‘A Ruby and Triangled Sign’: Spiritualised Matter in Joyce and Khunrath

December 28, 2013


The University of Wisconsin has one of only three copies of Heinrich Khunrath’s Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg 1595), ‘The Amphitheatre of Eternal Knowledge’, which it has scanned and posted up online. I came across it via this blog, whose author, Benjamin Breen – floored by the complexity and beauty of the images and text – makes some interesting observations regarding one of the plates:

The figure of the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for the dualistic nature of the universe and the human body is a common one in alchemical imagery. Likewise, the sun and moon are frequently used to symbolize the male and female natures inherent in different elements (the sun is gold/male, the moon female/silver, etc.) The black peacock labelled “AZOTH” leads us deeper into Hermetic territory. Azoth was the hypothesized universal solvent, the “ultimate substance” which could transform all elements. Here it seems to be used to convey the union of male and female (and of all elements) which would allow the corporeal human form to transcend to a divine plane.

A detail from here

A detail from here

In his more extensive commentary on Khunrath’s Ampitheatre, here, Breen draws on the book The Alchemy of Light, by Urszula Szulakowska, who argues that the engravings in Khunrath’s texts

are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystic alchemy can take place through the act of visual contemplation… Khunrath’s theatre of images, like a mirror, catoptrically reflects the celestial spheres to the human mind, awakening the empathetic faculty of the human spirit which unites, through the imagination, with the heavenly realms. Thus, the visual imagery of Khunrath’s treatises has become the alchemical quintessence, the spiritualized matter of the philosopher’s stone.

The images, in other words, ‘invite the viewer to engage in a meditation on the nature of the universe and on the links between the earthly and the divine, the corporeal and the spiritual’.

Another notable feature of this picture is the presence of ‘a ruby and triangled sign’ near the apex, the same form which excites the imagination of Leopold Bloom in ‘The Oxen of the Sun’ episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses,as he drifts into a contemplative reverie:

What is the age of the soul of man? As she hath the virtue of the chameleon to change her hue at every new approach, to be gay with the merry and mournful with the downcast, so too is her age changeable as her mood. No longer is Leopold, as he sits there, ruminating, chewing the cud of reminiscence, that staid agent of publicity and holder of a modest substance in the funds. A score of years are blown away. He is young Leopold. There, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself.

This many-hued changeability is expressed in the image of the bird, which represents the phases of the Work, being composed of the raven (putrefactio), the swan (albedo), the peacock (phase of bright colours) and the phoenix (rubedo) (Roob 1997: 115). At the same time, Bloom’s inner vision, his simultaneous perspective upon himself and the cosmos, is reflected in Khunrath’s depiction of the alchemical Work in the form of an eyeball, whereby the iris is also a cartographic globe.

And lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer. It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams, emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of the cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till, after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.


Image from here

If I had poor luck with Bass’s mare perhaps this draught of his may serve me more propensely. He was laying his hand upon a winejar: Malachi saw it and withheld his act, pointing to the stranger and to the scarlet label. Warily, Malachi whispered, preserve a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods. Do you not think it, Stephen? Theosophos told me so, Stephen answered, whom in a previous existence Egyptian priests initiated into the mysteries of karmic law. The lords of the moon, Theosophos told me, an orangefiery shipload from planet Alpha of the lunar chain would not assume the etheric doubles and these were therefore incarnated by the rubycoloured egos from the second constellation.

Cary Yale Visconti

The Sun card from the Cary Yale Visconti deck of the Tarot

However, as a matter of fact though, the preposterous surmise about him being in some description of a doldrums or other or mesmerised which was. entirely due to a misconception of the shallowest character, was not the case at all. The individual whose visual organs while the above was going on were at this juncture commencing to exhibit symptoms of animation was as astute if not astuter than any man living and anybody that conjectured the contrary would have found themselves pretty speedily in the wrong shop. During the past four minutes or thereabouts he had been staring hard at a certain amount of number one Bass bottled by Messrs Bass and Co at Burton-on-Trent which happened to be situated amongst a lot of others right opposite to where he was and which was certainly calculated to attract anyone’s remark on account of its scarlet appearance.

In Ulysses the ‘ruby and triangled sign’ on a bottle of beer has the same potential to induce a meditation on the nature of the universe as is ascribed to Khunrath’s theatre of images, of which, curiously, the red triangle is a part. In Joyce’s cosmology, the erotic dimension of this image (identified with Nora Barnacle) – the delta which prefigures the ‘ensouling female’, ALP, in Finnegans Wake – attests to the centrality of the lived body in the experience of the eternal.


Jacob Böhme Centrum Naturae

%d bloggers like this: