Wherefore is this Art compared to the play of children, who when they play, turn undermost that which before was uppermost. – Trismosin
In this plate, we see children of various ages, all at play. Some are riding on hobby horses and carrying paper windmills, others have fashioned a sled out of a cushion and are dragging a child along in their ‘chariot’. In the background, we see an older child assisting a younger child to walk. Providing the child support, (s)he patiently shows him each step. Further back are two infants, one perched on the lap of his mother, while the other child tugs at her skirts.
Through an open doorway, in the distant background, is a servant girl, hard at work carrying a basket. Above the doorway are two alembics, each filled with golden liquid. The accompanying text tells us that the properties of mercury and silver are passive in this plate of coagulation, rather than the active states of dissolution. Does the solution sit above the doorway, the crossroads, waiting for the next transformation once it crosses the threshold?
The frame of this plate is again swarming with animals of transformation. Butterflies, birds, and insects dance around the edges. We also see various earlier forms, caterpillars and larvae, and blossoms that will eventually turn into fruit. Within the frame we see this echoed; a plate devoted to first stage of the human lifecycle, the juvenile child, who has form, yet has not yet learned wisdom and developed spiritually. In the previous plate, we saw the first operation of this four-stage series, dissolution. This plate represents coagulation, or the reforming of the solid matter. These children represent the forming of the body, before the spirit and soul are fully recognized and assimilated.
Most of the children are naked, their natural state, yet some of the elder ones have begun to take on simple robes of yellow and blue, demonstrating their transition to adulthood. Both the adults, the mother and the servant girl are clothed in ornate red gowns, the color suggesting that they have reached the final stage of their journey, the Rubido.
The idea of the novice is one we have seen in many of the previous plates: the knight starting out, the novice assisting the master. This is an analogy we see in the tarot as well, as the first (and possibly last) card is the fool. It is the notion of self-discovery, of experience to be gained, and adventures to be had. This is similar to childhood; the world ahead will form them into the adults they will become. This is not to say the child, or the fool are not without their own wisdom. Play might be the most vital skill that humans can aspire to; it’s in “a state of play” mindset that all great works, from art to technology, are born. Given that alchemy touches on both of these topics as it attempts to approach its own Great Work, it makes sense that play would be a topic of interest for any alchemical text.
Work can be play, and play can be work; there is an understanding of this built into the process of alchemical transformation. This image, coming towards the very end of the Splendor Solis, is a fitting reminder of the levity that surrounds and informs the Great Work of alchemical growth.
There is a reason many of the alchemists in the Middle Ages referred to the process as women’s work and child’s play. This plate shows the imagination and energy that children bring, and the innocence and purity of child’s play, as well as the work required to support that energy.