The third picture of the third series of plates belonging to the Splendor Solis collection of alchemical images initiates a dramatic departure from both the images of sol niger (the black sun) and the tranquil haven of children at play. Gone are the mystifying sentiments prompted by a harrowing vision of desecration and the transcendental electricity that is generated when children create an interactive field in their playrooms and playgrounds. Instead, what we see is an assemblage of women going through the motions of ordinary and mundane domestic tasks; the washing, rinsing, and drying of white linen. It’s a scene that strikes us as odd and unprecedented; what connection, if any, might there be between the washing of fabric and the cosmological processes illuminated by alchemy?
The answer to this conundrum lies in the nature of transformation itself. Coming about chiefly through emotional understanding, major transitions in the development of consciousness would never eventuate if it wasn’t for active participation and repetition in diurnal tasks that societal norm deems mandatory. By continuously chipping away at issues, problems, and ailments from every possible angle, one gets closer and closer to their aetiology, expediting an in-depth understanding of fundamental natures that promotes heightened awareness of underlying connections and consequently psychospiritual growth. Motifs of women washing and cooking are actually quite rife in alchemical manuscripts. On the third emblem of Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, an inscription beneath an illustration of a woman tilting over a washing tub reads, “Go to the woman who washes the sheets and do as she does.” There’s an obvious analogy between the chemical processes of solutio (when a solid turns into a liquid) and sublimatio (when a solid is converted into a gas) that are instigated by the application of heat to the contents of an alchemical retort and the ascension of water vapour along with subsequent downpour of rain that occurs in nature at the behest of our splendid sun. This is why master alchemists would instruct their protégées to, “Go and look at the women who are employed over the washing and fulling of linen: see what they do, and do what they are doing.” What was meant by this is that one should first become intimately acquainted with the operations of nature–in this case the rotation of the elements through the presence or absence of heat–before attempting to accelerate that process in the laboratory.
A brief glance at the picture indicates that there’s some kind of work-in-progress. The central image is a winding waterway that cleaves through a beautiful courtyard adorned by immaculate green lawns. From an artistic perspective, it’s nearly impossible to discern its origin or destination. It also appears that most of the vigorous activity is focused in the forefront of the image. On the extreme left-hand side a range of black pitchers and a cauldron are being scorched by an unrestrained fire. Interestingly, a group of three women working nearby are completely embroiled in their work and don’t seem to be at all alarmed by the secretion of noxious fumes. One washes linen in a shallow wooden basin whilst the other two expunge linen of excess water. They all wear a combination of different tricolour schemes; the first on the left is decked in white, black, and blue; the second in white, black, and red; and the third in white and gold. Directly behind the latter two an incandescent black garment, perhaps made of silk, has been draped over a wooden barrel. Venturing towards them is another woman carrying a basket atop her head; the position of her arms is reminiscent of the matriarchal gesture of epiphany.
The middle ground is dominated by two women, one decked in blue and the other in red; the latter has ventured into the stream to wash linen whilst the former pegs recently washed ones onto the clothes line to dry. Beyond them are lawns that have been covered over with rectangular pieces of clean linen by three women with red dresses and vaguely defined physiognomies. These have been strategically positioned either horizontally or vertically along the ground to aid in the evaporation of water. A man standing on a patch of land near the bank of the waterway can be seen pouring water or some other liquid from a container onto a piece of linen. On the opposite side is another man perusing something in a courtyard that can’t be seen because the trajectory of vision is obstructed by the walls of a house. The space beyond that is dominated by two medieval blue-domed structures; an unpaved footpath which winds its way like a slithering snake to the arched entrance of the walled town; and a precipitous, jagged peak that breaks through a thick layer of ominous-looking cumulonimbus clouds as it rises into the heavens. There’s also a golden hue phosphorescing near the horizon, suggesting that rays of sunlight will eventually break through. Just like in the second plate with the family of interacting children, the five colours depicted by all the people present are colours associated with pivotal positions of the Great Work: black with nigredo, the stage of putrefaction and corruption; blue (or blue-green) with cauda pavonis or multiplication; white with albedo, a stage indicative of the albification, purification, and unification of matter; yellow with citrinitas or xanthosis, an intermediary phase of illumination; and red with rubedo, a culminating level of the alchemical process linked with final integration and actualization. The elementary quaternary of fire, water, air, and earth necessary for the synthesis of the Philosopher’s Stone are also present in the image.
So what might this plate be telling us about the nature of transformation? First and foremost the allusion to solutio and sublimatio is important, for it subtly hints that the two alchemical operations are essential components of the life process. Relating to the element of water, solutio denotes the disintegration of an entity into its integral components. In psychological terms, the act of submerging something in water is one and the same with the annihilation of an inflated ego-self through an encounter with a more comprehensive standpoint. Symbolized as a larger container, this more comprehensive stance might be projected from the conscious of a deeper and more evolved individual, an esoteric society or school, a political faction, a cultural group, or the powerful egregore of an organized religion faction. Any entity in possession of a worldview consensually felt to be more objectively ‘true’ than the relative one of an immature ego can bring about the solutio.
It’s no doubt an experience that almost always forces an individual into a terrifying encounter with their own shadow, to put it in Jungian terms. When an ego suffers liquefaction by immersion in the unconscious, an extremely volatile terrain of feeling-imagery, the personality is exorcised of problems, prejudiced attitudes, and other fixations that have kept it from moving forward and acquiring authentic existential consciousness. Once the libido has been freed from these obstructing bonds of the past, the corresponding personality can resuscitate from the darkness of oblivion with a sounder, much more expanded field of contemplative vision that allows for the retention of multiple viewpoints. Ken Wilber called the latter vision-logic and described it as a by-product of centaur consciousness, a stage of development focused almost exclusively on vigorous activity and responsibility. The few people who enter this phase retain an intimate sense of community and belonging but it becomes substandard to taking the reins of life into one’s own hands. They walk with a spring in their step and their body language seems to intimate that they go about fashioning their world and their future proactively. These sentiments correspond perfectly with what seems to be transpiring in the plate. By working together in a group the industrious women are giving the impression that the activity is a communal endeavour, yet a closer examination reveals that each has appropriated an idiosyncratic manner most characteristic of individualistic affairs. The women are sharing domestic tasks and working towards the fruition of the same goal without having established a shared psychic space between them, an interactive field or communal egregore.
Sublimatio, on the other hand, can be seen in the assignment of the white linen to the lawns for ventilation. An upward motion or ascent and the condition of being on an elevation or high up in the sky are all associated with this chemical process and its associative symbolism. Under the mediation of the air element, sublimatio involves the transmutation of a solid substance straight into a gaseous vapour without passing through the intermediary liquate state. The phenomenon unfolds in a more natural state outdoors, where moisture like dew or bodies of freshwater are evaporated by the sun’s heat during the diurnal hours. Psychologically, rising upwards is a blatant reminder that we can transcend the pathological symptomology of our own melancholies and complications. Our usual nature is to identify wholly and unconsciously with our own psychological projections; we’re so immersed in our subjective states–moods, feelings, pseudo-emotions, neurotic behaviours, depressive complexes, and the like–that we often become embodied by them. Instead of confining them to a miniscule space within our thalamocortical systems we allow them to proliferate autonomously. Eventually, they grow to be much larger than we; they overpower us and take a stranglehold on our lives.
However, by gaining a deeper awareness of the unconscious and its language, we detach from the very temporary and transitory states that kept us imprisoned for so long and come to see them as symptoms of undisclosed wishes and desires, unfulfilled natural talents and tendencies, and persistent involvement in relationships with incompatible partners. When we learn to look at our own lives objectively and critique them as if we were just another stranger, the solution to problems that initially felt like nagging injuries or gave the illusion of being unassailable peaks spontaneously appear. Herein lays the mystery of psychospiritual development. Acknowledging a mental state, for instance a raging anger or a deep melancholy, and then christening it with a name puts significant distance between the negative magnetism of the feeling-image and the positive magnetism of your own being. You rise above it and remain above it, like a mountain peak which forms and then subsists above sea level for the majority of its geological lifecycle. From that elevated position life with its roots and its destination is so transparent. The problem for most of us in general is that these sparse periods of extreme clarity, of albedo consciousness, are few and far between.
All these ideas are pertinently represented in the Splendor Solis image of women’s washing; the notion of detachment, of attaining an objective bird’s eye view of one’s life path, is epitomized by a precipitous peak in the background and by a raging fire in the foreground. The qualitative connection between the concept and the symbol used to embody it is self-explanatory in the first example but slightly more obscure in the second. How is the raging fire in the picture and the sense of detachment propagated by the alchemical sublimatio linked? The element of fire, as we know, shares a qualitative esoteric connection with spontaneity, creative energy, the sun, the colour red, truth, unconstrained emotions (i.e. jealousy, anger, and rage), and by extension of that inflation of the personal ego. If we were to equate it with the latter two, the image then becomes a supernal expression of silent and humble perseverance in the face of psychological adversity. By going about their domestic business without any expectation of receiving privileges or honours and concomitantly overlooking the obvious dangers that the fire represents, the women are detaching from the problematic entanglements of matter with its eternal orientation towards the subjective and the personal.
This is an authentic sign of transpersonal development in every sense of the word. To rise above the mental ego is to transcend the thought-desires constructed and projected onto the substrate of reality by one’s libido. All desire to subjugate and bring under our ownership or control is an illusion, a self-centred error of perception spawned by the ego-self. It takes profound courage, responsibility, and persistent proactivity such as the kind we see in the Splendor Solis image of women washing to shatter that illusion. The process leading to such a ‘big’ breakthrough is sometimes painstakingly protracted and gradual, such as in long-term psychotherapy, and at other times rather unprecedented and instantaneous, such as in spiritual emergencies (i.e. peak experiences, out-of-body experiences, past-life memories, shamanic crises). Given that the psychic contents carried by prevailing ego-self differs from person to person, it’s almost impossible to predict what particular configuration of circumstances are likely to spur major life transitions that are transformative on an spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and communal level. An explicit experience that spawns creative development and exaltation in one person could very well induce destructive urges, dissolution, and regression to a more primitive level of being in another.
In retrospect, the implicit references to the alchemical solutio and sublimatio processes bring to mind the integral structure of consciousness. From the abovementioned discussion it seems as though dialectical progression from one stage of development to another is preceded by a crisis in self-image followed by a willingness to jettison the very principles underlying one’s kaleidoscopic vision of reality. Of course, the obvious problem with any temporary dissolution of identity is that it automatically activates conscious defence mechanisms to counter the dissolution of self. The most catastrophic of these is the enchantment of regression, which thrusts one back into mental ego consciousness. During such a potentially destructive phase, the creative urge, the will to rebuild one’s personal myth in light of new experiences and a deeper awareness of life, becomes one’s saving grace. The logical and methodical manner in which the shift from a presiding state to a more comprehensive one occurs is quite remarkable.
An individual usually begins with a self-image and complementary cosmology that adheres to a set of rudimentary laws. Over time, these are developed and refined according to information and theoretical facts that have been singled out for their compensatory or harmonizing qualities. Lamentably, it isn’t long before the respective individual feels that the theoretical framework itself just isn’t enough to appease the thirst for emotional understanding, and so he or she might actively seek out specific inner and worldly experiences that justify the extended subjective vision. This promotes sensations and feelings of complacency and wellbeing–the belief that all is well. The specific layering of theory and evidence isn’t rigidly confined to one particular arrangement of operations; feeling and intuition may very well precede the gathering of facts. Inevitably there comes a time when the accumulative process inverts, and the individual realizes that he or she has been blasted out of the known world (his or her own) into infinitude. Abruptly, everything has been turned upside-down; the value-bestowing and meaningful acquisitions and possessions within have been liquefied. Somehow, the unconscious will have to initiate the condensation of a new self-image and personal universe because the rules of the game have once again been changed.
This, more or less, is how human consciousness transitions from one stage to another.