The Mercurial Bird

September 13th, 2009

Three illustrations of Mercurial birds, representing the volatile nature of alchemical work.

Emblem 9 (of 12) from the 1752 Hermaphrodite Child of the Sun and Moon by unknown alchemist L.C.S., reproduced by Adam McLean (p42).

Translates Mike Brenner in McLean’s edition: “A soaring eagle with heart aflame, with the Sun and Moon at the threshold of its wings, bears tokens of dominion: the crown of influence, the sceptre of the king, and the globe of the empress.

“Its buoyancy in flight and its flaming heart show the ethereal nature of this eagle: wet outside, fire inside. It is our Liquid Mercury.

“The Sun and Moon seek solace under the shadow of these wings, basking in the pleasing radiation from the flaming heart.

“To win the Crown of the Earth, fuse the power of the sceptre and the globe…” (p42).

Copperplate 7 (of 19) from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s 1718 Elementa chemiae, appearing in Johannes Fabricius’s 1976 collection, Alchemy (p18).

Comments Fabricius: In plate 7 “the deluge [cf. the biblical Flood] leaves only a small patch of land, on which the Hermes bird descends [beneath the symbol of Mercury]. The chaotic situation is emphasized by the emergence of the seven planets on the horizon, a symbol of universal disorder. As indicated by the sign of sulphur, the sinking island is set on fire by sulphurous flames from the hellish interior of the earth. Yet the alchemist’s sinking island is ‘supported’ by a sealed chest of drawers emerging from the sea and containing immense riches of silver and gold. Although the adept’s world has become a sinking island, it has been simultaneously transformed into a treasure island” (p18).

Second woodcut of the 1550 Rosarium philosophorum, also appearing in Fabricius’s Alchemy (p24).

In this depiction “the king, standing atop the sun and representing the spiritus, meets the bride of his choice, resting on the moon and representing the anima. The rose branches crossed by king and queen bear out their mutual love, but the court clothes suggest the restrained nature of their initial encounter.

“The two roses at the end of each branch refer to the four elements, two of which are active and masculine (fire and air), while two are passive and feminine (water and earth). Their ordered arrangement in a ‘rosie cross’ suggests the abatement of the prima materia and its warring elements. The fifth flower is brought by the dove of the Holy Ghost, a parallel of Noah’s dove carrying the olive branch of reconciliation in its beak. Descending from the quintessential star, the bird reconciles the masculine and feminine elements, just as its third branch equates the rose branches with the three pipes of the mercurial fountain, now transformed into a stem of roses.

“The dove is the agent effecting the rapprochement between king and queen, just as the bird indicates the spiritual and heavenly nature of their love. The unusual character of this affair is further stressed by the partners’ left-handed contact. This uncustomary gesture points to the closely guarded secret of their infringement of a general taboo. Actually, the royal couple engages in ‘unnatural’ and illegitimate love, the secret of which is of an incestuous nature: the bride is the king’s own sister. Hence the ‘Rosarium’ admonishes: ‘Mark well, in the art of our magisterium nothing is concealed by the philosophers except the secret of the art…'” (p24).

One Response to “The Mercurial Bird”

  1. Annedien Says:

    I’m designing a website for an agency and I was wondering if I can use one of these reproductions (emblem 9) for the design, I’m guessing they are old enough to not be copyrighted but maybe there’s a different thing going on here?
    Cheers :)

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