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Alchemy in Art and Science

Alchemy in Art and Science


The great scientific revolutions of the twentieth century cause us to see the world in a different light. Quantum theory and chaos theory taught us to expect a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in the world and to accept that there will always be some missing information and gaps in what we once hoped would be a definitive description. Quantum theory also challenged the goal of science to provide a totally objective account of the world by showing that, in any attempt to gain knowledge and information, the role of the observer must also be included. In this way science has shown us that we live in a participatory universe. Finally, there was a more subtle shift from focusing on objects themselves to transformations, underlying symmetries and the process whereby objects come into being.

This new attitude on the part of science connects us in part to a thread that is found all over the world. It is the ancient idea that nature is alive and human beings have a role to play in the growth and maturation of matter. For many Indigenous peoples the cosmos is animated by powers and spirits. Their societies have learned to come into relationship with these energies of the cosmos and to cooperate with them.

In Hawaii, for example, indigenous people do not dig too deeply into the earth because she is alive. The Blackfoot of North America tread carefully on the earth for it is the skin of the mother. In India the casting of bronze is a sacred art passed on among certain families from generation to generation. An icon painter, working in Greece or Russia, begins his/her work through meditation and in a spirit of religious discipline. An Iroquois wishing to make a sacred mask must first find a living tree and make an offering, asking the tree to sacrifice some of its substance. As he works, the carver must always be in the right state of mind. He will purify his tools by burning tobacco or sweetgrass. The final mask will be a living thing containing special powers. As with the icon painter, his concentration must be absolute during the act of making and his mind must be free from secular thoughts that could enter the piece and corrupt it.

A similar perception of matter as vibrant and alive also pervaded Europe during the early Middle Ages. Such a vision transcends the duality of matter and spirit. As in a mystical marriage, matter and spirit are of one body. They are unified in such a way as to transcend the limitations of either. But just as the limitations of our senses prevents us from seeing simultaneously all sides of a three-dimensional body so too, we normally perceive this unity separately as matter and as spirit.

By way of an illustration as to how duality can emerge out of unity, think of the hypothetical inhabitants of ‘Flat Land’—two-dimensional beings confined to a flat universe. Imagine a pair of scissors dropping though their universe. At first they would see two dots appear at separate locations—the points of the scissors. They do not realize that these two events are connected in any way. The dots now widen into thin rectangles that approach each other. Finally they are united into a single rectangle – the hinge of the scissors. But then this unity is broken again as the two handles of the scissors move though their universe and finally vanish. What to us is a single object, appears to the Flat Landers as two separate objects that unite and then move apart. In a similar way we see a universe of matter and of mind, as well as one of spirit and of matter. Yet in essence matter, mind and spirit are inseparable. We may not always be able to grasp this with the intellect but it is something we sense in great art and music.


We in the West with all our modern science and technology are nevertheless heirs to a consciousness that prevailed in the European Middle Ages. It is the birthplace of so much Western art, music, and literature. At that time people felt themselves to be participators within a living universe. More explicitly it was present in alchemy; an approach that was brought to Europe by Arabic scholars but also has specific manifestations in many of the world’s other cultures and traditions. Alchemy certainly existed in classical India as it did in Taoist China. Titus Burckhardt, in his study of alchemy, identifies the sacred pipe of the Plains Indians of North America as having direct alchemical connections. (Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1971)

Alchemy is generally dismissed, particularly in chemistry textbooks, as a mixture of pseudo-science and superstition. Its motives are said to be greed, either in the lust to make gold, or the desire to con the gullible. Sometimes alchemy with its retorts and its practices of distillation, sublimation, crystallization and so on, is portrayed as the nursery of chemistry. And while there are elements of truth in these descriptions and dismissals they miss an essential point. Seeing the search for gold as evidence of human greed, or distillation as a simple chemical operation, is to observe what is only the surface of alchemy and mistake that for its essence. The true essence of alchemy lies in the union of matter and spirit and role of human participation within the transformations of nature. The heart of alchemy lies beneath its externals and if Western scientific rationalism is dismissive of The Great Work, one should never forget that Newton, the greatest scientific mind, devoted much of his work and study to alchemy. Likewise the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote, Aurora Consurgens, a treatise alchemy. Carl Jung devoted several volumes to the study and understanding of alchemy and recognized that the alchemists of old were expressing profound understanding of the human psyche. Likewise artists from Michelangelo and Dürer, through Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein and on to contemporaries like Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic have drawn on the deeper meanings of alchemy in their work.

At one level alchemy is concerned with the transformations of matter, changes that can occur both in the laboratory and the body of the alchemist. It is about the transformation of base matter into gold. It is the search for the elixir of life, the universal solvent and the philosopher’s stone. It is the practice of distillation, crystallization, dissolution and sublimation. It is a worldview concealed within a web of symbolism. Alchemy is both art and a science. It is a philosophy and a theory of psychology. It is as impossible to ‘explain’ alchemy in any simple and exhaustive as is it would be to ‘explain’ the meaning of a painting, a poem or a piece of music. Alchemy’s roots belong to an era where science, art and religion were one. It is a period the contemporary religious composer, John Tavener, calls ‘one simple memory’; an age when art, life and spirit formed an undivided unity.

By taking alchemy seriously I’m not suggesting that contemporary scientists should lock the doors of their laboratories and stoke up alchemical furnaces. We have new ways of working with matter today through genetic engineering, nuclear reactors and so on. Rather it is the underlying meaning of alchemy and its attitude of reverence to the material world that is important. In this sense contemporary scientists can indeed become alchemists. A noted example is Barbara McClintock who, in 1983, obtained the Nobel Prize for work she had done several decades earlier on ‘jumping genes.’ McClintock discovered that the genetic instructions in DNA are not static but are able to move. In this way cells can develop in diverse ways in a growing organism. McClintock made her specific study using corn and wrote of how, in her work, she entered into a relationship with the inner nature of the corn. While, of course, McClintock remained a scientist, with all the knowledge and skills of a scientific training, she nevertheless engaged in a form of participatory perception with the corn itself. McClintock also made a number of visits to Mexico and South America to study the way the indigenous people of that area had participated in the evolution of maize. Her own approach very much complements that of Native American science.

In her obituary for the Nobel Prize Foundation Howard Green, the George Higginson Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School described McClintock as a ‘mystic genius’ who ‘knew of things she could not explain’ and agreed with others who felt that her path to understanding was mystical in nature. Moreover that truth itself, for McClintock had a mystical origin both inside and outside herself.

Another biologist, Brian Goodwin author of How the Leopard Changed its Spots, makes a similar argument for holistic and participatory science, more specifically along the lines suggested by Goethe. Goethe accused Newton of always placing nature in artificial situations in order to study her secrets. By contrast, Goethe sought ‘the example worth a thousand,’ that is a phenomenon studied in its natural setting that reveals the truth of a situation. Likewise Goethe argued that ‘Newtonian science’ sought to discover underlying order through the study of many individual cases and examples in order to find the pattern behind them. By contrast, Geothe suggested starting with the deeper order and then observing how it manifests itself in particularities. One example is that of leaves. Biologists attempt taxonomies whereby they study the form of symmetries of different leaves and then subject them to a classification system—gathering together leaves of various plants into a variety of groupings.  Goethe however proposed the ur-leaf, the archetype out of which all particular leaves are formed. The ur-leaf is the ground of leaves in general and through its particular metamorphoses it will appear as oak, maple, ash leaves and so on.

This Goethean approach to science, Goodwin argues, need not be opposed to conventional science as it is usually treated. Rather it can complement the mainstream approach, giving room for value and quality alongside quantity and numerical measure. In one exercise Goodwin had his students study the leaves and flowers of a particular plant. They were all trained in plant biology but he also encouraged them to engage in a type of objective intuition whereby they would dialogue, as it were, with the plant. Proceeding in this way, and without performing a chemical analysis, his students were able to deduce the pharmacological properties of the plant, which exactly matched that established in the laboratory. The biologist, Mae Wan Ho, author of The Rainbow and the Work: The Physics of Organisms calls for a ‘reanimation’ of biology in which laboratory experiments and observations arise out of a deep empathy with the natural world.

If it should seem strange that the mystical knowing of a McClintock or the objective intuition of a Goodwin, should play a role in gaining scientific knowledge one should also give attention to the way the theoretical physicist, David Bohm, worked. Bohm argued that since his body was created out of the same matter that inhabits the universe, he should be able to reach the laws of nature through both an inward path, as well as the more conventional one of laboratory experimentation. In this Bohm was echoing the working methods of the painter Paul Cézanne. Cézanne believed that the motif—the natural world he was painting—actually spoke through him to the point where he could express the consciousness of nature in his works. As he painted, therefore, Cézanne gave great attention to his ‘little sensations.’

In each of these examples, alchemy is taking the form of an inner work. In this respect it is closely related to the Taoist alchemy of ancient China. While the essence of this approach was similar to that of the West, its exterior manifestation matched the worldview of the society in which it was practiced. The Chinese were concerned with the body, healing, transformation and medicine. Thus the alchemical furnace was not an external piece of apparatus but a fire within the loins. As in Western alchemy a substance is purified through the fire of the furnace, either by distillation—that is, converting it to a vapor and then condensing that vapor back into a liquid again – or by sublimation—converting a solid into a vapor and then back to a solid, so too in Taoist alchemy there is a circulation that begins in the loins and rises to the head, on its way, passing through several centers of the body, and descending again. This alchemical and transformative movement is clearly similar to that of the ‘serpent fire’ that circulates within the Kundalini of ancient India.

Alchemy’s History

If we ask, ‘what is alchemy?’ we open the door to a variety of answers. In its various forms it is found all over the world. In Europe it was practiced from the Middle Ages until the rise of science at the start of the eighteenth century. The word itself comes from the Arabic, al-kimia, which suggests that, as a coherent philosophy at least, Islamic scholars brought it to Europe. But the actual sources of alchemy may be much older. The word Khem, for example, means ‘black earth,’ which is the ancient name for Egypt. Some scholars hold that the desire to transmute base metals into gold can be traced back to the time of the Pharaohs. Alchemy was also practiced in Ancient Greek. Bolos of Mende wrote Physica et mystica around 200 BC. As well as dealing with the transmutation of metals into gold the work makes reference to astrology and Greek theories of the elements. Some scholars believe that his saying ‘One nature rejoices in another nature; one nature triumphs over another nature; one nature masters another nature,’ can be traced back to the priests of Zoroaster.

Alchemy’s more distant origins lie in the universal belief that the cosmos is replete with meaning and that the natural world that has a direct relationship or parallelism to human beings. According to this doctrine the universe is written in a divine language, and the ‘signatures’ of the Creator can be found in everything. Each aspect of the divine is enfolded and entwined into many others. The doctrine of ‘as above, so below’ suggests that even the stars and planets have correspondences and relationships with events on earth. This was not to claim that any sort of causal relationship existed between the motion of the heavenly spheres and what occurred on earth, rather it refers to what Carl Jung was later to term a synchronicity—a meaningful connection that is acausal; acausal in the sense of not involving anything akin to the pushes, pulls and forces of attraction of physics.

Another term for this would be correspondence. There were correspondences involving plants, animals, and the heavens. As a philosophy it is in part scientific and in part poetic. While a contemporary scientist explores the transformations and relationships of matter, the poet thinks of change in terms of images, metaphors and the way disparate things reflect and interpenetrate each other.

Above all alchemy was concerned with transformation. And transformation is about the cyclic seasons of the year, the maturation of wine, the distillation of spirit from wine, the growth of a child, the aging of the body, processes of death and birth, sickness, and healing. In classical China transformation forms the heart of the central work of Taoist philosophy, the I Ching or Book of Changes. Likewise Taoist alchemy focused on transformations within the body of the alchemist in search of immortality.

In all cases the image of gold is central to alchemy. While it is certainly true that gold is associated with financial wealth and power it also has a deeper significance. In its chemical nature gold represents incorruptibility. Chemists know it as a pure metal that does not tarnish and resists the attack of acids such as sulfuric and hydrochloric. Indeed the test for gold was the ‘royal liquid’ aqua regia (a mixture of concentrated sulphuric acid and fuming nitric acid) that attacks all metals other than gold. Gold’s shining quality also identifies it with the sun, the source of all life. But gold was not the only goal; other alchemical concerns were with the philosopher’s stone—’the stone which is not a stone’—with a universal reagent that would reduce everything to primal matter, with the preparation of liquid gold, the elixir of life and with the death and resurrection of metals. These were not necessarily separate pursuits, for at times this philosopher’s stone is also referred to as the elixir vitae, the elixir that would prolong life indefinitely. Again the alchemical worldview embraced both inner and outer—the working in the athanor and within the alchemist’s body. After all, this elixir would also cure the sickness of the material world by raising metals to a state of perfection as gold. Likewise the Taoist alchemists of ancient China sought the ‘pill of immortality’ to achieve perfection of the body, but also complemented by diet and breathing. The Rig-Veda of ancient India refers to ingesting the soma of the gods, but in parallel with this were the practice of Yoga and the circulation of kundalini within the body.

The Great Work.

Alchemy or The Great Work was always carried out in secret. As a practice it involved a series of time-consuming processes that included dissolving a substance in an acid or other liquid reagent, distillation, crystallization, sublimation (heating a solid so that it moves directly into the vapor phase) and so on. Many of these operations were carried out within a sealed vessel—the alchemist’s retort or athanor. This required the alchemical furnace to be kept burning night and day for many weeks. A variety of reagents were used, each of which had its own symbolic associations. Mercury, for example, had associations with the planet Mercury and with ‘the spirit Mercury.’

Mercury appears in many guises but always to signify that which is fast and spirit-like. Mercury was the messenger of the gods and is portrayed a being winged and capable of flight. He is present in the term mercurial, as applied to a person’s character and as Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His spirit is present in a flurry of words and his famous Queen Mab speech. Images tumble out upon images until Romeo halts him with ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.’ To which Mercutio replies, ‘True, I talk of dreams.’ As a planet, Mercury is closest to the sun (gold) and fastest in its motion, yet its motion is also eccentric for, when viewed from earth, the planet at times appears to go backwards. Finally there is mercury as a chemical element which is also called quicksilver. Place a piece of gold in a puddle of mercury and the gold disappears. The royal metal that resists the corrosive effect of the most powerful acids dissolves under mercury’s spell. Yet all is not lost for gold has not been involved in a chemical reaction that binds but in something subtler—mercury and gold form what is known as an amalgam. Take this amalgam, place it in a sealed vessel and heat. Now the spirit mercury is driven off, to leave gold behind. By this process gold can be refined for any impurities originally present in the gold do not amalgamate with mercury and can therefore be separated out. The process of amalgamation is therefore like a little death for gold, which can subsequently be resurrected, in a purer form.

Each stage of The Great Work was marked by a particular color, and the whole process went through many cycles. Accounts of what took place are not easy to read since the alchemical work was always expressed in symbolic form. Alchemical symbolism is often dismissed as being no more than a secret code to protect spurious recipes against prying eyes. Such an explanation is based on the assumption that alchemists were either charlatans on the lookout for rich, gullible clients, or self-deluded in their lust for gold. Yet while there may well have been alchemical charlatans the goal itself, of philosophical gold, could not be measured in personal wealth.

The fact that alchemy was practiced behind locked doors, that the alchemist was warned not to speak about the Great Work, and that notebooks were written in a highly symbolic form has a much deeper reason. Every creative person knows that it is important not to say too much, or reveal too much, while working on a poem, painting, novel, or scientific theory. It’s not so much that someone may ‘steal your ideas’ but rather that intense creative work has to be contained and focused inwardly.  Reveal too much, give ideas away too quickly and the associated creative energies may dissipate. A painting, a poem, a novel, a musical composition, a scientific idea, like an alchemical working, has its own internal clock, its own time, and its own rhythm of unfolding. Creation cannot be rushed. It must also be contained and protected. Talk too much about a novel or play you’re working on and it will never get written. Instead of containing the work and struggling with its expression hour after hour, day after day, it has been given away and not treated with the respect it deserves.

The secrecy of an alchemical working and the apparent impenetrability of the alchemists’ notebooks was one way of focusing energy, setting the mind on the Great Work and developing a profound sense of purpose and intention. It is exactly this self-same focusing of attention that is characteristic of the best artists and scientists. The contemporary sculptor, Anish Kapoor, for example, has spoken of his need to build up intention before starting work. It is not so much that he has some preconceived plan in mind and sets out to realize it in stone or steel. Rather his work begins through the generation and holding of intention to the point where he, as a sculptor, is able to begin his work on the matter before it in order to bring about the transformation that will realize the work.

The complex symbolism of alchemy is all of a piece with the work itself. Alchemical transformations cannot be explained exclusively in terms of a series of objective chemical operation. Even the words used—’sublimation,’ ‘refine’ ‘crystallize’—have associated psychological connotations even to our modern ears. In the previous chapter we saw that an electron cannot be exclusively described as a wave or as a particle. An electron embraces complementary and even paradoxical aspects within itself. So too alchemy cannot be explained away either as pre-chemistry or as psychology. It cannot be exhaustively embraced within a single didactic explanation. Its very essence must be expressed symbolically, by means of metaphors, drawings, and images.

Alchemy is not only performed outwardly, upon a material substance, but also inwardly, within the mind and body of the alchemist. In an alchemical working, for example, spirit is separated from the matter. This matter then rests in the nigredostate close to death and begins to putrefy under the gaze of the Black Sun. This nigredo stage of an alchemical working has much in common with the first stage of creativity. It that period that precedes the actual work, one in which the artist, scientist or poet holds an intention inward until it is ready for its external expression and the reuniting of spirit with matter. As the alchemist Michael Maier put it ‘The sun and the shadow complete the work.’

In the next stage spirit is concentrated until matter and spirit are brought together again in a mystical marriage. Within the marriage is created a unity, represented by the hermaphrodite. In this way the working continues to a new state of death, separation, purification and marriage. Alchemical manuscripts show the various stages of a working in symbolic forms, for example, the Green Lion devouring the sun (gold), a king and queen in their separate coffins only later joined together in sexual congress, the figure of the hermaphrodite to represent the conjunction of opposites—matter and spirit, the outer world of the laboratory and the inner world of the alchemist.

The transformations with the alchemist’s retort are mirrored within the life of the alchemist. While the alchemist’s attention is directed outward, onto matter, a parallel inward working is occurring within his or her soul. The goal of alchemy is as much internal as external. The litmus test for the final stage of The Great Work, gold in the crucible, is also an indicator that a deep inner transformation has taken place. Likewise the spiritual transformation of the alchemist is manifest by a parallelism or synchronicity in the outer world.

The symbolic nature of alchemy as it deals with inner transformation attracted the psychologist Carl Jung to the study of alchemical texts. Jung discovered many remarkable parallels between the symbolism of alchemical writing and the dreams of his patients. This led him to conclude that alchemists had touched material deep within the collective unconscious. Their images went beyond purely personal into powerful archetypes shared by the human race in general. For Jung, the alchemists were the first depth psychologists.

Jung noted the correspondence between the succession of stages in an alchemical working and the psychological stages of what he termed the processes of individuation; that is the process whereby a healthy person moves through maturation towards the realization of Self. And by the Self Jung meant the larger and spiritual Self that transcends the concerns of the ego (and ‘self’ with a small ‘s”’ as a person broadens out into a fulfilling and creative life. By projecting their psychic processes into matter, the alchemists achieved deep insights into the dynamics of the psyche and discovered a practical way of uniting matter and spirit within themselves.

But as in everything the modern mind can say about alchemy, Jung’s particular reading is not exhaustive. Of equal importance is the alchemist’s responsibility to the external world, the way the alchemist assists nature on her path to perfection. In this we could draw upon Jung’s term ‘synchronicity.’ Synchronicities are, as defined by Jung, ‘acausal parallelisms.’ That is, meaningful patterns that embrace both the external world of everyday events and the inner world of thoughts, dreams and imaginings. Most people experience synchronicities as curious coincidences, for example, as when one is thinking of an old friend not heard of for many years, the telephone rings and it is that person on the line. But true synchronicities can run very deep. One of Jung’s more powerful experiences of synchronicity occurred when he was in Freud’s office. Jung, who had been like an adopted son to Freud, was beginning to break away from the master when suddenly both men heard a series of explosions from the bookcase.

Synchronicities can occur when a person is in a state of crisis or during active creative work. Most psychologists observe synchronicities in their patient’s lives. For example, at the same time that a crisis or breakthrough occurs to a patient in Zurich their spouse in the United States may be involved a traffic accident or suddenly receive a promotion in their job. It is also not unusual at such moments for a picture to fall off a wall or a light bulb to explode.

Synchronicities are characterized by being deeply meaningful to the individual involved but without any direct causal connection of events. They are a parallel occurrence in the world of mind and matter, matter and spirit, masculine and feminine, light and dark.  Both alchemy and synchronicity are about the merging of two apparently different worlds, and in ways that lie outside the normal discourse of causality and the forces of attraction discovered by physics. It is in this sense that the notion of the mystical marriage is central to alchemy.

The Mystical Marriage

Such a marriage forms the center of a twentieth century opera ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ by Michael Tippett and helps to illustrate, in contemporary terms, the alchemical path to unity. Tippet himself was deeply interested in the depth psychology of Carl Jung and certainly knew about the symbolism of alchemy and so his opera presents an alchemical working as the journey of a male and a female principle towards final unification and transformation.

In the opera the two protagonists, Mark and Jenifer, meet on their wedding day. To Mark’s horror his bride is not dressed in her wedding gown. Jenifer tells him that she is not ready for marriage. Because she has never known her true Self she cannot conjoin to form a new unity. In the Jungian terms she has not completed her process of individuation. In Alchemical terms she had lain dormant in the nigredo state and is now about to enter into a new stage of The Work.

Following their encounter Jenifer ascends into the sky on her search. As an alchemical image, this is the process of sublimation from solid matter into vapor, or spirit. In a complementary journey Mark descends into the earth. He must enter into flesh, matter, sexuality, and the mysteries of the fruitful earth.

In the second act Mark emerges holding the Golden Bough in his teeth. He has touched the essence of the physical but lacks the animating power of spirit. Likewise Jenifer, has now spent too long in the world of spirit. Her feet are no longer planted on the ground and she has become psychically inflated. The female aspect may be replete with spirit but is unable to conjoin at the physical and sexual level. Likewise, in any coupling the male would be devoid of the dimension of spirit.

And so The Work must continue. Now spirit, as Jenifer, descends into matter—the earth—while matter ascends into the realm of spirit. The couple change places. Only in the last act of the opera is the alchemical working completed. Conjunctio can now take place in the form of a mystical marriage. At the culmination of the work the two figures appear, transformed and conjoined, within the confines of a lotus flower.

Earlier reference was made to the pipe of the Plains Indians being yet another example of an alchemical worldview. Again this illustrates the alchemical notion of a mystical marriage. The pipe was given to the Sioux people by Buffalo Calf Woman as one of their Seven Ceremonies. The bowl of the pipe corresponds to the alchemical vessel. Yet before the ceremony stem and bowl, as with the male and female principles in Tippett’s opera, are kept separate. They must first be purified by the smoke from sweetgrass—spirit. The commencement of the ceremony is marked by the mystical marriage as the stem is inserted into the bowl. At that moment the door to the teepee is sealed and the circle closed, a correspondence to the warning that the alchemist should keep his laboratory door locked. And, as in the cycle of an alchemical working, the pipe is now passed around the circle. The ceremony is now inwardly directed with prayer and a held intention as the matter of the sacred tobacco transforms into spirit (smoke). As with Taoist alchemy, the spirit or energy enters the body of the smoker and touches the heart.

We too are beginning to regain our understanding of the role of spirit in the transformative processes of the body. The Fetzer Institute in the United States, for example, has sponsored research showing the way spiritual awareness and maturity relates to wellness and the ability to recover from disease. Research also indicates that in cancer, imaging a disease and the way chemotherapy and the immune system are attacking run-away cells, can be a powerful aid to healing.

Doctors also acknowledge that images and dreams have correspondences within the body and can help to make us well or sick. The immune system itself is the intelligence of the body. It is a highly sophisticated image-recognition system that detects the presence of foreign bodies and mounts defenses against them. The immune system is both a complex network of antibodies and levels of meaning that are circulating through the body. This explains why in a population that, through accidental contamination, are exposed to a disease-causing agent such as typhoid, some will become extremely ill, others suffer mild symptoms and yet others experience no ill effects. It is now well accepted that those who are happy and creative in their lives are far less likely to fall prey to illness. Every day we are exposed to a host of infectious microorganisms without them posing any problem to us. Yet if we are suddenly stressed by loss of a job or a loved one, or when some major project comes to an end, we will often be struck down by those opportunist infections

The Great Work and the Creator

We have seen that alchemy, as in other creative work, must be contained psychically. But there is another reason for the secrecy and symbolism that accretes around alchemy. This is the relationship of the alchemist to the Creator. In early interpretations of the Genesis story not only did Adam fall but the natural world along with him. Previously everything within the Garden of Eden had been in a state of primordial perfection. After The Fall all nature cried out for redemption.

This myth extends beyond the confines of the Judeo-Christian religion. In Buddhism the wheel of time is associated with illusion and suffering. The search for enlightenment is also the desire of the soul to end its cycles of reincarnation. From 3rd century Persia comes Mani, the ‘Apostle of Light,’ who taught a dualistic religion. The world was the product of two creative forces, one good the other evil. Manichaeism radiated from Persia and entered Europe in the form of groups of Cathars, Albigensians and Bogomils who saw matter as being the product of the force of evil. At birth the spirit had become trapped in dark and loathsome matter, only to be released by death. (By the 12th century the Catholic Church had begun to view Albigensians not simply as heretics but as enemies of the state. This was of advantage to the King of France who wished to gain control of the southern lands of Languedoc and Toulouse. The result was the widespread butchery of the Albigensian crusade. And if this wasn’t enough, in 1231 Pope Gregory instituted the papal Inquisition to root out the remains of the Cathar heresy.)

A related element in the story of the Fall is nostalgia for The Golden Age. Once, far back in history, the legend goes, the human race and the natural world existed in an ideal state. Humans wanted for nothing. Everyone spoke a universal language in which all truths could be unambiguously expressed and humans could even talk to the animals. But then a Fall occurred which cast the human race down into the ages of Stone and Bronze.

Such a dream extends into the Italian Renaissance. When Greek and Roman statues were unearthed people believed that there had been an earlier historical period when humans were like giants and capable of great artistic triumphs. In hisLives of the Artists, published in 1550, Giorgio Vasari echoed the stance of Renaissance humanism that art had reached its highest pinnacle in classical antiquity and then had declined. The Renaissance was therefore a re-birth, a time when artists looked back to the Golden Age of art.

Associated with the image of the Golden Age is the idea of lost or secret knowledge. In the distant past, it was said, human beings possessed special powers to interact with the natural world. They had the knowledge to read the book that God has written into the fabric of the universe. In the Kabbalistic tradition of Judaism, the power of creation lies within the verb, the sound vibration uttered by God at the moment of creation. By careful study of the significance of words, their written symbols and associated vibrations, Kabbalistic scholars desired to come into contact with the creative power that engenders the world—a task that continues to occupy scholars of the Kabbalah. It is this search for lost knowledge that also occupied the alchemists.

The notion of God’s alphabet being written into the natural world is echoed in Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. In the poem Coleridge addresses his sleeping baby. While the poet himself grew up in the city his child will be able to ‘wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds…’

The poem continues:

…so shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach

Himself in all, and all things in himself.

In this sense, while retaining the notion of a Fall, it is also possible to glory in the natural world and rejoice in the individuality of things and nature’s transcendental quality. The poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote ‘Glory be to God for Dappled Things.’ Wordsworth saw it is every rock and hill. It was said of Ignatius of Loyola that ‘At the sight of a little plant, a leaf, a flower or fruit, an insignificant worm or a tiny animal Ignatius could soar free above the heavens and reach through into things which lie beyond the senses.’ (Quoted in Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Alfred A Knopf, NY 1993). Such perceptions are echoed by painters, nature poets and the many others who find the world a magical place in which to live. For them the material world is in an eternal state of perfection. This approach is embraced by the Sufi tradition within Islam. Matter is in no need of redemption for all things are filled to the utmost of their capacity with Allah. The Islamic alchemists were assisting nature on its path to maturation and individuation, rather than redeeming it from the Fall. How different are those who rejoice in the world from those who see it as fallen and corrupt

The underlying power of this myth of a Fall may be linked to our essential ambiguity towards the world. Is the world a true home for human beings? Or is the flesh a condition we must transcend? Sigmund Freud expressed this in terms of polar opposites. On the one hand we have Eros, the libido and sexual instinct. On the other Thanatos, the death wish. While the former is the physical power that drives our lives, the latter is the desire to return to the inanimate state of matter.

This sense of the inadequate nature of material reality is found in Plato who taught that we do not know reality directly but experience only shadows thrown on the wall of a cave. The objects around us are imperfect imitations of Ideal Forms or Ideas that exist in a more perfect non-material state. Even the human genders are two fragments of an original perfect being. And so for eternity men and women are condemned to seek their missing halves. For the Platonist the world of the flesh and the senses can never quite measure up to this transcendental vision and so a split begins to develop between reality and what is supposed to lie beyond.

A particular aspect of this split is the identification of matter with the feminine (mother=matter) and the male with spirit.  Even William Harvey, who demonstrated the circulation of the blood, believed that conception was caused by the male spirit animating the flesh of the female. The body of the mother was akin to an alchemical vessel in which the fetus could grow. In keeping with the notion of the Fall of nature, spirit was assigned a higher function while the feminine was seen as being confined to a lower, material plane of existence. In her book Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, (Alfred A Knopf, N.Y. 1976) Marina Warner quotes an Irish legend in which Eve declaims, ‘I am Eve…it was I who violated Jesus in the past; it was I who robbed my children of heaven; it is I by right who should have been crucified.’

The Irish legend reflects the view of the early Church Fathers that woman, as the prime representation of matter, was inherently corrupt. In Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, Susan Griffin also points out how the West’s domination of nature parallels its attitude towards the feminine. Aspects of this attitude persisted into the twentieth century with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Christ, the Church taught, was conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit. Yet since matter is tainted how could the Son of God have grown in such a womb? The answer was to promulgate the doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin. The physical substance of her body was therefore ‘unspotted’ (immaculate) and of a different order from the matter of base nature.

For the Platonist, of which the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a direct consequence, there exist two worlds, the one being only a pale reflection of the other, transcendental reality. But for mystics and poets there is only one reality. There is no other world beyond; rather each object within our world is a door that opens into material, spiritual and transcendental dimensions. Abbot Suger in the Middle Ages believed that one could approach God not only through prayer and inward meditation but though the contemplation of gold, precious jewels and light falling through stained-glass windows. For them the work of the artist is to transform matter to the point that it becomes transparent to the spirit immanent within it.

Nevertheless the notion of the Fall pervades much of our thinking, even today. It is also associated with the belief that human beings are superior to the rest of the natural world and that we have been set in domination over it. The earth and its creatures, the Bible tells us, are placed there for our exclusive use. Today, when the earth cries out with its wounds, it is time to consider our shadow side and the implications to the myth of the Fall.

Aspects of these complex traditions—the Fall, the Golden Age, lost knowledge, and the Divine Alphabet, all flowed into alchemy. In part the alchemist is assisting nature in her transformations, in part the alchemical workings are redeeming a fallen nature and causing her to rise to the condition of gold. Since, in Christian theology Christ sacrificed himself to redeem the world, so too every alchemical working contains a death and a sacrifice. The alchemical working is a mirror to the Fall, sacrifice and redemption and it is in this sense that the alchemist makes an identification with the figure of Christ.

Art and Alchemy

While alchemy, as a conscious practice began to die out with the rise of science, it has always been a powerful force within art. In this sense the artist and alchemist are both engaged in the purification and transformation of matter. This identification with the Redeemer helps to explain a curious self-portrait Dürer painted in 1500. While the face is clearly that of the artist the pose and setting of the painter indicates that the figure is that of Christ. Why did Dürer portray himself as the Redeemer? Someone who believes he is God is more likely to be found in an insane asylum than a painter’s studio.

The portrait was less problematic to Dürer’s contemporaries. Just as in Christian doctrine, Christ redeemed the world from the sin of Adam, so the artist, like the alchemist, was assisting matter to rise from its fallen state. Artists impart form to the formless; they raise matter to a state of beauty where it was brought closer to God. Artistic making is therefore an echo of Creation itself. As so Dürer, as an imago of the Creator, was continuing in the alchemical tradition.

Dürer made a further reference to alchemy in his famous etching, Melancholia I. It shows a woman resting her head on her hand. She is surrounded by a variety of symbols—a ladder, mill wheel, a magic square—(a square containing numbers whose rows and columns all add up to the same result). A black sun can be seen in the sky.

Melancholia is an older term for what we now call depression. Psychological depression is a state of suffering in which a person feels unable to make plans or carry out intentions. Even emotions are blocked from them. The world feels dead, they have no enthusiasm, nothing interests them, and they find it difficult to respond to the loved ones around them.

Of the various psychological disorders depression is to some extent the most mysterious. It is curiously intransigent to talking therapies. For how can such a therapy work unless the patient is actively engaged with the therapist? Depression itself prevents this level of active interaction. Some psychiatrists view it as a metabolic disorder that can be treated with medication, or electroshock. For others it is a spiritual crisis, a dark night of the soul that must take its own time for healing. For yet others it is an individual’s response to a society that has lost its inner meaning and spiritual force.

While acknowledging its pain, depression it can also be the latency period that precedes a creative change. As Aristotle noted, for intellectual creativity to operate a person must first fall into a state similar to that of death. For the alchemist, melancholia is identical to the first stage of four stages in an alchemical working. It is the nigredo state—hence the numeral I in the title of Dürer’s etching.

In the nigredo state the cosmos is plunged into darkness. The sun is eclipsed or devoured by the Green Lion. Under the Black Sun matter putrefies and returns to its original chaotic state. It is devoid of spirit. The black nigredo leads to the white albedo dawn. The third yellow stage takes place in air while the final, fourth stage is symbolized by fire, the Philosopher’s Stone and gold. Hence Dürer’s etching symbolizes the state in which the alchemist and artist must first rest before producing creative work.

An artist is concerned with matter and its transformation. Either consciously or unconsciously an artist is always pursuing an alchemical path. In the case of Michelangelo, he had been a member of the Florentine Academy, modeled upon that of Plato. This meant that he knew the symbolism of alchemy, and its symbolism found its way into his sonnets.

When asked to create a tomb for Lorenzo de Medici in Florence he chose four figures that clearly represent the four stages of alchemical working. The figure of Night evokes the nigredo state of the eclipsed sun. The face itself is in part obscured and in part only roughed out to suggest the Dark Sun, as opposed to the highly polished finish of the rest of the figure. The corresponding female figure of Dawn is androgynous and evokes the hermaphrodism unity of male and female, matter and spirit, in alchemy.

Then fact that alchemical themes thread their way through art suggest that while scientific rationalism may have dismissed the possibility of creating gold by chemical means, the underlying philosophy and the mutual transformations of matter and spirit are as alive today as they were in the early Middle Ages. In fact the alchemical path has been particularly significant since the birth of modern art.

Duchamp’s most famous work, The Great Glass of 1915, can be read as a meditation upon the theme of alchemy. Although the work is highly abstract its imagery comes from the alchemical image of the Philosopher’s Stone as a virgin being undressed on her wedding night. The subtitle of the work refers to this marriage—La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même or, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even. The work is etched onto two pieces of glass. The upper world is that of the bride and the lower one that of her bachelors. These are also the dual worlds of earth and heaven, matter and spirit, for if you pronounce the French title out loud it sounds like ‘La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires’—’Mary (the Virgin) carried into the clouds by her celestial threshing machines.’ The Great Glass is both an alchemical meditation and a twentieth century version of The Assumption of the Virgin.

Two years later Duchamp added the signature, ‘R. Mutt,’ to a commercially produced urinal and submitted it as an artwork to a New York jury. The work created a scandal but it and other Duchamp ‘ready-mades,’ (a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, a snow shovel and a typewriter with its case), along with authorized ‘reproductions,’ now command large sums of money.

What did Duchamp mean by this piece? The work of an artist is complex and cannot be reduced to a single account or explanation. One interpretation is that Duchamp was questioning the whole meaning of the art object and its privileged position, along with the infrastructure of dealers, collectors, curators and art galleries. Modern physics also has shifted emphasis from the material object to underlying processes, symmetries and transformations and a similar movement took place in twentieth century art to displace the final, highly finished fine art object from its central position in the life and work of artists.

A urinal is a urinal, a mass-produced object associated with an act performed behind a closed door. Yet add a signature and it becomes art. The object has been isolated and framed by the artist, who is asking us to look at it in a new and special way. And so the public wondered if Duchamp was telling them that he considered a urinal to be particularly beautiful. Or was he perhaps asking: What do you mean by beauty? What is the meaning of the high prices placed on art? Who determines what is art and what is not? Who exercises the choice? Where does the gallery end and life begin?

But, as we saw in the Great Glass, Duchamp was also sensitive to the role of the artist in the alchemical transformation of matter. Michelangelo freed the form trapped in the stone. Duchamp signed a urinal. This joke points to the materialist preoccupations of the early twentieth century.

In another ironic joke Duchamp also took a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and added a moustache. This time rather than a commonplace urinal he had chosen a work treasured for its mysterious spiritual quality. The moustache he added was at one level an act of desecration and de-sacralization. At another it was the symbolic transformation of Leonardo’s mysterious feminine archetype into an androgynous figure and the uniting of spirit with matter.

Art of the past dealt with the unity of matter and spirit. Duchamp’s signature, or rather that of an alter ego, R. Mutt, did little to enhance the sacred quality of matter. What it did do, however, was to boost its dollar value as a unique art object. It was as if Duchamp was saying that in a materialistic world the only transformation the hand of the artist could bring to matter was to increase its commercial value. And by defining the object as ‘ready-made’ he had deliberately withdrawn himself from the alchemical process.

Yet the very fact that Duchamp could make such statements, and that they continue to resonate in art today, argues that the lesson was well directed. Yes, our age has been materialistic, yet the same time we acknowledge the need for spirit and for transformation.

The French painter, Yves Klein, worked in a particularly alchemical spirit. For him, ‘A painter ought to paint one single masterpiece: himself, perpetually,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘becoming a kind of generator with a continual emanation that fills the atmosphere with his whole artistic presence and remains in the air after he has gone.’ Just as with the alchemist the external work of the furnace and retort is a mirror of inner transformation so too Klein declared, ‘my paintings are the ashes of my work.’

As a young man lying on the beach with his friends, he had laid claim to space or the void, La Vide. Later he produced large canvases using only the color blue. These are transcendental and meditative works, very much concerned with the world of spirit. He referred to this as the ‘Blue Epoch’ in which the physical body would be rendered spiritual. This was to be followed by the ‘Pneumatic Epoch’ (taken from the Greek term pneuma and referring to spirit, breath or soul). Klein felt that this emanation from his works should bring about a transformation of the world and its politics.

Towards the end of his life Klein began to work in that primary alchemical material, gold. The large size of his canvases and the amount of gold leaf they required should have posed a problem for an artist who at one point could not afford to rent a studio. However, Klein persuaded collectors and others that he wished to restore the symbolic qualities of gold at the metaphysical level and through a symbolic means of exchange. Gold, after all was the color of heaven, which explains why the sky in so many medieval paintings is colored gold. In this final alchemical phrase Klein began to work with fire itself, burning his panels and even exhibiting flames themselves.

The contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor believes that the greatest art has been an object of alchemical change. In ordinary art-making the surface of a canvas, or stone, is changed by the work of the artist. Yet there are some works universally acknowledged as possessing a certain transcendental quality. Kapoor believes that these have undergone a transformation beyond that possible with any mechanical usage of chisel or brush. It is as if the very ontology of the piece, its state of being in the world, has changed. The work has become charged. It now possesses a special quality that can be held through time. It is a quality that we are aware of, a quality that touches us, something in which we can all participate.

As one would expect, there is an alchemical quality in the way Kapoor himself works. He is concerned with the manifestation of spirit in the world and his method of working involves, for example, long periods of polishing when working with aluminum and stainless steel. He is famous for the voids he leaves in his stone sculptures and these require the painstaking addition of layer upon layer of pigment.

Science and Alchemy

Most scientists would react in horror at being considered alchemists. Yet an alchemical spirit runs though the scientific approach. Along with the artist, scientists are part of that ancient tradition of artisans who assist the material world in its manner of becoming. It is a lineage that touches those contemporary physicists who attempt to reach with their theories to the very instant of the creation of the cosmos, the origins of space and of time, and the inner nature of matter. For their part, biologists speculate on the origin of life and manipulate living organisms at the genetic level. Computer scientists speak of creating ‘artificial life’ and ‘artificial intelligence.’

An empathy for the natural world and a sense of its transcendence often runs though the private lives of individual scientists. We have already learned of the approach of scientists like Barbara McClintock, Brian Goodwin, Mae Wan Ho and David Bohm. This sense of a universe replete with meaning and imbued with spirit was certainly felt by Albert Einstein and stretches through the history of science. The astronomer Kepler, for example, was led to his insights into planetary orbits through his meditations on the connections between matter and spirit. He considered the relationship of the sun to the orbiting earth as an image, drawn within the heavens, of God as Father and Son working through the actions of the Holy Spirit. Kepler also held astrology to be a science (and there is certainly a strong relationship between astrological and alchemical imagery). Astrology deals with the orders of the heavens as they are reflected in patterns on earth. Kepler was certainly not so naive as to believe that the motions of the stars actually ‘cause’ events on earth. Rather he accepted an acausal parallelism, a synchronicity or harmony between the two cyclical processes of movement. One of the most integrated marriages of the alchemical and the scientific mind comes from the greatest of scientists, Isaac Newton. John Maynard Keynes described Newton as one of the last of the great magi or magicians and saw the physicist as being in the lineage of a tradition that stretches back to the Babylonians and Sumerians. Just as Shakespeare straddled two worlds, so too Newton was able to integrate within his work and himself a modern rationalism with older and more deeply spiritual beliefs.

Newton adhered to the doctrine of lost or hidden knowledge and for this reason he studied alchemical manuscripts. Like other scientists of the time, he wanted to understand the way matter and spirit act on each other. Could there be, for example, something analogous to chemical combination involving the combination of matter and spirit? Newton’s mentor and predecessor, as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, had been Isaac Barrow. Barrow was himself an alchemist who considered that Descartes, in the process of reducing the universe to matter and motion, had stripped away the spiritual side of nature. In this respect Newton was following in Barrow’s footsteps. (The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or ‘The Hunting of the Greene Lyon. B.J.T Dobbs, CUP. NY 1975)

Newton’s great summing up of his research into the nature of the universe was to be his Principia (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia MathematicaThe Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). His original plan was to include his alchemical work as an integral part of the book. The various forms of matter, Newton believed, were the result of the operation of a universal spirit. Added to this were active principles, rather like forces of attraction. For a time Newton explored the idea of an ether, a form of subtle matter, an approach not unlike the unified field theory pursued two hundred years later by Einstein. As Newton put it, ‘the whole frame of Nature…be nothing but aether condensed by a fermental principle.’

Newton also wondered if magnetic attraction was a spiritual or a material force. He also explored ‘occult forces’ (hidden forces) such as the sympathies, correspondences and antipathies of the Hermetic tradition as an explanation for the way the earth attracts the moon at a distance.

Newton knew that the substances around us are the results of combinations of more primitive chemical substances. Transformations occur when such a substance is first broken down, by heat, solvents or acids, into its components. But, for Newton, chemistry itself only probed matter at its grossest level. What was needed were more subtle reagents, a Universal Reagent and processes to ‘open’ up metals themselves and reach the ultimate and most subtle level—the ‘One Catholik Matter.’

Once this had been achieved, once matter had been reduced to its true elements, then alchemical transmutation could be affected of which the production of gold would be a part. Newton devoted considerable time and energy to this task, going without sleep night and day to keep his alchemical furnace burning. Newton was never successful in his alchemical search. Only after considerable urging by his contemporaries was his Principia sent to the press, incomplete. This book influenced two hundred years of scientific thinking and elevated the notion of the cosmos as Newtonian Clockwork. In so doing it completed Descartes split of matter from mind and spirit. Ironically what, for Newton, was to be an essential component—the unity of matter and spirit—was never included.

In the twentieth century Wolfgang Pauli, one of the key figures in the development of quantum theory, divided his time between research in theoretical physics and a consideration of the inner nature of matter, or what he termed ‘the subjective level of matter’ or ‘the irrational in matter.’ Along with Carl Jung he wrote The Interpretation of Nature and the Psychewhich, in part, considered the significance of synchronicities and in part was a meditation by a modern physicist on Kepler’s views of the archetypal nature of the Trinity and its connection to the motion of the planets.

Pauli considered that the role of the archetypes was significant both in psychology and in physics. The last part of his life was spent working on a Grand Unified Theory of physics, which he referred to as an attempt to reconcile God and the Devil (symmetry and antisymmetry).

Another physicist, David Bohm, arrived at his theory of plasmas by considering the plasma a living substance, one that ‘healed itself’ when an electrical probe was introduced. (Plasmas are the so-called ‘fourth state of matter’ distinct from solids, liquids and gases. They are found in stars, the upper atmosphere and can be created in the laboratory by stripping the outer electrons from atoms. Free electrons in a metal also behave like a plasma.) Bohm also proposed the notion of ‘active information.’ This could perhaps be described as a subtle force that operates on matter in a non-causal and non-mechanical way. In Bohm’s theory the universe contains a field of information that can act on matter to give it form.

A direct link to Kabbalistic and alchemical tradition is acknowledged by Marvin Minsky, and several other pioneers of Artificial Intelligence. Minsky feels himself the spiritual descendent of Rabbi Loew of Prague. Loew, a great Kabbalistic scholar, constructed a giant out of clay and gave it life by inserting a paper containing the Divine Name into its mouth..

Minsky’s identification is clear. For him the essence of being human does not so much lie in the flesh—Minsky refers to the brain as ‘the meat machine’—but in human consciousness and intelligence. If AI researchers can give this power to computers, he believes, they will have taken on the role of gods.

I should perhaps mention the shadow side of all this. As scientists seek to explain the moment of creation of the entire universe, manipulate the genetic code of life, or in Stephen Hawking’s phrase seek to know ‘the mind of God’ they are in great danger of inflating their position. Alchemy, by contrast, was a strict discipline, practiced in secret and embraced by a powerful symbolic language capable of containing the various powers and forces the alchemist would encounter. No such infrastructure exists today in science and, in view of the enormous triumphs of modern science and technology, scientists themselves are increasingly being placed in the role of priests of the contemporary world. It is vitally important that they should keep their feet on the ground and always remember that nature remains veiled to us and continues to hide many of her secrets. In the face of nature all true scientists should bend their knee.


In one guise or another the practice of alchemy can be found in cultures all over the world. It is a quest that focuses upon our participation, obligations and responsibilities towards the natural world.

Now, more than ever our world needs to recapture the essence of that alchemical dream. For too long we have exiled ourselves from participatory nature and alienated ourselves from the cosmos. The past century was filled with atrocities of humans against humans and humans against the natural world. We have seen the way our intellectual arrogance and desire for progresses has raped the planet. The matter of the world has become gross and heavy. We have spent so long in that nigredo state under the black sun that we can no longer bear its weight. Our hearts have been wounded and our age traumatized. We feel the guilt of our fathers and grandfathers as we attempt to bear the world’s sins on our shoulders.

We wish to be released from this burden. The earth cries out for healing and we feel the burden of guilt. We must learn to forgive ourselves and acknowledge our limitations as human beings. Our dreams may reach to infinity but we are not infallible. We have made grave mistakes. We are not Supermen and Superwomen. Now it is time to rejoin the dance of life. The state of nigredo will come to an end. It is time for the sun to rise and for spirit to return to matter. Now is the time for that mystical marriage in which earth and matter will be reborn.