Emblems III, XVII and XXVIII

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


The Seven Alchemical Laboratory Stages

Emblem III constitutes the reader’s introduction to the seven-stage laboratory process, as it is an allegorized exposition about the first alchemical operation, which is Calcination ... and we know this because Michael Maier tells us so in the accompanying discourse on the page that follows (not shown here).

Maier explicitly enumerates the seven principal stages leading to metallic transmutation to which he subscribes in the discourse that accompanies Emblem III. They are: calcination, sublimation, solution, distillation, descension, coagulation, and fixation (aka tincture; Maier, Atalanta, p.22).

These seven laboratory operations represent successive stages of purification, often referred to in contemporary literature as "gates" or "keys." In each stage, matter is subjected to a particular type of furnace operation that harnesses a specific kind of flame, which generates a specific degree of heat. In this way, through controlled fire, matter was broken down into its constituent elements and recombined, beginning with calcination and culminating in fixation, i.e. the final point of the whole process whereby matter was successfully fixed with its gold colour - hence, “tinctured” in the sense of dyeing, of having a colour and/or a particular quality imparted into the matter.

About Emblem III

The motto reads: "Go to the woman who washes sheets [pannos] and do likewise." Significantly, this motto’s injunction echoes similar instructions from Maier’s contemporary Martin Ruland, who stated in his Lexicon alchemiæ (1612) that, like the work of a woman, the Great Work (the stone) can only be made by those who are instructed in the proper method of operation.

The image presents an allegorical depiction of the process of Calcination. The washer-woman, with her back turned to a roaring/smoking furnace, pours liquid into a vaporous barrel from which issues condensed matter into a smaller vat. The sheets referenced in the motto lie piled up in the lower left hand area ... and they are subtly juxtaposed with sandy drifts in the opposite corner, signifying the change in state from solid to particle. (NB: the hand-colouring obscures this detail, which was done by a late nineteenth or early twentieth century hand.)

The epigram develops the theme articulated in the motto and image, instructing us to follow the washer-woman’s example in cleansing our philosophical matter to remove impurities. It is also pedagogical, because, in starting the Great Work, we must commence our purification process by following proper procedures, embodied in the labour of the washer-woman.

Collectively, the motto-image-epigram in Emblem III invokes the concept of commencing work through through a tandem depiction of the first alchemical operation - Calcination - in which the fire of the Reverberatory Furnace yields the first degree of heat.


Alchemical calcination takes place in the Reverberatory Furnace, characterized by a potent fire that reduces matter into a fine ash/powder, which successive "washes" in fire purify and dulcify, rendering an infusible substance in the form of a white powder, also called calx. Significantly, the material used to stoke a fire yields particular degrees of heat – different furnaces utilize different kinds of heat, and thus require different types of fuel. Accordingly, the calcining (or roasting) fire is made from wood (as opposed to the corroding fire made from coal, for example). In Emblem III, Maier signposts the calcining fire through the bundle of wood shown stacked in front of the roaring furnace. As the Reverberatory Furnace is characterized by the action of its flames, which pass over the substance being heated, Maier thus likens the licking action of these flames to the successive washing that laundry undergoes in making the sheets white.


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

Fire and Furnace

The alchemist interrogated the properties of metals, minerals, and vegetal matter by way of sophisticated application of controlled heat. The furnace was arguably the alchemist’s most important tool, for the manipulation of heat directed the successive stages of separation and refinement of matter. Indeed, the alchemist’s precision in handling the different degrees of fire that each stage required is analogous to how an anatomist would use a razor to dissect a body in order to study and analyze the constituent parts.

Essentially, furnaces regulate and govern heat; heat opens up matter and thus reveals its essence; heat affects changes in matter's colour (tempering).

Alchemical experimentation utilized scientific methods of observation and produced replicable experiments based on laboratory results, constituting a vital phase of what would emerge by the eighteenth century as the field of chemistry.

For a mid-seventeenth century example of a sublimating furnace, see the following technical illustration by the alchemist Nicaise Le Fèvre.

About Emblem XVII

The motto reads: "The fourfold wheel of fire reigns over this work." Emblem XVII allegorizes the purification process of Sublimation, i.e. the vaporization of a solid substance through heat, whose cooling off yields concentrated matter, the sublimate, which sticks to the insides of the vessel.

The image depicts four interlocking spheres (called orbes in the epigram), each of which contains enclosed flames.

The epigram plays off the motto's reference to a “fourfold path" as well as the four spheres delineated in the image. The epigram identifies and describes the four orbs in ascending order: Vulcan (the lowermost, which relates to common wood burning fire), Mercury (air, spirit), Luna (silver, watery), and Apollo (gold, earth)

The image in Emblem XVII depicts four interlocking spheres with enclosed flames hover over a body of water. This corresponds with the epigram's description of the four orbs from the image in ascending order: Vulcan (the lowermost, and relating to common wood burning fire), Mercury (air, spirit), Luna (silver, watery), and Apollo (gold, earth).

This sequence of action, or chain as Maier calls it, follows a set path; its origins exist with the god of Fire and of craftsmen (Vulcan), rising up to culminate in the god of Sun (Apollo); allegorically, these four spheres filled with fire correspond with the early modern Cabbalistic concept of the Four Worlds, which are the spiritual realms/levels that comprise Creation, each world holds a specific function in the process of Creation, and there exists a relationship between each sphere with sephirot of the Cabbalistic Tree of Life.

From this perspective, Emblem XVII is a metaphor for the alchemist’s labors in order to reach the ultimate goal (gold), that is, the philosophers’ stone. Allegorically, the operation of sublimation renders matter into a spiritual state that recombines into a corporeal state.

From an operative standpoint, Emblem XVII’s four interlocking spheres with their enclosed flames depict the sublimating furnace in action, wherein the stacked vessels receive the ascending and escending exhalations of the sublimating matter. With the operation of sublimation, heat changes a solid substance into vapor, whose cooling off yields concentrated matter.


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


Alchemical Colours

Colour symbolism is an integral part of the iconographic analysis of Maier’s emblems in the Atalanta fugiens. Understanding the inherent meaning that underpins a colour reference is key to decoding Maier's depiction of a particular laboratory operation and/or stage.

Broadly stated, white, black and red are the alchemist’s primary palette. White generally refers to purity/purification (it may also be an allusion to silver/Moon/Diana); black generally denotes putrefaction; and red generally signifies the colour of "perfection," meaning the successful attainment of tincture (philosophical gold, Sun/Apollo), which is the final alchemical stage and the ultimate alchemical goal.

But even these basic colour identifications are not straightforward or fixed in meaning. There are different grades of white, black and red; morevoer, these colours assume particular meaning when associated with specific creatures, and/or planets, and/or metals.

Recall in Emblem III that the washer-woman’s dirty sheets underwent rigorous cleansing to make them white - i.e. the albafication of matter during the first stage of alchemical operations, necessary for preparing the matter for the next stage.

The colour symbolism in Emblem XVII fluctuates between Luna and Apollo, silver and gold, the heavenly brother and sister whose union leads to metallic transmutation.

The black bile that afflicts our poor king in his Vapour Bath in Emblem XXVIII refers to the black colour of lead, which is also  a veiled reference to Saturn and thus melancholy, this planet’s attribute.

About Emblem XXVIII

The motto reads: "The king bathes sitting in the water-bath [Laconicum], and he is freed from black bile by Pharut."

The image allegorizes the therapeutic removal of excretory product through the pores by sweat to improve the internal state of the body through its depiction of another alchemical furnace in action - the Vapor Bath, also known as the balneum roris (literally Bath of Dew).

The epigram relates the condition of one King Duenech, who is swollen by bile, and describes how he is cured by his physician Pharut, who has him bathed in steam until fully purged and thus restored to health.

With the motto and epigram, Maier draws reference yet again from the Theatrum chemicum in relating to us the story of a sick king named Deunech, who was cured of his melancholy by his physician Pharut by means of steam. Thus, Maier presents another furnace operation through his allegorization of the Vapor Bath. While the Water Bath (balneo maris) operates by immersing the vessel in water to heat the matter it contains, the vessel in the Vapour Bath is heated by rising vapour from the hot water stored beneath it. Essentially, the vessel is suspended over the steam, and it is the action of being bathed by the hot steam that dissolves the matter contained therein. Note how the perforated floor depicted in Emblem XXVIII keeps the king from immersion in the hot water below, but allows the steam to rise up into his chamber and thus heat up his body. The type of action produced by the Vapour Bath is also referred to as digestion – a slow, steady, even application of heat - which is precisely what the king in Emblem XXVIII is being subjected to. Hence, our naked king represents alchemical matter in a vessel, sweating out his "black bile" in the Vapour Bath until he is freed from this condition, until he is purified.

What is critical in Emblem XXVIII is the change that must be effected in the king’s colour, as the slow, steady, even heating process of his Vapour Bath will drive out his black (i.e. lead) colour. Significantly, in the accompanying discourse to Emblem XXVIII, Maier tells us that once the king is fully purged (that is, all signs of black have been removed), he will arise from his bath rejuvenated and ready to be dressed in new colours - meaning, the alchemical matter rendered by this stage will be ready to be given new properties from ensuing stages of purification.

The Allegorical Laboratory
Emblems III, XVII and XXVIII