Saturday, October 27, 2012

Spiritual Alchemy and the function of images

Spiritual alchemy and the function of image : coincidentia oppositorum in Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens / Florin George Calian
The function of image in alchemical treatises like Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens opens a discussion of alchemy as laboratory work or as spiritual discipline. According to some scholars, the iconography of alchemy is a metaphorical illustration of laboratory work. This thesis argues that it is not the case with Atalanta fugiens, where the iconographical language is part of a tradition that stresses the power of image in expressing spiritual and metaphysical achievement. The tradition for which the image plays the major role is identified by Ernst Gombrich as a Neo-Platonic one. Using Gombrich’s theory (the Neo-Platonic symbol theory) and his terminology pertaining to the function of images (didactic, revelative, magic), I explored the possible ways of interpreting Atlanta fugiens’ iconography for both the initiated and the common “reader”. Three emblems (VIII, XXX, and XXI) are analyzed in relation to the additional text to illustrate the possibility of building a structural model for the images (didactic-revelative, didactic, and revelative), but also to discuss their ambiguity in several semiotic layers. The hypothesis is also advanced that Atalanta fugiens’ illustrations were influenced by the iconography of Lambspring’s De lapide Philosophorum, and not the other way around. This entire excursion returns to the starting point of the thesis, which stresses that alchemy is an allegorical manner of expression for something spiritual and religious, and not merely pre-chemistry.

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