"Someday, this lead shall be gold."
The Magnum Opus, or Great Work, of alchemy is an oft-misunderstood concept. Whilst it is true that the alchemists were concerned with the transmutation of base into noble metals – lead into gold – this is merely an exoteric interpretation of the aims of the process. Indeed, the true quest of alchemy is a not a physical but a spiritual one: the transmutation of base human consciousness into that of an ascended being.
A similar misunderstanding dogs the very term 'alchemy'. The uniformed may advise the Seeker after knowledge that the word’s etymology is a drawn from the Arabic al-kīmiyā, and this in turn from the Greek khēmeia, the ‘art of transmuting metals’. In fact, alchemy’s etymology can be traced back far further than this to the Arabic term Al-Khemet. But what, one may ask, is Khemet? It is the ‘Black Land’, the name by which the ancient Egyptians referred to their country, thereby honouring the black, fertile soil of the Nile Valley which nourished that once-great place. The ancient Egyptians (or, more correctly, the Khemetians), those masters of the occult sciences of consciousness, are therefore the progenitors (but, Seeker, likely still not the originators) of the art of alchemy.
The subject of this painting, the artist, follows the alchemical quest. He is of course a crow – a bird whose black feathers mean that he was, in the medieval era whose armour he wears, used to symbolise the blackening associated with the first stage of alchemical transmutation: Nigredo. The colours displayed upon our protagonist’s breast symbolise the four phases of chemical colour changes associated with the alchemical laboratory process, which following the aforementioned are: Albedo, a whitening or leucosis; Citrinitas, a yellowing or xanthosis; Rubedo, a reddening, purpling, or iosis.
In his hand, the crow clutches a pencil, the ‘lead’ of which he hopes, by the labours of his own Magnum Opus, to transmute into the ‘gold’ of artistic achievement and thereby spiritual growth. For this crow, as for the proto-alchemical adepts of old Khemet, there is no art which is not science, and which is not also an expression of spirituality.
Upon his shield, our hero bears the image of a phoenix, the golden, ascended creature whom through his Great Work he aspires to become.
At his collar he wears a three-point symbol as both a representation the three stages of youth, manhood and old age, and also to refer to synthesis and the solution of conflict posed by dualism. Here, the upper point brings about balance for the first two opposing states.
In addition to this, his armour bears the symbol of the upward-pointing triangle, representative of alchemical fire, which is the principal of spirituality.
He stands before the symbol of the ‘squared circle’, a symbol used to refer to the Magnum Opus by dint of the extreme difficulty posed to ancient geometers by the task of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle by using only a finite number of steps with compass and straightedge.
Finally, he declares his intention by speaking the word chrysopoeia, the term by which the completion of the Great Work is known.