It arises from the earth and descends from heaven; it gathers to itself the strength of things above and things below. – The Emerald Tablet
In plate seventeen the peacock from plate sixteen is replaced by an image of a queen in the central cucurbit. She is dressed in a blue robe that that opens to expose her naked breasts.. In her hands she holds a golden ball and a golden scepter, much like the reborn king in plate seven. This signifies that it is her time to rule; the power of the divine feminine must now be invoked. This queen is different from the one we first met, standing with the king in plate four. In that image, the queen was standing on the moon, while the king was standing on the sun; Sol and Luna, the principles of the masculine and feminine. The queen here is different; she stands upon the sun. She is still the embodiment of the feminine, but she is now grounded in her opposite, the masculine.
Above the queen is the figure of Hermes (Mercury) riding in his chariot. He holds his symbolic rod, the caduceus, in his hand. On the wheels are the symbols for Gemini and Virgo, both ruled by mercury in classical astronomy/astrology. His chariot is pulled by two cocks, the symbol of the masculine in alchemy, in part because they combine with the hen to create the cosmic egg, and also in part because they are associated with the sun through their crowing welcome at each dawn.
In the scene below we have a city-scape; tall buildings line the streets that stretch off into the distance. In the foreground are groups of people engaged in various activities. On the far left is a man with a hammer and chisel creating a sculpture while his assistant measures out distances with a compass. In front of them are two other men, studiously pouring over a globe of the world, while two men before them are immersed in illuminated texts. To the right, a group of people are gathered around an organ, one playing while another works the bellows. The other three accompany the organist, two singing while the third plays his trumpet.
This is a scene of higher art and learning. While we saw some of these elements in the previous plate, especially music and literature, they are elevated to a higher dimension in this image. The simple book is replaced with detailed illuminated manuscripts, and the simple wood instruments have been replaced by those forged of metal and complicated machinery. The organist and his assistant working the bellows is also a nod to the alchemists we have seen in previous plates, working over their equipment while their adept tends the bellows of the fire. High art and learning are the tools of the alchemists, the skeleton keys they need to unlock the secrets of craft. This can be found through the wisdom of the divine female, Sophia, who acts as a muse to guide seekers along the path.
As noted before, this scene is presided over by the god Hermes (or Mercury). As well as being one of the base substances that are used in alchemy, Hermes plays another role. Hermes is the messenger of the Gods, which means he has access to all of the divinities, giving him a unique power: Hermes has the ability to travel everywhere. He can reach the lofty heights of Mount Olympus, but he can also descend to the realm of the underworld and return. This ties into the physical operation of alchemy we find in this plate, distillation: the ability of matter to rise and descend back down, each time in a more purified form than the last.
With Hermes presiding over this operation, we are one step closer to the Great Work: the realization of the Philosopher’s Stone.