It is difficult if not impossible to define in an exhaustive way what is meant by Alchemy. The simplest formula is: “the art of transmutation and perfection of the existing”, whether it belongs to the world of Nature, mineral or vegetable (Spagyric Alchemy), whether it be man, understood as a unit of body, soul and spirit to be transformed into a new entity, restoring it to its original perfection or, if you prefer, bringing it to a higher degree of completeness of its being, what can be called “Body of glory” (Philosophical or spiritual alchemy). The realization of what alchemists call opus, better defined as opus maius in spiritual alchemy, is achieved through manipulations that eliminate the superfluous or dangerous parts of the object to be transformed by using fire in different degrees of intensity and repeating the operations with patience and attention, until a perfect substance is obtained.
This is the way to operate in the most commonly known spagyric form, the Alchemy of metals. Philosophical or spiritual Alchemy follows an analogous process, but with an important difference: for the completion of the Work it is necessary to bring together the different parts that have been separated through the operations, that is, it is necessary to bring together the soul components (feelings, emotions, instincts of various nature), suitably purified, with the spiritual ones and with what remains of the “raw material” on which one has worked, that is, what is called “ashes” or “feces” and which are left over after the separation of the soul from the body. Using the most well-known metallic symbolism, the perfect Gold is not obtained simply by combining Gold with Silver or quicksilver, but Lead is also needed, initially discarded not to be thrown away, but kept aside to obtain the final result.
The place where the alchemist works is often described as a dark place, a dark room or a cave, meaning that the work must be carried out in the deepest possible isolation to have the necessary concentration to do it correctly. Often, alchemical operations are presented along with a retrieval of classical myths, as in the work of the Benedictine Pernety (Les fables egyptiennes et grecques, 1758), and then illustrated with mythological characters, as in the myth of Venus extinguishing the torch of Eros, with the not evident intervention of Minerva, or in the story of Jason and Creusa, in which the “marriage” is one of the forms under which the union of the Masculine and the Feminine is hidden, alchemically the Sulphur and the Mercury. Such a complex art, including actions that can be carried out on all levels of created nature, easily degenerates into lower forms, sometimes simple superstitions, but also more elementary level technical applications, such as “magic potions”.
Egypt: sacred and profane objects (EG)
Pharaonic Egypt shows the complex meanings of its religion and its wisdom not only through gigantic constructions such as pyramids, temples and colossal statues, but also through small objects from whose interpretation we can learn a lot. The collection donated to the founder of the Museum by Prince Boris de Rachewiltz is made up of these small objects, statuettes of deities, rings, amulets, which require careful observation by the observer in order to understand their complex meanings. Unfortunately we do not have precise indications on the place of discovery of them or on the context in which they were found, so it is only possible to describe them to try to penetrate the symbolism that they carry within themselves.
Eroticism, as an attractive, magnetic, transmuting element, hermetic occult fire, which leads to sacred union, propeller of the perpetuation of the species, enhancer of consciousness and, at the same time, destroyer of rational schematism, has always played a central role in the history of Sacred. Love and death, love and war are all elements that have made Eros the famous god “who breaks the limbs of the gods”. Eros is the main character of one of the most famous mythological-hermetic novels from the past, Love and Psyche, included in the famous story of Apuleius The Golden Donkey. But sacred coitus and its consequences are at the foundation not only of the cosmogonies of every tradition (refer to the myth of the recomposition of the limbs of Osiris by Isis and the loss of his magically reconstructed phallus) but, above all, of the succession of transmutations aimed at giving a direction to the Cosmic and Human Consciousness, to Wisdom and, perhaps, to the Anima Mundi, that is, the “sense of Being” in cosmic Becoming.
Each tradition, interpreting the most archaic cosmogonies, has developed its own Ars amandi (art of loving), conveyed not only through mythologic tales, but often made explicit very eloquently by dignifying the genital organs. Egyptian, Roman and Greek sculpture and painting have left us infinite evidence of it, deifying Priapo, Pan, the nymphs and all those primordial powers suitable for the perpetuation of desire, generation and becoming. In the Museum we have some small vestiges of it, always marked by the initials ERO combined with others. However, the eastern sector is the one that collects specific representations. In the Indian sector, they are depicted by the “hierogams” between the various aspects of Vishnu and Shiva and their respective female counterparts, Parvati and Lakhsmi; but we also have the delicate images extracted from the love stories between Kama and his partners, as the more individual ones intended for the court of various Rajas in central India.
As for Chinese and Japanese eroticism, we have images that serve almost as “sexual codes”. In Japan, “erotic” painting had a period of great diffusion from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, apparently in contrast with the ascetic and often neo-Confucian “rigidity” of the samurai who held power. The figures rarely appear nude, while colors of kimonos stand out. These artworks are mostly intended for the wealthier class. To be noted, genital organs are emphasized, both male and female, and appear enormous. Often these representations accompany erotic novels and much more often (as in India and China) they are real vademecum meant for both young brides and courtesans, and are reproduced in real “amatory art manuals”.
Ritual objects of the far east
The East has a very rich and varied set of rites and liturgies. In this small section we have privileged some objects widely spread in Tibet, such as the bronze statues that represent specific aspects of Lamaism or of the subsequent Buddhist pantheon. These objects are generally intended for private veneration and are associated with particular rituals, where specific mantras are also pronounced, connected to the manifestation of the divine. Monasteries and residences are true coffers of these treasures. In the East, the cult of the ashes of the dead is also practiced, for their magical and ritual properties. Sometimes ashes are mixed with clay moulds (so called tza tza), in other cases the bones are used as musical instruments in particular ceremonies. Finally, this section includes also certain objects connected to “magic”, such as zi, with their mysterious and fascinating designs, each with a specific meaning and with an apotropaic function. Very interesting, then, is a very old damaru, a ritual drum with two boxes, with a set of shells and cultic powders preserved in bags.
Among the most interesting objects from Tibet we have two beautiful kapalas used to collect the ritual offering and also illustrated in the Tangka of the Buddha (images painted on fabric). From China two items stand out among others: the bronze bell and the beautiful mandarin sceptre with the jade emblem that marks the power of the sage who possesses it. Each object has its own function in the context of rituals that date back to the dawn of time and of which the rich eastern section of the Foundation Library has extensive documentation. The section ends with the splendid Nepalese wooden under-balcony, a small masterpiece of rare craftsmanship, made even more precious by its destination for religious use.