May 17, 2005

Atalanta Fugiens

Michael Maier’s book Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing) was published at Oppenheim in 1617 by the firm of Johann Theodor de Bry. It’s an alchemical text in a strikingly unusual form: it comprises fifty sections, where each section consists of a score of a short fugue (‘in two canonical parts over a cantus firmus’), a motto, an engraved emblematic image, a Latin verse, and a few pages of cryptic commentary. It takes its title from the legendary tale of Atalanta’s race with Hippomenes. In its simultaneous presentation of music, image, poetry and prose, it is a singular piece of Baroque multimedia. A few of the books’s emblems (engraved either by de Bry himself, or by his son-in-law, Matthäus Merian), follow below.

Emblem no. 1 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'the wind carried him in its belly.'

Atalanta Fugiens was just one of five books that Maier had published in 1617 alone. It seems reasonable to assume that these works had been taking shape over the previous few years, during which time Maier was in England. He had arrived at King James’s court near the end of 1611, apparently sent as an envoy of sorts, to work on behalf of those protestant German princes who were hoping to conclude the marriage of their figurehead, Frederik V., the elector Palatine, with the King’s daughter Elizabeth, a union that eventually took place in 1613. The Christmas greeting which Maier presented to James in 1611 bore an emblem (a rose and cross), some Latin verses, and a musical score…

Emblem no. 8 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'Take the egg and pierce it with a fiery sword.'

According to Joscelyn Godwin’s essay ‘The Deepest Rosicrucian—Michael Maier,’ (printed in the book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited), Maier had been born in Kiel, on the Baltic coast, in 1569. His father ‘was an embroiderer in gold and pearls who worked for the nobility of Holstein, then under Danish rule.’ He attended University at Rostock, Padua, Frankfurt an der Oder and Basel. At Padua his skill with Latin verse won him the title of poet laureate. He earned a doctorate of philosophy at Frankfurt in 1592, and became a doctor of medicine at Basel in 1596, after which he returned to Kiel and began practising as a physician. He also published a few treatises on medical subjects around this time.

Emblem no. 14 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'This is the dragon which devours its own tail.'

In the early years of his medical practice, Maier witnessed a remarkable cure, apparently effected by alchemical means, and resolved to master the spagyric art for himself. He undertook a survey of alchemical literature, and also made a more practical study of mineralogy, visiting nearby mining areas in so doing. From 1602 he practised alchemy, in a laboratory he had set up in Kiel with his sister’s husband. After several years’ experimentation, he claimed he ‘had obtained, by God’s grace, the Universal Medicine, of a bright lemon colour.’ Having this completed this magnum opus, Maier, his funds exhausted, sought sympathetic patronage, and turned to the court of the Emperor Rudolf II., in Prague.

Emblem no. 21 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'Make a circle out of a man and a woman, out of this a square, out of this a triangle, make a circle and you will have the Philosopher's Stone.'

Maier was in Prague for about a year until he was granted an audience with the reclusive Emperor, but, once they met, he soon won Rudolf’s confidence. Within a few weeks of that meeting, he was awarded the titles of Personal Physician to the Emperor, Count Palatine, and Knight Exemptus. Maier only had a couple of years in which to take advantage of his newly-elevated status, however, as Rudolf’s hold on his crown was already weakening: in 1611, he was forced to abdicate. Maier, in need of a new patron, wrote to a number of German princes, and, shortly thereafter, found himself en route to London.

Emblem no. 28 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'The King is bathed, sitting in a steam-bath/and he is freed from the black bile...'

In her book Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens: Sources of an Alchemical Book of Emblems, (my source, also, for the images reproduced here), H.M.E. de Jong traces the origins of many of the book’s mottoes and images, and shows its extensive reliance on previous works, and its place embedded in a tradition that has since faded to near-invisibility. The first emblem in the book, for instance, which is also the first of the images reproduced here, draws on a text that was perceived as one of the oldest and most authoritative alchemical pronouncements, the so-called Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet), whose authorship was attributed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistus.

Emblem no. 37 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'Three things are sufficient for mastery; white smoke, that is water, the green Lion, that is, the ore of Hermes, and stinking water.'

The image of the Ouroboros, the dragon devouring its own tail, shown in the third of the present images, was also employed in ancient alchemical texts, as a symbol of universal unity. Maier associates a more specific meaning with it, that it represents the ‘Unity of Matter and the Subject of the Wise; or more precisely the Mercury of the Wise.’ This, and the fifth of the present images (the King in the steam-bath) are also found in another notable alchemical emblem-book, that of Lambsprinck. Maier’s work was influenced by Lambsprinck’s text, and the illustrated edition of that text issued in 1625, was, one supposes, influenced in turn by the iconography in Atalanta Fugiens.

Emblem no. 42 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'May Nature, Reason, Exercise and Literature be the guide, staff, spectacles and lamp for him who participates in chemistry.'

Not all of Maier‘s images are borrowed. The emblem immediately above, for example, appears to have been Maier’s own invention: de Jong, at least, was unable to find antecedents for it in the alchemical literature. The accompanying motto reads ‘May Nature, Reason, Exercise and Literature be the guide, staff, spectacles and lamp for him who participates in chemistry.’ Nature here is portrayed as the woman bearing fruit & flowers, and Reason is the pilgrim’s staff, Experience his spectacles, and Literature his light. Frankly, it is a relief to find symbolism so straightworward, amid all this esoterica.

Emblem no. 50 from Atalanta Fugiens: 'The Dragon kills the woman, and she kills it, and together they bathe in the blood.'

In his book The Golden Game Stanislaus Klossowski de Rola writes that ‘there are many fascinating and scholarly works dealing with the critical and historical problems of alchemy; but it is unfortunate that most of them betray their authors’ incapacity to interpret correctly the veiled language of the Wise’ This is an incapacity that I must admit I share: I have read several books touching on alchemy, and I still find it all barely comprehensible. I suppose I am unable (and unwilling) to unlearn the basics of modern chemistry that my education provided me with. The drawback of this is that I’ll most likely always have my nose pressed against the glass, so to speak, when looking in upon imagery like this.

Posted by misteraitch at May 17, 2005 12:23 PM

a key to alchemic thought might be "the red lion" by the great hungarian writer maria szepes. though it is fiction, i assume it mirrors the serious knowledge of the author on the subject. as a conclusion, alchemy is less a premodern language for chemical processes but closer to religion (now that sounds mushy!).

Posted by: bloglodyt on May 29, 2005 11:11 AM

Per usual I'd been admiring both Maier and Lambsprinck images and Giornale popped up in google.

I have studied the modern chymistrie and I don't see for the most part how that would help in interpretation of ye olde symbology.

Chalk and cheese for mine, save for the titular link I suppose. A knowledge of symbolic art and emblem interpretation would be a greater assistance in exegesis.

But your post has at least lifted the curtain a little from that same glass I have my face pressed against. Cheers!

Posted by: peacay on February 10, 2006 02:43 PM
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