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.
Your fingertips glance
Glide press down there
Glissade here yes
Definitely right there
Now your touch
Locks me up
In a prism of colour
Jade hazel verdigris
Slate azure golden
Still-point the centre
Implosion the taste
Of mouths filled
Consumed with star
Light turning inward
The horizon event
Vanilla honeyed tristesse.
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?
You’re looking out of the window
seeing all the opportunities spread
before you like a heavenly banquet
and you’re wondering whether
to dare and make that leap.
Well do you believe in what I say?
Have you faith in my vision?
Will you be ready intime
for our long delayed assignation
to give yourself completely
Over to the dream I dreamt for you?
Falling is such bliss, those seconds
Of recall, clarity, then impact.
You’re trembling like a fine-veined
leaf in a lashing storm, come,
no need to be nervous though
it does initially add to the frisson.
Still I understand your concern,
you’re unsure whether I will be
cruel, tender, or even distracted.
You gather from some of my actions
that I can be wanton and crude
or maybe wayward and perverse.
However if you want the exaltation,
(and I know that’s your desire,
I’ve been around, I know
a thing or two and you wouldn’t
be the first that I have turned
inside out and tied up in knots)
then you must relax and let
what is going to happen, happen;
whether I serve you like royalty
or you find freedom in sacrifice,
the ecstasy of divine debasement,
a savage joy in effacing and erasing
the burdensome wearying self.
I will let you play your games
until it is time for the ritual
to commence in earnest,
revealing the solemn mystery,
contained in your unveiled body;
both the map and the territory:
the exit and the gateway.
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.
The German physician and alchemist Michael Maier served as a counsellor to the occult besotted Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Capital of Bohemia, however the forces that would lead to the Thirty Years War were conspiring against the Emperor and Maier was forced to leave, first to England, where he composed a song for the royal wedding of Frederick V of the Palantine to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I, and then back to Germany in 1616, settling in Frankfurt am Main.
Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing) was published in 1617 by Johann Theodor de Bry in Oppenheim. de Bry published numerous works by authors aligned with the Rosicrucian movement and/or followers of the Swiss physician and occultist Paracelsus (incidentally also known as the ‘father of toxicology’).
An early example of a multi-media project, Atalanta is comprised of 50 discourses, each accompanied with an engraving by Matthias Merian of an alchemical emblem, an epigram, prose, a poem and a musical fugue for three voices.
Atalanta, as suggested by the title, frequently references Classical mythology, especially the story of the virgin huntress Atalanta, in addition to alchemical allegories featuring dragons, lions, the worm ouroboros and eagles..
One of the most sumptuous and beautiful of all illuminated alchemical texts, Splendor Solis was published in various versions throughout the German states in the 16th Century. Attributed to Salomon Trismosin, a legendary figure who acquired the Philosopher’s Stone and was allegedly Paracelsus’s teacher, Splendor contains 22 (the same number as the Major Arcana of the Tarot) gorgeous, mystifying images with elaborate decorative borders reminiscent of medieval Book of Hours. As with all alchemical treatises the text is full of dense allegorical references to the Solar King and Lunar Queen, death and re-birth, the black and the inner suns, planets and tinctures.