Burt Humburg - On the Color Changes in the "Great Work"

On the Color Changes in the "Great Work",
or the Alchemical Transformation of Matter

It is common knowledge that one aspect of alchemy was the transformation of base metals into gold. Although many alchemists were motivated by the prospect of wealth they stood to gain from transmuting metals into gold, some were motivated by the ideal of reaching perfection. That is, they preferred to view the toil of developing metal to the "perfect" element that is, gold as a parallel to the "Great Commission" of the Bible: the transmutation through grace which turns fallen sinners to saved Christians.

Twentieth Century science may look at this earnest view of alchemy with skepticism. After all, who today interprets a physical process capable of generating vast amounts of wealth as an act of God? Strange as it may now seem, this theological view was common in the Middle Ages. In a book that was to become the cornerstone of medieval education, Saint Augustine preached that the world we know is pointless.[1] As a result, the Church taught, "All that matters about this life is getting ready for the next one."[2] Not surprisingly then, in the Middle Ages, science was to defer to religion. James Burke explains: They wouldn't say, 'Hmmm. Here's a red flower.' They would say, 'Red for the blood of Christ, thorns for the pains of the devil, green for the emerald of sincerity,' and so on. Nothing really existed, except as a symbol for something else: something religious. And the only point in looking at all this would be to remind you of those symbols. The whole of nature was nothing but a kind of giant, holy cryptogram to be decoded by the faithful.[3]

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that alchemists, as followers of the faith, came to find spiritual meaning in the alchemical work that they did.

The multi-layered meaning of the medieval alchemical texts is particularly evident in the writings of alchemists describing how best to perform the transmutation of metals or the "Great Work." In Aurora Consurgens, pseudo-Aquinas provides other alchemists with one of the steps in the "Great Work": In the third place he maketh soft, that is, he liquifieth the hardness of the earth and dissolveth its condensed and exceedingly compact parts, of which it is written: The rain of the Holy Spirit melteth. And the prophet: He shall send out his word and shall melt it, his wind shall blow and the waters shall run.[4]

These instructions would not be at all clear to the uninitiated. Another alchemist reading this passage would understand that the third step required water (or some other substance) to melt the metal. Another medieval person, uneducated in alchemy however, could assume that this was a quotation from the Bible.[5] The instructions disguise one meaning, the alchemical formula, while emphasizing another; the biblical commentary. Therefore, the instructions are written in code which poses the problem of how to read the text: For example, the other alchemist knew that fluid was required, but was that fluid water? Obviously, hiding the alchemical instructions in biblical commentary is problematic because biblical scriptures can be taken so many ways.

Add to that the promise of sermons or biblical commentary with which there is no intended alchemical meaning and the use of biblical commentary as an instructional medium for alchemy becomes even more problematic. For example, from the same quote, was the alchemist supposed to provide air to the reaction because of the phrase, "And the prophet his wind shall blow", or was that merely abstract prose? For an even more obscure example, later in this same work, pseudo Aquinas writes two pages on wisdom without offering a clear alchemical context for his sermon[6] and he isn't the only alchemist to digress from his ostensible subject of alchemy. Allegories like "Allegory of John of the Fountain" or "The Parabola of Madathanus" can reach six-thousand words and also drift from topic to topic.[7] So obscure are these instructional documents that historians cannot determine if the "Great Work" referred to turning lead into gold or finding an "elixir" or "Philosopher's Stone" which would turn lead into gold.[8] And so, alchemists described a process using secret and obscure imagery. But what indeed were they describing?

As any modern chemist knows, the alchemical transformation of lead into gold could never have occurred in the alchemist's laboratory. Indeed, with Chadwick's definition of an element being related to the number of protons an atom has, the possibility of an alchemical transformation is zero, since changing the number of protons an atom has requires expensive, hazardous, and what was then nonexistent radioactive bombardment by neutrons. Fredrick Soddy sums it up well: If man ever achieves this further control over Nature, it is quite certain that the last thing he would want to do would be to turn lead or mercury into gold for the sake of gold. The energy that would be liberated, if the control of these sub-atomic processes were possible as in the control of ordinary chemical changes, such as combustion, would far exceed in importance the value of the gold.[9]

It follows that since the alchemist never carried out his lead-to-gold experiment successfully, his instructions represented assumptions regarding the nature of what was thought to be good or perfect. In other words, alchemists fabricated instructions to accomplish their goal of transmutation the "Great Work" as they thought it ought to be.

Some medieval ideas, representing perfection in both alchemy and theology, involve colors. Many alchemical works list specific colors and an order in which those colors should appear. This "color list" consistently figures throughout the writings:[10] black, white, and red. Similarly, alchemists fabricated this color list from ideals on how they thought the world ought to be.

Just as religion permeates the ideals of alchemical perfection, so the colors in the list may have been influenced by ideas of perfection represented by color. Strangely enough, the Bible contains few references to color in general,[11] but does use color more often in prophetic works.[12] Generally, white was used to symbolize purity and innocence[13] and black was not used as a symbol but as a means to describe literal reality.[14] If black were used as a "literal color", then it would be useless in the development of an idea of perfection, unless it were used as a starting point. This is the case, as Roberts explains, "A black color indicated that the material had been successfully broken down [into it's basic form] "[15] Black therefore makes a logical choice for the first color to be seen in the "Great Work" since it, as a color without symbolic meaning, can only represent imperfection.

The alchemist could have also looked at black and white as expressing the dichotomous nature of evil and good and therefore imperfection and perfection. Thus, the change from black to white is likened to the spiritual journey from sin to purity. An alchemical transformation of lead into gold would involve a change from a flat color, like black, to a brilliant color, like white or red. Consequently, the "Great Work" of alchemy parallels the "Great Commission"; that is, perfecting metal parallels the perfecting of the soul.

Although Christianity permeates alchemy and was therefore a major factor in the development of the color list it was not the only factor. Any social issue which, in the alchemist's view, required perfecting provided an analogy for alchemical purification and was incorporated into the allegorical dynamic. Women's humanity or lack thereof was one such social issue, since alchemists and medieval theologians saw women as incomplete or imperfect.[16] As such, a hierarchical world view which was antifeminist was incorporated into the alchemical writings.[17] Cooper, in his dictionary of symbols, associates males with activity, power, aggressiveness, and dominance, whereas females are associated with pacifism and submission, with being peaceful and at ease.[18] Accomplishing the transmutation of metals would have to involve a process of high reactivity in order to turn something like lead or mercury into gold. That being the case, symbolically the colors should represent a change from female to male. According to Cooper, black (the first stage of the "Great Work") indicates neuter and symbolizes dissolution.[19] White is symbolically associated with the feminine, and red is symbolically associated with the masculine.[20] From the implied gender of colors, one would expect the process represented to be black, white, then red. Alchemists, in constructing the color list, were likely to have incorporated their belief that the female was superior to the neuter, and that the male was more perfect than the female.

Social issues, like Christian symbolism, were not the only potential sources for the color list. Perhaps the alchemists were attempting to exploit natural evocations of color again fabricating the results from experiments to fit what they thought the results ought to be. It has been found that some colors can trigger specific reactions, even in animals.[21] Some artists anticipate primal reactions to color and select colors to generate moods in the viewers of their work.[22] Researchers have determined that "shape is associated with reasoning and color with emotion."[23] Therefore, if colors can be used to manipulate emotions, then moods could be associated with colors.

To that end, the creators of the color list would have chosen colors which initially suggest feelings of death or stasis and lastly perfection. Since black is conventionally associated with death,[24] black would also be associated with decomposition. Since decomposition results in a renewal of raw materials,[25] black can be associated with the most basic form an object can take. Therefore, the alchemist, in creating the color list, may have picked black as the beginning to represent the first step in the "Great Work." Red, on the other hand, has been found to generate feelings of rage and images of movement.[26] Because any substance that turns lead or mercury into gold would have to be active as well, red was a logical choice for the final color on the list.

It should be clear that more than empirical observation was put into alchemical texts. Alchemists were imagining their world the way they wanted it to be instead of how it was. Sherwood Taylor states: We cannot, in fact, interpret these complicated and fragmentary recipes well enough to say definitely what occurred, but it is clear that they were felt to be enormously significant by the alchemists who studied them, and that gave rise to impressive symbolic writings.[27]

In fact, it was not until the Eighteenth century when Lavoisier's call to arms converted science from a discipline that described a world the way it ought to be to a discipline that described the world the way it was.[28] Until his work, the color list like many pseudo-scientific theories controlled the imaginations of alchemists in their laboratories as well as the progress of science in general.


[1] . Burke "In the Light of the Above."
[2] . ibid., "Point of View."
[3] . ibid., "In the Light of the Above."
[4] . Pseudo-Aquinas 89-90.
[5] . Literacy was most commonly found in the priesthood. Because the commoners had no literacy and consequently, no Bibles to read one of the priest's duties was to read the Bible to his congregation. Without a Bible to consult and cross-reference, the medieval commoner would doubtless view the passage as Biblical.
[6] . Aquinas 89, 91.
[7] . The alchemy home page [http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ home.htm] is where copies of "Allegory of John of the Fountain" and "The Parabola of Madathanus," are stored.
[8] . In several references (Roberts, Brock), the two methods of performing the "Great Work" are used interchangeably, often in the same chapter. Thus, no effort will be made to distinguish the two.
[9] . Brock 40.
[10] . Probably because of an original alchemical instruction whose author was deemed with to have a "patriarch" status and whose work, consequently, was deemed authoritative. Later alchemists may have copied such a work, resulting in the color pattern. In either case, the reasons for the color order, as described in this essay, still stand, since someone had to fabricate the order first.
[11] . Hastings 456; Colors are used in one of three ways in the Bible: literal, apocalyptic, and ritual. Literal refers to those colors which describe actual, historical colors. Apocalyptic colors were usually located in the prophetic works and were often allegorical. Finally, ritual colors refers to those colors which were required for a particular tradition the example being the colors of the 12 stones on the high priest's breastplate whenever the Ark of the Covenant was to be opened. Hastings suggests that literal colors were not to be used as allegories, since they refer to actual occurrences, and that ritual colors may have been chosen from the most brilliant or rare stones known at the time.
[12] . For an example of color used in a prophetic book, see Revelation 4, where God's throne room is described with many brilliant colors.
[13] . Cooper 42.
[14] . Hastings 458.
[15] . Roberts 63
[16] . Alchemical antifeminism derived from Judeo/Christianity. First, the female was the first sinner (Genesis 3:6). Second, God commanded that men were to rule over women (Genesis 3:16). Also, antifeminism was a prevalent theme of the Pauline New Testament. In fact, there is only one reference to a female alchemist: Mary the Coptic (who was not Catholic, but Jewish). As in Ben Johnson's "The Alchemist," any female alchemist, if indeed there were others, had to practice her art in even greater secrecy than men. For an example of alchemical sexism, refer to Roberts 89, where women are inhumanly portrayed as innate carriers of sin.
[17] . Although many dynamics of antifeminism are beyond the scope of this essay, it is interesting to note that results of experiments sometimes required the chemical symbolizing the female to be in dominance over that of the male. Rather than subject to women, the alchemist used hermaphrodism and made the female, at best, an equal.
[18] . Cooper 40-42.
[19] . ibid., 39.
[20] . ibid., 40-42.
[21] . Morris 95.
[22] . Metcalfe 58.
[23] . Garau vii.
[24] . Cooper 39.
[25] . Refers to the "death allows birth" idea, another common alchemical theme.
[26] . Cooper 40-41.
[27] . Taylor 50.
[28] . Lavoisier "Preface"; Lavoisier originally set out to improve the nomenclature of chemicals and chemical processes. Through his own research and experimentation, he concluded that the patriarchal system of science (the assumption that prior "scientific" findings, such as the 4 elements, were immutable) was responsible for the limitations of science. His work, which is written in a stern, insulting tone, stated that, among other things, prior assumptions should be skeptically tested, if not discarded altogether. Lavoisier is thus credited with the title "Father of Modern Chemistry" (Brock 88).

Works Cited

Alchemy Home Page. [http://www.levity.com/alchemy]
Brock, William H. The Norton History of Chemistry. Ed. Roy Porter. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Burke, James. "In the Light of the Above." The Day the Universe Changed. Writ. & Narr. James Burke. BBC-TV, 1985.
___. "Point of View." The Day the Universe Changed. Writ. & Narr. James Burke. BBC-TV, 1985.
Cooper, J. C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Garau, Augusto. Foreword. Color Harmonies. By Rudolf Arnheim. Trans. Nicola Bruno. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1993.
Hastings, James, ed. A Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919
Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent. Preface. Elements of Chemistry in Great Books of the Western World. Robert Hutchens, ed. Vol. 45. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.
Metcalfe, James A. "Using Color to Convey a Mood." American Artist June 1994: 58-63.
Morris, Charles G. Psychology. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.
Pseudo-Aquinas, Thomas. Aurora Consurgens: A Document Attributed to Thomas Aquinas. Trans. Marie Louis von Franz. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.
Roberts, Gareth. The Mirror of Alchemy. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1994.
Taylor, Sherwood F. The Alchemists. New York: Henry Schuman, 1949.