My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.
In many respects the brilliant but baffling Dr John Dee is the archetypal Renaissance man and magus. Mathematician, astronomer, expert in navigation, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and the man credited with coining the term ‘British Empire’, Dee was also a very serious magician and occult philosopher who devoted much of his life to the study of astrology, alchemy, divination and the summoning of angels.
In 1564 Dee published his enigmatic treatise on the Monas Hieroglyphica, a symbol of his own design meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. The text was probably devised as a brief introduction to symbolic language; after piquing the learned reader’s interest Dee would presumably then offer to provide personal tutelage on the subject.
The glyph makes an appearance in one of the founding documents of the Rosicrucians, the alchemical allegory The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Quite how it ended up there is explored in detail in Francis Yates’s fascinating The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.
Above is the frontispiece to an early edition published in Antwerp. Below are selected images of the glyph from the treatise, as well as John Coulthart’s stunning variation of the Monas Hieroglyphica.
I will leave you with concluding words of the treatise, which could really serve as the guiding maxim for all alchemical/esoteric literature.
Here the vulgar eye will see nothing but Obscurity and will despair considerably.
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee-Monad Hieroglyphica
John Coulthart-Variation on the Monas hieroglyphica
The German shoemaker, mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme’s dense theosophical writings are filled with alchemical references and allusions. These taken together with elements of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah make Boehme one of the most occult inclined of Christian writers.
The following illustrations are taken from the appendix to William Law’s four volume edition of Boehme’s writing translated into English. Law was an Anglican priest who lost his position when he refused to give an oath of allegiance to King George I and therefore become a private tutor. Among his students were Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, (though they fell out over Law’s admiration of Boehme).
The complete series of emblems included above and below tells of Creation, the fall of Lucifer followed by the fall of Adam and man’s redemption through Jesus. Interestingly Sophia, a figure found in Gnosticism features prominently (the top S contrasting with the S of Sathan down below). The drawings of Hieroglyphica Sacra are unusual with their near geometric abstraction, minimalism and pared down symbolism. It is alchemical art taken to its most cosmic level, an allegory of the War in the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 1-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
Come here you, closer still,
I want you to be the first to know
That gold is all around this town
Beneath the streets & sewers,
Scattered haphazardly here there
Everywhere, enough to dazzle,
Blind the unwary with the glitter,
Shimmering dissolving glamour
When the sun shines again:
Do you have it within to dare?
To serve this magistery right?
To make the mad dream real,
Turn this place into Tenochtitlán,
Render into actuality El Dorado:
Do you possess the strength to will
Into existence all the power & glory
Of this metallic inhuman purity
The cold coalescence of stars?
After you have known, dared,
Willed these forces into being,
Now that you are experienced,
Initiated & illuminated can you
Keep a secret, will you remain silent?
The 40 illustrations of the Sapientia Veterum Philosophorum are among the finest and most striking of later (18th Century) alchemical art. Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, Balthus son and resident occult adviser to the Chelsea set in Swinging London, notes that it deserves to be seen in full, however I am unfortunately only able to present a limited number of images.
Reducing the royal art to only essential imagery, (glass vessel, dove, lion, rain, sun and moon), Sapientia shows the process of conjuration and separation of the elements in the ascent and descent of the dove, which occurs seven times in the manuscript. This transmigration of matter where the fixed is rendered volatile and the volatile fixed result in the so-called eagles, of which seven precede the exaltation of the Quintessence.