by Adrian Fulle
Knights Templar and Islamic Alchemy
In 1099 the knights of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem and a portion of the Holy Land. For twenty years after, the roads from Jaffa to the Holy Land remained dangerous to travel. In 1120 The Order of Knights Templar was founded as a means to make the roads safe and the Templars set up shop in the palace of King Baldwin II, which was adjacent to the ruins of the Temple of Solomon.
The wealth and power of the Templars grew steadily. They received the full support of a series of influential Popes, untrammeled freedom of action in the Holy Land and the backing of vast sums of money pouring in from Europe.
In Jerusalem, the Templars had restored considerable expanses of what had once been the Temple of Solomon. Beside it, they erected their own new palace. The Templars’ two centuries in the Levant also opened them to teachings from the Islamic world, including from the mystical Sufis who exposed the Templars to the craft of alchemy. The Templars adopted alchemical practices initially for ways to heal their fighting force with mold extracts, but eventually adopted more.
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The great flowering of gothic art and architecture, from the mid 12th to the early 13th century, coincided with the zenith of Templar wealth and power. The Templars were tapped as a source of funds for construction of the multitude of unprecedented gothic edifices simultaneously rising up in France at that time.
With their twin towers facing the west, gothic cathedrals resemble the Temple of Solomon with its two pillars in the front; J and B. And in many cases a statue of Solomon is placed at the west portal of the cathedrals and in between the towers.
A simple study of the gothic cathedrals reveals that they are literally alchemical books written in stone and, some believe, proof that the Templars brought the alchemy they learned from the Sufis to Northern Europe. Notre Dame de Paris, pictured here, is a great case study. Erected over the period of 1163 to 1240s, the cathedral is often reputed to be one of the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture in both France and in Europe as a whole, and the naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture.
The symbols of alchemy can be found throughout Notre Dame.
Arriving at ground level we find ourselves facing the doors of the cathedral and the central column that divides the entrance. On the column is a depiction of a woman and a ladder with nine rungs, leaning against her from feet to head. This ladder is called the “scala philosophorum” and represents the nine alchemical steps of labor.
The next images you are greeted with are 12 bas-reliefs, located in the porch of the cathedral. The top row depicts various stages of the alchemical process and the bottom row, the result of that process.
A few other reliefs found in the porch also identify with alchemy.
The first depicts an alchemist protecting an athenor from outside forces. In alchemy, an athenor is a furnace used to provide heat for alchemical digestion. It is depicted as a castle tower because that’s what they looked like.
This last one is the Speculum Alchemiae lab - a secret underground alchemy lab in Prague that was accidentally discovered recently after a terrible rainstorm in the city. Rudolph II was known for being a patron of the alchemical arts and spent large amounts of money setting up laboratories. It is speculated that this is one of the labs he helped set up.
The second bas-relief depicts a man holding a shield that bears the caduceus, a snake coiled around a golden wand, an alchemical symbol for the incisive and solvent nature of Mercury. This reptile is the aspect of Mercury in its first state and the golden wand is the corporeal sulphur that is added to it.
You might also recognize it as the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology, or in Roman iconography it is the staff carried in the left hand by Mercury, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. It is said the wand would wake the sleeping and send the awake to sleep. If applied to the dying, their death was gentle; if applied to the dead, they returned to life.
The caduceus relates directly to Masonry though it’s meaning of harmony. By extension of its association with Mercury and Hermes, the caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, two realms in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals.
The caduceus is often used incorrectly as a symbol of healthcare organizations and medical practice (especially in North America) due to confusion with the traditional medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which has only one snake and is never depicted with wings.
The third relief depicts a woman with hair like flame, holding the disc of the salamander, which in alchemical terms lives in the fire and feeds on fire. The salamander represents the incombustible and fixed central salt, which preserves its nature even in the ashes of the calcinated metals.
The remaining reliefs in the cathedral porch are no less impressive and it’s clear that the cathedral builders where trying to point to the importance of alchemy over everything else since these are the first symbols you see before entering the cathedral.
There are so many more alchemical symbols in Notre Dame, but there is one last one that bears mentioning. High on the roof of the North Tower of Notre Dame, we do not find a statue of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, or any Saints as you would assume a religious edifice would have. Instead, we find this guy...
...A statue of a 12th century alchemist complete with his “wizard” hat, or more correctly, the Phrygian cap that identifies him as an alchemical initiate of that time.
Notre Dame is not alone. The Chartres Cathedral in France is filled with an equal amount of alchemical symbols, as are many other gothic cathedrals around Europe. All around the symbols are prevalent, if we only stop to see them.
by Adrian Fulle