Angels in the Smoking Mirror

Obsidian Aztec Mirror and other objects in the possession of Dr John Dee
Obsidian Aztec Mirror and other objects in the possession of Dr John Dee

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy-Hamlet-William Shakespeare

For all his polymathic achievements and influence upon Elizabethan England and beyond, Dr John Dee is best known for the Angelic Conversations he conducted in conjuration with his scryer, the alchemist and convicted counterfeiter Edward Kelley.

These ‘actions’ as Dee called them, were made with the aid of an obsidian Aztec mirror that had come into his possession.

Tezcatlipoca Smoking Mirror Skull
Tezcatlipoca Smoking Mirror Skull

Mirrors were an attribution of Tezcatlipoca (Nahuatl: Smoking Mirror), the God of the Night Sky, Obsidian and Sorcery. The mirror had made its way into Europe some time after Cortes’s conquest of Mexico in 1530. 

After  a period of rigorous fasting, abstinence and prayer Kelley would gaze into the ‘shew-stone’ and report his visions of the spirits within the mirror while Dee dutifully recorded the conversations, some of which were in Enochian, the divine language supposedly spoken by prelapsarian humanity. For a period of many years in Dee’s house in Mortlake and later in Bohemia at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Dee and Kelley would converse with a myriad  of spirits, mostly angelic but occasionally demonic which resulted in hundreds of recorded conversations.

The conversations came to an end soon after the infamous wife-swapping episode. At the urging of an insistent angel named Madimi, Dee and Kelley swapped their wives Jane and Joanne for one night. Afterwards Madimi reportedly appeared and said, ‘B hold you are become free: Do that which most pleaseth you.’

Among Dee’s other claims to fame is that he is the person responsible for first coining the term ‘British Empire’; he was also the inspiration behind the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Legend has it that at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I he destroyed the Spanish Armada with his magical powers, an event that decisively effected the balance of power within Europe and the New World.

John Dee-The Holy Table
John Dee-The Holy Table

 

The Sign of the Black Sun

Black Sun-Toyen 1951
Black Sun-Toyen 1951

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.

Toyen’s phantasmagorical art is filled with images of transformation, of women becoming animals or vice versa, of sudden and terrifying shifts in size and scale, of spectral figures in the process of materialisation, of impossible desires becoming reality. Sometimes it seems that the decidedly ambiguous Toyen was channeling the entire occult and magical history of Prague.

The paintings that Toyen produced in the 1950’s onward, after Surrealism had shifted decidedly from revolutionary politics and towards the occult, frequently point towards the signs of Alchemist Alley, now Golden Lane. The black sun is the first stage of the magnum opus and also refers to the dissolution of the body and hence the ego.

I have included a selection of Toyen’s magnificently compelling paintings of metamorphosis and phantasmal  figures.

All the elements-Toyen 1950
All the elements-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
They Rise at Dawn-Toyen 1950
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
In Slow Motion-Toyen 1954
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Fire Smoulders in the Veins-Toyen 1955
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Seven Swords-La Belle ouvreuse-Toyen 1957
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Vigilance in the Mirror-Toyen 1959
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Dream 1964
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-Secret Room 1966
Toyen-New World of Year 1968
Toyen-New World of Love 1968
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
At the Castle Silling-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Reflection flow Out-Toyen 1969
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
Elective Affinities-Toyen 1970
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971
The Trap of Reality-Toyen 1971