For the last in this series of eight articles about the illustrations I produced for Chemical Serpents I would like to wrap up by discussing the cover. The cover art for Chemical Serpents is called “Lapis Philosophorum”, which means “Philosopher’s Stone”.
The Philosopher’s Stone has a history and mystery that goes back a lot further than the famous Harry Potter book. Reference to the stone can be found as far back as Cheirokmeta by Zosimos of Panopolis circa 300 AD, and some writers go further, claiming that its history goes back to the biblical Adam who is said to have gained knowledge of the stone directly from God. This knowledge is said to have been passed down through biblical patriarchs, providing the source for their longevity.
Regardless of this mythic claim, the theoretical roots of the stone’s creation can be traced to Ancient Greek philosophy. It is from Plato that we are given the suggestion that the four elements are derived from a common source or prima materia (first matter), associated with chaos. The concept of the first mater was later used by the alchemists as the starting ingredient for the creation of the philosopher’s stone, and this notion has persisted. The classical elements as well as the concept of the anima mundi and Creation stories from texts like Plato’s Timaeus were clearly the inspiration for the analogies for the alchemical process.
To ancient Philosophers magic was not the trickery and showmanship of pulling rabbits out of hats, it was also not merely causing changes to occur in the external world, that’s what hands are for. Magic was a psychedelic endeavour utilising processes that expand consciousness. Rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, open to everyone from the lowliest slaves to the highest free born, took this process to the level of culture. Philosophy was more than a bunch of overly specialised academics getting pedantic about propositions that have nothing to do with ordinary life. Philosophy was directly connected to life, through the exploration and enrichment of inner experience – the imagination. Later Alchemists sought to perfect such processes. The Philosopher’s Stone was, in some sense, the Philosopher themselves, transformed by their own imagination.
The idea that the stone is an actual object that can make actual gold by transforming something else was quite likely a clever ruse by alchemists to gain funding for what is primarily a spiritual activity. But it is the idea of a physical object gained from a physical transformation that has been passed into modern culture, perhaps because we tend to value the physical far more than the “merely imaginary”. “Magic” and “Imagine” come from the same indo-ayran root word “Mag”, which means “Greatness” or “Expansion” (as in magnification). Practically every physical object around you came from someone’s imagining, and certainly every idea. I believe the imagination is the last great frontier and it is the artists and the philosophers who are most equipped to explore it. Unfortunately the current dominant culture devalues such exploration as self indulgent or worthless and would rather we spend our lives selling pointless consumer goods so we can buy pointless consumer goods, than we learn how to enjoy things that cannot be bought or sold and explore the unprofitable secrets of the universe (unless it causes you to write a best seller or start a successful cult).
The stone has been said to have many powers and properties other than transmuting base metals into gold or silver, such as the ability to heal all forms of illness and prolong the life of any person who consumes a small part of it, creation of perpetually burning lamps, transformation of common crystals into precious stones and diamonds, reviving of dead plants, and the creation of a clone or homunculus. These all seem to me to be very much metaphorical, describing inner visionary experiences rather than outer manifestations. The cover art I created representing this object was very much centred on these notions.
This was one of the few pieces I produced for the book that had very specific instructions from the author. A variety of different symbols were required to be woven together into one glyph-like image. These symbols were: a meditating hermaphrodite as the central figure and axis of the piece, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life showing the lightning path with a cross at the top, The Monas Hieroglyphica, the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna serpents, Baphomet, the axe and noose of Ganesh, the Chrysopoea with deep space as its dark half and rainbow as its light, and the roots and branches of a world tree. Anton was also very specific about the colours for each element too, and so this was a wonderful challenge for me and it was particularly satisfying to exceed his expectations.
I produced the images for Chemical Serpents back in 2012, when I was just starting to fully dedicate myself to being a book cover designer and illustrator. Although I am now more technically skilled and continue to become more so, I still find these images quite fascinating. Many of the references and implications in the images seem now like messages from my unconscious that I have become capable of reading and reflecting upon in a way that I was unprepared for at the time of their creation. It was a project I thoroughly enjoyed because it was an opportunity to explore symbolism and themes that I find fascinating with a very knowledgeable author in the various related subjects. But it also seems that it was an opportunity for something ineffable to make itself more fully know to me, something that gives life to my work in a way that nothing else could.
Chapter One: Hen to Pan
Chapter Two: Solve et Coagula
Chapter Three: Tria Prima
Chapter Four: Quintessence
Chapter Five: Miracula Rei Unius
Chapter Six: Axis Mundi
Chapter Seven: Gloriam Totius Mundi