Splendor Solis

Splendor Solis Hermaphrodite, f. 19v

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Hermaphrodite, f. 19v

This miniature foregrounds a winged hermaphrodite within a verdant landscape. Dressed all in black, the figure is wearing pointy shoes and tight-fitting stockings covered by a knee-length frock coat with elaborate gold braiding and appliqués. Protruding from the generous golden neckline of the overgarment are two necks and two heads. On the left is a male head with short hair, and on the right a female head with long hair. Each of the two heads is encircled by an aura – the male in gold, the female in silver – which underscores the hieratic origins of the hermaphrodite. The two big fluffy wings on the back of the figure – the left of red feathers, the right of white feathers – give further expression to the same. The hermaphrodite holds a white egg between the thumb and index finger of his left hand and a large, round plate in his right hand. The surface of the disc is comprised of a number of rings. Encompassing the round reflective area in the centre, possibly a mirror, in which an image of the surrounding landscape can be discerned, are three rings of different colours. Adjoining the outer ring of flaming orange and yellow is a cloudy ring of white and grey. This middle ring adjoins the inner ring of deepest blue which encircles the reflected landscape.
Signifying the union of opposites, the hermaphrodite is one of alchemy’s principal symbols. Indeed, there is scarcely an illuminated manuscript without one. In the three colours black, white and red, the Rebis (from Lat. res bina meaning “twofold matter”) also stands for the essence of alchemical endeavour which aspires to overcome particular states of matter through the union of opposites. According to the related passage of text, united pairs of opposites, as envisioned by the painter in the figure of the hermaphrodite, bring forth four children: the four elements of nature – earth, water, air and fire. And it is from their entirety that the fifth “creature” emerges, this being the quintessence. In the text this notion is conveyed in terms of an egg, another of alchemy’s foremost symbols. Embodying the four elements, the egg will hatch at some point, bringing forth the fifth element like a young chick. The four elements are also invoked by the image of a disc world with earth at the interior and three rings of water, air and fire revolving around it.

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


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