With this new understanding, I returned to Christ Alchemist time and again, so as to penetrate even deeper into the strange mystery underlying its combination of symbols - a combination, I reminded myself, given to me in a dream. Hence, I had to understand the dream's ancient language: its underlying logic and its sacred but concealed message. The more I meditated upon Christ Alchemist - sitting alone in my studio in the Latin Quarter - the more it revealed to me aspects of its inherent logic.
I developed the term 'iconologue' to describe the different logical relations underlying arrangements of images. Each iconologue guaranteed the arrangement some kind of order, meaning, and sense. The iconologue at work in my dream of Christ Alchemist was one which Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, had recognized as 'displacement', particularly, 'displacement of theme'. In his epochal work, Freud had noted that, in dreams, a certain arrangement of images could sometimes be re-grouped around a different theme, thus appearing 'differently centred and strange'. Campbell too had found instances of this in the history of myth. As a result of this regrouping, the two myths underlying an arrangement of images momentarily crossed one another.
In my dream of Christ Alchemist, images from Christianity had undoubtedly been re-grouped around the idea of alchemy. The question now was why. The answer to this question became bound up in a greater understanding of alchemy and its myth. Specifically, how the myth of Alchemy could possibly cross with that of Christianity, and what this could mean. But uncovering alchemy's secret was no easy task. Countless commentators had offered their explanations, making it an unbelievable labyrinth of speculations. Even Jung's ideas led me astray. Finally, as I sat one day in the Bar du Marché, reading Eliade'sThe Forge and the Crucible, I found a clue.
During the opus alchymicum, alchemists attempted to reduce sulphur and mercury to their most primitive state - the prima materia - so as to reconstitute their proportions into the perfected harmony of the lapis philosophorum or 'Philosophers' Stone' - a tincture capable of transforming all substances into gold. This process required four stages, the nigredo, albedo, citronitas, and rebedo, which the alchemists described in their hermetic texts through a series of allegories.
But these texts, illuminated with the most incredible of images, also became allegories for spiritual awakening. In the swirling vapours of the vas hermeticum, the transformations of sulphur and mercury offered the alchemist a series of visionary images. Through graduated meditations on these images, the alchemist sought to cleanse his mind of its dross, and finally behold his own innermost divinity. The attainment of this feat, as the final step of the opus, was represented by the image of the homunculus, filius philosophorum, or 'Alchemical child'.
But, to reach this momentary awakening, the alchemist had to first pass through the four stages of the work. Eliade recognized these as stages of initiation, similar to ancient Mystery rites of purification involving the initiate's repeated death and rebirth. The first and second stages of the alchemical opus, the nigredo and albedo, constituted the first initiatory death and rebirth. And these were followed by the citronitas and rebedo, a second death and rebirth which brought about the final cleansing of the alchemist's vision, resulting in a 'perfected' view of the creation.
The first stage in particular used some very telling imagery. The nigredo was likened to death, enclosure in the coffin, and a complete decomposition and disintegration. Some alchemists illustrated their experience as a descent through underworld flames. Others depicted it as an underwater journey in the belly of a monster. Lost in a labyrinth of darkened imagery, the alchemist experienced a dangerous psychological dissociation, termed the 'massa confusa'. His mind darkened into a black swirling abyss, such as depicted in the alchemical engraving I had meditated upon in Munich.
As a result of this dangerous nekyia into the imagery of his own unconscious, the alchemist not only experienced his own death, but also went on to envision his ensuing rebirth. This subsequent stage, the albedo, was illustrated by some as a baptism of fire; by others, as a baptism in water. Then again, some experienced it as a resurrection from the dead, while others saw it as emergence from the belly of the monster. In any case, the alchemist emerged once more from his mind's darkened depths, alive, purged, rejuvenated, reborn. This procedure was repeated (the citronitas and rubedo) until the alchemist achieved a momentary vision of the 'Alchemical-child'.
To my great surprise, Eliade noted that these series of deaths and rebirths constituted "a regression to the pre-natal state." (Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, translated by Stephen Corrin, University of Chicago Press, 1962, p. 154) - a regressus ad uterum, as he called it. One of alchemy's greatest secrets was that the opus was actually a memory regression to the pre-natal state, so as to finally accomplish a rare epiphany: to die to one's self, so as to come to birth from within.
Suddenly, much of the imagery in my dream become clear to me. I realized why the symbols of Christianity had been re-arranged around the theme of alchemy, and what they possibly meant. In alchemy, as the alchemist gazes into the swirling depths of his vas hermeticum, he initates himself into a two-fold series of deaths and rebirths. This process gradually becomes a regressus ad uterum, which returns him to his initial state of perfection. The final attainment of that perfection is symbolized by the Alchemical-child.
Meanwhile, through the myth of Christianity, Christ initiates us into a two-fold series of deaths and rebirths. First, through his own death and resurrection, Christ cleanses our souls of original sin. Then, through our own death and resurrection at the end of time, he cleanses us perpetually of sin. In this way, Christ gradually initiates us into a state of everlasting perfection.
More importantly, what Alchemy and Christianity share in common is the ritual of 'the opus' and 'the mass'. Each of these involves a ritual sacrifice. During the opus, the alchemist sacrifices himself - twice dies and is reborn unto himself - to realize, finally, his own inner perfection. This is marked by the appearance of the 'Alchemical-child. During the mass, Christ also sacrifices himself. Present in the sacrificial bread and wine as well as the sacrificing priest, he offers us his body and blood, thus invoking his self-sacrifice. During the climax of the mass, 'the mysterium fidei', we envision his death and resurrection, resulting in our own spiritual cleansing (the forgiveness of sins). And, we envision our own death and resurrection at the end of time, resulting in our final cleansing. But the ultimate attainment of our perfection will only occur at the end of time. This is symbolized by images of the Last Judgement, where we envision Christ upholding his wounded hands in judgement over us.
Hence, the myth of Christianity transpires in a forward movement through time. We move forward through our life, then die and rise again to experience perfection at the end of time, in the Last Judgement. Meanwhile, in Alchemy, we travel backward through time, through a regressus ad uterum, to experience perfection at the beginning of our lifetime, through the image of the Alchemical-child.
Yet, according to the more ancient understanding of time, a ritual - whether that be the Catholic mass or the Alchemical opus - opens a doorway to the Sacred in the very middle of time. The ritual takes an event from the eternal Mythic Time, and momentarily makes it present. And through his recognition of this momentary epiphany, the participant is himself transported into Mythic Time. The veil of life's linear unfolding is momentarily rent, to reveal its underlying eternity. Hence, the ritual of the opus or the mass, when properly performed, reveals the eternal sacrifice that moment, leading to a momentary cleansing of our vision. In Christ Alchemist, this ritual moment of self-sacrifice is frozen still, and mythically made present.
As more and more pieces of the puzzle fell into place, I began to see the overall picture, marvelling at the logic underlying its arrangement. I continued to meditate on the composition given to me in my dream, considering each of its images in turn, wondering how each was related to the other. I began with all the Christian images, which were arranged, according to the myth of Christianity, in a forward movement through time. Then, I moved on to the alchemical images which, according to the myth of the opus, were arranged in a backward movement through time.
Since all myths are, in truth, timeless, I recognized that the forward or backward movement through their imagery is simply a device necessary for their temporal arrangement. Whereas art arranges images in space, myths are an arrangement of images over time. But, during those rare moments of epiphany when I had entered through Christ Alchemist, I recognized that its spacial composition was merely a device. The images, and the logic underlying their arrangement, existed in a boundless expanse. Similarly, although we experience a myth in its temporal unfolding, the arrangement of its images exist in eternity; they are held together by a more timeless logic.
I began to re-think my way through the images of these myths, while freeing them of their temporal unfolding - that is, while ignoring their succession in linear-historical time. I encountered each image in succession, as if, for the first time. Concentrating on my painting, I began working my way through the Christian images first, then the alchemical ones. In this way, I learned to see the composition of Christ Alchemist as a single, stilled image transpiring at that nadir-moment when these two myths crossed.
Gazing at the painting, I recognized, first of all, the Christ-child, as a traditional image of Christ's birth. Then, in the horrific image of Christ-crucified, his head hanging downward in an awkward manner, I beheld the image of his death. And finally, as he emerged from the tomb, flanked by the banner and spear,* I saw the image of his resurrection.
*The banner and spear evoke, first of all, his Crucifixion: the banner on the cross, mocking Christ as King of the Jews, and the spear which pierced his side, causing blood and water to flow from the wound (the same blood and water that would eventually be mixed during the mass). These also appear during the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ used the banner-topped spear to pry open Hade's jaws, and release all those who were condemned to death before his sacrifice. In this way, they banner and spear cease to be instruments of his defeat, and signify instead his victory over death. Hence they appear, finally, in Gothic images of the Resurrection, as the spear now signifying his victory over death and the banner proclaiming Christ as its king.
But Christ is holding his hands upward in a most unusual manner. This gesture is reminiscent of Christ as he will appear at the end of time, as the judge of the living and the dead. For, in gothic sculpture, Christ sits upon the throne, flanked by the instruments of his passion, and holds his hands upward thus to show us his wounds. According to Jocabus de Voragine, his wounded hands"...show his mercy, for they recall his willing sacrifice, and they justify his anger." (Emile Male, The Gothic Image:Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, p. 369.) But, this same gesture is also reminiscent of the mass, when the priest raises his hands to bless the perfect sacrifice.
The remaining Christian images related to the mass. Behind Christ is the monastary chapel wherein the mystery of the mass is celebrated. Christ himself wears the robes of a monk, thus being the celebrant of the mass. And before him is the altar with its crucifix, bible, and chalice, wherein the mysterium fidei transpires.
Hence, when we read these images in succession, we see that Christ was born an innocent child, suffered unto death on the cross, and then rose again from the dead. Through the last supper, Christ also initiated the mystery of the mass - which shall continue to be ritually celebrated until he comes again as judge the living and the dead. In this way, the Christian images create a path for us, which we may follow in a forward movement through time, retracing the myth of Christ's life with our own.
Meanwhile, the images of the opus in Christ Alchemist are derived from the Cabala Mineralis manuscript. Gradually, I recognized that, of the three images in the foreground, the opus begins on the left, with the first stage, the nigredo. The prima materia appears in the form of the tail-eating gryphon, as this ancient figure combines the lion (symbol of sulphur) with the eagle (symbol of mercury). But the mixture is unstable and imbalanced: with its tail in its mouth (the tail-eating uroboros), it is beginning to devour itself. In the end, the gryphon offers us a monstrous vision of decomposition and death through self-devouring.
Then, on the right, I recognized the second stage of the opus, the albedo. The entwining serpents of the caduceus symbolize sulphur and mercury's miraculous reconstitution. As winged serpents in sexual embrace, their uplifting image offers a vision of rejuvenation, rebirth, harmony, and union.
Symbols of sulphur and mercury in union also appear on the crucifix, where the sun and moon are mediated by the sign of Mercury. For, the sun (symbol of sulphur) and the moon (symbol of mercury) are combined and unified in its design.
At the centre of the composition, I recognized the final stage of the opus, the rubedo. Its accomplishment is symbolized by the red phoenix, a mythic bird which immolates itself in fire and then rises reborn from the ashes. As such, it manifests the complete cycle of death and rebirth. The egg-shaped or womb-shaped vessel covering the chalice is clearly recognizable as the vas hermeticum. Within its luminous enclosure, I recognized, now, the Alchemical-child, symbolic of the Philosopher's Stone. This miraculous image offers a vision of perfection: a momentary epiphany brought about through death, rebirth, and the complete regressus ad uterum.
Aside from these, I saw how the emblem of the 'rose-within-rose' on Christ's chest symbolizes the complete opus. The outermost rose is white, indicating the end of 'the Lesser Work', and the innermost rose is red, indicating the completion of 'the Greater Work'. They show that the white and red (mercury and sulphur, albedo and rubedo) have come together as one. Hence, as the original text accompanying these images states: "Take the fayer Roses, white and red / And joyne them well in won bed. / So betwixt these Roses mylde / Thou shalt bring forth a Gloriuse chylde." (Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, Bollingen C, Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 254)
It is precisely this image of 'the Gloriuse chylde' which appears at the nadir-crossing of these two cultural myths. By identifying the Alchemical-child with the Christ-child, my dream crossed these two myths at their nadir. This was accomplished during the 'dream-time', a timeless state when myths are freed of their linear-historical associations, and their images are related instead by a more timeless iconologic.
To begin, we follow the life-myth of Christ in each of its stages. We see his birth as an innocent child, his suffering unto death, and his resurrection from the dead. But, after that nadir moment, we do not rise again to await judgement at the end of time. We make no attempt to enter through the apocalyptic image of Christ with his wounded hands upheld.
Rather, at that moment, the myth of Christianity crosses with that of alchemy. Through meditation on its allegorical images, we pass, like an alchemist, through the stages of the opus. With the gryphon, we experience death. With the entwining serpents, we experience resurrection. And finally, entering through the image of the Alchemical-child, we come to birth from within.
Hence, crossing these two myths, we see that, as the resurrected Christ rises from the tomb, he brings forth from himself the Christ-child. Through his death and rebirth, the Christ Alchemist accomplishes the fourth stage of the opus. Freed of all evil and suffering, his vision cleansed, he experiences a momentary epiphany. For, within the chalice he beholds the image betokening his innermost divinity. And, entering through this image of the Alchemical Christ-child, he momentarily achieves perfected vision.
This epiphany transpires in an instant. But the painting freezes that moment still, allowing us to meditate upon it. Christianity's forward movement through time, combined with Alchemy's backward movement through time, meet at time's centre to open a doorway to the eternal in that instant.
And now, by making a ritual of our meditation, we are able to pass through that doorway. We acknowledge that, through the ritual of the mass, Christ's sacrifice is made present. We witness the mystery of his death and resurrection. Then, through the similar ritual of the opus, the Alchemist's sacrifice is also made present. We witness the equal mystery of his death and rebirth. And at the moment of their shared attainment, time stands still. The Christ-Alchemist dies to himself, so as to come to birth from within.
The moment we enter through the image of that child, our vision is cleansed, and we regain a momentary vision of paradise. For we, like the Christ Alchemist, may sacrifice ourselves - repeatedly die and be reborn unto ourselves - so as to gradually attain perfection. According to the more Ancient Philosophy, that is what life is - a series of deaths and rebirths, leading to the gradual attainment of our innermost divinity. What the dream-image of Christ Alchemist offers us, fundamentally, is a vision of the Sacred underlying our life.