Splendor Solis

Splendor Solis Swampman and Angel, f. 18r

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Swampman and Angel, f. 18r

On the left-hand side of the picture a sinister creature of human stature appears, standing knee-deep in a brown, swampy body of water. The head of the creature, its face only faintly recognisable, resembles a crystal ball in bright dark red. His legs and upper body are brownish black, while his right arm, which the swampman has laid across his body, is red. With the palm of his hand open, he holds his snow-white arm outstretched towards an angelic woman located on the right-hand side of the picture. The winged woman stands in a meadow bordering the swamp area. She is dressed in fine garments including a light-coloured robe in a colourful floral pattern with an elaborate golden décolleté and wide, bright yellow sleeves. Over her shoulders she is wearing a blue cape, on her feet golden slippers and around her neck a magnificent gold necklace with red rubies. She has a crown on her head surmounted by a large silver star, and her wings are decorated with peacock feathers and pearls. In her hands this friendly-faced heavenly messenger carries a red robe with sleeves with which, as the relevant passage of text states, she is intending to clothe the swampman.
Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub reads this miniature as a symbol of fixation, the alchemical operation of solidifying volatile substances, which is also equated with coagulation. He interprets the red, vitreous head of the swampman as a flask or retort. Jacques van Lennep, on the other hand, refers in his assessment to the entry on “Tête Rouge” in Pernety’s hermetic dictionary, a volume dating back to the eighteenth century. Here, Pernety draws on several different examples from a range of alchemical writings to explain the symbolism of the red head. It is worth adding that the Spanish alchemist Arnaldus de Villanova (ca. 1235-1311) had much earlier described a similar creature which he viewed as an embodiment of the successful labour of the alchemist. As mentioned above, the colours red, black and white are the three main colours of alchemy, together standing for the work in its entirety. Hence, in the pictured transmutation from the state of putrefaction and decomposition to “celestial” purple, as it were, the tri-coloured swampman can be viewed as the incarnation of this central tenet of alchemy.
The base of the margin, notable among other reasons for its paradoxical perspective, depicts two guenons. While one might be reminded of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the alchemist refers to himself as an “ape of nature” (Inferno 29, 139), such an association does not help us determine the role of the two monkeys in this illustration of the Splendor Solis with any certainty. Painted after works by an artist known by the name of the Master of the Playing Cards, albeit monumentalised and laterally reversed, the two deer accompanying the monkeys at the foot of the miniature are part of a long tradition of animal depictions spanning almost a century.

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


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