work.

Quicksilver is the only elemental metal that is fluid at ordinary temperatures. As it flows, it seems multicolored because of the reflective nature of its silvery quality.

The volatility of quicksilver, also called the Mercury of the Wise, was considered a feminine trait. In addition, the “silver” in quicksilver relates the metal to the moon, the premier symbol of the feminine.

Therefore, although this metal shares its chemical symbol with the planet Mercury, it is not to be confused with that planet in the alchemical process. Throughout the work, its feminine characteristics place it under the domination of the moon, until the power of the sun supersedes that domination.

As the lesser work is completed, the lunar influence whitens the multicolored quicksilver in preparation for the greater work. The alchemist would now be ready to begin this phase of the process, which would culminate under the masculine principle of the sun.

The planet Venus rules the fourth step, resulting in her metal, copper. The fifth step is dominated by Mars, inducing iron. The sixth step occurs under the influence of the fiery sun. Now the heat of the solar body brings forth the goal of the work, the red philosopher’s stone, also called the Red King or the Red Rose.

Looking at the Primavera, the viewer can see the elaboration of the color changes that begin with the triad on the right. The shadowy realm of Zephyr gives way to the blue-white veil of Chloris. She, in turn, is transformed into Flora, representing the multicolored changeability of quicksilver. On the left, the middle Grace with the copper-colored hair must represent the fourth step ruled by Venus. Her companions personify the fifth and sixth steps, bringing the viewer to the goal of the work in the Red King of Lorenzo/Mercury.

The metals that emerged at each step of the two works were, themselves, allegorical. The alchemists probably did not begin their experiments with real lead. The treatises all refer to a materia prima, whose composition was kept secret. Nonetheless, it must have contained some quicksilver and, as well, some sulphur, because the alchemists believed that all metals were composed of these two substances in varying amounts. For example, lead contained a large proportion of sulphur while gold contained very little. Copper, it was thought, contained almost equal amounts of sulphur and quicksilver.

The purpose of the lesser work, then, was to free the quicksilver from impurities, which meant that it had to be released from its bonding with sulphur. This theory of metallic composition makes it clear that quicksilver was more than just one step in the process. In fact, it can be considered the subject of the work because its relationship to sulphur underlies the entire transmutation.

Sulphur was never designated a planetary metal, but it was essential to the alchemical process, probably because its combustibility connoted heat. Analogically, it represented the fiery, aggressive passion of the male principle in opposition to the cool passivity of the feminine mercury.

In order to release the quicksilver from the materia prima, the alchemists needed an agent that would effect the desired reaction. Called the “secret fire,” this agent in the lesser work has been described as a “dry water that does not wet the hands and as a fire burning without flames.” Apparently, they used some kind of salt, which was mixed with the materia prima, moistened, placed in a hermetically sealed vessel, put into an oven called an athanor, and kept at a constant temperature for weeks or months.

The alchemists never wrote about chemical reactions. Their language was always allegorical, employing personifications and erotic symbolism to express the stages of the works.

For example, in the lesser work the masculine sulphur interacted with the feminine quicksilver in a violent sexual act that destroyed them both. Called the marriage of the King and Queen or the sun and moon, their self-destruction was a dissolution of the two into the Mercury of the Wise. From their dark putrefaction or death came the newly purified, impressionable, and virginal quicksilver.

 

The greater work, in which the volatile quicksilver was fixated in order to emerge as the philosopher’s stone, also required the agency of a secret fire followed by more time in the alchemical oven. The function of the secret fire in this work was to reunite quicksilver and sulphur, but now their proportions changed. The amount of quicksilver gradually increased, but its color was modified by the sulphuric content in the mixture. In this, the greater work, the two who had been destroyed in order to bring forth the Mercury of the Wise now were reformed as the Sulphur of the Wise.

Thus, a second marriage between the King and the Queen or the sun and the moon transpired. Now the lovers who came together were volatile. The secret fire must solidify them in a union of their opposite natures.

Returning to the Primavera a third time, the viewer can see the images in the painting as personifications of the allegorical marriages.

On the right side of the panel, Zephyr and Chloris represent the marriage of the lesser work in which the King and Queen die in a dissolution that will emerge as quicksilver or Flora. Quite obviously, the triad recalls Ovid’s account of the marriage of Zephyr and Chloris. It also recalls the words of the “emerald tablet”: The “wind carries [the materia prima] in its belly.”

 

 

 

 

It is appropriate and inevitable to note that the materia prima was associated with the West and the Tree of the World, which grew in the West. This is consistent with the role assigned to the West Wind, or Zephyr, as the signifier of the astrological map in the Primavera.

On the left side of the panel, the Graces are the whitening phase of the greater work. Each represents one of the three steps in the transmutation of the volatile quicksilver that occur before it can emerge as the fixated stone.

Now the secret fire is visually expressed in the flame-tipped arrow of the putto. He directs the arrow toward the heart of the center Grace in a line that, if continued, would terminate at the tip of Lorenzo’s sword. At this point, under Venus, the metal has almost equal proportions of quicksilver and sulphur; the effect of the coloring power of sulphur shows in her copper-colored hair.

She looks plaintively toward Lorenzo/Mercury. Her glance seems to be one of longing and desire, which might lead one to think that Botticelli wanted to convey the notion of the second marriage. However, alchemically, that would be anomalous. She is the first phase of the greater work; he is the goal of the work. More likely, hers is a look of recognition and anticipation of the final stage when the Red King is refined and purified.

Venus and vulgar copper share a symbol; but here, with her winged helmet of volatility and the arrow of the secret fire, she represents the mercurial, white, female element in the drama of the Great Work.’

Ready to receive the stabilizing heat of the masculine principle, the volatile feminine principle is conjoined by her sisters in a revolution that represents the steps of the greater work, which must transpire before the revelation of the philosopher’s stone. The Grace to her left has already been informed by the secret fire. The alchemical metal of the work is said to expand as its moist nature is absorbed when the fire is used, so this Grace illustrates the increase of the dry, hot heat. Her hair is lighter; the coloring power of the sulphur now prevails over the volatile quicksilver.

The fair-haired Grace on the right reflects the sun’s light, giving evidence that she feels his heat and is ready to be delivered of the stone. According to de Rola, the Red King “appears out of the womb of his mother and sister, Isis or mercury, Rosa Alba, the White Rose.”‘

 

Another fifteenth century alchemical manuscript depicts the Red King in the transforming vessel . He carries the caduceus of the mythical Mercury, but here he symbolizes the transmuted quicksilver. The similarity to Botticelli’s figure is remarkable, even to the golden flecks on the Red King’s tunic that recall the golden flames sprinkled over Lorenzo/Mercury’s chlamys. The golden flecks and therefore the golden flames refer to the potential of the stone that enables it to be transmuted into pure gold. The greater work now has been completed.

This discussion of alchemy and the Primavera began with the recognition that the metallurgical transmutation sought by the alchemists was not just a chemical process but was also a metaphor for the enlightenment and perfection of one’s soul.

Ficino used astrology to affect the spiritual development of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco; he undoubtedly intended the alchemical content of the painting to contribute to that end as well. As a spiritual allegory, alchemy has been summarized by H. Stanley Redgrove in the following words.

In the metals the alchemists saw symbols of man in various stages of his spiritual development. Gold, the most beautiful as well as the most intarnishable metal . . . was the symbol of regenerate man . . . . Silver was also termed “noble”; but it was regarded as less mature than gold . . . , therefore [it] was considered to be analogous to the regenerate man at a lower stage of his development . . . . [L]ead, to the alchemists, was a symbol of man in a sinful and unregenerate condition.

 In the lesser work, the destruction of the male and female principles represents the need to recognize one’s fallen state. Impressionable and virginal, the unformed soul is separated from its base or impure tendencies in a process of rebirth. She is now unstable and will not be constant until informed by the purity of her opposing principle. In Burckhardt’s words, this principle is the stabilizing “Spirit-Intellect.”

This pure ground of the soul can be known only in its response to the pure Spirit. ‘The soul uncovers itself when united as bride to the Spirit-Intellect. This is what is referred to when one speaks of the marriage of the sun and moon. . . The “uncovering” of the receptive ground of the soul and the “revelation” of the Creative Spirit take place at the same time.

The individual who is sincerely concerned about the salvation of his soul must understand  that  the way to enlightenment is obstructed with setbacks and difficulties.

It will be a painful journey, but it must be undertaken willingly if success is to be achieved. Just as the alchemists failed again and again to transmute lead into gold, so will the adept stumble many times on his quest.

This challenge recalls Ficino’s charge to Lorenzo to arrange his heavens in a propitious manner. Indeed, the message of alchemy replicates the astrological lesson of the Primavera. References and allusions have rebounded from one to the other of these two processen, but the following observation by De Rola regarding the difficulty of isolating the materia prima is especially interesting in the context of the painting.

This is no small undertaking in itself, and the casting of a horoscope is necessary to determine the most favourable time. The Work may only be begun in the spring, under the signs of Aries, Taurus and Gemini . . .

These are the signs that most affected Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. His natal sign was Aries; the progressed charts fell under Gemini. Perhaps Ficino expected that it would take the boy several months to “arrange his heavens” propitiously; perhaps he intended that the process span the spring months of the Primavera.

The individual who is sincerely concerned about the salvation of his soul must understand that the way to enlightenment is obstructed with setbacks and difficulties.

It will be a painful journey, but it must be undertaken willingly if success is to be achieved. Just as the alchemists failed again and again to transmute lead into gold, so will the adept stumble many times on his quest.

This challenge recalls Ficino’s charge to Lorenzo to arrange his heavens in a propitious manner. Indeed, the message of alchemy replicates the astrological lesson of the Primavera. References and allusions have rebounded from one to the other of these two processen, but the following observation by De Rola regarding the difficulty of isolating the materia prima is especially interesting in the context of the painting.

This is no small undertaking in itself, and the casting of a horoscope is necessary to determine the most favourable time. The Work may only be begun in the spring, under the signs of Aries, Taurus and Gemini . . . .

These are the signs that most affected Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. His natal sign was Aries; the progressed charts fell under Gemini. Perhaps Ficino expected that it would take the boy several months to “arrange his heavens” propitiously; perhaps he intended that the process span the spring months of the Primavera.

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