Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to the accomplished oil and pastel artist, Ray Hassard. At my request, Ray looked over my website; he made the helpful suggestion that I add more information about the subject of alchemy and its relationship to the images in my Alchemy Series. I took this advice to heart but was unsure how to go about the task: To begin with, alchemy is a vast and complex subject with traditions developed over many centuries in diverse cultures. The alchemical literature is characterized by (intentionally) obscure instructions and recipes, illustrated with arcane images and symbols, and I am not a scholar of the subject. Just as importantly, my series of images was not conceived or executed in a linear manner-each image was an intuitive exploration of certain broad alchemical themes, and many if not all these themes overlapped. The images were for me more poetic and evocative than didactic and illustrative and therefore not easy to discuss in words. As a result, I put off the task, waiting for some clarity on how to tackle the issue.
Then in the Fall of 2014 I found myself in Italy for a brief holiday and learned that the physicist F. David Peat was offering a seminar on Art and the Sacred in his Pari Center for New Learning not far from where I was visiting. I had met David many years earlier in Assisi at one of Michael Conforti’s interesting Assisi Institute conferences, and now asked him if I might join the group for the two days I had free. He graciously agreed. Upon arriving in Pari, David asked me if I wanted to present my Alchemy Series with some commentary about the symbolism of the imagery. With no time to prepare my remarks (which freed me from the pressure of presenting anything resembling a polished talk) I spoke about some of the broad themes that run through the alchemical traditions and suggested how they might relate to the images in my work. It occurred to me later that the gist of this impromptu talk might serve as the additional information I was seeking to add to my website. (For additional information on the series, see also Alchemy Creative Process.)
Alchemy developed during the long period of human civilization where science, religion and art were not discreet categories of inquiry. Psyche and matter, so thoroughly differentiated in current Western culture, were for most of humanity’s history one reality. In alchemy, the adepts, their labors, the materials they brooded over, and their personal spiritual evolution were inextricably entwined. The alchemists understood the universe to be an intricate system of correspondences where the minerals of the earth, the heavenly bodies, plant life, animals and humans all stood in symbolic relationship to one other. Although the alchemists differed in their focus-some more on the physical, chemical exploration, others more on the philosophical and spiritual goals of their art, certain recurrent themes were shared by almost all, the most common and well known of these being the transmutation of lead into gold. The long and laborious process of the alchemical work or opus was an endeavor to redeem the spirit trapped in matter, based on the belief that the basest metal contained the seed of the purest incorruptible gold. It is interesting in this regard that alchemy, in contrast to some spiritual traditions, did not despise the material world or the body, but believed it held hidden treasure waiting for liberation.
C.G. Jung devoted the last years of his life to an exploration of alchemy, which he saw as a profound metaphor for the psychological process of individuation that he witnessed in his patients-that long and difficult journey of psychic growth, culminating with the ego’s learning to live in relation to the larger Self. Jung’s writings on the subject are rich and fascinating but also quite dense and often daunting for the casual reader (see Psychology and Alchemy, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung, vol. 12). If you want to explore further the subject of alchemy and psychological growth, I would suggest three of my favorite books on the subject: Anatomy of the Psyche, Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy by Edward Edinger, Alchemy, An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology by Marie-Louise von Franz, and The Alchemy of Healing, Psyche and Soma by Edward C. Whitman. These are classics; there are many others and new and interesting books on the subject continue to appear.
Alchemy Series Images*
I was drawn to alchemy for its philosophical and poetic richness. I mention below a few recurrent alchemical themes, and suggest how they may serve as metaphors for the evolution of human consciousness. This is by no means a thorough or scholarly treatment of the subject, nor are my comments intended to “explain” the images. They are at best poetic associations that I hope may enrich the viewer’s experience.
The true beginning of the alchemical process is a period of darkness, confusion, despair, loss of innocence. This is often called the nigredo and the alchemists considered it an achievement. “When your materials turn black, rejoice” was a repeated notion. The material to be worked upon had been constellated. The seeds of redemption are found here in this dark and confused state, awaiting purification. For Jung the nigredo corresponded to the point in the individuation process where old rules, beliefs, and skills no longer suffice and confusion, doubt and depression obliterate former clarity. St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Dante’s opening lines of the Inferno* beautifully describe this moment. It is at once an immensely difficult and valuable time. My image of the crow speaks to me of such moments.
*”In the middle of the road of life, I came upon a dark wood where the way forward was obscured .” (trans. mine)
” As above, so below” begins the Emerald Tablets, one of the most ancient alchemical works, referring to the allegorical correspondence of all things in heaven and on earth, spirit and matter, macrocosm and microcosm. The snaillike image above evokes for me the ratio of the golden mean and the patterning generated by the Fibonacci series, recurrent in nature, art, and mathematics.
Fruit ripens, falls to earth, rots, and the seeds begin the cycle anew. The contents of the psyche also undergo this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth: old ideas and structures continually die in the service of the new. The ego which has worked so valiantly to master the world must transcend itself in the interest of future growth and wholeness. I also associate this theme of sacrifice and evolution to the tale of Eve, who is in my view a heroic figure, akin to Prometheus, who steals for humankind something of great value that formerly belonged to the gods. Eve’s act of disobedience is the beginning of the evolution of human consciousness with its differentiation of opposites (good and evil); and it does indeed separate us from a state of oneness and bliss. Alchemy describes the arc of this journey out from and back into wholeness; the process of individuation can be, and is, described in the same general terms.
The tree displays its dual nature. It is rooted in the ground and nourished by the earth, while its branches reach towards the heavens. In the creation story in Genesis there are two trees: the tree of knowledge and that of eternal life, suggesting to me a journey through time to the timeless. The journey begins with knowledge, eternal life for now out of reach. Cherubim with flaming swords guard the entrance to this latter tree; we are destined to journey into the world of time. With this tree I wanted to evoke medieval miniatures with their delicate mixture of the earthly and divine.
This more abstract image was in part a meditation on the black, white, and red stages of the alchemical process (the nigredo, albedo and rubedo, respectively). For the alchemists these color stages characterized both material and spiritual aspects of their work. Jung viewed them as stages of psychic evolution: The nigredo describes the time when powerful psychic forces dispossess the ego of its illusion of centrality. The albedo or subsequent whitening suggests the psyche’s reflective consciousness when the ego reflects upon these other psychic forces. Consciousness at this stage is like the light of the moon: as a stance that reflects upon self from a distance, this stage has a certain cool and remote abstract quality about it. The subsequent reddening or rubedo in contrast carries a sense of life fully lived-not naively or with an undifferentiated consciousness, but with conscious engagement. The philosopher’s gold is achieved; a mystical union where the self is no longer divided and separated from the world. In Jung described this stage of union with the world by saying : “Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to oneself.” C.G. Jung (CW 8, par. 432).
“One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third becomes the one as the fourth.”(Maria Prophetissa, 3rd century alchemist). In the beginning there is a state of unborn, undifferentiated wholeness-the primal unity or matrix from which everything derives. This original unity is subsequently divided into two halves: The initial splitting is often seen in creation myths as the division of the world into earth and sky as in the biblical account. The development of the ego echoes this primal split when the child first experiences the me and the not-me, the moment when self and world are no longer identical.
In time one of the two halves further divides into two, giving us three parts. In the biblical creation story earth is subdivided into land and water. Three is not only a dynamic transitional number but an archetypal expression itself of a particular pattern. Groups of three are present throughout folklore and mythology (three bears, three little pigs, three wishes, three graces, three brothers, to name a very few) and divine triads are prevalent in the world’s religions. In the psychological development of the child, once self and world are distinct, consciousness undergoes a further differentiation in which mind and body are distinguished and the ego or “I” is born. With four, the remaining half has split in two, giving us a universal symbol of wholeness which we see reflected in the division of the natural world into four parts (the four seasons, the four directions, the four elements, four winds are some examples). The four in alchemy represented the reunion of the previously separated pairs of opposites, sometimes called the fifth or quinta essentia or quintessence.
The circle is a universal symbol of wholeness depicting the essential unity of creation, with each point on the perimeter relating equally to the center. The mandala (meaning circle in Sanskrit) is an ancient geometric symbol of the cosmos. The image pictured above plays with the notion of the four-fold division of the world and the recurrent alchemical theme of uniting the opposite elements (fire and water, earth and air). A parallel to this four-fold structure is Jung’s theory of psychological types, which distinguish four psychic functions, organized into two pairs of opposites (thinking-feeling, sensation-intuition).
This is perhaps the most ambiguous image of the series. Viewers have told me they see a fountain or a geyser, the Winged Victory or an angel and more ominously, a mushroom cloud. I can see all these possibilities and oddly they all relate to major alchemical themes. For example, the alchemical fountain recycles, purifies and refines with each successive cycle. Nothing is thrown away or deleted, only reprocessed and transformed, much like the psyche in its attainment of greater consciousness. Winged Victory connotes triumph after battle and depicts a figure that is at once human and divine. As to the mushroom cloud, alchemy contains more than one image of apocalyptic devastation, connoting the destruction of the old order to make way for the birth of a new dawn. Here too there is a parallel to the psyche: individuation requires the ego to suffer repeatedly its own destruction in order to grow and become whole.
“Fix the volatile and volatile the fixed,” is another alchemical precept. In the process of purification, one of the important alchemical operations is sublimation, where a solid goes directly to a gas. (It then goes back to a solid again, whereupon the cycle is repeated many times.) The feather evokes for me a quality of airiness and transcendence. This particular feather feels to me as if endured a long and difficult journey. From a Jungian perspective, airiness and transcendence bring greater consciousness and perspective to a fixed attitude.
The theme of the union of opposites mentioned above in regards the mandala is also central to the cross depicted here, but this image carries for me a more specifically human reference. This is a pre-Christian cross with horizontal and vertical dimensions of equal length. The horizontal corresponds to the worldly realm of matter and the body, while the vertical suggests spirit and psyche. Humankind, pulled between these opposites, seeks a home in the center.
This image relates to many of the themes discussed above: It references the rubedo-a reentering the world, fully embodied and engaged. In nature the beautiful pattern of sunflower seeds is an example of the golden spiral and relates to the Fibonacci sequence in mathematics, suggesting the concept of microcosm. As previously mentioned, seeds signify the end of one cycle of being and the generation of the one to come. The flower itself turns to face the sun (which corresponds in alchemy to the gold), much as the evolving ego learns to live in relation to the larger Self.