As Above, So Below

Tabula Smaragdina-Matthew Merian 1612
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.

In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated  and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.

The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch,  Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.

The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.

Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of as above, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.

The Emerald Tablet

1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true.
2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
12.) So was the world created.
13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.



Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

The Ambassadors-Hans Holbein The Younger 1533
Memento Mori (Latin: Remember you will die) was a popular theme in Renaissance Art in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A Memento Mori would serve as a visual reminder of the brevity of life, the vanity of worldly pomp and the  emptiness of fleeting pleasures and thus an injunction to contemplate the eternal verities of the Afterlife. The richly symbolic items found in these paintings and in the overlapping still-life genre Vanitas are skulls, time-pieces, flowers, rotting fruit, musical instruments, bubbles, candles and smoke.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s brilliantly accomplished dual portrait of Jean Dinterville, French Ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII and Georges De Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French Ambassador to the Emperor and the Holy See is surely his masterpiece. Entire books have been written about the political, religious and scientific symbolism of the various items on the table between the two men, however the most remarkable feature for the purposes of this post is the spectacular anamorphic skull that floats in the foreground. The painting is on display at the National Gallery in London and viewers have to approach from the right for the distortion to be corrected. There are several competing theories as to why Holbein gave the skull such prominence and is distorted in such a manner if seen straight on. My opinion is that the skull serves it’s traditional function as a Memento Mori, for even such supremely self assured and worldly gentleman as the Ambassadors must one day die, no matter how much you may obscure the fact.

Detail of the Anamorphic Skull -The Ambassadors

Melencolia I

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Albrecht Durer-Melencolia I-1514
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical  references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book  On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.

A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the  contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.

Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo (blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.

Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity.  Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.

Dreams of Desire 39 (Sleeping Venus)

Paul Delvaux-Sleeping Venus 1944

Another troubling erotic reverie by Paul Delvaux, that features a trademark sensuously reclining nude against an oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted during the wartime Nazi occupation of Brussels and he wanted to contrast the anguish of the period with the calm of Venus.

Also notable  is the presence of the skeleton, another frequent motif in Delvaux’s work, and references the Death and the Maiden theme that has been a feature of Western Art since the Renaissance and is related to the memento mori and vanitas genres.

Painting It Black

Saturn Devouring His Son-Francisco Goya 1819-1823
The most famous and the most horrific of the disturbing series of paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house outside Madrid in his later years, the so-called ‘Black Paintings’. The paintings were probably never intended for public view, it was only after his death that they were hacked off and transferred to canvas.

Intensely, hermetically private, the Black Paintings show Goya unmuzzling his fertile, macabre imagination. Traditionally believed to refer to the Greek myth of Cronus (Romanized as Saturn), the titan that devours each of his children in turn. Goya’s visceral masterpiece shockingly highlights the cannibalistic frenzy and wild-eyed derangement of the Father of the Gods as he holds the torso of the half-consumed body towards his gaping mouth. Whereas the Italian humanists of the Renaissance had, in their re-interpretation of Classical mythology, concentrated on cavorting nymphs in sunlit Arcadian landscapes, Goya instead  presents us with the vision of the primeval truths contained in myths; that of our darkest impulses unleashed in the blackest of nights. Goya is indeed the first of the moderns.