Splendor Solis

Splendor Solis Women’s Work, f. 32v


Women’s Work, f. 32v

In the water meadow of a narrow river running between a half-timbered house on the left and two palace buildings on the right, women are engaged in the various stages of washing laundry. While some of the laundry is boiling in an immense cauldron at the bottom left of the miniature, the right foreground shows women working at washing tables. Here, one of the women is hand-washing an item of white laundry in a wooden tub, while the other two are standing at a tall table, beating laundry with synchronised arm movements. Behind this group, a woman is bent over in the river, rinsing a garment in the clear waters. In the midground, several women are busily stretching large white cloths on both sides of the river and spreading them out on the grass. A woman close to the left margin of the picture is hanging cloths on the clothesline to dry, while another woman is carrying the clean laundry in a tub on her head towards the open door of the half-timbered house.
The topoi of “women’s work” and “child’s play” is central to alchemy.35 Known to Alexandrian hermetics, the allegory of women’s work, like that of child’s play, occurs in many different alchemical treatises prompting varying interpretations. The relevant passage of text in the Splendor Solis treats the alchemical operations of sublimation and distillation. The state of perfect whiteness can be achieved through sublimation. This constitutes the penultimate stage of the alchemical process, hence the comparison with women’s work. As the text states (f. 32r): “Darumb vergleicht man diese kunst der Weiber arbaitt das ist waschen das weis werd, Khochen und Pratt˜ das genueg seÿ.” (Therefore they compare this art to women’s work; that is, washing until it becomes white, cooking and roasting until it is done.)
Salmon views women’s work as a metaphor for the creation of the philosopher’s stone which alchemists were supposed to nurture in the same way as a mother would tend and nourish a new-born child.36 In the illustration of women’s work in the Splendor Solis, which is the earliest known example of such, the white phase achieved by boiling or distilling matter, known to alchemists as albedo, is given particular emphasis.

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

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