A Commentary on the Rosarium philosophorum - Adam McLean

This commentary was originally published in my Magnum Opus edition the Rosary of the Philosophers, Edinburgh, 1980.
Back to Rosarium text.
home page Articles Resources bibliography Texts Images Practical Discussions Texts

A Commentary on the Rosarium philosophorum

by Adam McLean

For the purposes of this commentary I do not intend to work through a detailed analysis of the text, but rather to pursue an interpretation of the series of twenty woodcut illustrations, which have borne the reputation of the Rosarium in the absence of a translation. Some of these woodcuts are very well known and have been used as illustrations in many recent books on symbolism.

The text of the Rosarium is divided into sections associated with these twenty illustrations. These sections introduce ideas arising from the symbolic content of the woodcuts, and weave these remarks in with quotations from various well known alchemical authorities, often using quite lengthy extracts from other alchemical writers. So the Rosarium is a gathering of material within a certain framework, rather than being an entirely original textual statement of alchemical ideas. So, it is this framework, in which the essence of the Rosarium lies, that we shall be exploring in this commentary.

The text of the Rosarium is quite peculiar in that it seems almost to move in and out of focus. At one point in a section one seems to have a clear precisely drawn idea, which as it is developed in the text becomes more unfocused, more diffuse, and one finds oneself unclear as to what level the text then refers. Then, just as one's puzzlement is growing into irritation, the text moves sharply back into focus with another clear statement of an idea. This may be a quite conscious technique on the part of the anonymous writers rather than just a failing of the translation. At any rate, the text constantly shifts between physical alchemy, statements about experiments with substance, and the realm of soul alchemy, the task of the inner transmutation of forces within man's soul. In that it sought to unite these two alchemical realms, the Rosarium set a style for alchemical literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which the physical process became a mirror for soul development, and the inner content of soul experiences became projected upon outer processes in the laboratory or the natural world.

The Rosarium as a text is not a work of the kind of spiritual alchemy we find later in the early seventeenth century in the output of Mylius, Maier, Fludd, and the Rosicrucian alchemists. It does not deal directly with the spiritual principles of alchemy and state these as a coherent philosophy in the text, but rather this spiritual alchemy is incorporated into the series of illustrations. It was only in the later sixteenth century and particularly during the Rosicrucian period, that alchemists felt free to express the profound truths of their spiritual philosophy in the form of words. Until that time, in the alchemical tradition the spiritual principles were still only expressed in symbols. So, while the Rosarium in its text attempts a synthesis of physical and soul alchemy, we also find as a further layer, that the series of symbolic illustrations incorporates in pictorial form the principles of a spiritual alchemy.

The Rosarium, because of its interweaving of soul and physical alchemy, was of particular interest to the psychologist Carl G. Jung, who perhaps quoted from it in his writings upon Alchemy more than any other single text. Jung, indeed, wrote an essay on the Rosarium series of illustrations under the title 'Psychology of the Transference' which is included in Volume 16 of his collected works, and this provides us with a most valuable foundation upon which to construct an interpretation. Jung, however, only shows us 11 of the 20 illustrations. Furthermore, he suggests that figures he labels 5 and 5a (Rosarium illustrations 5 and 11) are alternative versions of the same figure, whereas on examining the full series of 20 illustrations we find this untenable. Perhaps Jung did not have access to a complete edition of the book, but that as often happens over the centuries, some of these illustrations had been removed from his copy. At any rate, Jung's interpretation is based upon seeing the illustrations as 10 stages, whereas as we have seen there are 20. Indeed, if we read again Jung's analysis of the Rosarium, with a consciousness of the existence of the extended series of 20 illustrations, we will find a further level of integration of the masculine and feminine facets of the soul, which does not contradict Jung's thesis, but amplifies and extends it.

For the purpose of interpreting these illustrations, I will follow a method I have used previously (in the commentaries to 'The Crowning of Nature' and 'The Rosicrucian Emblems of Daniel Cramer'), that of integrating the symbols into a complete pattern, rather than analyzing them as separate individual symbols. It must be emphasized that what is presented here is only one interpretation of the symbolism. This is by no means exclusive of other interpretations, which may be equally valid in that they look at the spiritual realities of the Rosarium series from a different perspective, and thus throw further light on the matter of the symbolism. Alchemy deals with flow and change and cannot be encompassed in the hard rigid fossils of intellectual formulae. Intellectualism only analyses and breaks down a subject into smaller units, but to grasp Alchemy we must develop a consciousness that is simultaneously capable of synthesis, of building up into a larger picture. Here we must see the individual unit as part of a whole.

So to our analysis and synthesis of the symbols of the Rosarium. The 20 illustrations are arranged for this interpretation as in the diagram above. Here we have a triad of illustrations 1-2-3 introducing us to the Prima Materia, the substance of the work of transformation, then in illustrations 4 - 10 we see the first process of transmutation leading to the creation of the White Stone, this being followed by the parallel transmutation of 11 - 17 which leads to the Red Stone. Then in 18-19-20 we have a final picture of the end of the Work.


The opening three illustrations to this process, indicate the realm within which this transformation occurs and introduces the Prima Materia. We interpret this series as a process for the integration of the three facets of man - the Body, Soul and Spirit. In our present state of evolution these facets do not work together in harmony. There are polarities and vast gulfs between the different realms within our being. It is the task of alchemical transmutation to unite these facets in a new harmony, into a perfected state of being where Body, Soul and Spirit mutually interpenetrate and work together. Man's soul is thus the bridging element between the outer realm of the physical body and the spiritual world. This bridge must be built out of integrating the primal polarities of the soul, so that it becomes both a vehicle or vessel for the spirit and the master and moulder of the physical realm.

In illustration 1, we have a picture of man's inner soul world. In the lower part of the soul we see a triple fountain which pours forth the threefold soul-substance - the Virgin's Milk ( the feminine receptive lunar forces in the soul), the Spring of Vinegar (the masculine sharp, penetrating solar forces in the soul) and the Aqua Vitae, the water of life (the inner source of soul energies). These three streams pour forth from the head of the fountain, at the central point of the soul, and stream down merging together in the basin at the lowest part of the soul. This vessel contains the primal substance of the soul forces, the Inner Mercury, the Mercury of the Philosophers, that is one and yet is composed of these three streams.

Thus we have here a picture of the unintegrated soul realm of man. The three streams pour down from the heart centre into the lower soul world, but are cut off from a balanced direct connection with the upper soul, the realm of the soul that can touch upon the spiritual. The only connection with this upper soul initially is through the unintegrated polarity of the lunar and solar streams within the soul.

The task of the alchemist working through this Rosarium process, is firstly to recognize the elements of the primal material, the lunar and solar streams, and the inner Mercury of the soul forces, then begin to work with these through meditations, bringing them into a new synthesis and making these inner forces a vehicle both for the experience of the Spirit and the mastery of the Physical world. Thus in illustration 2, there is pictured a personification as King and Queen of these solar and lunar forces. The Sun King and Moon Queen, have to be recognized by the alchemist as archetypal polarities within his soul and they must be brought into a new relationship. These polarities meet and touch, though at this initial stage, their encounter is very restrained and distant. As Jung points out in his commentary to these illustrations, they give each other their left hands in union. The left (sinister) being the dark or unconscious side of their being. Thus they are united in the unconscious aspect, in the depths of the lower soul. Their right hands, the more conscious side of their being, proffer two-blossomed flowers to each other, and this meeting in consciousness is thus more restrained and distant. However, from above, from the higher spiritual realm indicated by the Star, a bird descends bearing a further two-blossomed flower and brings a stronger unity into the picture. Thus even at the beginning of the work, the alchemist will have help from the spiritual world. As he tentatively begins the task of uniting the inner polarities, spiritual help will descend to him as a gift, a spiritual grace. For the individual alchemist this will possibly take the form of perceptions, perhaps inspirational dreams, and positive realizations that give him an inner security, a sureness that he is on the right path.

In illustration 3, the process moves one stage further. The court clothes of the King and the Queen, the veils of consciousness, have been taken off, and the two participating forces or archetypes in the soul (Jung called these the Animus and Anima) can for the first time see each other clearly. At this stage their gesture changes and they grasp each other's proffered branch (which now is single blossomed). The solar King holds out his branch in his right hand and this is grasped by the right hand of the Queen, while her branch proffered by her left hand is received by the left hand of the King, and from above the dove still bears its unifying branch. The scroll above the Sun King states, "O Luna, let me be thy husband", while Luna says, "O Sol, I must submit to thee", and the dove bears the inscription, "It is the Spirit which vivifies". The two archetypal facets of the soul are here proffering to each other, in the form of flowers, an aspect of their forces.

We have now reached the stage where the primal archetypal energies within the soul of the alchemist (the Animus - Anima) have been polarized then brought through his inner work into a kind of relationship necessary for the real task of the integration process to commence. We now see the beginning of the meeting and transmutation of these forces one into another. This takes place through two cycles of transformation involving seven stages (compare with 'The Crowning of Nature' and the 'Splendor Solis'). The first, pictured through illustrations 4 - 10 gives rise to the White Stone, the inner mastery of the lunar forces, while the second seen in illustrations 11 - 17, produces the inner mastery of the solar forces in the soul, in the preparation of the Red Stone.

Each of these processes has the same archetypal form, as is paralleled in the illustrations. These seven stages can be analyzed as follows : -

1 An entry into the vessel of transformation,
2 A conjunction of the two primal archetypal forces,
3 Their merging into an hermaphrodite in a death or nigredo stage,
4 The extraction or ascent of one facet of the soul into the Spiritual realm,
5 The descent of a spiritual dew or essence from above,
6 The return of the extracted soul forces,
7 The final formation of the Stone pictured as the resurrection of the hermaphrodite.

The opening two stages of each of these processes are preparations, and we see that there is a reversal of the order between that of the first cycle (illustration 4 being the descent into the vessel and 5 the Conjunction), and that of the second cycle (illustration 11 being the Conjunction and 12 the descent into the new rectangular vessel). The further five illustrations of each cycle pivot around the central experience of the descent of the spiritual dew from above (illustration 8 for the White Tincture, and 15 for the Red), and the other four illustrations in each cycle relate in form to each other as follows : -

Thus we have the skeleton framework of the process. Now we will look at each stage in some detail.


In illustration 4, the King and Queen, still maintaining their mutual gesture of uniting their forces through the aid of the spirit, descend into the watery vessel. This is the realm of the unconscious, the inner ever-flowing Mercury of the soul, that we met in the first woodcut of the Mercurial Fountain. The higher archetypal forces within the soul have entered into the vast dark sea of the unconscious realm of the inner soul life. This vessel is here hexagonal, as the triplicity of Spirit, Sun and Moon is still working within this experience. In the following illustration, number 5, we see the first Conjunction, the Coitus or inner union of the male and the female forces of the soul. They merge together in sexual intercourse, the man uppermost. In this first cycle of transformation, the male forces are spiritually active working upon the passive female forces, however, as we shall see later, the opposite will be the case in the second transformation. This point was not noticed by Jung in his commentary.

The solar-masculine and lunar-feminine forces in the soul have now united together in the most intimate way possible. Through this union an hermaphrodite being is formed, as with the next figure, number 6, where the masculine and feminine soul forces fuse into one body with two heads. After this primal fusion and exchange of energies within the soul archetypes, an inner darkness, a nigredo or putrefaction occurs. This takes the form of a descent of the complex of interconnected male and female energies into the dark unconscious sphere of the soul.

We note here that this union of the male and female energies produces the hermaphrodite, and does not give rise to the conception and birth of a separate 'soul-child' as in some other versions of the alchemical process. In the Rosarium process, the union of these two energies is entirely contained within the being of the operator, and does not produce an independent 'soul-child'.

In the next illustration, number 7, the Extraction or Impregnation of the Soul, a masculine soul element separates from the dying hermaphrodite, and rises upwards in the soul towards the realm of the Spirit, as indicated by the clouds above. Through this active penetration of the inner feminine by the masculine polarity of the soul, this aspect of the inner life has achieved a certain ability to ascend within the inner world to the realm of the Spirit. The hermaphrodite-body left below as the husk of the union of the male and female currents, and being abandoned by the masculine soul forces, is now in essence the vehicle for the naked female forces of the soul in an entirely unconscious passive form. This is the turning point of this sevenfold cycle of transformation.

In illustration number 8, a dew descends from the spiritual clouds upon the inert corpse of the female forces. This results in a spiritualization of the feminine lunar element of the soul, through a washing or purification of this aspect of the soul forces lying in the unconsciousness. The hermaphrodite needs to be cleansed both by the waters of the sea of the unconscious and by the higher conscious spiritual rain. This is the Ablution or Purification.

When this stage has taken place, the male facet of the soul returns from its sojourn in the higher spheres and reunites with the hermaphrodite husk. This process is also pictured at the base of the vessel, as we see a bird above ground meeting with a bird buried in the earth. This is the 'Ortus', the rising or dawning of new consciousness, the Jubilation or Sublimation of the soul forces. New life returns to the feminine lunar element of the soul, which having been through this inner death process, this descent into the primal darkness of the unconscious, has gained a kind of victory over the death forces working in the unstructured soul forces.

Thus the soul gains a mastery over the lunar element within its being. This is the inner experience of the White Stone, the inner foundation in the soul for consciousness of the potentialities working in this lunar- feminine element which lies within us all, and it is pictured in the last illustration from this sevenfold development, number 10, which shows us the hermaphrodite of the soul now reborn from its tomb, winged (indicating its spiritual development), and standing upon the crescent of the Moon (signifying mastery of the lunar forces) which is further emphasized by the appearance of the Moon Tree.


Now that the alchemist bears within his being the White Tincture, the mastery of the lunar forces, the time has come for him to embark upon the preparation of the Red Stone. As the White Stone was prepared by an active working of the male solar forces upon the female forces in a state of passivity, in the tomb of the unconscious, so now it is the turn of the masculine side of the soul to enter the darkness, through the active work of the female lunar forces within the alchemist's being.

Thus it is in illustration 11, we see again the Conjunction - the Coitus of the two soul facets. This is called the Fermentation distinguishing it from the conjunction of the White phase. This time the female forces are active, and in their intercourse it is the woman who lies on top of the man. The figures are also winged, indicating the degree of spiritual development that has occurred during the first cycle of transformation which resulted with illustration 10 in the winged hermaphrodite.

The male solar forces of the soul enter now into the darkness of the unconscious realm within, as we see in the following illustration, number 12, the Illumination, in which a winged solar disc descends into the vessel of transformation that contains the living mercury, the ever mobile flowing energies of the unconscious. As the text indicates, "Here Sol dies again and is drowned with the Mercury of the Philosophers".

In illustration 13, the two facets of the soul have again fused into the hermaphrodite which is resting within the dark grave like realm of the unconscious. The hermaphrodite is winged, and thus still bears the spiritual development from the previous cycle of transmutations, however, this too must be cast off if the solar transmutation is to take place.

This we see in the following illustration 14, the turning point of this cycle, where the now wingless hermaphrodite also gives up the female side of its forces, which soars up into the spiritual world, leaving the male aspect bound to the husk of the hermaphrodite body. This is the Fixation of these forces in the unconscious realm.

Then, as with the previous cycle, a dew descends from the spiritual realm above upon the corpse-like hermaphrodite, in the Multiplication of illustration 15, and the male solar forces of the soul are purified and washed by this gentle rain of the spirit.

This done, the female soul element is free now to return from her journey to the higher spiritual realm of the soul, and rejoin and revivify the hermaphrodite figure in the lower soul, as is pictured in illustration 16.

Then the round of this second cycle of transformation is complete and the hermaphrodite arises in illustration 17, displaying the perfection of the Red Stone. On the left of the hermaphrodite we see the Sun Tree, while on the right, the Pelican in its piety gesture, nourishing its young on the blood from its own breast, is a symbol of the Red Tincture. Behind, is a Lion, another solar symbol, and the hermaphrodite stands upon a mound below which is a triple-headed serpent, each head of which is mutually feeding upon the others. This symbolizes that the Spirit, Soul and Body are becoming united and penetrate each other, though this being still polarized in the form of the serpent (the head and tail polarity), indicates that final harmonization of these realms is yet to be achieved.


Thus the alchemist has gained inner mastery over the lunar and solar currents of his soul, the feminine and masculine forces within his being, the yin and the yang, the Ida and Pingala Nadi's of Tantricism, and is no longer unconsciously moved and swayed by the external archetypes of King and Queen, but now bears these within his being as a conscious resource of the soul, energies that he can tap and use as he wills.

With this stage, the alchemist has achieved an experience of the White Stone, the inner foundation for working consciously with the lunar forces of his being, and he has also gained the Red Stone, the inner ground upon which he can solidly begin to work with the solar forces of his being. He thus stands upon the threshold of a higher and deeper experience of his being. However, these two Soul Tinctures or Stones, foundations upon which he can solidly stand in his inner encounter with the two force streams of his soul, do not incorporate the inner Mercury, the living and flowing energies of the soul, that we picture today as the unconscious, the mysterious dark inner source of the soul forces. The being of the alchemist during the hermaphrodite stages has dipped into this well of his being, but has never entirely penetrated deep into its mystery. However, this experience is necessary for the complete inner development of the alchemist, and it is pictured in illustration 18 as the Green Lion devouring the Sun. The sun here represents all that the alchemist has so diligently won for his consciousness, through working this process of inner development. The Green Lion is the devouring, dissolving aspect of the unconsciousness. (The alchemists drew here an analogy with Aqua Regia, the greenish tinged acid that alone could dissolve metallic Gold.)

The alchemist must be prepared to make this sacrifice of his conscious achievements to the dark well of his unconscious being, if he is to further the process of integration, for only in this way can he fully encompass this realm and unite the three streams that pour from the fountain into the vessel of the lower soul (Illustration 1).

A similar inner task must be undertaken with regard to the upper soul realm, and this is portrayed in the penultimate illustration, where we see the being of the alchemist receiving a crown from the upper three streams of the Father aspect (body), the Son-Christ (soul) and the Holy Spirit. The alchemist must again make an ego sacrifice this time in respect to his upper soul. He must be prepared here to receive the blessing of this spirit that pours into his upper soul and recognize that the source lies outside his being. If he were at this stage to identify his self with this stream of spirit, he would be overwhelmed with egoism. The alchemist thus experienced through the sacrificial gestures towards his lower and upper soul (figures 18 and 19), the true spiritual ego that resides within his being, and which receives its essential foundation from the uniting of the Body, Soul and Spirit facets in both the upper and lower soul realms.

So, with the final illustration, the alchemist is seen having achieved a kind of resurrection which is paralleled with that of Christ. In the Green Lion stage he descended deep into the dark inner mysteries of his soul, as Christ descended into Hell, but has returned with renewed energies in a resurrection body bearing the mystery of the upper trinity. This is the true transmutation. Those who have gone through this experience are fundamentally changed, having undergone a self initiation that parallels the inner experiences that were gained through initiation into the ancient Mysteries of Greece, Egypt or Britain.

The series of illustrations in the Rosarium outlines a process for the inner conscious encounter, separation, purification, re-conjunction and harmonization of the male and female facets of the soul, and working through such a process brings about an initiation of the alchemist. The various blocks to the free flow of these inner energies are thus removed and the alchemist is able to experience life more fully, having both a living perception of the spiritual and the ability to express his being creatively in his encounter with the physical realm.

I have described the process entirely using terms of a spiritual alchemy, from a perspective outside of the vessel of transformation. Such an overview is necessary for an understanding of this process by our present day consciousness, however, one must recognize that this is only one level of working with these symbols. At the time when the Rosarium was published, it would not be experienced in this way. Rather each illustration would be taken as an individual meditative exercise to be worked through in sequence. I have not chosen here to delineate such meditative exercises in detail, but I trust that enough indications have been given to allow the reader to work with them in this way. Building up a meditative working with such a series will take some months of sustained effort, but if this task is undertaken, the reader will truly encounter the essence of the Rosarium. As I indicated in my commentary to the 'Crowning of Nature', there would have been a definite physical alchemical process in which this soul development aspect was embodied. The 'Crowning of Nature' has an even more extended series of 67 illustrations, and it bears a definite relationship to the Rosarium, in that for example, there is the preparation of the White and the Red Stone through various cycles of transformation, although the 'Crowning of Nature' works through the Elements and the Ethers, while the Rosarium is founded upon the polarities of Sun and Moon, masculine and feminine.

This physical process would be undertaken by the alchemist and would act as an ongoing meditative exercise, each change within the flask relating to the inner transformation of the Soul. The transformations in the flask and those in the alchemist's inner life would be linked 'synchronistically', mirroring each other. The secrets of such alchemical experiments were of course closely guarded, and it is difficult to find definite clear instructions in many texts, however, I feel sure that in time and with patient work, it may be possible to uncover some of the secrets of these processes. The Rosarium certainly provides a key and a starting point for such investigations.