Splendor Solis, or The Joy of Transformation

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October 24, 2012 by Gail Armstrong

At Halloween, every sound in the dark is transformed into something spooky and threatening, and our sweet little children metamorphose into sugar-crazed witches and devils and ghosts…  In celebration of this time of change, I thought we’d take a look at a famous work of illumination that does not involve sacred Christian texts, but a philosophical text of another kind. 

The work in question is Splendor Solis, considered the classic treatise on alchemy and created in mid-sixteenth century, reputedly by Salomon Trismosin (often stated to have been the teacher of Paracelsus).  (Note that his authorship has been questioned, notably by Jorg Vollnagel, who wrote a scholarly companion volume to the facsimile edition published  by M. Moleiro Editions in 2010.) 

Authorship questions aside, the book sets forth the philosophy of alchemy and features 22 paintings surrounded by decorative borders in the style of religious texts.  The illustrations are colourful, if obtuse, and the borders as elaborate as those in many a Book of Hours.

I thought of this text in connection with the theme of change and transformation because when I think of alchemy, I think of efforts to transmute base metals into gold.  I guess perhaps it was about more than that.  Wikipedia describes it as

         “a world view according to which the human being (the alchemist) exists and acts in harmony with nature, respecting divine creation and at the same time intervening in the process underlying that creation, all the while supporting its growth with the help of alchemy.”

The earliest version resides now in one of the State Museums in Berlin.  Later copies are housed in London, Kassel, Paris and Nuremberg.  Twenty copies exist worldwide.

Herewith some of this interesting text’s striking images:

Two men conversing

[This and all subsequent images may be found at: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=7881&CollID=8&NStart=3469]

I find this image quite intriguing.  The border is lush and lovely, the colours are rich, but what to make of the elaborate floating helmet in the foreground??  It reminds me of the kind of pseudo-supernatural villain you might see in an episode of Scooby Doo.  (Is that Shaggy and Freddy chatting in the background?)

The British Library website describes the scene as follows:  “Miniature with two men conversing, a blazing sun, a helm with the constellations the motto “Arma Artis”, and monkeys, birds and flowers in the border.”


Here’s another striking image, of a peacock in a glass flask topped with a crown.  Honestly, I have no explanation.  But he’s a lovely bird.  There are seven “flask” images, each apparently associated with a planet.  Wikipedia tells us that “Within the flasks a process is shown involving the transformation of bird and animal symbols into the Queen and King, the white and the red tincture.”  I reiterate, I have no explanation. 

A man on a ladder

In this image, we see a miniature of a man climbing a tree and offering a branch to two robed men.  Meanwhile, the British Library website explains that what it calls the “marginal drawing” shows David watching Bathsheba and her ladies bathing. 

What strikes me about this picture is the fact that the “marginal drawing” actually seems to be the “real” scene and the large central image looks as though it’s a mural on the wall.  I don’t recall seeing anything quite like that before…

Women washing clothes

This beautifully illuminated page depicts women washing clothes in a river, spreading them to dry in the fields and hanging them from a rack.  I don’t know how this image relates to the alchemical mysteries of the text, but I love the fact that a washday scene merited such an exquisite gilded border!

A drowning king

This scene brings back memories of undergraduate days, of The Golden Bough and my first-year ‘Legend, Myth and History’ course (awesome course…so much fun to be an arts undergrad in less job-driven times).  It depicts a king drowning in the sea, while his crowned son and heir stands on the shore holding a sceptre and orb.  The King is dead, long live the king.

A man bathing

We saw Bathsheba earlier – now we see a man bathing, in a circular tub, heated by flames fanned by an attendant.  Oh, and there’s a dove on his head.  Seriously, no explanation.  But isn’t that border gorgeous???

I’m comforted to read, courtesy of the person who wrote up the Splendor Solis entry in Wikipedia, that he/she too is baffled by the import of many or most of the images:  “Like the context and the contents of the book itself, all the illustrations are impenetrable and difficult to understand.”  The work was clearly created for initiates in the mysteries of alchemy, and not to explain it to outsiders. 

This page illustrates the ornate Germanic calligraphy found throughout the text:

Calligraphic initials

‘Splendor Solis’ translates, unsurprisingly, as “Splendour of the Sun”.  This image illustrates a ‘black sun’, or ‘sol niger’, setting on the outskirts of a city.

A black sun (sol niger)

  I don’t know if the image is meant to carry a negative connotation – the fact that it shows a broken, dead tree suggests so, but that is at odds with the beautiful abundance of the gilded border.

The manuscript concludes with another sun:

The sun

This one is yellow, has a human face and is apparently rising in glory.  Again the landscape looks somewhat barren (more broken, dead trees), but the border is spectacularly lovely. 

If I could readily have found some explanation of the images, I would have shared it, but staying on the first few pages of Google results, I found nothing.  Has anyone actually read “Splendor Solis”, or otherwise familiarized themselves with alchemical mysteries?  If you can cast any light on the import of the images above, I’d be most interested!


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