By Adam McLean. First published in the Hermetic Journal 1980.
The Virga Aurea, or to give the full title, “The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Seventy-two Praises” consists of a list of seventy two alphabets (actually seventy, plus Latin and Hebrew which are the two languages of the text of the plate). Some of these alphabets are those of known ancient languages, for example, Greek, Hibernian, Germanic, Phoenician, etc., while others are magical alphabets, Angelic, Coelestial, Seraphic, Solomonic, etc., and the whole plate is thus an encyclopaedia of alphabetic symbolism.
The work is dedicated to Pope Paul V (Pope from 1605-21), who was particularly interested in books, greatly extending the Vatican Library during his Pontificate, and beginning a collection of Antiquities. He would, of course, be entirely sympathetic to, and probably encouraged, the scholarly pursuits of Hepburn. His more open approach to scholarship, allowed Hepburn the freedom even to consider publishing his translation of the Kabbalistic piece, even although a decade or so before, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome as a heretic for pursuing similar interests.
This document is an invaluable collection of alphabets providing a wide survey of many different alphabet symbols both of contrived magical alphabets and those of extant languages. A complex pun is enshrined in the word ‘Virga’ of the title in Latin – Virga, ‘a rod’ being in one sense used for the alphabetic symbols, which are sometimes described as the ‘rods’ of a language, the other sense of the word ‘rod’ is mentioned in the text as the Rod of Moses and the Papal Rod or Staff of power; and finally ‘Virga’, the Virgin.
The Virga Aurea was published as a large engraving (approx 20″ by 32″) at Rome in 1616, though it seems from internal evidence that Hepburn originally produced an illuminated manuscript bearing the essentials of the work done in various colours and possibly using gold. The engraving consists of a listing in four columns of the seventy alphabets, each letter of which is shown transliterated into Latin script, together with a small emblem and short text from the Bible. These lists are headed by a picture centred upon the figure of the Virgin Mary, standing below the Trinity of Father, on the right side, the Son, on the left, and the Holy Spirit completing the triangle, and shown as a dove descending. The Virgin stands on the crescent Moon within a brilliant egg of light centred on the Sun. Within the space of the egg are the other five planets, and the Virgin bears a halo of the twelve stars. On her left side a winged female Venus figure in flowing robes, stands upon a dragon, her right hand pointing heavenwards, her left holding a lily. On the Virgin’s right side, a winged Mars figure, attired with a helmet sword, and tunic, holds in his right hand a long spear and in his left a set of scales, and he stands upon an eagle. Flanking this scene are a number of Saints, including St. Peter, St. Bonaventure, and possibly St. Andrew.