alchemical World

The earliest known ancestor of the Marseille-style World card is in Cary-Yale deck, c. 1444 Milan (give or take 7 or 8 years). It shows a goddess-like woman overlooking a group of castles. The main castle, colored a distinctive red (as in Rubedo), has a man fishing next to it and other men in a boat, while a knight stands on the other shore. It is reminiscent of the Grail Castle of Chretien de Troyes' Percival and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, near which Perceval/Parzival encounters the Fisher King as an unknown fisherman in a boat, one of two men in Chretien. The fisherman invites him to the castle, directs him to it, and tells him what to say in order to gain admittance (Chretien: ... ceval.html; Wolfram: in Google Books, Lefevre translation p. 57).


It is known that Duke Filippo Visconti enjoyed "French romances" ((Rabil, "Humanism in Milan," in Renaissance Humanism Vol 1, p. 243). And there is a set of illustrations of a Grail romance done around the same time and place, in the same artistic style as the Cary-Yale (Kaplan vol. 2 p. 126; an example is below).


There may be other references in the card as well. We may be dealing with an image that reflects topical events and other myths or doctrines. I am dealing with only one aspect.

The relevance of this interpretation of the CY card is that in Wolfram's Parzival, the Grail is described as a stone with miraculous powers, one that fell from heaven, the "lapsit exilis" (in Google Books, Lefevre translation p. 124); it gives life to the phoenix after it has consumed itself in flames, and it preserves a man from death for a week once he has viewed it. The analogy to the Philosopher's Stone, equally the goal of a life-consuming but life-preserving quest, would have been obvious.


The next Milanese card, in the PMB, does not have the specific references to the Fisher King and the grail-knight that I see in the CY. Yet the castle being held up by the two putti has also been compared to the Grail Castle, notably by Kaplan (Vol. 2 p. 174). He gives us an image of a Grail Castle inside a zodiac; the castle indeed does look like the one on the card. Unfortunately he does not say when and where this image comes from, other than a 1951 book about the Grail. In any case, it is quite possible that the PMB castle is a Grail castle, continuing the tradition of the CY. Francisco Sforza built a new castle on the ruins of the old Visconti one, which could fancifully be likened to the Grail Castle. He also sponsored the plans for an idealized version of Milan itself, styled "Sforzinda" by its author ( The two putti on the card look to me suspiciously like two of the Sforza children, Galeazzo and Ludovico (hereby charged with upholding the ideal); but that is a topic for another thread.

O'Neill has compared the PMB card to the 9th emblem of the Splendor Solis, a 22-imaged German work first published 1532-33--"although the style of the Splendor Solis illuminations suggest an earlier date," according to Adam MacLean ( The author allegedly learned alchemy in Venice, according to a purportedly autobiographical statement in the Aurum Vellus of 1598 (reprinted in Henderson and Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis, p. 188ff).

This 9th emblem is of a hermaphrodite holding a round shield in one hand, which has a pastoral scene on it (for the full illustration, a good reproduction is at ... 8593132226). We know that the heads are of both genders because of the gold and silver wings, masculine and feminine.

Here is the detail, from a reproduction of the emblem in Henderson and Sherwood, p. 89.


O'Neill says that the emblem shows "the hermaphrodite holding the world in its hand" (Tarot Symbolism p. 287). That is possible; unfortunately the text of the Splendor Solis does not talk about the shield specifically. All it does is to quote other alchemists on the four elements and the quintessence ( ... rable.html):
The Philosophers give to this Art two bodies, namely: Sun and Moon, which are Earth and Water, they also call them Man and Wife, and they bring forth four children, two boys, which are heat and cold, and two girls, as moisture and dryness. These are the Four Elements, constituting the QUINTESSENCE, that is the proper white MAGNESIA, wherein there is nothing false. In conclusion SENIOR remarks: "When these five are gathered together, they form ONE substance, whereof is made the natural Stone, while AVICENA contends that: "if we may get at the Fifth, we shall have arrived at the end."

So perhaps the concentric circles on the shield are the four elements, starting with earth and ending with fire.

In its other hand, the hermaphrodite holds an egg. The Splendor Solis talks about this egg at length ( ... rable.html):
So let us understand this meaning better. The Philosophers take for example an Egg, for in this the four elements are joined together. The first or the shell is Earth, and the White is Water, but the skin between the shell and the White is Air, and separates the Earth from the Water; the Yolk is Fire, and it too is enveloped in a subtle skin, representing our subtle air, which is more warm and subtle, as it is nearer to the Fire, and separates the Fire from the Water. In the middle of the Yolk there is the Firm ELEMENT, out of which the young chicken bursts and grows. Thus we see in an egg all the elements combined with matter to form a source of perfect nature, just so as it is necessary in this noble art.

As an oval rather than a circle, the egg relates more properly to the Marseille-style card than to the PMB. The Marseille card typically has a person in the middle of an oval, which in turn is in a rectangle with the four creatures of Ezekiel's Chariot in the corners. Below are some examples. At left is the Conver 1761, where the figure is clearly feminine, although the implements in her hands might suggest different genders: the magician's wand and something like Isis's sistrum, or a perfume bottle. Moreover, the crossed legs plus the triangle formed by her head and hands suggests the alchemical sign for Sulphur ( ... Symbol.htm); Sulphur is masculine ( ... ne&f=false).


Next (above) is the "Sforza Castle" card of the 16th or early 17th century ("Sforza Castle" merely refers to where it was found); it appears to have either a female or an effeminate male; then the Noblet, where the figure has a masculine build but also feminine breasts; and finally the Vieville, with its masculine figure suggestive of Christ.

The sexual ambiguity of the figure in the middle of the card is perhaps related to the hermaphrodite in alchemy, with its double gender. As enclosed by an egg-shaped oval, the Marseille image also suggests the embryonic chick inside the egg, which in the Splendor Solis represented the quintessence. In this case, the four elements are in the corners of the rectangle: the bull for earth, the lion for fire, the eagle for air and the angel for water.

There is also the alchemical significance of a round shape in a four sided shape. O'Neill says that this combination appears frequently in alchemy. For an explanation, he cites Jung, but with no specific reference. One case I can think of is in relation to Ripley's Cantilena, the verse that starts:
The Mother's Bed which erstwhile was a Square
Is shortly after made Orbicular...

Jung comments:
Anything angular is imperfect and has to be superseded by the perfect, here represented by the circle...As the square represents the quaternio of mutually hostile elements, the circle indicates their reduction to unity. The One born of the Four is the Quinta Essentia. (Mysterium Coniunctionus p. 316)

This analysis is quite in accord with the Splendor Solis.

Another alchemical emblem that I think is worth bringing to bear on the Marseille World card is an image from the c. 1415 Heilege Dreifaltigkeit. Here a young female child is being crowned by the Trinity, with the same four creatures in the corners (Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, p. 479).


The scene is clearly that of the Coronation of the Virgin. From the picture alone, it is not easy to decipher the alchemical meaning, although it appears that it is an expression of the divinization of matter and of the feminine. Roob explains (Alchemy and Mysticism p. 478):
The Book of the Holy Trinity (1415-1419) sought to sweep away the erroneous doctrine that only God the Father and the Son are essentially one, for Mary was also born in the Holy Spirit, and had conceived in the Holy Spirit: "jesus mary mother of god he himself is she his own mother in his humanity." The son represents the spirit (Mercury), the father the soul (Sol) and the virgin mother the body (Luna). She is the divine matrix, the great mystery from which all being springs. "If she dissolves, it is to give male nature (...) and when she congeals, it is to take on a female body."

The clause "he himself is she his own mother" suggests the same ambiguity of gender that appears in the tarot card.

To better understand the image and the quotes that Roob gives, we might go to a later text, the 1550 Rosarium, which seems to borrow from this image. It has a similar Coronation scene but without the four creatures.


The Latin sentences floating above the figures read "Truly, the moon is the mother; and by the father the son was created; whose father is the sun" and "The dragon dieth not except with his brother and sister; and not with one alone, but with both of them" (Fabricius, Alchemy p. 172). Maier uses a similar quote as epigram to Emblem 25 of Atalanta Fugiens: "The Dragon does not die unless it is slain with its brother and sister, who are Sun and Moon" (de RolaGolden Game p. 100). The "dragon," I think, is the prima materia. Here is a clearer version of these banners.


In the Rosarium text, the accompanying quotations from previous alchemists are all about "dissolving bodies." For example, here is "Albertus Magnus"
Know for a certainty that no spirit of bodies can be tincted unless it first be dissolved.

The elevation of the virgin--a young virgin at that, who has not yet given birth--corresponds to such dissolution, in the opposite of fixation/coagulation. It is the "solve" of "solve et coagulate." It precedes the birth of the Tincture, the last "death" before the last "rebirth." It is the "if she dissolves" in the final quote by Roob. It is perhaps also comparable to the egg yolk before the development of the embryo.

Compared to alchemical sequences with this Coronation scene, the corresponding image in the tarot is out of sequence: if the Judgment card shows us the purified Stone, capable of conferring immortality upon others, the World shows the step before that. Here the sequence follows the so-called "southern" tarot order of Bologna and Florence, as opposed to the "eastern" of Ferrara and the "western" of Milan, in that the imagery of the World card precedes that of the Judgment card. Alchemically, the reason for making the World last might be so as to end on an immaterial note, the Christian heaven, whereas alchemy returns from heaven to end in matter. The Rosarium says at this point:
Unless the soul goes forth from its body, and rise up into heaven, thou makest no progress in this art.

It then quotes "the parable of Senior concerning the white tincture," in which the mother describes how she will give birth to "a most mighty son" after she has lain with her "beloved...receiving his seed into my cell..."

This Rosarium image, like that of the Heilege Dreifaltigkeit, is of a female child. As such she corresponds to the Conver image. But other alchemical texts portray this scene much more ambiguously. Mylius presents it with a child that is either male or of indeterminate gender (Philosophia Reformata Emblem 19, 2nd series (below, from de Rola (Golden Game). De Rola (p. 181) calls it a "child," but then refers to it as "he."


Also of interest in the Heilegen Dreifaltigkeit image, of course, are the four creatures in the corners. Roob says (p. 478):
The higher trinity of body, spirit and soul is joined by the four Evangelists, as the four sublimated elements: Luke, the bull, is fire (Mars), Matthew the angel, is water (Venus), John, the eagle, is earth (Saturn) and Mark, the lion, is air (Jupiter).

Roob's assignation of element to creature is rather non-standard. Normally the bull is earth, the eagle is air, and the lion is fire. But that is not as important as that they are the four elements in a process of sublimation. The result of such sublimation would seem to be the fifth element, the quintessence, of which the figure in the middle is the expression.

This configuration of the four creatures in the Heilege Dreifaltigkeit is not identical to that in the Marseille-style card, which conforms to many religious representations of the four creatures (see Vitali's essay on the card for examples). Yet this precise arrangement of the Heilegen Dreifaltigkeit's four creatures can be found in another representation of the four creatures, in the so-called "tarocchi of Mantegna," in its S- series representation of the Empyrian sphere of the cosmos, done around 1485 (; click on S-series card 50). This card is the highest of the whole sequence of 50 stages and represents the highest part of Heaven. Perhaps it is by influence of the "Mantegna"--or vice versa--that the card with the four creatures became the last and highest of the trumps.


The creatures were not represented at all in the earlier E-series version of these cards. Perhaps the S-series image was influenced by the alchemical text. I could not find another instance of the same configuration, besides those of the Heilege Dreifaltigkeit and the S-series "Mantegna."

For a final alchemical image comparable to the Marseille-style card, here is a page from Ms. Palat. Lat. 412 (in Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 201)


Here the four scribes suggest again the four evangelists. In the center is an egg, with a double-headed chick hatching from it. One head wears a temporal crown, the other a papal tiara. It is the emperor-pope of which I showed other images in the chapter on the Emperor. It is what the Rosarium portrays as the risen Christ. Mylius, in his version of the Rosarium series, turned that figure into a risen Emperor (

For Jung it is the "captive world-soul" escaping from the chaos inside the egg. He concludes:
Out of the egg--symbolized by the round cooking vessel--will rise the eagle or phoenix, the liberated soul, which is ultimately identical with the Anthropos who was imprisoned in the embrace of Physis (fig. 98). (Psychology and Alchemy p. 202)

Jung is referring to the myth of the Poimandres, in which the double-sexed Anthropos descends from and is caught in the embrace of matter.

Why that is symbolized by an egg might well be simply the aptness of the analogy to a chicken egg, as in the Splendor Solis. But there are also mythological possibilities. O'Neill points to the Orphic (O'Neill says "Gnostic," but it is Orphic) myth in which the primal, androgynous god Phanes hatches from an egg, as expressed in the famous Greco-Roman medallion known in the 16th century (as I have read in either Wind or Kerenyi) and now in the Estensi Library of Modena.( ... phanes.jpg)

In this case, the corners contain the four winds (Hans Leisegang, "The Mystery of the Serpent," in J. Campbell, ed. The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, p. 211, at ... ds&f=false); but they, too, were correlated with the four elements, as can be seen in Durer's "Philosophia" ( ... 02p211.jpg).

The ascents of Jesus and the Virgin, both connoted in the sexually ambiguous image of the tarot World card, are particular instances of Anthropos's escape from Physis. At the same time, in alchemy it is not an escape but a transformation, from the impure state of the King and Queen to the divine substance of the Lapis, still very much in this world, just as the Virgin is when she immaculately gives birth to Jesus, and as Jesus himself is while on earth, even after his resurrection. It is the attainment of such divine substance that is the alchemist's goal. To the extent that the tarot is an exercise in the imitatio Christi, that is also the goal, however unreachable, of the tarot sequence as well.

Re: tarot and alchemy

I stumbled about a report, according which Barbara of Cilly, widow of emperor Sigismund, used alchemical methods to change the appearance of metal objects. The report seems to go back to a work of Johann von Laaz or Laz or Laznioro.
Benedikt Nikolaus Petraeus cites Johann of Laz in the foreword to his edition of Basil Valentine's Chymischen Schriften (1667). In that text, he discusses the supposed alchemical activity of Barbara von Cilli, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg. According to Laz, she exchanged ideas about the transmutation of metals with many merchants.
My German source ... ... rg&f=false
... suspects, that Johann the Alchemist (=,_Mar ... g-Kulmbach ) had been (possibly) a pupil of Barbara of Cilli. Curiously Johann the Alchemist was the father of Barbara of Brandenburg (same name "Barbara" ), who married one of the heirs of Mantova (around 1337).
This argument is based on the condition, that Johann III (=, ... _Nuremberg and ... %BCrnberg) ), an uncle of Johann the alchemist, lived a longer time at the court of Sigismondo (he was married to a daughter of emperor Charles IV, so he was brother-in-law to Sigismondo).

The marriage of Barbara von Brandenburg to Mantova was very likely based on the condition, that emperor Sigismondo crossed Mantova on his journey back to Germany after his crowning as emperor in 1433 in Rome. About a younger brother of Johann the Alchemist (Albert Achilles = ... randenburg ) I've read, that he accompanied this journey of 1433.
When Barbara came to Mantova, a printing press for playing cards became known at the court of Ferrara, somehow connected to a person (probably) from Mantova. ... rrara-1437
Leonello had just married a girl from Mantova, Barbara of Brandenburg became his sister-in-law.

Albrecht Achilles later got high importance. The German source quotes 2 documents, which relate him also to alchemy.
Johann the Alchemist and Albert Achilles both had connections to the location Kulmbach or Culmbach, where Johann is said to have said his laboratory. Earlier the family was connected to Nuremberg and they had the important function "Burggraf" there (they sold this castle to the city Nuremberg). As Nuremberg had early the card printing press, then the family understood not only alchemy, but also something of printing.

One doesn't know much about the early years of Gutenberg, the book printer. He was born as 3rd son of a merchant and patrician with the name Gensfleisch zur Laden, whereby "zur Laden" probably was a house name.

Collected from some sources:
In the year 1418 a student had appeared in Erfurt, who possibly was Johannes Gensfleisch (it's not proven, only suspected). In 1419 the father died, who carried the name addition "zur Laden". The son seems to have been 1420 in his home town. Nothing is known about his stay 1420-1427. In 1427 the name Gutenberg has appeared for the first time, possibly the house name had changed. In 1428 Gutenberg went to Strassburg.

"von und zu Guttenberg" was a name of an active noble house and also the name of a connected location in the region of Culmbach/Kulmbach ( ... erfranken) ) ... with close relations to Culmbach.

English wiki ..
Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz, the youngest son of the upper-class merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden, and his second wife, Else Wyrich, who was the daughter of a shopkeeper. It is assumed that he was baptized in the area close to his birthplace of St. Christoph.[7] According to some accounts, Friele was a goldsmith for the bishop at Mainz, but most likely, he was involved in the cloth trade.[8] Gutenberg's year of birth is not precisely known but was most likely around 1398.
John Lienhard, technology historian, says "Most of Gutenberg's early life is a mystery. His father worked with the ecclesiastic mint. Gutenberg grew up knowing the trade of goldsmithing."[9] This is supported by historian Heinrich Wallau, who adds, "In the 14th and 15th centuries his [descendants] claimed a hereditary position as ...the master of the archiepiscopal mint. In this capacity they doubtless acquired considerable knowledge and technical skill in metal working. They supplied the mint with the metal to be coined, changed the various species of coins, and had a seat at the assizes in forgery cases."
The son later invented a special metal for his printing machine.

A son of mint owner with some talent might have been of interest for the circle of Johann the alchemist. Culmbach would have been halfway between Mainz and Erfurt.

German wiki
Durch die immer größeren Machtansprüche der Hohenzollern kam es zunehmend aber auch zu Konflikten mit anderen Reichsständen, wie den bayerischen Wittelsbachern, dem Bischof von Würzburg und der Reichsstadt Nürnberg. 1420 eskalierten diese Auseinandersetzungen in der Zerstörung der Nürnberger Burggrafenburg durch Truppen des Herzogs Ludwig VII. von Bayern-Ingolstadt. Sie wurde danach von den Hohenzollern nicht mehr wiederaufgebaut sondern 1427 mitsamt dem Burggrafenamt der Reichsstadt Nürnberg verkauft. Obwohl die fränkischen Hohenzollern auch danach noch den Namenszusatz „Burggraf zu Nürnberg“ in ihrem Titel führten, bedeutete dieser Verkauf letztendlich doch das Ende der staatsrechtlichen Existenz der Burggrafschaft Nürnberg. Aus ihrem Territorium gingen in der Folgezeit die beiden hohenzollernschen Markgraftümer Brandenburg-Ansbach und Brandenburg-Kulmbach hervor.
The important castle in Nuremberg was destroyed in a war in 1420. The Burggrafen of Nuremberg didn't rebuild it, but likely might have since then focussed on the Plassenburg in Culmstadt.


The castle of Nuremberg was sold to the citizens in 1427.

Unter den Hohenzollern

Allmählich entwickelte sich die Plassenburg zu einem neuen Herrschaftszentrum der Hohenzollern. Zur Zeit von Burggraf Friedrich V. von Nürnberg (regierte 1357–1397) hatte die Plassenburg der Cadolzburg – einem der traditionellen burggräflichen Aufenthaltsorte – bereits den Rang abgelaufen. 1397 legte Burggraf Friedrich V. die Regierungsgeschäfte nieder und wählte die Plassenburg zu seinem Altersruhesitz. Das zollerische Territorium in Franken wurde gemäß der Dispositio Fridericiana von 1385 unter seinen Söhnen Johann III. und Friedrich VI., dem späteren Kurfürsten Friedrich I. von Brandenburg, aufgeteilt. Damit war die Plassenburg zum Herrschaftsmittelpunkt des sogenannten Fürstentums ob dem Gebirg, des späteren Markgraftums Brandenburg-Kulmbach geworden. Nach dem Tod Johanns III. im Jahr 1420 fiel dessen Erbe seinem Bruder Friedrich zu, der 1421 das Amt des „Hauptmanns ob dem Gebirg“ zu seiner Statthalterschaft schuf. Bis nach der Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts blieb die Plassenburg das administrative Zentrum des obergebirgischen Fürstentums.
Already 1397 Friedrich V had chosen the Culmbach castle as the place for his age. The name "Plassenburg" had been used before also for the castle of the Guttenbergs in Guttenberg, cause both were build by persons with the name "von Plassenberg".

Gutenberg was born c. 1398-1400, Johann the Alchemist 1406. It's difficult to get clear info, when the interest in alchemy started:
Johann heiratete 1416 Barbara [again Barbara] (1405–1465), Tochter des Herzogs Rudolf III. von Sachsen-Wittenberg. Die Ehe war von Kaiser Sigismund vermittelt worden, der versprochen hatte, Johann als Nachfolger der Askanier mit Kursachsen zu belehnen. Johann wurde aber 1422 mit einer Geldsumme abgefunden. Im Alter von 20 Jahren [1426] wurde er von seinem Vater in die Regierungsgeschäfte mit einbezogen und zwei Jahre darauf [1428] zum Statthalter der Mark ernannt. Hier wurde der wenig ehrgeizige, der Alchemie anhängende Johann zu einer Enttäuschung für seinen Vater, der mit dessen Einverständnis 1437 die Erbfolge neu ordnete. 1440 wurde Friedrich II. der Kurfürst von Brandenburg. Sein Bruder hatte kein Interesse an den Regierungsgeschäfte
Johann married with 10 years another Barbara in 1416, got the daughter Barbara in 1422, lost a son at birth in 1424, became involved in ruling business in 1426 and got more function in 1428. Maybe between 14-20 years Johann had time to develop alchemical interests. That would be rather precisely the period, for which the data of the young Gutenberg is missing. The father was later very disappointed by the alchemical interests of his son and his disinterest in the duties of reign. He changed the "Erbfolge" (1437). His younger brother Friedrich II was preferred in 1440 (after the death of the father) and became the mew Kurfürst (elector).

Well, what role played Barbara of Cilli in this story?

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