Quintessence

The fourth chapter of Chemical Serpents is titled “The Elements” and explores the concept of the Quintessence. Quintessence means “fifth element” or “soul”. Also known as aether, this was considered the highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy, the element that permeates all nature and is the essence of a thing in its purist and most concentrated form. This fifth element is generally considered transcendent, with the others – such as earth, air, fire and water – being immanent, the elements that make up the world.

Quintessence
Quintessence © 2012 Janice Duke

The Vesica Pisces, a pointed oval formed by the meeting of two circles, is associated with the fifth element by various traditions. In Christian iconography, Christ is often shown inside a Vesica Pisces surrounded by the Tetramorph. This consists of four beings, a lion, an angel or man, an eagle and a bull, in Christian iconography said to represent the four evangelists of the Gospels, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. But this imagery has older and more occult roots, in Babylonian and Assyrian guardian spirits, Ancient Egyptian and Greek myths, as well as ancient associations in astrology as the four fixed signs of the Zodiac (lion/Leo, angel/Aquarius, eagle/Scorpio, bull/Taurus) and the four immanent elements (lion/fire, angel/water, eagle/air, bull/earth). The four elements surround the fifth, their culmination, the transcendent one.

Vesica Pisces means “vessel of the fish”. In the ancient world the fish and the Vesica Pisces were symbolically associated with the female genitals. “Fish” and “womb” were synonymous terms in ancient Greek and the Goddess of Ephesus even wore a fish amulet covering her genitals. In ancient Egyptian myth the fish that swallowed the penis of Osiris was considered a symbol of the vulva of Isis. The “Ichthus” or “Jesus Fish” that is still used by modern Christians today, is a Vesica Pisces turned 90-degrees, and derives its name from Ichthys, who was the son of the ancient Sea goddess Atargatis, also known as Tirgata and many other goddesses associated with the “Cult of the Fish Mother”, the symbolism of which has been traced as far back as the hunting and fishing tribes of the Danube River Basin in the sixth millennium B.C.E. The word “Ichthys” also meant “womb” and a variety of cults and myths link this symbolism to the “Great Goddess” or “Great Mother”, even today. It’s pretty easy to see why.

In my image, Quintessence, I incorporate the four elemental animals, with the classic symbols (triangles) and colours (red/fire, blue/water, yellow/air, green/earth) for their elements, surrounding a Vesica Pisces in which stands a take on the “transcendent one”. This refers to Hermetic alchemy and Jungian psychology, as a form of the rebus or androgyne, but with a distinctly feminine flavour. In alchemy this figure is sometimes referred to as the Empress, as the culmination of the union of the King and the Queen, even though it is androgynous. Rather than two heads, as in alchemy, she has four arms, symbolising wholeness in Jung’s system, with two of these arms in shadow and the shadow of a serpent spiralling up from her feet, as a reference to the integration of that Jungian archetype. She has the fiery mane of the lion, the wings of the eagle, the body of the man/angel and the horns of the bull, again, symbolising synthesis, in this case of the four elements with the fifth.

She is the cauldron in which all things unite and realise their wholeness. She is Eve and Mary, Hathor and Isis, Aphrodite and Hecate, Freya and Frigg. The place where love and magic meet, which is, of course, the soul. As an artist, I am all too aware of how impossible it is to escape ones perspective, let alone produce an image that is in anyway “universal”. This image, and the others in this series, were produced at a time of tremendous upheaval for me. A time I feel has only recently come to an end. These illustrations show a story of metamorphosis because I was undergoing one. I took particular solace in this image. Inside a cocoon, utterly transformed, a winged and beautiful creature waits to emerge.

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