Two Halves are Better than One: Investigating the Alchemical Rebis
The word ‘alchemy’ conjures up images of arcane experiments conducted by wizened old men in deep, dark laboratories, single-minded in their quest to turn base metals into Gold and create the fabled Philosophers’ Stone – the elixir of life, capable of granting immortality. Open up an alchemical manuscript today and the modern reader will be confronted with an array of weird, wonderful, and sometimes disturbing imagery. In most cases the illustrations are intentionally obtuse, intended to stymie anyone not suitably versed in alchemical language or practices. The Green Lion, Peacock and ‘Moon Tree’ – to pick three examples – are common symbols of the alchemical process yet wholly confusing to layman eyes.
One of the most notable images in the alchemist’s oeuvre is the rebis (‘double-thing’), otherwise known as divine hermaphrodite. This is the personification of the Philosopher’s Stone. At its core, the rebis represents the union (or offspring) of the sun/gold (spirit) and moon/silver (matter), personified as the marriage between the Red King and White Queen. Some alchemists likened the Red King to sulphur (the ‘fixed’ male ideal) and the White Queen to mercury (the ‘volatile’ female ideal). This was a tradition that began with the Islamic alchemist Geber (d.815), who theorised that all metals derived from a fusion of the ‘ideals’ of Sulphur (hot; dry) and Mercury (cold; wet), the perfect combination of which resulted in the creation of true gold.
So far, so confusing. Despite there never being a fixed alchemical code – something that can drive scholars on the subject a little crazy! – the rebis was one of the most enduring and widely-used motifs in the era. Figure two, above, is taken from the Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (‘Book of the Holy Trinity’), written by a German monk, Ulmannus, in the first part of the fifteenth century. This book is a notable example of how spiritual and political concerns could be combined in a single volume. Just as Christian imagery is used to allegorise the alchemical process – the death and resurrection of Christ representing the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone – the alchemical process could also be used as an allegory of the Emperor’s right to purge his Kingdom of imperfections (in this case, heretics and Jews). Here, the left-hand rebis represents the diabolical or false hermaphrodite (i.e. the antichrist), while the one of the right represents the true ‘mercurial hermaphrodite’ (i.e. Christ-as-emperor).
The above rebis is taken a famous alchemical manual called the Splendor Solis (‘Splendour of the Sun’), dating to around 1532-35 and attributed to a legendary figure called Salomon Trismosin. As you can see, the detailing is exquisite and represents a particularly fine example of alchemical illustration. This image comes from a nineteenth-century copy of the text found in the John Rylands Library in Manchester (German MS 7). Here, the rebis is included in a sequence of images that symbolises the ‘death’ and transformation of the base metal and the purification of the soul of the alchemist. The black robes, yellow trim and red and white wings relate to the four main colour stages of the alchemical process (nigredo/putrefaction; albedo/purification; citrinitas/transmutation; rubedo/successful transformation). The egg, held in the rebis’s left hand, is a popular symbol for gestation and rebirth.
Interest in alchemy noticeably increased as the early modern period progressed. Printed alchemical works circulated widely. One of the most prominent thinkers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was Heinrich Khunrath, whose Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (‘Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom’, c.1595) proved especially influential. At its core, it purported to be a guidebook to attain spiritual enlightenment and, dubiously, the power to perform miracles on earth. Khunrath provided a series of ‘Amphitheatrical Spectacles’, fold-out plates, to help the curious reader in their quest. The above plate describes how knowledge of alchemy can lead to knowledge of the powers of God. To hammer the point home, Khunrath includes a striking image of a rebis encircling a globe. Above this we can see a peacock, which represents another colour-stage of the alchemical process (an iridescent phase that appears after putrefaction and purification). The peacock’s body is inscribed with additional symbols of universal perfection: John Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad and the mystical word ‘Azoth’ (see fig. 5).
Our final rebis comes from another printed work, the Rosarium Philosphorum (‘Rosary of the Philosophers’, c.1550). As you can see, the rebis symbolism has remained more or less unchanged since Ulmannus’s Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit. This image, subtitled perfectionis ostensio (‘depiction of the completion’) shows the rebis holding a chalice of snakes in one hand and a single snake in the other, which may represent the alchemical bon mot “one becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth”. On the left we have the familiar image of the ‘sun tree’, while on the right we have a pelican feeding its young (perhaps, along with the lion, a warning that the transformation is not yet fully complete). The three snakes represent the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit.
Alchemical symbolism is dense, obtuse and sometimes quite exhausting to decipher. Different alchemists used different symbolic codes, making it difficult to trace meanings from one manuscript to the next. This is not to say some symbols did not have popular currency. The rebis, the ‘double thing’, was evocative and slightly disturbing shorthand for the fusion of disparate substances into a single, harmonious body. Alchemy was not just a get-rich-quick scheme, but a mystical rite of passage that could be used to purify the soul, mend social disorder, and articulate the mysteries of salvation.
Peter Forshaw, ‘Curious Knowledge and Wonder Working in the Occult Works of Heinrich Khunrath’ in Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. by R. J. W. Evan and Alexandra Marr (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 107-129
E.J., Holmyard, Alchemy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957)
Barbara Obrist, Le Débuts de L’imagerie Alchimique: XIVe−XVe siècles (Paris: Sycamore, 1982)