Marsilio Ficino, Ignatius de Loyola, and Alchemy

by Karen-Claire Voss

Published in Studies in Spirituality No. 6, 1996, 106-130.


Although imagination as a religious phenomenon per se has been an under-represented topic of investigation, it nevertheless plays a central role in religious experience and religious praxis - especially in the mystic and esoteric varieties. One reason for this is that the imagination enables access to deeper levels of reality than those ordinarily experienced. A second reason is that it helps mediate between things which are conventionally perceived as ontologically separate. In particular, it permits the realm called human to come into contact with that which is called divine; in other words, the imagination functions as a bridge between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

The premise underlying this paper should be made explicit here, at the outset, although I shall not take it up again in a systematic way. Namely, it is that the universe is ontologically whole, and therefore, that the separation felt so acutely between the mystics and God, between the natural magicians of the Renaissance and the cosmos, and between the alchemists and the Philosopher's Stone was not the reflection of a correct ontology; rather, it was the legacy of a flawed conceptual framework. Thus mystics, magicians, and alchemists all had to embark on a process of what could be described as `sacred deconstruction' before they were able to reach their goal. Closely related to this is an understanding of what it means to use the faculty of imagination as a method of gnosis, of knowing. Emphasis will therefore be placed on illustrating the role played by the imagination in the dissolution of the conceptual categories which support an experience of separation, and on showing how intentional use of the imagination functions to enable more intimate knowledge of the object of religious yearning [1] .

In what follows I shall discuss examples of the use of imagination by Marsilio Ficino, Ignatius de Loyola, and within the alchemical tradition, as well as the function of the imagination in meditative, magical and alchemical praxis and in the construction of metaphorical and plastic images.


Islamicist Henry Corbin distinguished between the imaginary and the imaginal as a way of clarifying the fact that the latter possessed a reality of its own, a depth and substance not generally associated with the merely imaginary. In an important article, Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal, Corbin relates that, in the course of translating Arabic and Persian texts dealing with Islamic cosmology, he realized that he needed to find a satisfactory way to translate different terms referring to a phenomenon which in English would usually be called 'imaginary', lest his readers think that what was being discussed in those texts was unreal, fictitious, or trivial. In contrast, the texts he was reading posited the reality of no fewer than three worlds:

There is the physical, sensible world encompassing both our terrestrial world (governed by the human souls) and the sidereal universe (governed by the Souls of the Spheres). The sensible world is the world of the phenomenon (molk). There is also the supersensible world of the Soul or Angel Souls, the Malakut, in which the... mystical Cities are located, and which starts at the `convex surface of the ninth Sphere'. And there is the world of pure archangelic Intelligences. Each of these three worlds has its organ of perception: the sense, imagination, and the intellect, corresponding with the triad: body, soul and mind. [2]

The second world is the 'mundus imaginalis', 'a very precise order of reality, which corresponds to a precise mode of perception'' [3] . In order to distinguish this sort of perception from the sort that produces unreal sorts of things, and the things to which it pertains from those which are 'outside the framework of being and existing', Corbin eschews use of the word 'imagination'; preferring instead to speak of the 'imaginal' and the 'mundus imaginalis" [4] . Thus the faculty of imagination is a living tool which allows access by degrees into the realm described by Corbin as the 'mundus imaginalis' or the 'supersensible world of the Soul'; far from being unreal, it is a parallel world which is 'ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect' [5] .

The mundus imaginalis corresponds to that which Mircea Eliade calls the 'sacred center’ [6] . Some of the characteristics of the imaginal world are that it 'has no extension in space', and that it exists beyond reality as we know it' [7] . To produce an extensive analysis of this realm per se is outside the scope of the present paper; however, the importance of the concept of the imaginal world for understanding imagination as a phenomenon in esotericism and in mysticism cannot be overemphasized, since it is the landscape of that world which mystics and esotericists claim to have experienced. Corbin's mundus imaginalis is thought to be the realm to which the angels described in the Summa Theologica belong, the middle ground between human beings and the divine [8] .  As such, it must be passed through, not bypassed by all who seek the divine.

A second important contribution to our understanding of the function of imagination is found in Lynda Sexson's book, Ordinarily Sacred. Deliberately setting out to `muddle the borders' of the tight categories we deal in (real/unreal, sacred/profane, etc.), Sexson tries to show in particular that the boundaries between the sacred and profane are blurred; `religion', she writes, 'is made up of nothing special - the ordinary is holy or potentially holy’ [9] .

The things of this world are vessels, entrances for stories; when we touch them or tumble into them, we fall into their labyrinthine resonances. The world is no longer divided, then, into those inconvenient categories of subject and object, and the world becomes religiously apprehended. [10]

Added to Corbin's distinction between the quality of imagination which produces things that are unreal and the quality of the imaginal which produces, or apprehends that which is truly real, is Sexson's understanding of imagination as a kind of solvent that dissolves the dichotomies which ordinarily govern our experience of the world. In marked contrast to the iconoclasm which characterized the Reformation, the shattering of these false images heralds the possibility of a 'way in' to the imaginal world [11] .  To illustrate, Sexson describes a continuum which consists of officially sacralized objects on the one hand - in this example, rosary beads - and found objects on the other, objects which are consecrated by nothing more - or less - than their capacity to occasion transmutation [12] - here, dogwood berries found and wondered at by a little girl. 'Religion', writes Sexson, `does not reside in these literal things but resides in them metaphorically. By metaphor', she continues:

I mean the imaginal reality that gives depth and integrity to our lives. Imaginal means not merely the imaginative (as- in referring to works of art) and certainly not the imaginary (as in referring to silly things made up); the imaginal makes up the world. [13]

Another significant idea has been introduced: the association of imagination with depth. Here, when I talk about the imagination, or refer to something as pertaining to the 'imaginal' realm, I mean something which pertains to the `really real'; that which has depth, that which Mircea Eliade would say is at the `center of the world' [14] .

The notion of the imagination as a solvent which functions to dissolve our ordinary conceptual boundaries, thereby enabling access to the center, is also emphasized in the work of a third writer, James Hillman. Hillman provides the reader with an analysis of the word 'psyche', in his book Revisioning Psychology. Psyche means `soul', he writes, `a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself.

This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment - and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground. [15]

According to Hillman, since the second and third centuries of the common era we have progressively lost our experience of the world as an `ensouled' sphere encompassing within itself the pluralities of human and divine, matter and spirit, part and whole none disconnected from another but forming and reforming in subtly interactive ways [16] .  At the same time, we have also lost an understanding of the way in which the psyche once functioned to meld these things into a multivalent whole. Psyche functioned to enliven the cosmos and to enable its glittering parts to cohere. The process that Hillman calls psyche corresponds to that which I am calling imagination.

I The Magico-religious Use of Images

There is a long tradition of the magico-religious use of imagination to create images which are located in both interior and exterior space. My discussion of the imagination in Ficino's natural magic, Ignatius' meditative practice, and in alchemy illustrates its function in each context, and includes a description of its use in both kinds of spaces. The following preliminary remarks are intended to impart a sense of the centrality of that tradition.

The very ancient idea of sympathetic magic which accompanies the making of images can be seen to underlie the doctrines of similitudes and correspondences and the idea of relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Within a universe in which `like begets like' and `what is below is just as what is above' it is eminently reasonable to assume that one element can influence another. Moreover, there are radical ontological implications associated with the principle of similitudes, since, as E. H. Gombrich succinctly and very precisely expressed, `the `fetish' not only `symbolizes' fertility but `has' it' [17] . It is crucial for contemporary understanding to realize that the faculty of imagination was understood to cause things, and that its efficacy as a cause was taken for granted in the same way that we unthinkingly rely on the efficacy of electrical current to operate the appliances we use today. It is also important to resist the temptation to limit discussion of the imagination within the context of esoteric phenomena and practices, rather than the wider context of those thought of as belonging to religion proper. Imagination has been a central theme in each of the three major religious traditions of the west, albeit only enjoying a necessarily limited audience. In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scripture we have to confront the idea of persons having been conceived in the image of God, and if Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, various strains of philosophical and theological thought often lead us to the idea of `God being imagination itself, that is, of divinity defined as `an imagining power' [18] . This is certainly an idea which we see in the alchemical tradition, and in the writings of Marsilio Ficino, together with the related conceptualization of this `imagining power' as the cause of the world, as that which enlivens and continues the whole.

Thus in an Eliadean sense persons sought to `imitate the acts of the gods ab origine' by attempting to mirror the divine paradigmatic act of imagining in their own endeavors [19] . The memory tradition whose history and significance is so brilliantly articulated by Frances Yates in her book The Art of Memory developed an elaborate set of rules for remembering words and ideas by `placing' selected images at strategic points within carefully contrived interior `spaces', sometimes called ‘memory palaces’ [20] . There is a complex relationship between mnemonic systems used for rhetorical purposes and those which are employed for magico-religious purposes. If their use was not clearly demarcated at their origins, it proved no more so as time went on. For example, on the religious side, the pre-Reformation church nurtured for generations a tradition of prescribed ritual use of images as a help for fostering appropriate devotional attitudes [21] .  And, as we shall see, Ignatius consciously utilized the imagination to help construct an interior image of the world, while in the esoteric realm, Marsilio Ficino advocated the use of exterior images as an aid for interiorizing the macrocosm. We cannot forget as well tarot cards, which entailed utilizing exterior images as powerful mnemonic aids, and which are found to have been used in Europe from as early as the 15th century on for both meditative and divinatory purposes [22] .  In every case, one essentially spread out before oneself a detailed imago mundi for contemplation. Let us turn now to consideration of some specific examples.

2 Marsilio Ficino: The Use of Imagination in De vita Triplici

Marsilio Ficino is, as James Hillman observed, still one of the `most neglected important figures in the movement of Western ideas [23] .  Born in Figline, near Florence, in 1433, Ficino is responsible for translating Plato's dialogues as well as the newly available Corpus Hermeticum from Greek into Latin. He also gathered around him a circle comprised of some of the best minds of his era [24] .

Ficino's view of the soul was that it was `all things together... the center of the universe, the middle term in all things’ [25] . The soul was the mediating element between the human and the divine by virtue of the fact that there was an ontological connection between the two spheres. Ficino understood the soul to be the seat of the faculty of imagination, and his belief in its efficacy is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the third volume of De vita triplici, called `On Making Your Life Agree with the Heavens'. Therein we find directions for making images as well as advice concerning their proper use and the benefits that can be expected. In keeping with Ficino's dual vocation and training - as a physician, he was dedicated to the healing of the body, as a priest, he devoted himself to the healing of the soul - Book III appears to have been intended as a prescription not only for integrating the elements of the human person body, soul, and intellect - but for integrating the human with the divine as well. In writing De vita triplici, Ficino was not only attempting to provide a manual for restoring physical and psychological health; more importantly, he hoped to provide a formula for placing his readers in the right relation to the cosmos, and thus to the divine. If one followed Ficino's directions, one could transcend the conventional understanding of ontological bifurcation of the celestial and terrestrial spheres. On this interpretation, De vita triplici emerges as a profound corrective to the traditional scholastic understanding of the universe, for at the very center of scholastic teaching was the notion that an unbridgeable gulf existed between the human and divine; these were conceived as polar opposites, rather than as located at different ends of a continuum.

Turning to Book III, we find clarification of the most important elements in Ficino's thought: `the world both lives and breathes, and it is possible for us to draw its spirit. What follows is vitally necessary and directly concerns learning how to use the function of imagination: `You must therefore learn how to bring this spirit into yourself', he writes [26] .

Ficino's method for drawing the spirit of the world into oneself entailed making ourselves open to celestial influences by using materials which were linked to those influences in particular ways; his instructions presuppose an acceptance of certain ideas (one could term them `doctrines') which were prevalent at the time of the Renaissance. First are those regarding correspondences and sympathies which exist between and among things and qualities. Second is the notion that the universe was divided into two parts: the celestial or divine sphere (having to do with the heavens and with God), and the terrestrial or human sphere (having to do with nature and persons). Lastly there was an understanding of the person (and by extrapolation, the world) as a universe in miniature. This was the doctrine of the microcosm and the macrocosm, succinctly expressed in the Hermetic motto: ‘As above, so below’ [27] .

Accordingly, Ficino provides long lists of things, together with their qualities, arranged according to the celestial bodies with which they are believed to be associated. In giving us these lists, Ficino intends for his readers to surround themselves with as many of these things as possible: we are to reflect upon them, use them, eat them, dress in them, and otherwise immerse ourselves in them, all the while being careful to insure that each particular activity is done at the appropriate hour, day, and season. The underlying rationale is that this will maximize the potential for the embodiment in one's own being of the qualities and attributes inhering in particular objects, smells, sounds, music, and places. Here particular attention will be paid to Ficino's emphasis on the spirit-filled material with which images, objects, and medicines are made, and which imbues them with efficacy.

As we consider the examples below, we should remember that Ficino is not saying these things are only signs for some quality or other (although he certainly wants to say that on one level, the lion, for example, represents or signifies the sun). Nor is he limiting himself to mere similitude, saying that the lion is somehow like the sun. In the deepest sense Ficino understands lions as symbolic beings that actually participate in the being of the sun; each partakes of the same spirit' [28] . Ultimately, in fact, he thinks that everything which is in the world really participates in the life of the heavens. `Let no one have any doubt', he writes:

We and all the things that are around us, with certain preparations, are able to lay claim to the heavenly bodies. For that is how the heavenly bodies are made. They rule strictly, and they have been prepared from this from the beginning. [29]

We are linked to what Ficino calls `the one that is simplest and good' by means of the anima mundi, which permeates everything, but is most concentrated in the planets and the stars, those `heavenly bodies that have been prepared for this from the beginning [30] . It has been noted that in his own way, Ficino can be said to have been reviving the worship of the sun, whom he terms `lord of heaven'; thus it comes as no surprise that he considers that the most beneficial influences are derived from the group he calls `solar things’ [31] . Within this group we find `Gold and the color of gold', carbuncle, myrrh, golden honey, saffron, the ram, hawk, hen, swan, and lion, beetles, crocodiles, golden-haired folks with curly hair, magnanimous people, and sometimes those with bald heads [32] . Because the Sun is exceedingly powerful - `amplitude belongs especially to the Sun', writes Ficino - we must be cautious about getting too much of it [33] . Nevertheless, he writes:

It will be a good beginning in the use of things under this dominance if you put on Solar things to wear, if you live in Solar places, look Solar, hear Solar, smell Solar, imagine Solar, think Solar, and even desire Solar. Likewise, if you will imitate in your life the dignity and gifts of the Sun. Hang around Solar men and plants, and carefully touch the laurel. [34]

In short, we are supposed to saturate ourselves with `Sunness'. Since Ficino's particular concern is for scholars, and since scholars are especially prone to be affected by Saturn and its concomitant melancholy on account of the reflective nature of their work [35] , he pays some attention to Saturnian influence, noting that it is not `harmful by nature...' and should `be used sometimes, the way doctors must sometimes use poisons'. In fact,

The Pythagorean maguses seem to have been extremely cautious in this matter, when they would become frightened that their constant philosophizing was the tyranny of Saturn, so they would dress up in white garments, and each day sing songs and make music with Jovial and Appolonian things, and in this way they lived a long time under Saturn. [36]

Ficino discusses Jupiter and Venus as well, since these, together with the Sun, are the powerful planets he calls the `Three Graces of heaven' [37] . Jovial things include silver, amethyst, topaz, crystal, sapphire; green and airy colors and wine; certain animals like the lamb, the peacock, the eagle and the calf; and also religious and law-abiding thoughts. Ficino says that `the discourses and deliberations of human reason... belong to Jove’ [38] who `leads one to find philosophy, truth, and religion [39] , and that

our reason, either through the imagination and the spirit together, or through deliberation, or through both, can, by a kind of imitation, put itself in agreement with Jove. Our reason then might take on Jove for his dignity and nearness to us, and receive the gifts of Jove much more than even the imagination or the spirit. In the same way, the imagination and the spirit, for the same reason, receive much more of the heavenly gifts than certain lower things and materials. [40]

Then there are Venetian things. `I want to call you old people away from these heavier Gods', says Ficino,

and get you back to Venus through gardens and meadows. I summon all of you to nourishing Venus, not for her to play with you, but for her to make jokes with you. [41]

The color green, and the plants of the fields and meadows contain the essence of springtime, the young, fresh time of the year. Because of this, it will help keep a person, `even if he is an old man... in a natural state of greenness, as if... he were a laurel tree, an olive or a pine, still green in winter’ [42] . Elsewhere, Ficino adds that `the power of Venus', whom he calls `mother of the Muses’ [43] , is drawn by `turtle-doves, pigeons, the white water-wagtail, and other things which modesty does not permit me to list' [44] .

In addition to what has been mentioned already, all of the planetary influences must be juggled according to one's deficiencies. To return to the case of the melancholy scholar, we remember that the introduction of Jovial and Appolonian things is believed to mitigate Saturnian influences. Ficino explains how to do this with other planetary influences too, since each planet has a role in the formation of the whole person. In this way, the various aspects of the person are able to approximate an ideal balance. Bringing all the different elements of the person into proper relation to each other by means of adding or subtracting qualities (like ingredients in a stew) is a primary desideratum of Ficino's program.

3 The Macrocosm: Ficino and the Imago Mundi

Yet Ficino does not stop at the level of the person, as we discover when we examine his notion of an imago mundi. Chapter 19 of Book III is called simply 'On making a figure of the universe', and begins with the question: 'Why not make a universal image, that is, an image of the universe itself?' [45] .  According to the ancients, the enterprise of making an image of the universe is beneficial, and Ficino writes that they advised coloring this image with the `universal and singular colors of the world: green, gold, and sapphire' [46] .

The ancients decided, therefore, that it was a big help, if you wanted to capture the gifts of the heavenly Graces, to look at these three powerful colors frequently, and to color in, on the little wallmap of the universe that you are making, the sapphire color for the spheres of the world. They thought it was worthwhile, too, to add the color gold to the spheres of the heavens and the stars, and to dress Vesta herself, or Ceres, that is, earth, in a green mantle. In this way, followers of these ancients would either wear this little form of the universe, or look at it on the wall... Not just to look at it, but to reflect on it in the soul. [47]

Ficino also suggests it would be good to have `a little room, one with an arch', appropriately painted and decorated with representations of the three planets inside one's house (the bedroom would be excellent for this), and he advises us to contemplate the whole of life, rather than its parts whenever we are outside the house by focusing on `the shape and colors of the universe' [48] .

Space precludes more detailed consideration of the imago mundi here. Instead, I wish to recall the claim made in the introduction to this paper, namely, that one of the most significant ways in which the faculty of imagination has been employed in the context of religious experience is to help deconstruct the erroneous conceptualization and concomitant experience of ontological separation between the celestial and terrestrial spheres. In advocating the fabrication and contemplation of an imago mundi, an image of the world in miniature, Ficino is providing a means of bringing microcosm and macrocosm together. Throughout Ficino's work are two very important ideas having to do with the way in which synthesis takes place between the intellect and the body and between the realm of the Ideas and matter. On the microcosmic level the soul is the mediating term between body and intellect. On the macrocosmic level, the anima mundi functions analogously between matter and the Idea. These relationships can be diagrammed as follows:

Micocosmic Level



body  intellect

Macrocosmic Level

anima mundi

matter  idea

Ficino's directions for making an imago mundi are truly significant. In the first place, making a physical image of the world is meant to help us overcome the apparent dis/connection between self and world, and the reason we are to do it is to help us become more attuned to our (very real) participation in the world. Secondly, there is the fact that, according to Ficino's ontology, the image of a thing is necessarily a part of the being of that which is imaged. Thirdly, because his advice to contemplate `the whole of life' rather than its parts when leaving the house entails interiorizing and assimilating this image of the world, this microcosm, we thus begin to embody it. In embodying the microcosm we participate more fully in it; thereby we are enabled to participate more fully in the macrocosm since the microcosm itself is an image of the macrocosm and thus operates according to the same principles. Therefore, and once more in perfect accord with Ficino's ontology, it too participates in the being of that which it symbolizes - the macrocosm. We can diagram this relation as follows:


(the Starting Point)

Imago Mundi

(the Means)


(the Goal)

To be sure, there are gradations of being within Ficino's schema, but his conception of the cosmos is that it is whole. It is for this reason that De vita triplici can be understood as a profound corrective to the traditional scholastic conception of the universe. Ficino's imago mundi is an important element within a spiritual discipline that is meant to help us overcome divisions which are usually understood to be ontological, but are instead only conventional.

4 Imagination in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius de Loyola

Ignatius de Loyola was born in Spain in 1491, and spent his youth as an officer in the army of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. At the age of twenty-six he sustained a serious leg wound and to help relieve the tedium of an enforced convalescence at his family home in Guipuscoa asked for novels and short stories. Since none were available, he had to content himself with heavier fare: the lives of the saints and a life of Christ. In his autobiography Ignatius says that during this time he `paused to think and reason' `Suppose that I should do what Saint Francis did, what Saint Dominic did?’ [49] . The answer came after his recovery, when he made a pilgrimage to Montserrat. In a church there, during a vigil lasting the entire night, he experienced a dramatic conversion. Ignatius left his weapons before the statue of Mary, and returned to the world to found the Society of Jesus. The remainder of his life was devoted to directing the activities of the order and endeavoring to perfect his own spiritual life.

The Spiritual Exercises were written with the intention to provide exercises that were calculated to maximize the quality of persons' relationship to God during a period of deliberate retreat from the world under the guidance of a specially trained spiritual director. The smallest details of life are considered: there are rules for eating, drinking, sleeping; meditations formulated for particular times during the day - dawn, noon, evening, and midnight; careful advice for the various emotions a retreatant might experience, such as despair, pride, etc.; very little escapes consideration. And among these well-considered directions we find more than twenty-five specific instructions involving the intentional use of imagination, and no less than twenty-one pages of `points on which to contemplate': brief descriptive references to major events in the life of Christ, clearly intended as image-making material but without any accompanying instruction [50] . There are also eight references to a process which Ignatius called `bringing to memory', evocative of the Platonic doctrine concerning our innate memory of the Forms [51]

5 The Place of Images in the Church

Ignatius's Exercises were thoroughly scrutinized before being given papal approbation in 1548, and are therefore officially orthodox. The Exercises are still in use today as a guide for persons making retreats conducted by the Jesuits. This is somewhat surprising in view of their emphasis on memory and imagination, for although it has always used them, the Church has long been wary of images because of their pagan antecedents [52] . While images of the saints and of Mary and even of the three persons of the Trinity were permitted, carefully formulated doctrinal distinctions regulated their use among the faithful, and insured that devotion would not be directed to the images themselves, but beyond the images, to the persons and qualities represented. These steps were not entirely effective: nuances of this kind were not readily grasped by those unused to making such distinctions themselves, but in formulating these pronouncements the Church anticipated and at least tried to address the confusion she feared would be inevitable [53] .

First, idolatry, as opposed to the use of images as sources of inspiration and as mnemonic help, was officially banned. Secondly, the theologians carefully distinguished the. kinds of veneration that could appropriately be directed to the beings represented by the images. Three degrees were articulated: latria (adoration), reserved for God (and thus lawfully extended to each of the three persons of the Trinity); hyperdulia (literally, high veneration), a singular form accorded only to Mary; dulia (veneration), reserved for the saints. The attitudes toward images, images themselves, and the Church's teachings pertaining to these degrees of veneration are related ideas, possessed of difficult theological subtleties which were in practice disregarded by a majority of the faithful. I have introduced them here because similar issues arise with respect to Ignatius' method for composing mental images of God and the saints.

Ignatius obviously considered the careful and deliberate construction of mental images to be of important, even critical help in making progress along spiritual lines. The Ignatian method is something of a hybrid; it is not unrelated to the `active imagination' of the magus or the alchemist, both of whom are familiar with the place and function of imagination in their work, but could easily give pause to ecclesiastics who are already sensitive about the fine points of images and attitudes toward them. Moreover, some of the characteristics of the Exercises indicate clear links to the art of memory.

6 Examples from The Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius distinguishes `visible' contemplations from `invisible' ones. The purpose of the first type is `to see with the sight of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing is found which I want to contemplate’ [54] . The second type is an aid for regulating inner attitudes and dispositions, and forming impressions of qualities which are incorporeal. Metaphor and analogy are key elements in this process. The 'First Exercise' includes general instructions for constructing a mental image, or as Ignatius calls it, an `invisible contemplation or meditation':

In an invisible contemplation or meditation - as... on the Sins - the composition will be to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute beasts: I say all the compound of soul and body. [55]

Ignatius also emphasizes the importance of asking God for an experience of whatever emotion is appropriate to the image, for example:

if the contemplation is on the Resurrection, one is to ask for joy with Christ in joy; if it is on the Passion, he is to ask for pain, tears and torment with Christ in torment. [56]

After calling up an image in the mind, Ignatius sometimes instructs us to develop things even further by moving from being spectators outside what we see to being participants within it: `Imagining Christ our Lord present and placed on the Cross, let me make a Colloquy' [57] . Ignatius notes that we are to perform the colloquy `as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant to his master' ... [58]

In one of his contemplations on hell, Ignatius asks us to 'see with the sight of the imagination the great fires, and the souls as in bodies of fire', but here he adds a new dimension which greatly expands the process because it involves all the senses: `hear with the ears', he writes, the 'wailings, howlings, cries' of hell; then `smell', `taste', and `touch' [59] .  Next we are directed to build an image which will afford a God's eye view of `all the surface and circuit of the earth':

To see and consider the Three Divine Persons, as on their royal throne or seat of Their Divine Majesty, how They look on all the surface and circuit of the earth'. [60]

I note that by telling us to imagine the earth from the perspective of the divinity, Ignatius is telling us to imagine what God sees, and that this is but a step away from seeing through God's eyes, so to speak. Thus, we have additional justification for locating Ignatius' techniques along a spectrum which includes not only the mystic who seeks oneness with God in the unio mystica, but also the magician who intentionally imagines he/she is divine, and the alchemist who identifies him/herself with the creator gods of the beginnings.

7 Influences on The Spiritual Exercises

The situation with respect to the influences on Ignatius in some ways resembles the situation today, when references to Foucault and Derrida can be overheard in places in and around the university. Each generation of university folk have their intellectual fashions: sixteenth-century life at the University of Paris, which Ignatius attended (he enrolled in 1528, received the licentiate in theology in 1534, and the master's degree the following year) would not have been an exception. Ideas concerning natural magic, the Hermetic texts, alchemy, and memory arts were common coin, and it is hard to see how he could have escaped familiarity with them [61] `.

As I stated earlier, many of the characteristics of the Exercises suggest that it belongs to the tradition of memory treatises which proliferated during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that were surveyed by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory. Indeed, Yates remarks that these were so numerous she had difficulty in deciding which ones to use. Many of these treatises were written by Dominicans, and she refers to one work in particular which could easily have provided inspiration for The Spiritual Exercises:

An anonymous treatise, probably by a Dominican, gives a most solemn description of how to remember the whole order of the universe and the roads to Heaven and Hell by the artificial memory. [62]

Because so much of this material seems to have come from out of the Dominican order, it is appropriate to note that they enjoyed some prominence at the University of Paris; thus, by virtue of shared theological training, the Dominicans and Ignatius possessed certain kinds of knowledge in common. For example, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, which contains a section on memory was widely known and extremely influential [63] . (And of course Aquinas had been one of the luminaries of the Dominican order.) It would have been virtually impossible for Ignatius to complete the work for a master's degree in theology without reading Aristotle, whose writings include De memoria et reminiscentia, or Plato with his account of recollection and the Ideas in the Phaedrus. Yates has traced the dissemination of these and other classical writings on memory up through the Renaissance period, demonstrating the links between rhetoric, the art of persuasive speech, and the memory arts. To help illustrate she reminds us of Cicero's description of the five parts of rhetoric in his De inventione:

Invention is the excogitation of true things (res), or things similar to truth to render one's cause plausible; disposition is the arrangement in order of the things thus discovered; elocution is the accommodation of suitable words to the invented (things); memory is the firm perception in the soul of things and words; pronunciation is the moderating of the voice and body to suit the dignity of the things and words. [64]

With Cicero's definitions in mind, when we turn again to The Spiritual Exercises we notice that attention is paid to all but one of the five. Ignatius' images include a lot of details, as we see from his contemplation on Christ's nativity:

It will be here to see with the sight of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; considering the length and the breadth, and whether such road is level or through valleys; likewise looking at the place or cave of the Nativity, how large, how small, how low, how high, and how it was prepared. [65]

He is also concerned about order: the meditations on various aspects of the life of Christ and the events in the Garden of Eden follow the chronology found in the scriptures. Ignatius does not explicitly mention elocution, but can be presumed to have thought very carefully about the wording of his Exercises. He frequently talks about memory: the contemplator is to `bring to the memory' an image from the past which must then be strongly impressed in the mind. Finally, his concern with experiencing the emotions appropriate to whatever is imagined is not unrelated to Cicero's definition of pronunciation which calls for `the moderating of the voice and body to suit the dignity of things and words'. Moreover, many of the earlier writers on memory stressed the importance of fixing images in our mind, so they might not be easily forgotten; for this reason they often utilized images that were memorably grotesque or otherwise striking [66] . What could be more vivid than Ignatius' image of hell, which even requires that we imagine its sounds and its smells: the bitter taste of the condemned souls' 'tears, sadness and the worm of conscience', and `touch with the touch... how the fires touch and burn the souls'?


The role of imagination in alchemy has been discussed by scholars as diverse as Carl Jung, Marie Louise von Franz, Henry Corbin, Gaston Bachelard, Gilbert Durand, and Antoine Faivre. And while a case can be made for viewing the faculty of the imagination as both the hermeneutical method and the creative principle of alchemy, it remains stubbornly resistant to analysis, tending in fact, to be nearly as elusive as the goal of the alchemical process itself.

The alchemical texts contain only occasional explicit references to the imagination with the result that would-be hermeneuts must face an uncannily self-referential task. Just as our alchemical predecessors had to organize chaotic material and amplify intuitions about meaning in order to proceed with their work, we too must select and then frame statements from primary and secondary sources and finally flesh out or amplify our intuitions about their meaning, in order to produce a coherent exegesis. Such a methodology has a circularity to which we in the contemporary era have become unaccustomed: it seems that if we are to discover the proper way to understanding imagination in alchemy, we must ourselves makes use of something like it in solving our hermeneutical problem. Circular or not, I believe this methodological approach to be the most promising tool in the box in this case. Given the real possibility that the concept of alchemy as a spiritual discipline may be somewhat unfamiliar to the reader, I want to provide a brief summary of what the alchemical work entailed, before considering several exemplary alchemical texts.


I Alchemy as a Spiritual Discipline

According to Jung, whose three volumes on alchemy represent the most comprehensive articulation to date of its psychological implications, the alchemical work can be understood in terms of what he calls its `double face', i.e., two aspects, the practical (or operatio) and the theoretical (theoria). Alchemy therefore proceeded on two mere or less distinct levels - the theoretical and the practical [67] .

With respect to its practical aspect, on account of the nature of the material, it is virtually impossible to determine the exact order or number of stages in the alchemical work; in fact, these vary according to personal preferences and idiosyncrasies [68] . Nor is it always apparent what substances are being referred to. We may be told, for example, that mercury is necessary for a certain procedure, but it may be the metal that is meant, or the qualities of the metal, or the god himself! [69] . For a variety of reasons, primarily adherence to the doctrine of correspondences and similitudes and the view that there was a relation between microcosm and macrocosm, the alchemists were given to making analogies be tween events which occurred on an `outer', material level, and experiences which took place on an `inner', spiritual plane [70] . There was thought to be congruence between the maturation of the chemical processes in the alchemists' laboratory and the deepening of their own gnosis. Interpreted symbolically, the alchemists were attempting to perfect the Self, to `lead out the gold within', as one expressed it. On the material level, the alchemists' purpose in the laboratory was the production of gold, the most perfect of all metals; on the spiritual level, their goal was to produce the arcane substance variously known as the Philosopher's Stone, the Hermetic Androgyne, or the Rebis [71] When viewed in this way, the Philosopher's Stone and ordinary gold are not so very different; the latter represented the actualization of all the qualities only potentially present in lesser metals; the former represented the actualization of all virtues potentially present in human beings.

Jung maintains that alchemy was a bona fide spiritual discipline, devoted to the unification of these material and spiritual opposites, as these are conventionally understood, and that ultimately it was the imagination which would mediate between them [72] . This resolution took place on different levels corresponding to deepening levels of understanding about the true nature of the alchemical operations. The most profound form of resolution was characterized by a mode of subtle mutual reciprocity and interpenetration in which each term of an opposition entered fully into the being of the other, simultaneously present to the other, transforming and being transformed [73] . Each alchemist equipped a laboratory, selected and studied texts, and constructed (and continuously refined, since the alchemists' conception of the nature of the process, as well as their conception of their relationship to it seem to have undergone transformation as the work proceeded) a theoretical framework. This last was critical, since it not only provided a theoretical context within which physical experiments were carried out, but a hermeneutical one as well, within which the results of these experiments could be interpreted.

2 The Alchemical Theoria

It is in the context of the alchemical theoria that we most clearly encounter imagination as primary modus operandi of the alchemical endeavor. Just as the alchemical work had a `double face', so too did the alchemical imagination. It was the hermeneutical method of alchemy, but its function was not limited merely to the articulation of meaning; imagination was also the creative force par excellence [74] . In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard describes his methodological approach to the study of images as one which `consists of designating the image as an excess of the imagination' [75] . In alchemy the arena in which such imaginal excess takes place is the theoria. After commenting on the opacity of the documents pertaining to the operatio in Psychology and Alchemy, Jung makes several provocative remarks concerning the role of the imagination in the theoria. For example:

The method of alchemy, psychologically speaking, is one of boundless amplification... This ampliftcatio forms the second part of the opus, and is understood by the alchemist as theoria. [76]

At first glance, this comment may appear adequate, but a closer look shows that in itself, it simply doesn't tell us enough, and proves somewhat unsatisfying. What does he mean by `amplification'? What had to be amplified? And precisely what is imagination's role here? The contemporary reader of alchemical texts soon discovers a baroque landscape in which flourished visions, dreams, intuitions, feelings, hunches, and the like, all with thematic similarities, and all taken very seriously as comprising a foundation on which to build. But in their initial unmediated state, none of these, whether taken alone or together, would prove sufficiently substantial for shoring up the alchemical work. All these elements first had to be mediated in order to form a coherent foundation. From out of the theoretical context described above was derived a complex web of metaphorical associations, each with implications for all the others; this constituted the raw material for the analogy-making that was considered an integral part of the alchemical endeavor. By means of the imagination, the alchemists

clothed their intuitions with `the stuff of association and analogy' [77] . Their method was to seize upon and then contemplate such amorphous things as dreams, visions, mythic symbols, portents, signs, etc., at length, with a marked degree of intentionality, i.e., `active imagination', as von Franz and others call it, thereby gradually imbuing them with solidity, dimension, and form [78] . In short, they used their imagination to deliberately exaggerate - `amplify' - these things, to objectify them in order to work with them. Having done this, the alchemist would go on to further enrich and embellish what was in place by following a trail of associations, repeating the amplificatio with those; and then the entire sequence would be repeated with the next set of associations, and so on.

Just as mythic creator divinities, the alchemists created form from out of chaos; gold, where only lead had existed before. The thrust of the alchemical work was both redemptive and incamational, and if the alchemists' stock in trade was the actualization of what formerly had existed only in potentia, the tool with which they plied that trade was the imagination. The following texts were based (or purportedly based) on their authors' alchemical experience and were intended for the guidance and inspiration of fellow alchemists, as raw data for the imagination. With that in mind, let us turn now to my three examples.

3 The Hermetick Romance or the Chymical Wedding

According to historian Frances Yates, The Hermetick Romance of 1616 is properly located in the same tradition which gave us two other so-called Rosicrucian manifestos in the same century: the Fama (first printed edition 1614) and the Confessio (which appeared in 1615) [79] . These describe the initiatic events reputedly experienced by Christian Rosenkreutz, who is still revered by faithful Rosicrucians as one of the greatest imperators of their order [80] .

It sets the scene for a focus on the imagination in the opening lines. The protagonist had just finished praying, a process he describes as including conversation with his Creator and the contemplation of `many great Mysteries', when a frightful tempest arose. The storm's intensity was such that it threatened to cause the entire house to `flye in pieces',  clearly heralding an approaching  dissolution of the limits of ordinary

time / space. To protect himself lest the storm be sent from the Devil, our character renewed his efforts at prayer and 'persisted in my Meditation', until a figure `touched me on the Back'. Although frightened, since the touch on the back had changed into an insistent twitching on his coat, he turned and beheld a 'fair and glorious Lady, whose Garments were all Skye-colour, and... bespangled with golden Stars...who, before leaving, placed a letter for him on the Table’ [81] .

One of the most remarkable things about this passage - which begins with prayer and meditation and ends with a letter - is that it brings together by degrees two modes of being -interior, private, and insubstantial and exterior, public, and substantial - which are normally viewed as dichotomised [82] . First, the description of the prayer contained a hint of corporeality: the prayer itself was an interaction, involving two persons, the subject (who prayed) and the object of his prayer (his Creator). Second, the vision was heralded by physical contact, meaning that it had enough materiality to involve his senses; in fact, the author uses the phrase 'bodily vision' in a subsequent passage from which I quote below. Third, the physical contact did not happen merely once, but repeatedly, and the figure left a letter, a physical token. We see that not only is the imagination involved here, but imagination of the type described in The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, which involves the body and its senses [83] .

The letter announced a long-awaited Hermetic wedding, which had first been called to his attention `seven Years before... in a bodily Vision' [emphasis mine], and it therefore became the occasion for a rather anguished examination of conscience, since he felt he was not sufficiently prepared to participate in the event [84] . Added to that was genuine consternation because he could understand little of the significance of the announcement, now that it had arrived, for:

In my Head there was nothing but gross mis-understanding, and blindness in mysterious things, so that I was not able to comprehend even those things which lay under my Feet, and which I daily conversed with, much less that I should be born to the searching out, and understanding of the Secrets of Nature. [85]

A truly reluctant prophet, he also felt himself unworthy:

In my opinion Nature might every where find a more vertuous Disciple, to whom to entrust her precious, though temporary, and changeable Treasures.

Not knowing what else to do, he writes:

I betook my self to my usual and most secure course; after I had finished my earnest and most fervent Prayer, I laid me down in my Bed. [86]

With the hope that his normally instructive angel might whisper a helpful word or two of advice. No angel appears to have been forthcoming, but he dreamed a dream, `which was... strongly impressed upon my imagination', and which functioned to reassure him that he was, after all, a fitting candidate for the task to which he had been called [87] .

Our voyager sets out on his journey to the wedding, taking along bread, salt and water, and placing four red roses in his hat (for he is, as he informs us, a brother of the 'red-rosie Cross') [88] . When he leaves his dwelling, the narrative explains that he is quite awake, but we again encounter the dissolution of a dichotomy, for the events which are subsequently related do not happen in ordinary space/time, but rather are characterized by dreamlike qualities; the conventional demarcation between waking and sleeping is blurred. These events belong to an imaginal world into which our character enters more and more deeply. This is Henry Corbin's mundus imaginalis, a world which Antoine Faivre has described as having 'a geography of its own' [89] . Indeed, for nearly a hundred pages, we find this character confronted with a series of symbolic personages, objects, and situations: he is presented with a choice of four paths to the ceremony; a wind presses him to move in one direction only; there is the alchemical antithesis in the form of a white dove and a black raven; he sees a 'Portal' on a `Hill', the first in a series of gates, connoting the initiatory steps of gnosis [90] .

Finally, because this dreamlike journey into the imaginal world is supposed to take seven days, we are told of the circumstances attendant upon his going to bed, dreaming, and awakening; all of them highly symbolic, and therefore, worthy of imaginative contemplation; as are the concomitant philosophical complexities implicit in the `dream within the dream within the myth' phenomenon, a frequent characteristic of myth [91] .

4 Aureum saeculum redivivum (The Golden Age Restored)

Alchemist Henricus Madathanus provides a similar focus on dreams in Aureum saeculum redivivum, first printed in 1625 in a collection of ten texts entitled the Musaeum hermeticum [92] . This treatise is also replete with symbols, especially those having to do with the alchemical marriage, and bears many of the characteristics of the Hermetick Romance:

I retired to rest…and fell into a deep slumber; when, behold, Solomon appeared to me in all his power…and with him came his whole harem…One of them was his most beautiful dove, and was dearest to his heart. [93]

Solomon takes him to a ‘secret place’, restores his spirit with rare nourishment, and tells him to choose a bride for himself from among a group of virgins.  Strongly attracted by one, he resists at first for she is dressed in utterly vile clothing, but he capitulates eventually, saying he is ‘sick with love for her’, whereupon a clamouring arises among the women in Solomon’s entourage which awakens him [94] .

After he spends the remainder of the night in sleeplessness, morning reveals a pile of filthy clothing lying on the floor beside his bed!  Once more we encounter a corporeal sign of an incorporeal experience; like the letter deposited on the table by the mysterious figure in The Hermetick Romance, the clothing is a visible token from the imaginal world.  Frightened by this episode, the alchemist ignores the pile for five years, until he has a series of instructive dreams.  From a woman in one of these dreams, he learns that the hideous rags are hiding a box filled with precious jewels.  She gives him coals with which to burn the cloth, and thus, Madathanus is free at last to gaze at the contents of his treasure box.  A sign on the box warns him to ‘stir not up nor awake my love till he please’.  Taking that as an exhortation to be patient yet awhile longer, he waits for a period of time, after which he is at last able to attain the long sought after Philosopher’s Stone [95] .

Like The Spiritual Exercises, this treatise is thick with points on which to contemplate imaginatively.  An alchemist reading this text could certainly be expected to use his powers of imagining to learn the symbolic significance of the treasure box filled to the brim with precious jewels.  On the level of chemical operations the box is the alchemical vessel and the precious jewels the substances which are being combined, and re-combined and subjected to all manner of processes like heating, evaporation, etc.  On the level of spiritual work, the jewels are presumably things like character traits and dispositions of the soul which, through meditative practice are also subjected to a multitude of operations.  The time spent waiting before extracting the jewels from the box corresponds to an incubation period.  In the laboratory, the Philosopher’s Stone would be achieved only after a period of heating the substances in the alchemical vessel.  ‘Festina lente’ could well be the motto here, because the texts are full of warnings that this heating must be done in a carefully regulated way otherwise the entire process could fail and would have to be repeated.  By the same token, spiritual development cannot be forced either; but can be expected to take place only under properly regulated conditions.

5 Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing)

Consideration of Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens of 1618 adds still more to our understanding of the alchemical imagination [96] .  The full title is revealing.  It reads as follows:

Atalanta fleeing:  that is, new chymical emblems of the secrets of nature; fitted partly to eyes and intellect, with figures engraved in copper and additional maxims, epigrams and notes, and partly to the ears and the recreation of the soul, with some fifty musical fugues in three parts, of which two are to correspond to one simple melody suitable for singing in couplets; the whole to be seen, read, meditated, understood, judged, sung and heard with extraordinary pleasure.

Thus this text, one of the most beautiful of all alchemical treatises, is intended from the very beginning to press the imagination into the service of helping involve our sense of sight as well as of hearing.  Unlike The Hermetick Romance and The Golden Age Restored, which offer up the multi-sensory experiences of the alchemist/author for the edification and contemplation of the reader, Atalanta Fugiens constitutes a demand for participation by giving multi-sensory experience directly to its readers, as part of an explicit and comprehensive program.  It is a unique combination of text, images, music, and lyrics, which is compelling even to the uninitiated [97] .

The text consists of fifty emblems, each accompanied by an epigram, an ostensibly explanatory, but characteristically cryptic, paragraph, and a fugue with lyrics [98] .  Fifty emblems are far too many to comment on here, but the foloowing examples provide a good idea of what lies in store for the reader.

Emblema I: Portavit eum ventus in ventre suo [99]

Mercury is show here in human form, with wind streaming through his long hair.  He is carrying the still-embryonic Philosopher’s Stone in the form of a baby within his body [100] .  This single image implies innumerable levels of meaning.  For an alchemist who is taking this text seriously, provided here, for example, is symbolic ıllustration of the esoteric meaning contained in the accompanying quotation from the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Table), a frequently quoted text which articulates the view that

the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm, and gives an account of cosmic causality which is process-oriented, rather than mechanistic. It also conforms to what Giordano Bruno would call the `inner artificer', and thereby provides a model for looking for the cause of the Philosopher's Stone within, rather than outside, the alchemist, as well as a model for imitating divine creation [101] `.

Emblema XXVII: Qui Rosarium intrare conatur Philosophicum absque clave, assimilatur homini ambulate volenti absq[ue] pedibus [102] .

The motifs of the enclosed garden, the rose, and the key are all reminiscent of the initiatory theme in The Hermetick Romance. The alchemist begins with the premise that the knowledge which will enable a successful alchemical enterprise is hidden from the view of the profane. Focusing the imagination on these three images is expected to provide the adept with valuable clues about the `real' significance of the lock, the enclosed garden, and the rose.

In a context informed by belief in the doctrine of correspondences and of the relation between microcosm and macrocosm the sexual connotations of these motifs could initiate the following associations: sexuality and reproduction are bound up with the idea of earthly creativity and fecundity, which in turn is a microcosmic reflection of macrocosmic process. These motifs also suggest the idea of penetration. In turn, that idea can be associated with initiation and with gnosis: one progressively penetrates the secrets of the divine, of nature, and of the self [103] .

Emblema XXXVIII: Rebis, ut Hermaphroditus, nascitur ex duobus montibus Mercurii & Veneris [104] .

This illustrates the alchemical marriage. We see Mercury (in the garb of a soldier) and Venus (in gossamer dress) embracing each other. Mercury's caduceus lies to one side in the foreground; a precociously-visaged Cupid holds a full quiver of arrows. Above the heads of the couple is a hermaphroditic figure. One modern writer offers the following interpretation:

The Rebis, like Hermaphroditus, is born from the two mountains of Mercury and Venus. The Rebis, Hermaphrodite or Androgyne of the Wise is born from the union of the two Principles (Sulphur and Mercury), who enter the mercurial Bath. This, like the mythical fountain where the nymph Salmacis swam, has the property of turning both sexes into one: that is, it dissolves the Bodies radically in such a way that, once recomposed in the Fixation, they are One. [105]

The alchemist knows that the Rebis, or Philosopher's Stone is said to be the product of the alchemical marriage of opposites. He has already been encouraged to ponder the esoteric meanings of sexuality by following a trail of associations. This led to the realization that sexuality is a potentially powerful metaphor for microcosmic and macrocosmic process. Now the question might well become: How do I accomplish a union between the opposing elements in the laboratory (and within myself) that can adequately mirror cosmic process? The alchemist can only do this by means of the ampliftcatio described earlier. He or she must press into service the powers of imagining which will enable a gradual identification of him/herself with the hermetic androgyne. On a microcosmic scale, the figure of the androgyne represents the continuous dance of the cosmos as it balances universal energies.

6 The Power of the Imagination

In the case of Ficino, Ignatius, and the alchemical authors, we are dealing with texts produced by persons who understood and intentionally used the transformative power of the imagination, which played a central role in the lived experience that preceded the process of writing. These were never intended to be dry texts, produced with mere pen and ink and parchment. They were not envisioned as being comprised of disembodied collections of words (signifiers) comprising sentences and paragraphs (bundles of syntactical relations) referring to conceptual constructs (that which is signified). On the contrary, these texts were intended to be embodied constellations of meaning, which shaped themselves into 'voices' that `call' to their reader across the temporal space of history [106] .

At each step, the writers whose works are discussed here sought to make implicit meanings explicit, to actualize what had previously existed only in potentia. In this they sought to mirror the creative process of the universe. But, just as the universe continuously unfolds new forms, that process of explication and actualization was never complete. New meanings affected old interpretations, new forms enriched them. Like spiritual perfection itself, the Philosopher's Stone was always amorphous, never absolutely present, always just beyond reach; yet just as Ignatius's God and Ficino's

divine Source of all, it drew its seekers toward it. Throughout we find that the creative, form-making power of the imagination was continuously present. These texts are able to span the centuries with a bridge comprised of a formidable number of hermeneutical acts, each making use of the faculty of the imagination. One set of acts was performed by the original author: the initial experience and the subsequent attempt to interpret it, and the process of recollection in order to write it down, or illustrate it. Another set was performed by those who listened to the author, or read the treatise, or contemplated the images. Each of these hermeneutical acts unfolds upon one another to form constellations which unfolded upon still others, forming veritable galaxies of imaginal worlds all characterized by the same exquisitely enlivened complexity.


The intentional use of imagination - here understood as pertaining to a level of reality which Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis - plays an important role in the formulation of mystical language, the construction of images (both metaphorical and plastic), and meditative, ritual, and magical practices. This article examines the phenomenon of imagination as it appears in the spiritual exercises of Ignatius de Loyola, the writings of Marsilio Ficino, and selected alchemical treatises. Emphasis is placed on illustrating what it means to use the faculty of the imagination as a method of gnosis which functions to dissolve conventionally perceived and/or experienced dichotomies.

[1] The theme of the imagination in gnosis is discussed in Karen Voss, Is there a `Feminine' Gnosis? Reflections on Feminism and Esotericism, Aries, 14 (June 1992), 5-24, and further developed in: 'Feminine' Gnosis: Forms of Gnosis in Modern Feminist Thought, an invited lecture given in the course: Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modem Times, offered by the Amsterdam Summer University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 15-19, 1994 (unpublished).

[2] Henry Corbin, Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal, in: Spring (1975), 6-7.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 1-2.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1957, 20-65 et passim. First published as Das Heilige and das Profane, Rowahlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1957.

[7] Corbin, op. cit., 4.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1, qq. 50-64.

[9] Lynda Sexson, Ordinarily Sacred, New York: Crossroad, 1982,

[10]   Ibid., p. 11.

[11] See loan P. Couliano's lucid analysis of what he describes as the 'total censorship of the imaginary' that was characteristic of the Reformation in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans.  Margaret Cook, with Foreword by Mircea Eliade, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 193ff. Orig. published as Eros et magie d la Renaissance, Paris: Flammarion, 1984.

[12] 'Transmutation' as metamorphosis implies a cooperation between knowledge (in the sense of  'gnosis') and active imagination in order for lead to be changed into silver and silver into gold.  The 'gnosis' often referred to ... esoteric currents is the kind of illuminated knowledge which results in a state of being conducive to the 'second birth' ...'. Quoted from Antoine Faivre and  Karen-Claire Voss, Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion,. Numen, 42 (1995), 48-77.

[13]   Sexson, op. cit., 6.

[14] Eliade, op. cit.

[15] lames Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, New York: Harper & Row, 1975, p. x.

[16] Ibid., 1-13 et passim.

[17] Ernst Gombrich, Icones Symbolicae: The Visual Image in Neo-Platonic Thought, in: Journal of  the Warburg and Courtauld Institute XI (1948), 163-92: 165.

[18] Antoine Faivre, L'Image creatrice (La fonction magique de l'image et son fondement mythique  du XVIBme si6cle), in: Revue d'Allemagne XIII (1981), 355-90: 388-389 and 389, respectively.

[19]   Eliade, op. cit., 68-113.

[20] Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966. See also Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

[21] See for example Christianne Klapisch-Zuber, Holy Dolls, in: Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

[22] See Robert Klein, Les tarots enluminrss du XV si8cle, in: L'oeil 145 (January 1967).

[23] Hillman, op. cit., 200.

[24] According to Paul Oskar Kristeller, 'It is, perhaps, not too much to say that all of educated Florence in the second half of the fifteenth century came under the intellectual influence of Ficino's Academy'. The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, trans. Virginia Conant, New York: Columbia University Press, 1943, 18-19. Some of the material on Marsilio Ficino appeared in an article entitled: Three Exemplars of the Esoteric Tradition on the Renaissance, Alexandria: the Journal of the Western Cosmological Traditions, 3 (January 1995). I am grateful to the editor for permission to use it here.

[25] Hillman, op. cit., 201.

[26] Marsilio Ficino, The Book of Life, trans. Charles Boer, Irving, TX: Spring Publications, Inc., 1980, 96. A translation of Liber de vita, or De vita triplici, Florence, 1489. Henceforth referred to as De vita.

[27] The fabled Tabula Smaragdina was reputedly written by Herms Trismegistus who is respectfully mentioned by almost all the alchemical writers. Many, though certainly not all, of the Renaissance humanists accepted Hermes as an authority. For some exceptions to this view, see Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972, 207. An important collection of articles about Hermes Trismegistus is in Antoine Faivre, ed., Présence d'Hermès Trismégiste, Paris: Editions Albin Michel S.A., 1988. On philosophical hermetism see Mirko Sladek's L'étoile d'Hermès. Fragments de philosophie hermétique, translated from the German by Josette Rigal, Paris: Editions Albin Michel S.A., 1993; originally published as Fragmente der hemretischen Philosophie in der Naturphilosophie der Neuzeit, Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, 1984. The most definitive account of the origin and transmission of the Tabula is found in Julius Ruska, Tabula Smaragdina, Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akten der von-Portheim-Stifttutg, 16, 1926. See also Walter Scott, ed. and trans., Hermetica, 4 vols., London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1968, vol. 1: 31, 33, 35-36; and M. Berthelot, Les Origines de L'Alchimie, 1885; reprint ed., Osnabriick; Otto Zeller, 1966, 35ff., 169. See the preface by Nock in A. D. Nock and A. J. Festugiere, Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols., Paris: Societé d'Edition, Les Belles Lettres, 1945, i-vi.

[28] See Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, New York: Harper & Row, 1957; reprint ed. Harper  Colophon, n.d., 42.

[29] De vita, 91. It is important to note the belief in a cosmic plan or divine purpose implicit in Ficino's statement `they have been prepared for this from the beginning'.

[30] Ibid., 88.

[31]   Ibid., 102. . See D.P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975, 12-24, for a discussion about Ficino's preoccupation with the Sun. First published in 1958 by the Warburg Institute, University of London. Reissued as volume 22 of the Studies of the Warburg Institute, Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1969.

[32] De vita, 90.

[33] Ibid.,  97.

[34] Ibid., 131.

[35] For an interesting and exceedingly relevant description of the possible initiatory function of depression see Basarab Nicolescu, Jung et la science: histoire et perspectives d'un malentendu, presented at the colloquium: `Jung Aujourd'hui', organized by Groupe d'Etudes C.G. Jung, Paris, November 27-28, 1993.

[36] Ibid., 93

[37] Ibid. 33.

[38] Ibid., 159.

[39] Ibid., 100.

[40] Ibid., 165

[41] Ibid., 61.

[42] Ibid., 63.

[43]   Ibid., 3.

[44]   Ibid., 91. 

[45] Ibid., p. 151.

[46]   Ficino exhibits a tone of reportage in this portion of Book III, probably resulting from a judicious  fear of ecclesiastical reprisal. The distancing phrase `the ancients have said', occurs frequently  throughout. Cf. D. P. Walker's comments regarding Ficino's disavowals of magical practice, op.  cit., 42-44 et passim.

[47] De vita, 153.

[48] Ibid.

[49] The biographical information about Ignatius comes from Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants, second edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979, 431ff.

[50]   I have used the edition by David J. Heming, S.J., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading, St. Louis, Missouri: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978.

Explicit 'points on which to contemplate' appear on 158, 160, 162, 164, 166, 168, 170, 172, 174, 176, 178, 180, 182, 184, 186, 188, 192, 194; 196, and 200. Henceforth referred to as Exercises.

[51] References to 'bringing to memory' appear on 34, 36, 44, 46, 80, 116, 136, and 138. On 78 Ignatius refers to 'five senses of the imagination'. And on 82, 84, 86, 88, 92, 116, 118, 120, 124, 128, 132, 138, and 142 he makes specific reference to the 'five senses'.

[52]   I would argue that the Ignatian use of the imagination belongs to a spectrum which includes, at its most extreme, the magician who intentionally imagines he is God. On this view, then, we should think of it as a somewhat watered down version of the identical formulation found in magic; thus, it would have been in line with the teachings of the Church to condemn it as potentially heretical. It is interesting to note that she did not, and also to consider that if someone like the ill-fated Giordano Bruno had produced the same techniques found in The Spiritual Exercises it certainly would not be in use today as part of the Jesuit program.

[53]   For example, after the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be `the Holy Virgin' and theotokos (bearer of God), it was understood that she could be adored right along with God and the faithful proceeded to do just that with great fervor. This enthusiasm is not surprising in view of the fact that Ephesus had previously been the site of a temple to Artemis. Although the temple had been destroyed thirty years before the Council, at some level the sacred quality of the site remained: Artemis' temple simply became St. Mary's basilica. For the text of the theotokos declaration see Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, second edition, London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

[54] Exercises, 32.

[55] Ibid. Specific references to mental images appear on 32, 34, 36, 38, 44, 64, 70, 72, and 76 (on 76  Ignatius emphasizes that we should 'look, mark and contemplate').

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 36.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 44-46.

[60] Ibid., 72.

[61] There is a wealth of circumstantial evidence that links Ignatius to unorthodox practice, and therefore to the memory tradition. For example, when Ignatius matriculated at the University of Alcala in Barcelona in 1526, Inquisitorial authorities summoned him several times; once, in 1527, he was imprisoned. After his release, he went to Salamanca where continued harassment by the Inquisition drove him to France, where he enrolled at the University of Pads in 1528. Ignatius's contemporary, Giulio Camillo, arrived in Paris in 1530, with the aim of raising money from Francis I for a memory theater. (See Yates, op. cit., 129ff.) Did Ignatius know about Camillo's project? Obviously final determination regarding the influences on Ignatius would require more research. My point here, however, is that there are a number of potentially fruitful leads that remain to be followed. Jung notes a similarity between the 'active imagination that takes place in yoga' and 'the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola, who employs the terms consideratio, contemplatio, meditatio, ponderatio, and imaginatio per sensus for the 'realization' of the imagined content', in: Alchemical Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967; 1983, n. 11, 164-165. See also his lectures on Ignatius given at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, reprinted in 'Exercitia Spiritualia of St. Ignatius of Loyola,: Spring (1977), 183-200 and continued in Spring (1978), 28-36.

[62] Yates, op. cit., 108.

[63] Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., II-II, q. 49.

[64] Yates, op. cit., 8-9.

[65] Exercises, 74.

[66] See Yates, op. cit., 96-97, for a description of an exceptionally horrible image representing idolatry.

[67] Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, trams. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series XX, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968; 1980, 290. First published as Psychologie and Alchemie, Zurich: Rascher Verlag, 1944; 2nd ed. revised, 1952. See also Karen Voss, Aspects of Medieval Alchemy: Cosmogony, Ontology, and Transformation, unpublished M.A. thesis, San Jose State University, 1984,24-39.

[68]   Partly on account of these idiosyncrasies, and partly because most of the alchemists felt bound to keep from casting pearls before uninitiated swine, problems like these abound. The alchemical texts are almost always obscure. Every alchemist had to decide, therefore, what substances to use, which writers to take seriously, which images and symbols would be of use, etc. This necessity for organization as a preliminary to beginning the work frequently gave rise to an identification with the divine creators of cosmogonic myth. The alchemists also had to impose order on chaos. Regardless of the culturally specific terms in which it is couched, every cosmogonic myth develops the theme of order proceeding from chaos. For this reason, it was natural for the alchemists to identify the disordered welter of purportedly instructive texts (characterized by obscure language), and the plethora of syncretic symbols, images, and mottos, and myths that were the currency of peoples before the so-called Enlightenment, with the prima materia, with absolute formlessness, with pure potentiality. Their task, so it must have seemed, was to 'imitate the acts of the gods in the beginning' by actualizing the Philosopher's Stone which had existed only in potentia. The more syncretistically-minded alchemists related this identity with creator divinities to the Christian idea of the Word made Flesh, which was accomplished by means of the Incarnation. In turn, the Incarnation provided a model of brokenness redeemed, made whole, embodied, and thus we sometimes see that it has become a model for the alchemical quest for unity appearing under the form of the Philosopher's Stone. See for example, K. Voss, The Hierosgamos Theme in the Images of the Rosarium Philosophorum, in: Alchemy Revisited: Proceedings of the International Conference on the History of Alchemy at the University of Groningen, 17-19 April 1989, ed. by Z.R.W.M. van Martels, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990.

[69] See Emblema I on 36 infra, for example.

[70]   See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, New York: Pantheon Books, 1970, 17-25, for a discussion of the four similitudes; and 25-30, for a discussion of the doctrine of signatures. The book was first published as Les Mots et les choses, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966. See also Gombrich, op. cit. Gombrich seems somewhat discomfited when contemplating the world view which led to a confusion between the signifier and the signified. This is a very important article, however, and contains a thorough exposition of the most significant issues related to the question of images in the Renaissance Neo-Platonic tradition.

[71]   One alchemist writes: 'Our matter has as many names as there are things in the world'. A. E. Waite, ed. and trans., The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged, 2 vols., London: James Elliott and Co., 1893, I, 13. The role of the alchemist was to lead out the gold, to actualize what had existed in potentia. In this respect, it is appropriate to speak of the alchemists as 'midwives' who, in accord with the cosmic 'plan', were enabling the substances in their vessels to be 'redeemed' from their actual state of baseness and to attain their potential condition of perfection. See Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures o fAlchemy, trans. Stephen Corrin, New York: Harper & Row, 1976, 19-52. First published as Forgerons et Alchemistes, Paris: Flammarion, 1956.

[72] Jung was adamant about understanding alchemy as a spiritual discipline. See, for example, the contrast he makes between two different writers on the topic in Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trams. R. F. C. Hull, second edition, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963; 1970, 457. First published as Mysterium Coniunctionis: Untersuchung iiber die Trennung and Zusammensetzung der seelischen Gegensdtze in der Alchemie, Zurich: Rascher Verlag, 1955, 1956. See also my article: Spiritual Alchemy: Interpreting Representative Texts and Images, in: Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. by R. van den Broek and W.I. Hanegraaff. State University of New York Press: New York, 1995.

[73] This is by no means unrelated to the 'interpenetration between matter and spirit' of which Ewert H. Cousins writes in Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites: The Theology of Bonaventure, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1978, 170.

[74] K. Voss, The Hierosgamos Theme, op. cit., 4-9.

[75] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas with foreword by Etienne Gilson,  New York: Orion Press, 1964, 112. First published as La poetique de I'espace, Paris: PUF, 1958.

[76] Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, 289.

[77] Ibid.

[78] See Marie Louise von Franz, Alchemical Active Imagination, Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, 1979 and Corbin, op. cit., 9. For a comprehensive and extraordinarily sensitive analysis of the use of imagination in mysticism, see Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim. Bollingen Series XCL, Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1969. First published as L'Imagination creatrice dans le Soufrsme d'Ibn Arabi, Paris: Flammarion, 1958. Parts One and Two were originally published in Eranos-Jahrbiicher XXIV (1955) and XXV (1956), Zurich: Rhein-Verlag.

[79] Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Boulder: Shambala, 1978, 41-45, 66 et passim. Christian Rosenkreutz is said to have been born in 1378 and to have lived for 106 years.

[80] The Hermetick Romance is contemporaneous with the works of alchemist Michael Maier.  See the discussion of Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, 35-38 of this text.

[81] The Hermetick Romance: Or the Chymical Wedding, in: Paul M. Allen, ed., A Christian Rosenkreutz Anthology, 2nd ed., Blauvelt, New York: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1974, 69. Henceforth referred to as Romance.

[82] For a thought-provoking list of some of the things we think of as 'hard' and 'soft' see Wendy O'Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984,311-312.

[83]   Cf. 16 of this text.

[84] Romance, 70.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid.

[87]   Ibid., 74-75.

[88] Ibid.

[89] .Antoine Faivre, Esotericism, in: Lawrence E. Sullivan, ed., Hidden Truths: Magic, Alchemy, and  the Occult, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987, 39.

[90] Ibid., 39-40.

[91] Wendy O'Flaherty, op. cit., especially Chapter 2, 'Myths About Dreams'.

[92] Musaeum hermeticum, Frankfurt: printed for Lucas Jennis, 1625.

[93]   Waite, op.cit.,I,57.

[94]   Ibid., 59-60.

[95]   Ibid., 63-64.

[96]   Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century, New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1988, 68.

[97] Having once heard selections from the music of Atalanta Fugiens performed while looking at the images and the text I can attest to its compelling qualities.  See Joscelyn Godwin, ed. and trans., Atalanta Fugiens: An Edition of the Emblems, Fugues, and Epigrams, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Phanes Press, 1989.

[98]   There are numerous instances in which the paradigmatic Tabula Smaragdina is actually quoted from; fact noteworthy in itself since the Tabula is frequently alluded to or paraphrased in other alchemical texts but relatively rarely quoted from.

[99] ‘The wind carries it in its belly’.  This is a direct quotation from the Tabula Smaragdina.

[100]   That is, in the place where his womb would be if he were a woman. 

[101]   Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle, and Unity, trans. with an introduction by Jack Lindsay, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1976, 82. First published, Castle Hedingham, Essex: The Daimon Press Ltd., 1962.

[102]   'He who tries to enter the Rose-garden of the Philosophers without the key is like a man wanting  to walk without feet'

[103] The idea of progressively more profound understanding of the nature of the universe outside the self as well as the idea of deeper and deeper levels of self-knowledge is bound up with esoteric gnosis. Gnosis is therefore associated with penetration, and therefore here penetration, like gnosis, has a dual connotation. Cf. my remarks concerning Eros and the dialectic of gnosis in: Is there a 'Feminine' Gnosis? Reflections on Feminism and Esotericism, Aries, 14 (June 1992), 16-17.

[104] The Rebis, like Hermaphroditus, is born from the two mountains of Mercury and Venus. 

[105] de Rola, op. cit., 102.

[106]   Cf. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona on artists-she has in mind those described by Mircea Eliade, and Eliade himself-who 'suspend the traditional perception of time and space by the act of 'making', an act in which we share through participating in the environment of that artwork', in her Introduction to Mircea Eliade, Symbolism the Sacred, and the Arts, ed. Apostolos-Cappadona, New York: Crossroad, 1985. The quotation appears on p. xi.