With its richly allegorical artwork and detailed instructions on the Great Work of transmuting a base material into the Philosopher’s Stone, the original 16th century Splendor Solis is the best known and most beautiful of the great alchemical texts. In this magnificent edition of Splendor Solis, the images—referred to as plates and treatises—are accompanied by co-author Joscelyn Godwin’s contemporary translation of the original German text, and it also includes enlightening commentary from alchemical experts. In the excerpt below, Stephen Skinner explains how the symbolism of both text and illustrations describe the physical processes of alchemy.
Plate 1 – The Arms of the Art
DESCRIPTION OF THE PLATES WITH A SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
1: The Summary of the Principles of the Work
This text consists of a preface followed by seven treatises.
PLATE 1: THE ARMS OF THE ART
A coat of arms consisting of a sun with blue ornate heraldic foliage, surmounted by a crowned helmet with three crescent moons. Above the shield another sun shines down from a red hanging.
Scroll text: Arma Artis, “Arms of the Art”.1
Frame images: Two monkeys (one with a lute), herons, owl, plants. Meaning: This art transforms tarnished natural gold/sun to bright alchemist’s sun/gold (an idea represented by the two suns). The three suns in the mouth and eyes of the lower sun represent the alchemical axiom “three in one and one in three”.
The preface points out that it is better not to begin the art of alchemy at all than to practice it casually.
This part observes the processes of nature and their relationship to the Great Work. All metals derive from the earth, modified by the action of the seven planets interacting with the four Elements over time. By means of natural agitation and combination, every growing thing (including metals) will be brought forth by nature. We cannot make a tree, but if we find the seed, plant it in the right soil and nurture it, we can grow one. In the same way, we can “grow” gold from the right “seed” or starting point, if the Work is carried out in a manner that allows nature to bring it to perfection. A reference to Aristotle’s Meteorology brings to mind his theory that all nature aims for perfection within each class of substance, such as metals. Everything owes its existence to the prima materia, which, when provided with the correct form, comes into full manifestation.
The four Elements contribute to the Work in various proportions, hence the emphasis in the text on their qualities – moisture, dryness, cold and heat. As the scroll in Plate 2 proclaims: “Let us investigate the four Elements of nature.” The alchemists believed that if they could bring the prima materia to perfection through the correct sequence of actions by the Elements, it would become gold. The presence of gold in the mines made it seem that the process of transmutation was possible, as nature had apparently already partly completed it. The alchemists, however, thought that they could speed up nature’s work and arrive at gold many aeons before nature.
One of the great questions in alchemy is “What is the prima materia?” As a starting point the prima materia (called Philosophers’ Mercury) is said to be common to all metals and assembled from the four Elements. Metals used in the process usually appear as compounds rather than chemical elements, manifesting as powder, earth, slime or vapour. For example, the first process turns the metal into a black slime (nigredo). The ingredients are often said to be salt, sulphur and mercury, but none of these apply to the ordinary chemical.
Dr. Stephen Skinner is an Australian author, editor, publisher and lecturer. He is known for authoring books on magic, feng shui, sacred geometry and alchemy. He is an expert in both alchemy and 15th and 16th-century grimoires, having edited not only Dr. John Dee's Spiritual Diaries, but also the book of Lapidus, one of the last remaining physical alchemist texts of the 20th century. He is an authority in 15th to 18th-century magic manuscripts and the author of more than 40 books on Western esoteric traditions. He has published over 46 books in more than 20 languages.
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