Splendor Solis

Splendor Solis Philosophical Tree, f. 15r


Philosophical Tree, f. 15r

This miniature features a large tree as wide as the picture itself. In the vicinity of the tree’s golden roots the narrow silver trunk is encircled by a splendid golden crown. Borrowed from the Aurora Consurgens, this particular detail indicates the significance of the tree for the “Royal Art”. At the very top of the tree, a large raven with a white head sits plucking transparent, white pearls from the branches, while a flock of other birds fly in all directions. Among the foliage below hangs a wicker harvesting basket. To the left is a young man standing at the top of a ladder. Dressed all in black, he wears striking gold bucket-top boots on his feet. With his left hand he passes a golden branch with shimmering gold leaves down to two bearded men wearing antique-style robes in white and red.
The main miniature is bordered by a rather extraordinary painting of a stage-like frame structure with two tall wings on each side. At the foot of the main miniature, in the middle of the painted frame structure, a scene is taking place at a women’s bath. From his position on the balcony located in the right wing a king observes the scene, suggesting the painting might well be a loose interpretation of the Bathsheba episode in the Old Testament. The plinth is decorated by a frieze depicting a battle in relief. At the centre of the frieze is a medallion containing the golden year of “1582”.
Known to alchemists as the arbor philosophica, or philosophical tree, the tree of life stands for the opus alchymicum, the alchemical process regarded as a preliminary stage of the perfection to which alchemists aspire. This fact would lend support to John Read’s observation that the youth is standing on the sixth and seventh rungs of the ladder. According to Read, the seven rungs indeed represent the seven planets and the metals attributed to them, hence the alchemical process must be in transition from silver to gold.
Going on the content of the second allegory, which directly precedes this picture in the manuscript, the figures in the miniature represent the three generations of Aeneas’ family: Aeneas himself, his father Anchises, and up in the tree, his son Silvius. As it happens, the two philosophers at the foot of the tree are also faithful copies, albeit laterally reversed, of a woodcut produced for a 1502 edition of Virgil’s works published by Johannes Grüninger in Strasbourg. The three generations are robed in the principal colours of alchemy. The boy is dressed in black, the colour used to designate the beginning; white, which symbolises the intermediary stage, the opus parvum, is the dominant colour in the coat of his father, Aeneas; and the shawl of the family elder, Anchises, is red, signifying perfection or the opus magnum. Soaring birds are frequently used in alchemy to symbolise sublimation, which could also be symbolised in this instance by the white-hooded raven, its black body equating to the sublimate that remains behind in the retort. In the alchemical process this would designate the transition from the nigredo to the albedo phase, from black to white.

Jörg Völlnagel 
(Art historian, research associate at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

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