Art as Alchemy: The Meaning of Bartholomeus Spranger's Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis and Scylla and Glaucus
Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Art History and Visual Culture
Dr. James Hutson
Steven J. Cody
The subject of this study is two paintings by Bartholomeus Spranger titled Glaucus and Scylla (Fig. 1) and Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis (Fig. 2). Building upon the work of scholars who have argued for a possible alchemical interpretation of at least one of the paintings in the context of its execution for Emperor Rudolf II, this study goes beyond merely suggesting an alchemical connection, and argues that the two paintings, forming a pendant pair, depict two attempts at the alchemist’s magnum opus—one a failure, the other a success. This study further argues that the paintings are not merely inert visual representations of alchemical allegory, but are in fact themselves works of alchemy. Requiring exceptional skill, talent and erudition, the very act of creating the paintings was itself an alchemical experiment equal to those performed by alchemists in Rudolf’s royal laboratory. To create the paintings, Spranger gathered the prima materia, clarified, dissolved, and reunited it, creating an object that was capable of effecting a spiritual change in the viewer, just as the philosopher’s stone was capable of transforming that which it came in contact with. In transmuting raw materials into pigments, binders, and vehicles, and those into figures capable of effecting a change in the mind of the viewer, the artist and the alchemist become one. However, Spranger was not the only alchemist at work on the magnum opus with respect to the paintings. According to principles of Renaissance vision theory, the beholder of a work of art, if sufficiently ennobled, erudite, and properly motivated, becomes an alchemist whose magnum opus is carried out in his soul. Using the intellect, the viewer animates the picture, gives it its power of transmutation, and, through the act of contemplation, achieves an alchemical union with the divine. At the time of their creation, Spranger’s paintings were thus not merely depictions of alchemy; they were actual works of alchemy, and their creator and beholder both alchemists.
Kos, Peter, "Art as Alchemy: The Meaning of Bartholomeus Spranger's Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis and Scylla and Glaucus" (2020). Theses. 18.