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The Gabriel Guild Newsletter
Volume I, Number 2
Spring 1993

Alchemy and Color Symbolism
By Sybil Archibald

"In truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing."--The Emerald Tablet

Alchemy is a rich source of color symbolism in the Middle Ages. It was alchemists who created the interesting complexities of the color sequence: black, white, red and gold. This sequence charts the transformation the alchemists sought in both physical and spiritual realms. On the physical level, the color sequence and meaning resulted from actual chemical reactions which were to lead to the creation of gold. On the spiritual level, the symbolism which interpreted the physical chemical events, shows us how they lead to the alchemists’ internal spiritual enlightenment and transformation.

Alchemists are the forerunners of modern chemists. Like modern chemists, they worked with the physical world. This work is referred to as outward alchemy. Outward alchemy was practiced with chemical reactions to transmute base metals, such as lead into gold. But, unlike modern chemists, alchemists also practiced inward alchemy. Inward alchemy was practiced to transform man’s base and chaotic nature, represented by lead, into his perfected spiritual nature and unification with God, represented by gold.(1) Inward and outward alchemy occurred simultaneously and were governed by the same basic principles.

Black: Coagulation
Black is the first color in the alchemists’ transformational sequence. In outward alchemy, black is often associated with the chemical reaction coagulation. Coagulation is the solidification of a substance and symbolically parallels God’s act of creating Earth. Therefore, black is identified with matter, and especially with the impure qualities of matter. In inward alchemy, black represents the dark night of the soul, the moment in which one feels abandoned by or furthest from God. When one feels winter and all suffering, all the things that the impure nature of matter bring upon us. Its connotations, however, are not all bad. After all, it is blackness that points to whiteness. It is the cyclical point of darkness one falls into before birth. As such it can be a hardship, but, on a deeper level, it can also be the point in the cycle which is non-existence or pre-matter, matter in potentiality. This is referred to as prime matter. Prime matter is the possibility if all matter. It can be thought of as a womb. Although in a womb, a baby may not be growing, it has the possibility of ‘baby’ at all times. Black is, therefore, the embarking point of the transformational journey, whether it be the ontological beginning from which matter might occur, or the rough impure stuff of matter from which purity might eventually be claimed. Alchemist Basilius Valentinus speaks to this saying,"All flesh, born of the Earth, will be destroyed and given to the Earth again, just as it has already been Earth. The earthly salt will bring forth a new birth by means of the breath of heavenly life. For wherever earth is absent at the beginning there can be no rebirth in our work."(2)

White: Calcification
As black represents the impure qualities of matter, so white, the second step of the alchemists’ color sequence, represents matter in its purified state. White is often linked to the chemical reaction calcination, or the burning of a substance.(3) True purifying calcination frequently occurred from an inward heat as with plaster. Additionally, purifying calcination could produce a white ash. The alchemists talk symbolically about white ash as white foliated earth which has been purified to provide a basis for the reception of God. The Virgin Mary at the time of the annunciation (the conception of Jesus) is often likened to this foliated earth.(4) Further, lye, a caustic substance, is made from the white ash of burnt wood and water. It is used in the purification of many materials including lapis lazuli’s transformation into ultramarine blue.

Red: Sublimation
The next color in our journey is red, the pivotal point in the alchemists’ intent to transform. Red symbolizes the philosopher’s stone, which is the instrument and facilitator of transformation.(5) Its use was thought to turn base metals into gold and, in unison, man’s base nature into his perfected nature. In pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, the bright red-orange of vermillion was created. Vermillion was a product of the chemical reaction sublimation. Sublimation is the causing of solids to rise in a gaseous state and re-solidify in a cooler upper region. Vermillion, or mercuric sulphide, is thus made by heating mercury and sulphur. The gases that rise and collect at the top of the beaker are the vermillion. Sulphur is linked to the element fire and represents the mind. Mercury is linked with water and represents the soul.(6) Their union is the union of opposites which necessarily causes a release into prime matter, all possibility. This is important because, in order to be transformed, all matter must first return to prime matter. (7) It has to give up its qualities and thereby can be birthed forth from a limitless place where any and all possibilities are in potentiality.

Alchemists often used the metaphor of the Exodus to describe the philosopher’s stone and its quality of facilitation.(8) The transformative moment in the life of the Jewish population of Egypt was the moment they escaped Egypt and it was the parting of the Red Sea which made this possible. Alchemists also linked the red blood of Christ to transformation.(9) His blood endowed physically with the possibility of Godliness.

Gold is the final color in this transformational sequence. All chemical reactions in outward alchemical sought as their end to create gold. In the symbol of gold, we find the perfection of man’s nature. Gold is likened to the Divine intellect, wisdom and to enlightenment, which are also symbolized by pure light. All colors in the spectrum are refracted light except gold, and capture but a portion of Divine light; gold, alone, reflect that pure light.(10) Union with this light and all it represents, Divine and spiritual perfection, is the goal of inward alchemy.

As course matter moved to purified matter, so the chaotic qualities of the soul were purified for reception of God. This is the movement is represented by the movement from black to white. When red was introduced, as the facilitator, it allow for transformation. In outward alchemy, this would then result in the creation of gold. In inward alchemy, this would result in unification with the Divine and perfection of man’s spiritual nature: the ultimate goal of all alchemists. Thus the this beautiful color sequence was able to guide the alchemists’ physical chemistry while richly providing a context for their inner spiritual life.

(1) Titus Burkhardt, Alchemy. Element Books Ltd. Longmead, Shaftebury, Dorset. 1986. P.142.

(2) "Of the Great Ancient Sages", Strasbourg, 1645. From Burkhardt, p.186

(3) Edward Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism. Open Court, La Salle, Illinois. 1988. P.26.

(4) Burkhardt, p.188

(5) J.E. Cirlot, Dictionary of symbols. Philosophical Library, NY. 1971. P.56.

(6) Hans Holzer, The Alchemist. Stein & Day, NY. 1974. P72. Burkhardt. P.143.

(7) Burkhardt. P. 190.

(8) Edinger. P. 72

(9) Faber Birren, The Symbolism of Color. Citadel Press, NJ. 1988. P.66.

(10) Michael Quenot, The Icon. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY. 1991. P. 114.

(11) Quenot. P. 115.