I am the way and even road, who passes here without a rest, will find a goodly life abode, and in the end be ever blessed. – Solomon Trismosin.
With that we begin our exploration into the wonderfully symbolic alchemical text, the Splendor Solis (The Splendor of the Sun) which contains the alchemical treatises of Solomon Trismosin. The Splendor Solis was originally part of a bigger collection of Trismosin’s works called Aureum Vellus (which is named after the golden fleece from the mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts), but later copies focused almost entirely on the Splendor Solis, and added the additional writings as appendixes. These additional writings contain, among other things, the auto-biographical story of Trismosin’s alchemical quest and are well worth the read (and can be found towards the back of most of the free PDF copies of the Harley Splendor Solis floating around the internet).
While Trismosin might not be an all too familiar name, he is also proclaimed to be the teacher of Paracelsus, the physician and chemist who is credited for being the father of toxicology, and the first person to apply the psychological idea of the unconscious in a clinical setting. Carl Jung’s own alchemical work Mysterium Conjunctionis is an extension of Paracelsus’ work. These psychological teachings can be traced back to the Splendor Solis, a text that not only provides insight into the chemical and physical alchemical processes, but also serves as a guide into the spiritual transformations of our soul.
For our explorations we are using the Harley Splendor Solis, the most well-known and ornate version that dates from 1582 and is currently housed in the British Museum. While this version was created nearly 90 years after the first known published copy of the Splendor Solis, it remains meticulously true to the initial drawings and descriptive symbolism, and was reproduced as a sacred artifact at a great deal of cost, and with painstaking reverence.
The introductory plate which accompanies the preface to the text, the first of the 22 symbolic plates, is the called the “Arma Artis”. Right here, we are provided with a key alchemical notion: the process of transformation as battle. There is nothing passive about alchemical change, a premise that extends across the boards for all magical and creative techniques.
Arma Artis means “The Arms of the Art”. The red royal standard hanging in the center of the frame bears the coat of arms Trismosin gave to his alchemical process. Upon it are two suns, the upper of which is shining brightly, its rays relatively uniform, except for the bottom ray which extends down into a triple crescent moon which adorns a golden crown.
Below the crown is a blanket of stars which sprawls out from the banner and covers a knight’s helmet and shield. Upon the shield is a second sun, a sun that is notably different. It contains three faces within itself, peering behind its two eye and its mouth. This sun’s rays are curved, unlike the greater sun above it. Does this heraldry communicate a relationship? Most magical systems center on the concept of initiation. There is a master, and there is a student. Could this be part of that symbolic relationship?
Outside the building where this standard is housed are two men. Their body postures might suggest they are teacher and initiate. The master points to the standard, separated from them by swirling and overflowing waters.There is also a three step platform leading up to the standard, possibly reflective of the tria prima which all alchemical substances are made from; Paracelsus defined these as Mercury (Spirit), Salt (Body), and Sulfur (Soul)
The ornate border which surrounds this scene is also worth taking notice of. The three birds of note are the Hoopoe, the Owl and the Heron. All three have deep mythic associations.
The Conference of the Birds, written by the 12th century Persian poet Attar, stars a Hoopoe, a bird that led a group of birds on a perilous quest for divine knowledge. The owl is a representation of both wisdom and the soul, a bird intimately associated with the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess who inspires writers and warriors alike. Then we have the Heron, a bird who feeds at twilight. Twilight is to the realm of the in-between; the liminal space that demarcate the realms of the dead and the living. The Heron has earned its reputation in multiple cultures,from Egypt to the Americas.
And then, there are the baboons. Two suns, two men, and then two baboons. While creationists might balk at this interpretation, it might appear that the creator of this vivid image thought we are not more than clever primates.
The two baboons sitting at the bottom of the frame appear absurd; one plays the guitar, the other feeds a heron. Both monkeys are doing something that is completely against their base natures, from the sharing of food between species to the apparent artistic pursuits of the other animal.
Sharing, and art. Giving, taking, and transforming. The teacher shares, the student takes, and if she is clever, she creates. All of this occurs within liminal spaces. The transmission of knowledge, the transformation of information, and the creation of art are intimately bound up in the web of the alchemical process.
Is there a lesson here? Probably. Is it worth contemplating? We believe so. Have we even scratched the surface of the symbolism that presents itself in this one, single image? No.
This is just one of 22 plates. The Splendor Solis has a lot more to say through its use of the visual medium. But just examining the things that are hinted at, if not clearly articulated in this single image is enough to give any aspiring magician/psychologist/artist a lifetime’s worth of material to work with.
And we’re just on the first plate…hanging with baboons with guitars…