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.
Guiseppe Arcimboldo is a hazy peripheral figure in art history. Enjoying noble and royal patronage he was honoured during his lifetime before completely falling out of fashion during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries only to be rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 20th. Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray were all admirers and Arcimboldo’s visual puns and double meanings undoubtedly influenced Dali’s infamous paranoiac-critical method. Other art historians posited Arcimboldo as the most mannered of all the Mannerists. His composite portraits certainly show the period’s taste for enigmas and riddles taken far into the hinterlands of the grotesque and the whimsically bizarre.
Vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting, a composite portrait of his patron, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of metamorphosis, the seasons, gardens and vegetable growth. The plants, flowers and fruits that form the portrait of Rudolf II are from every season and are taken to represent the perfect harmony and balance with nature that his reign would re-establish. Unfortunately events and history had other things in mind for the studious, occult inclined Rudolf II and his notably tolerant court of Prague, leading eventually to the calamity of the Thirty Year War between competing Catholic and Protestant states before engulfing the majority of European great powers.
Other notable composite portraits painted by Arcimboldo include the Four Seasons, the Four Elements and the witty The Librarian (below).
The way out is through the door
verging on a vertiginous staircase
the only way is down though from
this skewered perspective that may
paradoxically lead you upward
so ever onward begin the descent,
quickly take the steps but careful
mind the gaps widening fissures
leading you into the dense forest
so easy to lose your bearings here
the sunlight barely penetrates
this vast twilight realm of hidden
dangers patiently waiting preying
in the branches, undergrowth
did you forget your thread, crumbs?
Compass or maps are no use here
in this contorted maze old as time
if by chance you ever do stumble into
the sacred point, the absolute centre
what you will find is a jumble of stone
slabs stained by millennia of sacrifice
the enactment of hushed mysteries
performed to the veiled huntress
forever unrevealed, unknowable
the sacred cannot be witnessed
any verification is defilement
of a majestic divine inhuman purity
transcendence is transgression
punishable by transformations
inexorable sarcasms of fate
so move on, there is something
to be seen here but not by our eyes
let’s just scatter to the wind
stand by the towering waterfall
that pounds, pulverises, wears down
the landscape changing eventually
courses streams you can’t
step in here twice so float flow
towards distant mother pre-adamic
hold hands jump into the swell
feel the caress of the dark masseur
the currents riptides the source
of life an unconscionable dream. .
As I noted in my previous post on the artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare he achieved acclaim and relative success at a very early age, exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts at 17, before becoming unfashionable and fading into a near total obscurity . Yet he was to remain a highly prolific artist up until his death at 69, experimenting with an array of styles, mediums and techniques.
Spare’s mastery of line was never in dispute, however the paintings in the Experiments in Relativity series, for which he coined the term ‘siderealism’, as well as the more occult influenced work show that Spare was an excellent colourist. The paintings of characters from the grimy streets of Southwark, London and exhibited in local pubs reveal his brilliance as a portraitist.
I have included below a cross section of Spare’s art throughout his career. He has been called a Symbolist, Proto-Surrealist and a precursor of Pop Art, but Spare was first and foremost his own creation.
One of the most notorious of Tarot decks due to its association with the infamous Aleister Crowley, the Thoth Tarot was designed and painted by Lady Frieda Harris under instruction from the Great Beast. In addition to referencing Crowley’s new religion of Thelema, (Do what you wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will), Lady Harris includes elements of Goethe’s theory of colour and Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in the execution of the project.
In 1937 Crowley had asked his friend the playwright Clifford Bax to find an artist to realise his longstanding ambition of re-designing the Tarot deck along Thelemic lines After two artists failed to show Bax invited Lady Frieda, then aged 60, to met Crowley. Third time around indeed proved to be a charm and they worked together on the deck for 5 years. Crowley initiated Lady Frieda into his mystical order the A∴A∴ and Lady Frieda Harris persuaded Crowley to break somewhat with Tarot tradition in the Thoth deck. Surprisingly Crowley seemed to develop a genuine affection for Harris and she in turn was devoted to him up to and during his last difficult days in a Hastings boarding house.
Crowley re-named several of the Major Arcana from the Rider-Waite-Smith, for instance Trump XI Strength becomes Lust and Trump XX Judgement becomes The Æon. Naturally the Hebrew letter and astrological correspondences are changed because no two occultists have ever agreed on such matters. The astrological significance of the Minor Arcana is very comprehensively outlined in the accompanying Book of Thoth written by Crowley.
Most of the occult artist Austin Osman Spare‘s experiments in cartomancy were believed to be forever lost (including the ‘Surrealist Racing Forecast Card’ pack, a real shame as this covers a number of my favourite things: art, cards, the occult and gambling), however in 2013 a hitherto unknown pack of 79 hand painted Tarot cards was verified as being the work of the art nouveau enfant terrible.
Influences from the Tarot of Marseilles and the Rider-Waite-Smith decks are evident in the design, however the idiosyncratic verve and boldly brilliant use of line could only have been executed by the skillful hand and wild imagination of Austin Osman Spare.
I will have you
You will be speaking in tongues
Crying out harsh barbaric invocations
Shouting entreaties to forgotten deities
Babbling away in rapturous ecstasy
Before this night is over but you better
Believe that this is only the beginning
For I will have you
Over and over and yet once again
Every element of these arcane rituals
Have to be satisfied in every aspect
The right word said in the right place
At the right time this is the right action
That will cause the doors to open wide
I will have you
I will take you there to a place you
Can only vaguely remember in dreams
A world of mesmerising fascinations
Inevitably leading to intoxicating danger
Nothing is true nothing is real everything
Shapeshifts you only have your self to lose.
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?