Emblems I and II

<p><strong>Fugue/Emblem I</strong></p><br />
<pre>Maier, <em>Atalanta fugiens</em> (1618)<br />CHF, Roy G. Neville Collection</pre>

The Emblem Defined

An emblem refers to a tripartite structure of motto-image-epigram, which is read in descending order (like a scroll), starting from the top of the page. Maier's emblems occupy the recto pages in the Atalanta, and their layout adheres to this organization.

Basically, an emblem is defined as an inner meaning that is hidden in an outer form (by way of analogy, think of a seed or a nut, and how its shell/husk is the container for its essence); the hidden, nuanced meanings of an emblem were meant to be revealed through erudite contemplation. Comparatively, a symbol is an idea that is embodied in, and communicated through, pictographic representation and meant to be readily understood by a wide audience.

About Emblem I

The motto to Emblem I reads: "The wind carried him in its belly." Essentially, Emblem I expresses a starting point, the great work of making the philosophers’ stone at its embryonic stage.

The image to Emblem I depicts Volatile mercury (composed of vapour) commingling with the strength of sulphur (given form by the god Boreas). In this way, Maier represents the male and female elements in whose union the seed of philosophical gold resides - allegorized here as the unborn child carried in the wind’s belly.

The epigram translates as follows: "If the embryo, which is enclosed in the windy womb of Boreas, will be alive, once it is born into this light; [then] it alone is able to surpass all of the labors of Heroes with skill, by hand, with a strong body, [and] by mind. Let it not be a Coeso to you, nor a useless abortion, not an Agrippa, but [rather let it be] born under a good star."

The epigram to Emblem I is both enigmatic and expository: it develops the motto’s theme through reference to Boreas, god of the North Wind, and weaves veiled references to other alchemical authors in describing the nature and creation of the philosophers’ stone.

Note how the motto and epigram textually frame the image: the interplay between these three elements make manifest the essence of Maier’s first emblem: the philosophers’ stone is an act of creation made corporeal from that which is spiritual. Put another way, Emblem I's image is the visual crystallization of its motto and epigram.

<p><strong>Fugue/Emblem II</strong></p><br />
<pre>Maier, <em>Atalanta fugiens</em> (1618)<br />CHF, Roy G. Neville Collection</pre>


Maier's Music

The Atalanta's music is scored for three voices: Atalanta/Mercury, Hippomenes/Sulphur, and the Golden Apple/Salt sing the emblem’s epigrammatic lines. 

Maier calls his compositions "fugues." This is actually another allusion to the word fugere because Maier has purposefully composed the music as a canon; i.e., different vocal parts begin a set melody in succession. In keeping with Ovid’s story, just as Atalanta flees, so runs her musical voice as Mercury; she is followed by Hippomenes (Sulphur) at a fixed distance, and their intwined voices create melodic polyphony, a musical metaphor for their elemental interaction. The Golden Apple holds a special role in this trio as the stabilizing element Salt: Maier has composed its part as a plainsong melody, which means it is a single, separate melodic line that is characteristic of a liturgical chant. Indeed, the Golden Apple’s melodic line is that of the Kyrie sung in the Gregorian Mass IV Cunctipotens Genitor Deus, celebrating the all-powerful God, Creator of all things (H.J. Sleeper, 1938).

So, Atalanta’s voice starts the song; Hippomenes’ musical line runs after her; the Golden Apple’s plainsong melody anchors the “fugue."

Permutations around the number three govern the composition and intellectual framework of Maier’s fugues. Essentially, the music blends Christological concepts with Ovidian legend and alchemical signification. Just as the Kyrie was sung three times at Mass, the course of Maier’s “fugues” sung by the trio Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple run through the three couplets of the epigram. Moreover, Maier uses such compositional devices as retrograde, inversion, tempo change throughout all fifty fugues. Such permutations in Maier’s melodic lines from fugue to fugue are likely musical expressions of his understanding of elemental interactions as they shift and change according to laboratory operation.

About Emblem II

The motto to Emblem II reads: "The earth is his nurse."

The image to Emblem II shows the philosophical child suckling the teat of the Terrestrial Globe, flanked by the goat Amalthea who nourished the infant Jupiter, and the she-wolf who nursed Romulus.

The epigram translates as follows: "It is said that Romulus suckled on the tough teats of a she-wolf, but that Jupiter [suckled on those] of a she-goat, and [it is said that] good faith is present in deeds. What is strange [about this, then], if we say that with her own milk the Earth has nourished the flesh of the tender Offspring of the Wise? If a little tiny beast raised such great Heroic [offspring], how great will he, whose Nurse is the Earth, be?"

Emblem II develops the theme of mother’s milk as a metaphor for the relationship between nourishment and development. Milk is the quintessential life-giving fluid, a transmission of substance and strength that flows from mother to child. Mother's milk determines what the essence of the child’s growth will be: the wolf’s milk made Romulus bellicose, and the infant Jupiter, as we know, grows into the god that controlled the sky.

All of Nature’s elements are present within the Terrestrial Globe; the philosophical child that is brought into being through the alchemical process of purification through fire will be an embodiment of the food it receives at this critical stage of inception.


Emblems I and II: Two Halves of a Whole

Together, Emblems I and II describe the male and female elements of the philosophers' stone, delineating its character vis-à-vis its conception (Emblem I) and inception (Emblem II). Both emblems signpost correlations between the alchemical process and the process of nature: the retort is a trope for the womb; the fires generated by diverse furnace types that cook alchemical matter through each stage of purification constitute a synonym for nourishment. The retort and the furnace were key instruments used by the alchemist in undertaking the creation of the philosophers' stone.

Significantly, Maier’s choice of motto for Emblem I (the wind carried him in its belly) and Emblem II (the earth is his nurse) are taken from the fourth precept of the Emerald Tablet: "The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nourse" (citation from Isaac Newton, "Keynes MS. 28" The Chymistry of Isaac Newton. Ed. William R. Newman June 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2014 from http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/newton/ALCH00017; Maier's citation comes from the Theatrum Chemicum 1.393, the alchemical compendium of important authorities first published in 1602). Thus, Maier commences the Atalanta by citing Hermes Trismegistus, believed to be an ancient Egyptian magus-king-philosopher and author of the Emerald Tablet, and upheld as one of the most venerable authorities on the secret of transmutation in the hermetic corpus.

In summary, Emblems I and II work together like two sides of a coin in that they can be understood as a single introductory unit made up of two parts - go now to The Allegorical Laboratory as this next page explores how Emblems III, XVII and XXVIII describe alchemical processes and equipment.