Three Johann Theodor de Bry engravings from Michael Maier‘s 1618 alchemical arrangement, Atalanta fugiens, as reprinted in Stanislas Klossowski de Rola’s essential anthology of alchemical engravings, The Golden Game. The Hermetic explanatory text below is also de Rola’s.

The egg

“Emblema VIII. Accipe ovum & igneo percute gladio. ‘Take the egg and strike it with a fiery sword.’ The egg is the Subject of the Art, which must be struck by the martial igneous agent wielding the ‘double-edged sword’ of the Secret Fire. Mars thus comes to the help of Vulcan, and from the ensuing darkness of Putrefaction (Nigredo) the hermetick chick will hatch. Raymund Lull, quoted here by Maier, stresses in several places that the fiery sword is a sharp lance, because Fire, like a lance, pierces bodies, rendering them porous and permeable, so that Water may penetrate them and turn their hardness into softness” (p98).

Nature teaches nature

“Emblema XX. Naturam natura docet, debellet ut ignem. ‘Nature teaches Nature to vanquish fire.’ ‘The way of Nature when it seeks the perfection of any work,’ writes Maier, ‘consists in making one thing come out of another, the most perfect from the least perfect, and to activate its potential.’ This is exactly what we see in the gesture of the mercurial heroine speeding the Knight on his way to do battle against the tyranny of Fire. The Knight is the Fixed Sulpher that the flame can no longer vanquish” (p99-100).

Birth of Orion

“Emblema XLIX. Infans Philosophicus tres agnoscit patres, ut Orion. ‘Like Orion, the Philosophick Child acknowledges thee fathers.’ Mythographers relate that Orion had not one but three fathers. Most accounts tell how Jupiter, Mercury, and Neptune granted the wish of their host Hyrieus to give him a son. Accordingly, the gods urinated in the skin of a heifer which was then buried. Nine months later, Orion (the name is a pun on the Greek ouron, urine) was born. Here, Maier names Orion’s fathers as Apollo, Vulcan, and Mercury; but, as usual, circumstances contrary to nature must in alchemy be understood to be the cloak of hermetick allegory. The Stone’s first father is Apollo: a celestial occult virtue (of the Sun) which fecundates the Matter of the Philosophers and gives her a son who will, ultimately, grow even more splendid than his father. Vulcan, symbol of Fire, is its second father (or mentor). Its third is Mercury, who lends it his own volatile Matter (or Mercury). To those three must be added the figure on the left, who is the attentive Artist, and as it were the fourth father. Towering above the others is Mars, whose presence is indispensable: without his action, the Body would not be dissolved. He is the symbol of the metal which, joined to the mineral Matter, attracts the magnetic influence of Phanes: Light, Spirit, Fire, personified in Apollo” (p104).

Alciati’s Emblematum Liber

March 23rd, 2007

Three emblems from Andrea Alciati‘s Emblematum Liber (1549 edition), recently translated by John F. Moffiit.

“The term ’emblema’ was frequently taken by Alciati’s contemporaries to represent the modern equivalent of the ancient hieroglyphs, for these also combined an enigmatic image with a mostly inscrutable text” (Moffit’s introduction, p7). Or, as Alciati’s teacher Filippo Fasanini described them, “short sayings… which can, in combination with painted or sculpted figures, wrap in shrouds the secrets of the mind” (p6). In Emblematum Liber, Alciati encoded 212 such emblems with moralistic allegories, lessons, histories.

Ass bearing Isis

Emblem 7 (p23)


A dim-witted ass was carrying an image of [the goddess] Isis, so bearing upon its bent back the venerated mysteries. Every passerby along its route worshipped the Goddess with reverence, falling to their knees to offer her their pious prayers. The ass, however, assumed that the honors were only being given to himself, and he swelled up with pride. This stopped when the donkey driver, correcting him with some whiplashes, told him: “You are not God, you half-baked ass, but only the bearer of God.”

The hand with an eye

Emblem 16 (p33)


States Epicharmus: “Never be credulous nor cease to be sober.” These are the sinews and members of the human mind. Behold the hand with an eye upon it; it only believes what it sees. Here is shown the mint, the herb symbolizing ancient sobriety. Brandishing this plant, Heraclitus pacified and soothed the maddened mob bursting into frenzied revolt.


Emblem 182 (p211)


“Old man from Pallenia, oh Proteus, you have as many shapes as an actor has roles. Why are your members sometimes that of a man, and sometimes that of an animal? Come on, tell me, what can be the reason for you to change into all manner of shapes, and yet you have no fixed form of your own?” “I reveal the signs belonging to the most remote ages, ancient and prehistoric, and each man imagines them according to his whimsy.”

Freher’s Paradoxical Emblems

February 8th, 2007

Two emblems from Dionysius Andreas Freher’s Paradoxa Emblemata (71 and 76), written in the early 18th century. Through a sequence of 153 such emblems, Freher (born 1649) illustrates Jakob Böehme‘s mystical cosmology: a progression beginning at a natural unity, differentiating via free will—even rebellion, and finally returning to a more sublime unity.

Perpetuum Mobile

What Thou hast of One yield to that One again, if thou intendest to keep it. Only by doing so canst thou be a perpetuum Mobile.

Although distributed amongst his peers in manuscript form, Paradoxa Emblemata was never published. The emblems here are taken from Adam McLean‘s hand-bound edition, produced in 1983, and based on manuscript 5789 in the British Library.

Out of the Center

From whence is this & that, if not out of the Center?

“When one… begins to use these [emblems] in meditation, as opposed to merely intellectualising over them, one will find that it is difficult to exhaust the implications of each emblem. …The meditator will find the sequence to slowly unfold its beauty of construction and see how each step builds upon the former… to… sense the inner architecture of the emblems…” (McLean introduction, p6).