“...Be thou from hell or heaven, say, what matters it, O Beauty! Fearful sphinx ingenuous, if alone. Thy foot, thine eye, thy smile, unbar the Infinite which I have always loved and never yet have known...” - Baudelaire
( i ) Queen to two Kings
Anne de Bretagne was twice queen of France. She was descended from the house of Foix on her mother Marguerite's side and during her reign she became the wealthiest and one of the most powerful women in all of Europe. Intelligent and well educated, it was said that she possessed one of the finest libraries in the world, knew several different languages and was versed in the hermetic cabala and reportedly highly clairvoyant. She was made queen by her second marriage at the tender age of 16. A description of her at the time states, “she is of small height, slender, and she walks with a visible limp, even though she wears high heels shoes to hide her deformity. She is of dark complexion and is fairly pretty. Her wit is remarkable for her age and once she has set her mind on doing something, she makes sure she succeeds, by all means necessary and at any price.”
Anne's union with Charles VIII was reputedly not a happy one and it is said she brought two beds with her to the marriage and the King and Queen often lived apart. She was crowned Queen of France at saint-Denis on 8 February 1492 and later became Queen of Sicily and titular Queen of Jerusalem following her husband's conquest of Naples. Although pregnant for most of her adult life none of the children produced by her union with Charles survived beyond early childhood.
Charles VIII died in 1498 and Anne, who was now 21 years old and still childless, returned to rule Brittany where she was rapturously received by her vassals. She ordered production of a coin bearing her name and began to gather about her court in Nantes a circle of poets and thinkers, including the Italian humanist Publio Fausto Andrelini who was to spearhead the growth of 'New Learning' in France.
Anne's third marriage ceremony, marking her union with the new king Louis XII, took place on 8 January 1499. She wore white, setting a precedent for all future brides and while her new husband formally assumed supreme executive power over Brittany he continued to recognize her sovereign right to the title 'Duchess of Brittany'. Anne would defend the Duchy's independence until the end of her days and was considered a beloved patroness by the Breton people who referred to her 'the good duchess with the wooden shoes', or sabbots as they are known in France. Of course Anne didn't really wear wooden clogs. Rather it is safe to assume that the affectionate nickname conceals more than one layer of punic meaning. Most accounts of Anne's life concern her regency, but when we start to examine the symbolism in the works of art and literature commissioned by her a whole new story begins to emerge. Hidden in plain sight, or beneath the soles of her shoes so to speak, are a wealth of esoteric analogies detailing the secret transmission of an arcane tradition.
( ii ) Her legacy
The Duchess commissioned a book of manuscripts, a 'Book of Hours', known as 'The Great Hours of Anne of Brittany' and the famous unicorn tapestries currently on display at The Cloisters museum in New York were commissioned to celebrate her wedding to Louis XII. The two most generally accepted interpretations for the cycle of tapestries hinge on pagan and Christian symbolism. The more archaic interpretations focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings attempt to reposition the unicorn and its death as a metaphor for the Passion of Christ. This revisionist thinking allowed the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original myths surrounding The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary. A third, alchemical interpretation of the imagery in the tapestries however is possible in which the unicorn becomes analogous with the White Stone as the fabled beast can only be tamed by the touch of a pure woman just as the 'White Tincture' can only be experienced by purifying the feminine forces within our beings.
“The unicorn and I are one.
He also pauses in amaze
Before some maiden's magic gaze,
And while he wonders, is undone.
On some dear breast he slumbers deep
And treason slays him in that sleep.
Just so have ended my Life's days;
So Love and my Lady lay me low.
My heart will not survive this blow.”
- Love song by the poet Thibaut, King of Navarre - 13th century
( iii ) The sepulchre
The morning of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the 21st century was unseasonably warm in Nantes. Sunlight glimmered on the tumid waters of the Loire as we made our way through the broad, river front streets towards the imposing gothic edifice of St. Pierre's Cathedral that lies just beyond the château of Anne of Brittany.
We paused to admire the profusion of gargoyles and stone effigies that adorn the cathedral's great porch. Then, as we started up the steps the great doors swung wide as if on cue and for a moment we couldn't escape the uncanny sensation that our pilgrimage had been anticipated, our every movement since arriving in Nantes somehow guided and foreshadowed by a lattice of coincidence. Certainly our timing could not have been more perfect. It was just before 11.00 am and as we stepped aside a vast, sombrely dressed procession emerged from the maw of the basilica.
Bishops, prelates and lesser clergy lead the cortège in sumptuous robes and tall hats clutching ornate staffs and croziers, followed by uniformed veterans and widows dressed in black carrying flags. It slowly dawned on us that we had arrived at the tail end of a Mass held to commemorate the French version of Memorial Day. Taking in the widows in their 'weeds', we were struck by the fact that Anne de Bretagne was the first queen to insist on wearing only black after her husband died, and joked between ourselves that she must have been one of the very first 'goths'. Did she have any idea, we wondered, how that one fashion choice would make such an impact on the generations that followed her.
Then we crossed the threshold to enter the body of the church, our eyes slowly adjusting to the hazy golden half light.
As above, so below: The mausoleum of Duke Francis II and Marguerite de Foix - created by sculptor Michel Colombe from the original designs by Jean Perreal
The mausoleum was only re-erected at its current location in the Cathedral of Saint Peter in 1819 which goes a long way towards explaining the immaculate condition of its pristine slabs and the effigies that adorn them. The ingenious work of sculptor Michel Colombe, following the elaborate plans drawn up by Jean Perreal, principal hermeticist and tomb designer to the court of Queen Anne, wears its five centuries lightly. Indeed the monument described by Fulcanelli in 'Les Demeures Philosophales' ( The Dwellings of the Philosophers, 1930 ) as 'one of the purest masterpieces of the Renaissance' is almost shocking in its modernity, as if the master sculptor laid down his chisel only days ago. The guardians of the vault, pale, implacable figures representing the four virtues, each one standing a good six feet, still hold silent vigil over the slumbering bodies of the Duke and Duchess, mute sentinels of an ancient tradition.
The reclining figures of Anne's parents are so lifelike they look as if they might awaken at any moment like characters from Perrault's Sleeping Beauty. A stone lion rests at Duke Francis's feet and beside it, at Margaurite's feet, crouches a faithful greyhound.
As above: Between the greyhound's forepaws this loyal beast guards a blazon representing the union of the house of Navarre and the house of Foix.
So Below: Saint Martha - the patron Saint of Marguerite de Foix.
Twelve smaller figures appear in sconce's set into the sides of the vault, allegedly depicting the twelve disciples but in all likelihood serving as an allegory for the solar zodiac. The figures hold what appear to be implements of torture, the implements of their martyrdom as some guide books would have us believe. On closer inspection however these tools are revealed to have a decidedly Masonic flavour, hinting at a hidden purpose.
As above, so below: Two of the 'twelve disciples'
The custom of adorning the final resting place of temporal monarchs with the houses of the Zodiac can be traced back to ancient Egypt and beyond. Tombs dating to around 3000 BC have been found to contain some very curious magical implements or 'chessboards'. On these boards there is room only for the pieces themselves – none for moving them. There are always either 7 or 13 pieces arrayed along each side of the board and, more significantly, the pieces themselves are always in he shape of crescent moons. Osiris, to whose cult these mysterious objects belonged, was a 'horned God' and his sister, Isis (or possibly his mother according to Robert Graves ) was a 'horned Goddess'. The American researcher James Vogh speculated that a lunar zodiac of thirteen houses may have existed long before the familiar solar zodiac came into common usage. He believed that the thirteenth sign may have been Arachne, the Cretan spider goddess.
One of the major pieces of evidence to support this notion is a lunar zodiac found in a mosaic (see above) at the Jewish gnostic synagogue of Beth Alpha in Israel's Jezreel Valley. It is clear that this has been altered from an original 13 house to a 12 house zodiac. In the centre of the wheel crouches a spider-like figure, arachne, with 13 items in her headdress and the crescent Moon on her left shoulder. In all likelihood the twelve disciples surrounding Christ were another representation of this zodiac just as King Arthur was said to sit at a round table surrounded by his 12 most favoured nights. In Scandinavian mythology the story of the death of Balder, the most loved of the gods, tells of how a banquet was held in Valhalla to which 12 of the gods were invited. While the feast was in progress Loki, the spirit of strife and mischief, who was not invited, turned up regardless as the thirteenth guest. He gave blind Hoder an arrow of mistletoe, tricking him into shooting and killing Balder. In the Saxon version of the story Balder is resurrected and the golden age of mankind begins.
The original story of the Sleeping Beauty follows an identical outline with 12 good faeries invited to the christening of the King's daughter. Each bestows a blessing on the child but a thirteenth evil faery, who has not been invited, appears, cursing the child with death should she ever prick her finger. Despite all precautions, she does, falling into a deep sleep. Around her the castle and it's lands also fall into a death like slumber until a brave knight finally finds his way to the princess's side. When he kisses her the knight revives not only the princess but the castle and the land itself.
As above, so below: Gustave Dore's masterful illustrations for Perrault's 'Sleeping Beauty'
The parallels in these stories are obvious. In each of them, the best beloved is killed by the most evil or weakest member of the group of 13 and desolation follows. Then the beloved one returns to life and all is well once more. Clearly then, these tales, like the enigmatic lunar counters of the Egyptian 'chessboards' and the figures that adorn the vault of Duke Francis and Duchess Marguerite, are all metaphorical representations of the cycle of the year. They tell the familiar tale of the Sun who is slain each year by the Moon only to be resurrected to bring another golden summer. The lunar year contains only twelve and a half complete cycles of the Moon. The thirteen lunar month is therefore short and 'weak'. It is in this 'weak' month that the sun 'dies'
The four guardians of the vault, the four 'virtues' demand far deeper study....
We took a step back to face Justice and were absolutely blown away by her presence. This Justice is certainly not blind, in fact she wears no veil at all and it is as if nothing escapes her gaze. There is something in her expression that is so life like and challenging and yet so knowing. The perfect representation of a warrior goddess as she stood before us with her solar sword pointed up toward the heavens.
Before Miss Scarlett could stop herself she reached over the fence to touch the nine-rayed sun that appears on the center of Justice's sword like a protective talisman, cutting herself on one of the sharp spikes of the protective fence . She didn't cry out and didn't seem to really notice that she had hurt herself. It seemed somehow right to spill a little blood in the presence of this virtue as blood is what binds us through the worlds, the blood of mortals, the blood of kings, the blood of gods and angels, the only thing that truly has the strength to resonate against the void, to give life to the unmanifest, to beat back the darkness that threatens hour by hour to devour us.
In 'Dwellings of the Philosopher's', Fulcanelli compares Colombe's image of Justice to the goddess Minerva and says that she must be regarded as the divine and creative thought, materialized in all nature, latent in ourselves as it is in everything that surrounds us. She is the veil of philosophy in which we can wrap ourselves. In her second form as Philosophy she “confers on those who espouse it a great power of investigation.” She enables penetration of the intimate construction of things which she cuts short as with her sword, discovering in it the presence of the spiritus mundi, of which the classical masters speak, and which has its center in the sun and draws its virtue and motion from the radiation of the heavenly body. She also gives knowledge of the general laws, rules, rhythms, and measures observed by nature in the elaboration, evolution, and perfection of created things (the scales). She finally establishes the possibility of acquiring sciences based on observation, meditation, faith, and written teachings (the book). By the same attributes, this image of Philosophy also teaches us the essential points of the labor of the Adepts and proclaims the necessity for manual labor imposed on seekers desiring to acquire the Great Work and the indisputable proof of its reality. Without technical research, without frequent attempts and reiterated experiments we can only go astray in a science whose best treatises carefully hide the physical principles, their application, the materials, and the time required. According to the master alchemist: “...whoever dares to claim to be a philosopher and does not want to labor for fear of cold, fatigue or the expense, must be regarded as the most vain of ignoramuses, or the most shameless of imposters.”
As we worked our way around the vault we were unprepared for the beauty of Strength. She is exquisitely, delicately feminine, with intricately laced flowers that cover the breasts on her armour. Her head is adorned with a conch shell like helmet with the nose of a lion on top. The braids of her hair, so reminiscent of those three enigmatic braids worn by the fair Esclarmonde de Foix, the so-called 'white lady' of Montsegur, would seem to be hieroglyphs for solar radiation, indicating that the Great Work, subjected to the influence of the heavenly body, cannot be performed without the dynamic collaboration of the sun. The braid ( in Greek seira) is adopted to represent the vibrational energy, because, among the ancient Hellenic people, the sun was called seir.
The midsection of this guardian fascinated us with her fish scales reminiscent of a mermaid that lead into a wavelike flower radiating from her belly button, surrounded by a solar symbol. The mermaid is frequently used in hermetic symbolism to characterize the union of the nascent sulphur ( the fish ) with common ( or virgin ) mercury in the philosophical mercury or 'salt of wisdom'. According to Fulcanelli the image of the mermaid may also allude to the alchemical 'Twelfth Night cake', to which the Greeks gave the same name as to the Moon, Selena (selene). This word, formed from the Greek roots (selas), brightness, and (ele), solar light, was chosen by the initiates to show that the philosophical mercury draws its brightness from sulphur just as the moon receives its light from the sun. An analogous reason caused the name siren (seiren), to be attributed to the mythical monster resulting from the combination of a woman and a fish; serein, a contraction of (seir), sun and (mene), moon, also indicates the mercurial lunar matter combined with the sulphurous solar substance. Therefore it is a translation identical to that of the Twelfth Night cake, adorned with the sign of light and spirituality: the cross, evidence of the real incarnation of the solar ray, emanating from the universal father, into heavy matter, matrix of all things, and the terra inanis et vacua (worthless and empty earth) of the Scriptures.
"Wearing a matron headdress with a throat collar" Michel Colombe’s third guardian, the virtue Temperance, according to Dubuisson-Aubenay's Itinerary in Brittany, written in 1636, “...is dressed in simple clothes, a bridle with bit in one hand and in the other, the pendulum of a clock or the balance wheel of a watch..". In her left hand the statue holds a case decorated with a weight-driven clock, a customary model of the 16th century, seemingly a hieroglyph for time itself, the sole master of wisdom - and, like the hourglass, an emblem of Saturn. According to Fulcanelli however the esoteric scope of Temperance lies entirely in the bridle which she holds in her right hand. “...It is with the bridle that the horse is driven; by means of this bit, the cavalier directs his mount as he pleases. So the bridle can be considered as the essential instrument, the mediator placed between the will of the cavalier and the progress of the horse, toward the proposed objective. This means is designated in hermeticism by the name of cabala. So that the special expression of the bridle, that of restraint and of direction, allow one to identify and recognize, under a single symbolic form, Temperance and the Cabalistic Science...”
Both Fulcanelli and wikipedia make an interesting, indeed crucial, distinction between the hermetic cabala and the Hebraic Kabbala insisting that the two terms have nothing in common, save their pronunciation. “...The Hebrew Kabbala is only concerned with the Bible; it is therefore strictly limited to sacred exegesis and hermeneutics. Hermetic cabala concerns books, texts and documents of the esoteric sciences of Antiquity, of the Middle Ages and of modern times. While the Hebraic kabbala is but a process based on the decomposition and explanation of each word or letter, the hermetic cabala on the contrary is a genuine language. And as the great majority of didactic treatises of ancient sciences are written in cabala or as they use this language in their essential passages; as the Great Art itselff, on Artephius’ own confession, is completely cabalistic, the reader cannot understand any of it if he does not possess at least the first elements of the secret idiom..”.
In the words of the master alchemist the hermetic cabala is “...a precious key allowing whoever possesses it to open the doors of the sanctuaries, of these closed books which are the works of traditional science, to extract their spirit, to see their secret meaning...” Allegedly known to Jesus and his apostles the cabala was used in the Middle Ages by philosophers, scientists, men of letters, and diplomats. Knights belonging to Orders and knights-errant, troubadours, trouveres, and minstrels, travelling students of the famous school of magic at Salamanca, “...whom we call Venusbergs because they were said to come from the mountain of Venus and discussed among themselves in the language of the gods...”
The Latin word Caballus and the Greek word kaballes both mean pack-horse but here the pack referred to would seem to be the sum total of ancient knowledge and medieval chivalry, the heavy baggage of esoteric truth transmitted down through the ages. Any language is capable of conveying this hidden message or becoming cabalistic through double meanings. We detect it's echoes in the works of great initiates such as Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Plato, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe and Swift , in the myth cycle of the Round Table and of the Grail; in the works of Francois Rabelais and Cyrano de Bergerac, in Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose and Thibault de Champagne's Songs of the King of Navarre. According to Fulcanelli “...The cabala and symbolism use different paths to reach the same goal and merge into the same teaching. They are the two master pillars erected on the corner stones of the philosophical foundation that support the alchemical temple of wisdom.”
The last of the virtues was the most simple, humble and perfect of them all. Prudence stands tranquilly peering into her looking glass. Anne de Bretagne seems to have deliberately chosen this aspect to bear her own countenance, her composed features staring placidly into a mirror of stone. Only on closer inspection does this guardian's most startling aspect become readily apparent. The figure is double faced...
On the back of Anne's head appears the carving of a bearded old man, bringing to mind the god Janus, he of beginnings, endings and doorways into the Otherworld, a subtle play perhaps on both the dual nature of the Duchess and on two worlds existing side by side, 'on reality' and it's shadow, the perfect combination of masculine and feminine principles, of the sun and the Moon, the exoteric outer realm of surface appearances and the inner world of hermetic truth. Of all the images we had seen in this place this curious, hieratic figure seemed to come the closest to embodying the true nature of magic, of encapsulating the subtle dualities of the Western esoteric tradition. It seems entirely appropriate that Anne would lend her own face to Prudence, making her effectively the 'first and last and always.'
At the base of the statue her foot is crushing a viper, which is in the throes of a death spasm, signifying her will to crush the heads of her enemies while preparing for the chemical wedding. Her mirror too carries a complex double meaning which is far cry from vanity. It could be the representation of Yesod, reflecting the cabbalistic world, the mask of the moon. The master alchemist himself thought her mirror was an image of “Truth which was always considered by the classical authors as the hieroglyph for the universal matter, and in particular was recognized among them as a sign of the very substance of the Great Work. Subject of the Sages, Mirror of the Art are hermetic synonyms which veil from common men the true name of the secret mineral. It is in this mirror, say the masters, that man can see nature unveiled. Thanks to this mirror, he can know the ancient truth in its traditional realism. For nature never shows herself to the seeker, but only through the intermediary of this mirror which holds its reflected image.”
In her left hand the figure of Prudence holds a compass which is a tool used for measurements whose significance we need not explain to all you fellow brothers out there. To be brief it is an instrument in which one can complete the perfect circle, an allegory for the beginning and the ending, whose proportions are only known to Nature herself. In the system of the Jewish Kabbala this perfect balance is elegantly expressed in these passages from the Lesser Holy Assembly; “When the Bride is united to the King in the excellence of the Sabbath, then are all things made one body... the beauty of the female is completed by the beauty of the male... When the Mother is united to the King, the worlds receive a blessing and are found in the joy of the universe.”
The identity of their creator is lost to us now and their original intended purpose, possibly as a tool of mystical instruction rather than an instrument of divination, must perforce remain a mystery. Monsieur Perreal travelled and worked extensively in Italy so that he would almost certainly have come into contact with these images. After years of painting royal portraits one of the last things that he ever painted was an allegorical image, curiously titled 'The Lament of Nature to the Wandering Alchemist'.
( iv ) Coda - extracting the heart
After fourteen unsuccessful pregnancies Anne of Brittany's third marriage succeeded in producing two female heirs – Claude, whose congenital deformity did not prevent her from becoming Queen consort to Francis 1 and Renee who was to become the Duchess of Chartres. In 1554 Renee was accused of heresy and forced to recant on pain of losing her lands, titles and possessions.
Anne herself failed to survive the winter of 1513-14, succumbing to a kidney-stone attack at the Château of Blois. She was interred in the necropolis of Saint Denis following a funeral of exceptional length, lasting a full 40 days and inspiring all future French royal funerals.
According to her will Anne's heart was placed in an enamel gold reliquary designed by Jean Perreal before being borne back to Nantes where it was deposited in the vault she had constructed for her parents. Following the revolution the reliquary was exhumed by order of the National Convention and seized as part of a collection of precious metals pertaining to churches. It was kept in the National Library instead of being melted down however and was later returned to Nantes where it is currently on display in the Musée Dobrée.