Among Douillet’s many literary resources are works by alchemical writer, Fulcanelli (a pseudonym). In particular, Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals is worth mentioning because the author’s views on the medieval gothic cathedral have something in common with our views on Douillet’s major works. For Fulcanelli, the gothic cathedral is like a book to be read – a Mutus Liber, or mute book with pages of stone. The images carved upon every feature of its architecture reveal truths about the multifarious life of the period, its folkways, its secular beliefs, its energies. For him, the Notre-Dame of Paris, quite apart from its religious purpose, reveals itself as an “occult Bible”, a “secular Great Work…based on alchemical science”.
When ordinary visitors observe the many sculptural elements of the Notre-Dame, from the trumeau to the gargoyles, they are usually awed, amused, puzzled, and even shocked. Few have the inclination to read the pages to make coherent sense of them. Similarly, when we confront the imagery of a magnum opus by Douillet, we are usually awed, amused, puzzled, and even shocked. We can stop there to savor the experience; or, like Fulcanelli, we can choose to ‘read’ what we see. A Douillet ‘book’ does not have pages of stone; it has the elements of fine oil painting: imagery, form, composition, and color. We can profit from making the attempt to read these features. As always, with great art comes great challenges and great pleasure.
To celebrate his seventieth year, Raymond Douillet has created two large oils that summarize his enduring conversation with the many forms of alchemy and its use of classical myth, folklore, and popular culture. Each painting illustrates and enlarges on an ancient theme, using a pictorial language rich in philosophy, humor, and warmth. In these paintings, Douillet draws upon centuries of alchemical influences, both serious and absurd, and makes them work toward his own purposes. Before we begin to read, let’s take note of Douillet’s choice of subjects.
“The Four Elements”: The concept that four classical elements constitute everything in the universe dates as far back as the fifth century, though in Europe its use became more wide spread in the 16th century. The elements were central to alchemical hermetic science of the middle ages, and in more recent times have appeared in everything from poetic satire to home decorating. Douillet’s “The Four Elements”, with its four-sided composition, might have been painted on the ceiling of a fifteenth-century chateau built by an alchemical adept, yet in its broader approach it also speaks to our current cultural state.
“Night and Day”: The theme of night and day is equally pervasive throughout Western culture, particularly since it is entwined with the moon and sun. Scores of medieval alchemical illustrations attest to the roles played by the sun and moon in the “Great Work” (another way to name alchemical activity). Certain processes were supposed to be done in the day or at night; moreover, illustrations of the moon and sun stood for specific materials and processes. Apart from alchemy, the paring of these cyclical opposites in recent decades has had implications for psychology, physiology, sociology, and of course art. “Night and Day” is a gathering of ancient images that carry multiple levels of meaning for the modern individual. We will start here.
Night and Day
Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon, under the sun
Whether near to me or far
It's no matter darlin', where you are
I think of you night and day
Cole Porter may have composed his song under the influence of an Islamic prayer heard during his visit to Morocco. Douillet’s “Night and Day” takes its form from an Arabic hermetic text originating from the sixth to eighth centuries, the Emerald Tablet. It begins with the assertion “what is below is as that which is above; and what is above is like what is below, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius (to accomplish the miracles of one only thing).
The centerpiece of “Night and Day” suggests that the two states are equivalent; despite their differences, they are one and the same. First, the male sun and female moon of equal size recline on the same cloth, a unity of opposing black and white stripes. In alchemy, the union or “conjunction” of sun and moon, polar opposites often in the guise of a King and Queen, creates the alchemical stone (‘stone’ is a term for the ultimate goal of alchemical study). Second, each state occupies the realm of the other, and each extends an orb to its own realm – a parallelism with a difference. The moon’s orb holds a remora, traditionally representing water and cold, and the sun’s orb holds a salamander, representing fire and heat. Cyrano de Bergerac, in his The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and Sun (1687), recounts a fierce battle between the remora and the salamander, which later alchemists viewed as a reference to the intense reaction between sulphur and mercury in the process of producing the stone. Douillet’s orbs, however, contain and therefore control the powers of water and fire, and seem to illuminate rather than conflict. To read the imagery from this vantage point, Douillet refers to the alchemical “conjunction” in order to suggest a different relationship: the oneness of the attributes of female and male. This is the ‘stone’ that concerns our own age, the core unity or equality of the sexes. It might be said that the artist has borrowed alchemy to give form to his own assessments of life.
The Alchemist’s Viewpoint
An 18th Century alchemist would instantly recognize Douillet’s imagery in the state of Night. He would note that the general state of night is appropriately associated with the elements of air and water. The rebus of male and female bodies in an embrace, generating a tree encircled by a crown, and harboring an infant, constitutes what our alchemist would call the “Chymical Wedding” or marriage of the sun and the moon (emblematic of a chemical reaction called conjunction). This “marriage” gives rise to a new entity symbolized by the infant. The raven perched on a skull signifies the desirable chemical stage of nigredo, the symbolic death of the chemical matter being worked upon. The dolphin image refers to the “Sulphur of the Wise” a stage of chemical reaction that appears on the “dissolved mercurial sea”. The Minotaur and thread evokes the legendary labyrinth that Ariadne helped Theseus to negotiate; our alchemist would understand that this represented the circuitous route taken to achieve the stone, and the dangers inherent in the process. The color red of the Pegasus-like horse’s mane (and the centaur’s tail) indicates the rubedo stage of chemical alchemy, the final indication of success. The skulls – particularly the one at the foot of the rebus – refers to the concept of nascendo morimur (as Fulcanelli put it, “death, corollary of life, is the direct consequence of birth”). Bones represent calcination, the process of heating to a reduced state. The unicorn skull connotes the spiritual transformation of philosophical alchemy; the ram skull, itself a trope for calcination, also signifies the constellation Aries under which the “Great Work” should begin.
The previous section is a simplified account of some of the alchemical references Douillet has borrowed for Night, but the question remains, why are they there? Certainly not for our medieval alchemist. Rather, Douillet is partly counting on our familiarity with such things as minotaurs, satyrs, centaurs, mermaids and harpies, and not a detailed knowledge of alchemy. But mainly, he is counting on the power of his art to transform his sources. Instead of hermetic knowledge, his imagery fills Night with dreams, legends, fears, mystery, gentle music, humor, procreation, birth, fantasies, study, death, and sleep. There are instances when Douillet seems to agree philosophically with alchemical thought, such as in the concept of nascendo morimur (sometimes written nascendo quotidie morimur), which also appears in many of his paintings (examples: “The Nest” and “The Hourglass”). But his use of hermetic imagery would disappoint the alchemist, because the sum of his work is not alchemical, it is humanistic.
A reading of the Satyr may make the point clearer. The classical Roman satyr, like the Greek god Pan, had goat legs, tail and ears, prominent phallus, and played pipes. Being woodland creatures, they sometimes were depicted wearing a wreath of leaves. Note that Douillet’s figure generally follows the tradition, but instead of pipes, he plays a cello, and instead of a phallus, there is a suggestively extended bow. He is still a creature of dreams, a creature of the night, but instead of the rustic, lustful animal of old, he appears domesticated and even cultured. But there is more. He sits on a stack of books (one has an O on its spine, alchemical symbol of gold) and has apparently relieved himself by breaking wind, an act that sends a particular book flying away. This book significantly has the letters ML on its spine. What could it be but the Mutus Liber, a seventh century book of illustrations purporting to describe the alchemical process of achieving the “stone” (the goal of every alchemist). One of Douillet’s favorite sayings (minus the ‘Ora’) originates from the Mutus Liber: “Ora Lege Lege Lege Relege labora et Invenies,” which translates, “pray, read, read, read, reread, labor, and you will discover.” So the Satyr is part of the music of the night, but he is also a bit unruly when it comes to the esoteric studies he is seated on. Reading books is part of Douillet’s Night scene, but reading with the purpose of achieving the stone is rudely and humorously rejected. Ironically, the Mutus Liber contains one more concluding phrase: Oculus Abis. It is translated by Eugène Canseliet (Fulcanelli’s editor) as “thou departest seeing”. Or, perhaps, what you see is what you get?
The Minotaur is another example of Douillet’s approach. In classical myth, the Minotaur lurks within an elaborate labyrinth and eats anyone who loses his way in its bewildering paths. Theseus, aided by the thread given to him by Ariadne, enters the labyrinth using the thread to mark his route, slays the Minotaur, and follows the thread out. The alchemist considers this a trope for the difficult path toward the final chemical conflict productive of the stone, and the danger that the initiate will get lost unless he uses specific methods called Ariadne’s thread. But Douillet’s minotaur imagery places the monster down on all fours, curiously peering at an inconspicuous red thread. The beast has been transformed into an amusing storybook illustration that brings the myth into harmony with the rest of the imagery.
The central image, obviously, is the infant slumbering in the tree of life that grows out of the warm, passionate embrace below. The tree is bare, waiting as the baby is for the future of leaves, buds, flowers, and fruit. The child – like a storybook prince in court – is surrounded by imaginary creatures playing (we can assume) soft, lulling music. String instruments only. In place of the product of a chemical wedding, Douillet visually gives us a human baby. A real child’s slumber – not an abstract concept – is the most important image for the night.
It is as though this night is permeated not by alchemy but by a different transformative power, the imagination. Perhaps Douillet uses alchemical imagery in part because it is imaginative. Perhaps alchemy itself was essentially imaginative. But it was also focused on creating an understanding of how the world works and identifying what is important to life. Through his transforming of alchemical imagery, this is exactly what Douillet’s night does. He creates a parallel universe, a humanistic one to accompany one of ancient hermetic science.
The Alchemist’s Viewpoint, II
Looking at Douillet’s Day, our hypothetical alchemist would instantly see the prominence of the elements of fire and earth, as well as two emblems of the alchemist at work, the blacksmith and the ploughman. The first works with fire (actual and philosophical) in order to transform metal. His anvil pedestal bears the outline of the seahorse, or hippocampus, union of earth and water that serves as part of the blason at the end of Fulcanelli’s Dwellings of the Philosophers. The alchemical ploughman turns the earth in order to plant and grow chemical and philosophical seeds. He (our alchemist) would note that the tree of life appears in Day as it did in Night, here a “dry” tree in the field representing the Great Work. The red of the blacksmith’s heated iron and the white of the cloth being sewn signify stages of the chemical work, rubedo and albedo. The horse provides manure which, when dried, helps control the temperature of the alchemist’s oven; the cow – sacred to the moon goddess, by the way, provides milk which is symbolic of “Mercury of the Philosophers”, also called Virgin’s Milk. The golden corn spread by the helper refers to the “golden shower”, the form Zeus took to seduce and impregnate Danae, an act which became emblematic of certain alchemical experiments. The rooster, herald of the day, stands for mercury, one of the most important materials and concepts in alchemy. The man who shears a sheep is emblematic of the Argonauts who went on a quest for the Golden Fleece (Toison d’Or in French), a narrative equated to the pursuit of the Great Work. There is also a connection by means of Cabalistic visual-word play between this image and the Pegasus of the Night, because ‘toison’ means both fleece and mane, giving the two images equivalence. Finally, the baby reaching for the red string (a connection with the Minotaur of Night) refers to the often-repeated remark that the work of alchemy is “child’s play”. The color of the thread, red, evokes the final desirable stage of chemical alchemy.
Why the geese? Our alchemist would be aware that the 17th Century Tales of My Mother Goose by Charles Perrault was given multiple alchemical interpretations. But he may not appreciate the meaning of the seven geese, six in a group, one just behind. There is a French nursery rhyme that counts the geese (goose = oie): un oie, deux oie, trois oie … on up to sept oie, which in French sounds just like c’est toi, it’s you! (Thanks for the hint, Dominique.)
If the Night can be summarized as a time for imagination, the Day is a time for work. The scene Douillet gives us seems old fashioned, something like a peasant painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. It has many of the attributes of a farm. But the tableau is not as natural as a Breughel painting because it is designed to make a point. The activities illustrated refer to a reality, but they are arranged to show what the philosophy of alchemy took its ideas and methods from. As Fulcanelli says in The Dwellings of the Philosophers, “if one wants to have some idea of the secret science, let him bring his thoughts back to the work of the farmer.” Douillet knows the book well, and his Day seems a response to Fulcanelli’s assertion:
The ancients often called alchemy the celestial agriculture, because it offers in its laws, circumstances and conditions the most intimate of connection with terrestrial agriculture. There is scarcely a classical author who does not draw his examples from, and does not establish his demonstrations on agricultural labor. The hermetic analogy thus appears founded on the art of the farmer.…
But Douillet takes it farther. The overall impression made by the ensemble of Day figures is that the farm activities are what is important, eclipsing alchemical precepts. What we see in this scene, in a practical way, is the fundamental origins of later Western culture. These activities may have inspired alchemical philosophy in its attempt to follow the paths of nature to discover final truths, but in reality they have developed into the world we live in today. In fact, some have claimed that alchemy itself has developed into today’s sciences, chemistry, physics, and psychology.
The suggestion of the future is in the images of future generations – the foal, the chicks, the lamb, and the human baby. It also is no accident that the glowing rod worked by the blacksmith is in the phallus position. He is the father of the work, and the mother sits opposite, the tree of life completing the triangle (note that both are nude under their cloths). The baby at the foot of the mother intuitively reaches to grasp the end of the red string. He is symbolically reaching for the future. He is already moving into the labyrinth of life, reaching for his own goals, perhaps to achieve his version of the stone, perhaps to reach the other end, where he will ultimately encounter the Minotaur.
As we noted with respect to the Moon and the Sun, female and male, imagination and work, are inseparable. They are one. Douillet’s painting proves the point.
The Four Elements
The number four is symbolic of alchemy in that it attempts to unify pairs of opposites, fire and water, earth and air. It is also associated with Mercury, mediator required to unite chemical opposites. But Douillet’s “The Four Elements” is not the thoughtful adagio of “Night and Day”; it is much more a capriccio, a lively, spirited performance.
Since the painting plays on four-sided symmetry, the midpoint of the canvas is important: a golden armillary sphere. Unlike many ancient representations, this one is blank. It gives no indication on how to hang the painting. It does not contain an image either of the earth or sun, as a traditional astrolabe would. Nor does it have images or wordage signifying constellations, degrees, or navigational symbols. It is simply a symbol of the universe at large, circles within circles, as mysterious as the philosophical gold of the alchemist.
Beneath this symbol rotate the elements, united as an orchestra (though perhaps ‘band’ would be more accurate) presumably playing a variation of the musica universalis or music of the spheres, a concept dating back to Pythagoras. One is struck by the evident enthusiasm of the individual figures. Earth plays percussion, water plays strings, air plays brass, and fire dances wildly. The expression on the centaur child’s face says it all.
The drum section is differentiated by the players and their instruments. The Satyr, figure of erotic overkill, thumps the bass drum; the crouching brute Minotaur beats his snare with a two-fisted grip on his sticks, the male Centaur plays a military-style side drum while rearing aggressively, the female Centaur uses her hands on a kind of Samba, evoking a more peace-loving sound, and the child Centaur just delights in making noise with her large cymbals. Other details expand on the element of Earth.
The snake biting its own tail – the Ourobouros to the ancient Greeks – visually links the figures above it to the skull and bones beneath. It not only completes a circle to suggest a cycle, it turns across itself to make an infinity symbol. From the image’s ancient usage, this tells us that the Earth participates in an eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. One might also read the role of the seahorse or hippocampus (unity of earth and water) that the male Centaur has his attention fixed on. Perhaps this alchemically symbolic creature is inspiring the male Centaur to rise to a higher level. Nevertheless, from Satyr to child, all are fated to return to the earth in death. As we are reminded, the physical body is a corollary of the Earth.
The string section has its own impact. Water is related to the emotions, which makes this choice of instruments appropriate. As Vivaldi demonstrated, the violin is capable of a wide range of emotional expression. The octopus creature, its eight tentacles undulating sensuously, is an emblem of the theory that there are eight primary emotions. The creature’s human hands will hover forever over the keyboard, which suggests that our emotions will wait upon circumstances beyond our control. The other figures – images of female sea creatures suggestive of sirens, mermaids, Melusines – call up emotion-laden legends and folktales. For a bit of humor, there is also a bug-eyed fish-headed creature, perhaps a male, playing the deeper notes on a cello. Is he as emotionally cold as a fish? Or is he a voyeur? More seriously, lurking below the group is the remora. This is not the actual remora that can hitch a ride on the surface of a shark. This is the legendary remora, the essence of cold; it was said to eat ice. It has the power to stop sailing ships by fastening on their hulls. It also became the analogue for certain alchemical reactions. It is so powerful that, according to Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, it could defeat the salamander, symbol of fire or passion.
Douillet may have known of a symphony (and dance suite), Les Élémens, by 17th—18th Century French composer, Jean-Féry Rebel. One of the movements, “Ramage: L’air (Song: the Air)”, reproduced bird songs. We can assume that there is some hint of reference to the alchemists, who were said to speak the Language of Birds. At any rate, Air is filled with lovely versions of Harpies, spirits of the wind in early myths (originally ugly and dangerous). As might be expected, these finely plumaged creatures play a variety of wind instruments, both brass and woodwind, while flying aloft. Air is the element of the intellect, so the odd variety of instruments – a euphonium (sweet-voiced) horn, a trombone, a bugle, a clarinet, and a saxophone – indicates a variety of intellectual pursuits. As in intellectual pursuits, the ensemble seems capable of harmony, but there certainly is the potential for cacophony. The three butterflies among the musicians complement this reading. Each bears a symbol of one of the three principles which 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus said constitute the elements themselves: mercury, sulphur, and salt, the tria prima. These principles were capable of deadly conflict or helpful harmony. (Note: Paracelsus was born in Egg, Switzerland!)
Douillet’s Fire is surely the most unusual of the four elements. Fire in general is the symbol of activity, creativity and passion. That is reason enough to express its activity in dance. There is also alchemical precedent for representing fire as a human figure with hair of flame. An illustration from the 1618 edition of Basil Valentine’s The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine portrays a fully-dressed, fire-breathing alchemist with bellows and vivid flame for hair. However, Douillet’s nudes, captured in an antic dance to the music, are his own invention.
To focus on the secondary imagery first, we find volcanoes in the distance, a cleft below filled with flames, and a salamander, lying comfortably by the fire. First, flames emerging from the earth calls up the well-known alchemical precept, visita interior terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem (the first letter of each word together spell Vitriol): “Visit the interior of the earth and by rectifying you will discover the hidden stone”. As to the salamander, Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac says in his Voyage to the Moon, “the Fiery Beasts…lodge on Land under Mountains of burning Bitumen, such as Aetna, Vesuvius and others.” One wonders whether Douillet is also playing on the fact that King Francis I of France adopted the salamander for his crest, appending the motto, nutrisco et extinguo. There are differing translations, but tradition has it that it refers to the king’s considerable libido: “I feed and extinguish” – coitus and ejaculation (the salamander once was thought to spit water, only later replaced with fire). In this light, the erupting volcanoes take on another meaning altogether. Changing direction, there could be a hidden reference to what one writer calls “the accepted etymology of Fulcanelli: The Vulcan or Whimsical Volcano.” (Even Raymond Roussel, writer celebrated by Douillet elsewhere, called Fulcanelli the “Little Volcano” and in his Locus Solis has the character M. Volcan.)
There is no question that the dancers carry the suggestion of erotic impulse, though there is nothing overt. Each figure contains its own idea. The first dancer on the left (assuming Fire is seen in the lower position) displays the derriére, sign in France as in America as the Moon. The fifth dancer on the right holds his a singularly illuminated middle finger directly upward, which in illustrations of the alchemical hand is designated the Sun. The three female dancers wear rings of gold around their necks and arms, symbol of the production of the stone. The three middle dancers might represent the activity of fire to spread, to leap, and to reach upward. These attributes have parallel activities in alchemical processes. The echoes in alchemical literature are endless. Fulcanelli’s paean to fire in Dwellings of the Philosophers is a good stopping point: “As long as fire will last, life will radiate in the universe; bodies subjected to the laws of evolution, of which it is the essential agent, will accomplish the different cycles of their metamorphoses up to their final transformation into spirit, light, or fire.”