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Posts Tagged ‘philosopher’s stone’

Art has a few more uses than filling up the blank spot on the wall behind the couch you know.  It can be used to promote propaganda, incite a revolution, convey a philosophical/spiritual message, sew discord or dissonance or more prosaically just inhabit the bottom of the cat box in the case of Julian whatsisname who is much given to pickling sheep in vats [dead ones I very much hope].  Although how you get a dead sheep in a cat box is another matter entirely and is possibly something to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and/or quantum mechanics.  But I digress.  What I really wanted to discuss was alchemy which of course was clear from the start.  And what exactly does alchemy have to do with art you ask?  Well the answer is much because artists have always had an interest in the occult.  Artists of the Italian Renaissance period in fact took great delight in embedding strange symbols and hieroglyphics into their art works only decipherable by dusty professors with magnifying glasses, the editors of Halls Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art and Dan Brown.  And Dan Brown has made a zillion dollars for himself much to the dismay of the authors of the ‘Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ who objected to him – allegedly ahem – pinching all their good bits and making it into a worldwide bestseller which also happily is destined to keep Tom Hanks in work possibly forever.

There is no doubt that Leonardo’s  ‘Vitruvian Man’,  which was heavily featured by Dan,  does contain arcane symbolism that was quite intentionally put there.  The man in the middle demonstrates not only the golden mean of perfect proportion that so interested the ancient Greeks but is placed within a circle which in turn is placed within a square.  This mathematical impossibility was one of three problems that occupied a lot of ancient Greek time i.e. squaring the circle, doubling the cube and trisecting an angle.  Oh and getting drunk and naked in the bushes at the Bacchanalia but that is a topic for another blog.  One of the first mathematicians to tackle the problem of squaring the circle was another ancient Greek, Anaxagoras, who was also a philosopher and [ drum roll ] an alchemist…  Now quite how all this points us towards mad monks and the riddle of the Holy Grail is not quite so clear.  Dan Brown – and the authors of the ‘Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’,  make the case that Jesus [the Vitruvian Man?] was not crucified after all but was spirited away in some devious plot perpetrated by a mysterious order – maybe the Knights Templar who were akin in them days to the SAS but with niftier uniforms and more religion.  And what is more, he [Jesus] was then free to marry Mary Magdalene [the actual Holy Grail of legend] so that they could perpetuate the bloodline and pass it down via the Merovingian Kings, the Templars, the Illuminati and probably the Masons who no doubt were in there somewhere.

Another example of alchemical symbolism appearing in art is in the ‘Adam and Eve’ by Albrecht Durer [1504] which clearly demonstrates an interest in the four humours i.e. black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood [yuk] – fire, water, earth and air – which in turn correspond to the four temperaments, melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic  and choleric – and the four elements, fire, earth, air and water; A veritable stew, so to speak, of alchemical delights.  And alchemists were very much interested not only in all of the above but in transmutation, or in simple terms the process of turning base metals into gold.  This deeply involved the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, a sort of one stop shopping catalyst that turned anything into everything at the touch of a button – or in those days a stir of the old crucible.  On one level this was an entirely practical pursuit involving jars and stills and oddly shaped bottles not to mention furnaces, mercury poisoning and third degree burns.  But on the other, and some would argue more importantly, it was a philosophical and even spiritual pursuit.  In the case of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for example the vessel was Mary herself and the transmutation was achieved through the comingling of the male and female essences in the presence of a catalyst [the ‘water of life’ – the aqua vitae – or the sperm?] to produce the final product – the gold of the bloodline.  An interesting thesis indeed.  Other fascinating art examples to study next time you’re at the museum or digging through the art books [less travelling involved] search out ‘The Garden of Earth Delights’  by Hieronymus Bosch, or even Leonardo’s  ‘The Last Supper’  – in fact just about any of the Italian Renaissance works.  Gold star for anyone who finds the hidden alchemical Waldo – replies on a post-card please.

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