FIVE WOUNDS: Alchemical Illustrations

This illustration accompanies a passage in 'Five Wounds' in which Magpie (Thief and spy) is preparing to take a daguerreotype of two corpses in the laboratory of Crow, the alchemist. Whilst considering how his subjects would wish to be photographed, Magpie contemplates the nature and essence of life and death.

Coal/Diamonds, Black/White, Presence/Absence, Life/Death. This illustration was inspired by images of alchemy. Both Coal and diamonds are primarily carbon, the same material in two different 'states', so appear to be equally balanced, of equal value. The scales suggest the idea of judgment; a concept very much linked to life and death at a time when alchemy was used by scholars to understand nature. The same material in two different states is also a reference to transmutation and transcendence associated with alchemy.

The laboratory of Crow, the Alchemist:

This illustration is explained in my post 'Jean in the Jar'. Alchemical Illustrations.

This illustration was created by Thomas Vaugham in the 1600's. Which possibly advises against possessiveness in order to live a dynamic life. I can't say for sure however. This drawing may even use the possibilities of steam power & the wheel to symbolise mobility. It may just depict a 'cycle' of life and death; in which the same material passes repeatedly through various stages.

"The King swimming in the Sea cryes out with a Loud Voice: He that delivers me shall have a great reward." From Michael Maier's 'Atalanta Fugiens'- 1618. Maier also composed a 'soundtrack' to go with the book. Alchemical illustrations such as these, together with a passage of text (and music in Maier's case), invited the reader to make interpretations and associations. The way of reading emblem books like Atalanta Fugiens is relevant to what Jon and I attempted with Five Wounds; as Jon says about our collaboration: "...the combination of words and images itself forms part of the argument, and that the latter can and should invite or require decipherment. They can therefore sustain alternate readings. Moreover, their relationship to the text does not need to be either fixed or obvious".

At a time before sophisticated scientific tools, alchemists attempted to depict, via metaphors, universal rules that could be applied to our understanding of nature. The illustrations were an early version of what we would refer to as a scientific 'models' today.The raw material that made up DNA was known, but before James D. Watson and Francis Crick created a model of how the chemistry was organised, DNA was poorly understood.

Alchemy unified various fields of science; chemical experimentation would also include variables such as astrology, mythology, spirituality and ritual. To the alchemist, what was practiced in the laboratory would correspond to movements of the cosmos and even other dimensions.


A scene from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' depicting non-scientific reasoning.

Another illustration from Atalanta Fugiens; a lion with wings being attacked by a, possibly jealous, wingless lion: *See the comments at the end of this article for further interpretations of this image. Many meanings of the motifs and 'models' are today lost or defunct as science moves on and theories are improved. In modern science this is also the case; I write this at a time when neutrinos have been recorded traveling faster than the speed of light, casting doubt on our current 'models' on  which physics are based.


I attended a seminar last year in which the speaker (an academic who's special interest was in comics and films) attempted to explain how Fellini's 'Eight and a Half' related scene by scene to Atalanta Fugiens. I was not completely convinced, but it was a very interesting talk.

This illustration was partly inspired by the above scene in Fellini's movie.


An alchemical illustration that did not make the final edit of Five Wounds.


Jonathan Walker said...

The winged lion is also the emblem of the evangelist, St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice, and the winged lion is also, therefore, the emblem of Venice itself.

Dan Hallett said...

Interesting. Michael Maier was counsellor to Rudolf II of the house of Habsburg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and much of Italy at the time, who's heraldic charge was a red (wingless) lion, the text accompanying this illustration suggests that the lion depicted is red. Maybe the illustration represents the Habsburg's ambition to dominate the Venetian republic, as represented by the crumbling tower in the background.

One of the delights of these illustrations is that they invite these kinds of interpretations.

Lamasu said...

These are not two lions, this is a lion (to the right) and a lioness (to the left). The Gold Lion is a function of Sulphur (fire) and represents terra (earth), a symbol for sensation (physical). The winged Lioness is a function of Mercury (water) and represents Aeris (wind), a symbol for emotion (spiritual). The Lion is not attacking the lioness (his mouth is closed, hence no devouring, both arms are not raised, no defiance) but is using touch (sensation) whereas she is crouching (back raised, forearms retracted) meaning strength. This is a rendition of one of Lambspring's processes of the Great Work.

The Venetian Lion (Winged Male Lion) represents Wind, hence Love, the "holy spirit". It is also depicted with it's back-paws in water (unconscious)and it's front paws on scripture (consciousness). Traditionally, it is not depicted in opposition to another lion, but a serpent (wrath).

Dan Hallett said...

Intersting. Thanks for that Lamasu.