Tag Archives: Alchemy

Mathew Barney at the Morgan Library

Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library : Deborah Barlow

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Matthew Barney (Photo: Private collection, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

The Cremaster by Matthew Barney, a five part film cycle, was shown repeatedly during a retrospective of Barney’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2003. I drove down from Boston three times to see it and dragged my friends, family and children with me. It was all encompassing, brilliantly provocative, enigmatic and so engaging.

In the words of curator Nancy Spector, Cremaster is a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.” It is chock full of thematic proclivities and Barneyesque tropes that get recycled in so many unexpected ways. Barney is a 21st century William Blake in his ability to construct a highly evolved cosmology that is conceptually big and fearlessly presented. That Guggenheim show was one of the most polarizing art events I remember in recent history, and everybody chose sides. Was he the most brilliant artist of his generation (my view) or is he, as my son contends, a talent who became grandiose and corrupted by money and fame?

No matter where you come out on Barney, it is hard to find another artist who moves so easily from the epic-scaled Cremaster to a small, intricately intimate body of drawings and artifacts. For me he stands strong at both ends of that spectrum. I find his work beguiling, no matter the size.

As art critic Holland Cotter pointed out in his review of the show, “The Morgan Library, with its Gospels, missals and reliquaries, is just the right place for ‘Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,’ the first survey of graphic work by the most medievalizing of American contemporary artists.”

Medievalizing is a perfect word to capture Barney’s attraction to the arcane and the esoteric, to enigmatic symbols and symbologies, to the mystic belief systems of ancient Egypt and early Mormonism. In Cotter’s dismissive review (he is clearly not in my fan camp) he does capture this eccentric proclivity in the way Barney goes about his art making: “What he had going for him was an expansively hermetic sensibility. His actions and stories were deeply abstruse, but epic, apocalyptic. And this sense of the idiosyncratic promoted to the realm of myth is the strength of this drawings show.”

Subliming Vessel (what an evocative title with its suggestion of solidity moving into vapor) is appropriately positioned right next door to an exhibit about the Eucharist as portrayed in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. SV consists of over 100 drawings as well as “storyboards”—staged assemblages of items that revisit the narratives Barney has explored (or is still developing, such as his current project, The River of Fundament.) Each of these vitrines is a staged set of the myriad influences that brought Barney’s alternative realities into form. These curio cabinets are laid out meticulously and include open books that Barney picked for inclusion from the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of ancient texts.

I was so enthralled by the work that I spent most of my afternoon in the exhibit. For those artists and writers who cultivate the inexplicable, irritation can set in when their constructs feel forced or exploitative. While Barney’s work is definitely hermetic and highly personal in its iconography, the threads of meaning are there to unravel and explore.

Others feel differently about Barney’s accessibility, like Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic:

The drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion…Barney assembles networks of personally significant arcana (a practice manifested in the scrapbook-style collections of clippings, sketches, art objects and other items housed in the massive vitrines) that remain inanimate and unintelligible beneath his shimmering surfaces. The artworks are beautifully realized, but the viewer remains on the outside looking in.

Not my way of seeing it, but I understand that point of view.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Library)


DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS

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(DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS “The Rose Gives The Bees Honey” after the original motto found in the engraving (possibly) by Johann Thedore deBry (d. 1598).

This image of the Rosa Mundi, or Rota Mundi, is the solar wheel of Apollo, the Lord of movement, of the ever passing/present moment. It is the Solar Citadel, the abode of the Heart, the symbolic center of the Supreme Center which is everywhere centered at once. It is a door through which this invisible place may be accessed by one with a pure heart and an unblemished soul. If one gains access to the center of the rose, it speaks the “lost word” of Masonic lore, the Master Word which throws open the lodge doors of every sacred society.
In DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS the Solar Rose represents the labyrinth, the path and pilgrimage of a particular lifetime. The journey into the center can be thorny, but the destination is sweet, like honey to the bee. The pitfalls of the journey are symbolized by the transformative spider and her webs. In the engraving upon which this painting was based, the spider is absent: Love has conquered Death. The term arachnid comes from Arachne, the Greek maiden who was transformed into a spider after losing a weaving contest to the goddess Athena. The spider’s spiral webs show us the dangers on the road to Love, trick snares set to bind and trap, and ultimately victimize the inattentive wayfarer. On the surface, one may reasonably confuse the labyrinth of the rose for that of the web. This requires an inward looking, intuitive approach like that of the bee seeking to pollinate the receptive flower. If the bee successfully reaps the rewards of this lovemaking, the honey will enrich and nourish the entire community of the hive. However, as the symbolism found in DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS shows, while this path may work for bees…

A devout man in deep contemplation, with his head reclined on the bosom of meditation, was immersed in the ocean of vision. When he recovered from that state, one of his companions, by way of pleasantry, said, “What miraculous present have you brought us from this garden which you have been visiting?” He answered, “It was my intention, that, when I reached the rose-bush, I would fill my lap with flowers, for presents for my friends, but when I came to the spot, the odor so overpowered my senses, that my skirt dropped out of my hands.” -Saadi (The Gulistan or Rose Garden trans. by Francis Gladwin for Willard Small, Boston, 1884.)

The following description of the original engraving upon which the DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS painting is based is given in Joscelyn Godwin’s definitive work on Robert Fludd.

The Rose and the Cross: “The Rose gives the bees honey” (DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS). tThis explicitly Rosicrucian symbol was first used at the head of Joachim Frizius’s Summum Bonum, then adopted for (Robert) Fludd’s Clavis. A rose with seven petals each alludes, in all probability, to secret doctrines of septenary emanation such as were later to be publicized in the theosophical works of H.P. Blavatsky. The Rose surmounts the thorny cross, the whole resembling the sign of Venus in which the solar circle triumphs over the cross of matter. We may interpret the motto as saying that “spiritual knowledge gives solace to souls,” of whom bees are a venerable symbol. The spider’s webs (also with sevenfold divisions) strung on a grape arbor in the background, and the wingless insect on the rose (a spider?) may represent negative, lunar forces, as oppossed to the positive, solar one of the bees, both of which are reconciled by the philosophic rose.
-Joscelyn Godwin, in Robert Fludd – Hermetic Philosopher of Two Worlds. Shambala, Boulder, 1979: 10 [w/illustration.]
It is curious that Dr. Godwin fails to see the wings on the bee that has arrived at his destination, the rose! This winged bee is clearly represented in every reproduction of the rose engraving that your author/painter has seen…All of the other speculative symbolic observations hold, especially the observation that the image is one of the alchemical symbols of Venus, the goddess of Love.
The seven circles of seven petals each symbolize the number of squares (7 squared = 49) of the magic circle of Venus, of the “intelligence” (as opposed to the Spirits) of the goddess. Seven in the Hebrew alphabet/number system represents Dagh, the Fish, symbol of Christ. Seven is also the number of the Babylonian God of good Fortune. Seven is of course the number of the Liberal Arts and also of the Deadly Sins.
Without doubt, this rose engraving has over time become the consummate emblem of the order of the Rosy Cross, or the Rosicrucians, an essentially “invisible”order. Many individuals and groups have made claims to be the “true” rosicrucians, however, since the original manifestos appeared in the early 16th century the jury has been out concerning who they might actually be. These documents were designed to give the appearance of a Christian utopian group based on the model of the organization of Freemasonry working clandestinely within society to effect world-wide change. These changes were meant for the overall good of humankind, while at the same time being anarchistic in their view of a one world economy and government.
Probably the work of one man, most likely Lutheran minister Johannes Valentine Andrae, the documents have had the effect of change upon the imagination, and metanoia upon the hearts of those receptive readers in every succeeding age. Whether this has also caused an effect upon world governments is open to speculation, however, the Rosicrucian utopian vision has not (yet ?) taken concrete hold upon mankind.
“The Rosicrucian Order is a state of mind. One becomes a Rosicrucian: one does not join the Rosicrucians…” -Paul Foster Case
Through the symbology of the DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS, the intersection of the spiritual and the physical worlds, access to the utopian state of mind afforded by the Rosy Cross manifestoes is gained.

On the other hand, since the Rose-Cross has been mentioned in connection with the seal of Luther (See Regnabit, Dec. 1925), we say that this hermetic emblem was at first specifically Christian, whatever false and more or less “naturalistic” interpretations have been given it, from the eighteenth century onwards; and is it not remarkable that in this figure, the rose occupies the centre of the cross, the very place of the Sacred Heart? Apart from those representations where the five wounds of the Crucified are represented as so many roses, the central rose, when it stands alone, can very well be identified with the Heart itself, the vase which contains the blood, which is the centre of life and also the centre of the entire being. -Rene Guenon (Fundamental Symbols, p 22.)

The red rose is the consummate Christian symbol of martyrdom. St. Ambrose, one of the four great Doctors of the Catholic church, tells us that before it became a flower of the earth, the rose grew in heaven without thorns. Following the Fall of Adam, which brought everything spiritual into the material realm, the rose took on thorns to remind humankind of its sins, while its beauty and fragrance remained to remind one of the Paradise lost. Thus, the Virgin Mary is known as the “rose without thorns” as she was exempt from original sin. Roses in connection with Christian saints generally represent their (re)ascent into heaven.
The bee represents hard work, diligence, harmony, and order. The honey, the essence of the activity of the hive, is a symbol of Christ and the virginity of Mary. The honey has also become in Christian symbolism a sign of religious eloquence, assigned to saints like St. Ambrose and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Ambrose compared the beehive to the church as a symbol of the pious and unified community, and the Christian to the ardently working bee, who never sleeps, always vigilant and constantly acquiring virtue, adding “honey” to the whole community. On this point, the mystical philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck referred to the “spirit of the hive,” echoed by Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophical “Rosicrucian” who said that “..it is the entire beehive that is wise.” Indeed, Steiner felt that the bee and its community in which sexual love has been transmuted into love in the heart have evolved beyond that of the human one,

Since this love life is held back in all the bees except a single queen, the sexual life of the beehive is transformed into all of this activity that the bees develop among themselves…This is a very wise form of life. -Rudolf Steiner, Bees, (Hudson: Anthroposophic Press, 1998).

The Spider represents the miserly Devil, who sets traps and bleeds the victim of human frailty, symbolized by the cobweb.
The cross, and especially the center, at the crossing point, the bindu; is the intersection where the spiritual meets the material plain, as in the Rose of Sharon. Sharon and of Sharon or Lassharon in Hebrew defined as “plain,” “honest,” “tranquil,” and “harmonious.” Where spirit enters the center the rose appears.
The rose in DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS is not, as has been described above, restricted to Christian symbolism. Christianity after all is a religion that developed by virtue of its syncretistic assimilation of several older traditions. This symbolism transcends the particular to become universal in its application and essence. It is true, however, in keeping with the Christian description, that if the viewer of this image accesses the spirit if the rose, the thorns will no doubt disappear.
DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS

Painting Research Bibliography

Allen, Paul M. A Christian Rosenkreutz Anthology. Rudolf Steiner Publications, Blauvet, 1968. (Note: this edition contains the original English translation of The Chymical Wedding by Ezechiel Foxcroft (1690); Robert Fludd’s The Rosicrucian Brotherhood (1629); The Fama and the Confessio translated by Thomas Vaughn (1652) and many other original Rosicrucian documents and commentaries.)
Case, Paul Foster. The True and Invisible Rosicrucian Order. Wieser, York Beach, 1985.
Codex Rosae Crucis D.O.M.A. A Rare and Curious Manuscript of Rosicrucian Interest. The Philosophical Research Society, Inc., Los Angeles, 1938.
Eberly, John. The “Arabic” Parts of the Original Rosicrucian Documents. Caduceus – The Hermetic Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Seattle, Summer, 1996, pp. 16-32.
Eberly, John. Rosicrucian Essays. Anamnesis Press, 1996.
Jennings, Hargrave. The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries. Chatto, London, 1879.
Langstroth, L.L. and Dadant, Charles. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee. Chas. Dadant & Son, Hamilton, 1904.
Maeterlinck, Maurice. The Life of the Bee. Dodd, Mead, and Company, Cornwall, 1901.
McIntosh, Christopher. The Rosicrucians-The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order. Weiser, York Beach, 1997.
Randolph, Paschal Beverley. Ravalette – The Rosicrucian’s Story. Philosophical Publishing Company, Quakertown, 1939.
Waite, A. E. The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. Rider, London, 1924.
White, Ralph (ed.) The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited. Lindisfarne, Hudson, 1999.
Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972.


Vanitas II

Vanitas II Ian Howard: Photoprint 115 x103 cm


Laboratorium: Vanitas

Laboratorium: Vanitas

Ian Howard : photoprint


Borges: The Rose of Paracelsus

“Insolent vaunt of Paracelsus, that he would restore the original rose or violet out of the ashes settling from its combustion. . . .”

-De Quincey, Writings, XIII: 345

In his laboratory, which comprised two cellar rooms, Paracelsus begged his God- his unspecified God, any God- to send him a disciple. It was growing dark. In the hearth a meager fire cast flickering shadows. To get up and light the iron lamp was too much trouble. His mind dulled by weariness, Paracelsus forgot his request. Night had erased the dusty tubes and retorts, when there was a knock at the door. Drowsily, Paracelsus got up, climbed the short spiral staircase, and opened the door. A stranger entered. He, too, seemed exhausted. Paracelsus motioned to a bench; the other man sat down and waited. For a while, neither of them uttered a word.

The master spoke up first. “I can recall western faces and eastern faces,” he said a bit pompously. “I do not remember yours. Who are you and what is it you want?”

“My name doesn’t matter,” the other man replied. “I’ve walked three days and nights to reach your door. I want to be your disciple. I bring you all my worldly goods.”

He took out a small pouch and, with his right hand, emptied it onto the table. There were many coins, all of them gold. Paracelsus had turned to light the lamp. When he faced around again he noticed that in his left hand the man held a rose. The rose made Paracelsus somehow uneasy.

Sitting back, he put his fingertips together, and said, “You offer me gold, believing I hold the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which turns base metals into gold. It’s not gold I seek. If it’s gold you’re interested in, you’ll never be a disciple of mine.”

“I don’t care about gold,” the other man answered. “These coins are but a token of my willingness to work. I want you to teach me the Grand Secret. I want to follow by your side the path that leads to the stone.”

‘The path is the stone,” Paracelsus said slowly. “The stone is the point of departure. If you don’t understand these words you have not even begun to understand. Each step along the path is the destination.”

The other man looked at the master with misgivings. “But is there a destination?” he said, his voice changed.

Paracelsus laughed. “My detractors, who are as numerous as they are stupid, say no, and they brand me an imposter. I disagree with them, though I may be wrong. Yet, there is a Path, I know.”

A silence fell, into which the other man said, “I am prepared to go by your side however many years the journey takes. Let me cross the wilderness. Whether or not my stars allow me to set foot there, I want to see the promised land- even if from afar. But before I set out I want some proof.”

“When do you want it?” asked Paracelsus, suspicious.

Suddenly decisive, the disciple said, “At once.”

The two had been speaking in Latin; now they spoke in German. The young man held the rose aloft.

“Everyone knows you are able to burn a rose and then by your art make it rise again out of its own ash,” he said. “Let me bear witness to this wonder. I ask only this, and then I’ll entrust my whole life to you.”

“You are most credulous,” said the master. “But it’s not belief I require, it’s faith.”

“That’s just it,” the other man insisted. “Because I believe I want to see the destruction and rebirth of the rose with my own eyes.”

Paracelsus had taken up the flower, toying with it as he spoke. “You believe, then, that I can destroy the rose?”

“Anyone can destroy it,” said the disciple.

“You are wrong. Do you believe something can be turned into nothing? Do you believe the first Adam in Paradise could have destroyed a single flower or blade of grass?”

“We are not in Paradise,” the young man said stubbornly. “Here, beneath the moon, everything is mortal.”

Paracelsus had risen to his feet. “Where are we, then? Do you think the godhead could create a place other than Paradise? Do you consider the Fall to be anything more than our ignorance of the fact that we dwell in Paradise?”

“A rose can be burned,” said the disciple defiantly.

“There’s still fire in the hearth,” said Paracelsus. “If you were to throw this rose onto the coals, you would believe it to have been consumed and its ash real. I say that the rose is eternal and that only its appearance undergoes change. With a single word I could make you see it again.”

“One word?” said the disciple, full of wonderment. “Your still is cold, your retorts coated with dust. By what means would you bring the rose to life again?”

Paracelsus regarded him sadly. “My still is cold,” he repeated, “and my retorts coated with dust. At my time of life I employ other tools.”

“I dare not ask what they are,” said the other man cleverly- or humbly.

“I speak of the tool used by the divinity to create heaven and earth and the unseen Paradise in which we dwell but which original sin conceals from us. I speak of the Word, which the teachings of the Kabbalah reveal.”

“I beg you, please show me the disappearance and reappearance of the rose,” the disciple said matter-of-factly. “I don’t care how you do it- with your still and retorts or the Word.”

Paracelsus considered, then said, “If I were to do what you ask, you’d say it was merely an appearance forced on your eyes by magic. The marvel would not confer the faith you seek. So spare the rose.”

The young man stared at him, doubting as ever.

“Besides,” Paracelsus said, raising his voice, “who are you to enter the house of a master and demand a miracle of him? What have you done to deserve such a gift?”

“I know I’ve done little,” the other man said, quavering. “I beseech you in the name of the many years I will study in your shadow to let me see the ash and then the rose. I’ll ask nothing else of you. I shall believe the evidence of my eyes.”

Abruptly, he picked up the bloodred rose that Paracelsus had left on the desk and cast it into the flames. The color went out of it, until all that remained was a heap of ash. For an endless moment the young man awaited the Word and the miracle.

Paracelsus displayed no change of expression. With a strange simplicity he said, “AU the physicians and apothecaries of Basel claim I’m a fake. Perhaps they are right. There’s the ash that was once a rose and will never be a rose again.”

The young man felt ashamed. Paracelsus was a charlatan or mere dreamer, and he, the would-be disciple- an intruder- had burst in and was forcing the master to admit that his renowned magic arts were but a piece of vanity.

“What I have done is unforgivable,” said the young man, dropping to his knees. “I lack the faith the Lord demands of true believers. Let me go on seeing the ash. I’ll return when I am fitter and will be your disciple, and at the end of the journey I’ll see the rose.”

He spoke with genuine passion, but his passion was the piety inspired by the aging master, so venerated, so maligned, so illustrious, and therefore so hollow. Who was he, Johannes Grisebach, to discover with a sacrilegious hand that behind the mask there was no one?

To have left the gold coins behind would have amounted to an act of charity. On his way out, the young man gathered them up. Paracelsus accompanied him to the foot of the staircase, telling his visitor he would always be welcome in this house. Each knew they would never meet again.

Paracelsus stood there alone. Before extinguishing the lamp and sitting in his weary armchair, he turned the handful of delicate ash in his cupped palm and under his breath spoke one word. The rose sprang to life.


The Rose of Paracelsus

The Rose of Paracelsus

Ian Howard Mixed Media on wood 2013     140 x 100 cm


Heretical Diagrams

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