The Aquarium of Vulcan: Layer Monument

Excerpt from The Layer Monument – Aquarium of Vulcan Blog

“In essence the Renaissance world-view of astrological correspondences lay at the heart of much of Elizabethan art, including Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queene (1579). In Spencer’s epic poem the symbolism of  each respective planet and it’s ‘virtues’ shape each book of  poetry. Shakespeare’s plays  also frequently include an esoteric or magical theme, from the multiple transformations of men to beasts in ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream‘ to the quite dark themes of witchcraft in Macbeth, the ghosts of Hamlet and the portrait of the magus-like figure of Prospero in ‘The Tempest‘. In an age which cultivated a sense of melancholia, the 1600’s decade is  typified best by the music of John Dowland’s Seven mournful Lachromosye (1604) and the solemn viol consort pavans of William Byrd.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 -1603) court masques were performed in which the planets, elements, forces of nature and virtues were allegorized and personified. Elaborate  in costume, decor, music and allegory, masques were staged for Elizabeth by her court astrologer, the magus John Dee (1527 -1608). Dee immersed himself in the study of esoterica such as the Cabbala, the writings of the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus and  Ficino’s translation of Plato’s  Timaeus. Plato’s Discourse the Timaeusin particular  wielded a particularly weighty influence upon the Renaissance  imagination with its concept of the ‘eternal forms’ or archetypes. Hermetically inclined thinkers such as  Dee endeavoured  to prove that the wisdom of ‘the divine Plato’, far from being opposed to Christianity was harmonious and compatible with Christian belief.

The Elizabethan imagination was fond of all manner of riddles, enigmas, puzzles and anagrams. Knowledge of such secretive forms of expression sometimes included a familiarity with the Neo-platonic and Hermetic tradition. Such secrets were not only highly advantageous to communicate beliefs which the Church discouraged the study of,  but even infiltrated Christian iconography, including symbolism on funerary monuments.
It is largely due to the historian Jean Seznec that its now recognised the Olympian gods did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. They were transformed during Late Antiquity, sometimes embedded within history as transfigured former human beings, or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the world-view of astrology or allegorized as moral emblems. They surviving in pictorial and literary traditions, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity.Greek and Roman deities captivated the European imagination throughout the Renaissance, often  taking their place side-by-side with Christian symbols and doctrines. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance.

Whoever commissioned  the  highly-skilled monument mason to  sculpt the four figurines of the Layer Monument was well-acquainted  with the Roman classical world. He was also surely aware that the ancient Romans had personified various deities in statues and upon elaborate marble sarcophagus; such symbolism often involved a complex  juxtaposition of gods and heroes. The Layer Monument in its depiction of Christ ‘the Prince of Peace’ and the Virgin Mary standing upon a lunar crescent, are in their attire distinctly modeled upon  the sculpture  of the Classical gods of Greek antiquity. Together they distinctly allude to the hieros gamos of alchemy, which in Greek mythology was represented by the pairing of Apollo and Diana, gods of the luminaries sun and respectively.
The strictly literal-mindedness of our age, combined with the Layer monument’s relative obscurity has prevented  it from being identified as an art-work which  utilizes esoteric symbolism. The literalism of our age, the narrow belief that words are fully-developed definitions have effectively blinded viewers from actually looking closely at each statuette.In brief, the symbolism of the Layer Monument statuettes alludes to  not only medieval notions of the four elements, but also to the time-honoured schemata of the Renaissance esoteric tradition involving astrological and alchemical symbolism; the Quarternio are also identifiable in the Jungian study of religious symbols as four quite distinct archetypes – ‘the wise ruler’ here portrayed aptly in super-human form, opposed to war, treading its weapons underfoot;  ‘the great mother’ standing upon a crescent moon, ‘the old man’, here complete with a gray beard engaged in hard manual labour digging the earth. The child/trickster, playfully blowing bubbles is none other than the guiding psychopomp of  the recently deceased and  the major ‘deity’ of alchemy, the elusive Mercurius.”

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6 thoughts on “The Aquarium of Vulcan: Layer Monument”

  1. Every “god” is a universal archetype that existed before the Greek civilisation existed, and as you suggest right into the present moment. The trickster archetype Hermes, is found in every culture: Lugh, Mercury, Coyote, Thoth, Prometheus, Ashanti, Loki, Merlin. In any situation where a tyrant exists an archetype is working to bring about change, for instance Big Brother faces Anonymous in the fight over control of the internet.

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