The Great Work, the “transmutation of vile metals into gold”. This is the specific name that the alchemists gave to the grandiose process of transmutation of the interiority of the human being proper to every spiritual science, which is the only source of initiation. The peculiarity of alchemy in comparison with other ways is that this process of initiation took place by means of laboratory experiments, the alchemical transmutations, which had both an exterior appearance, in the form of a chemical reaction, and an interior appearance, of transformation of the human soul. The purpose of the Great Work was, on the one hand, to separate the human soul from the imprisonment of the physical body filled with matter, and on the other hand to join it in a spiritual marriage, the “chemical marriage”, with the spirit.
Body, soul and spirit: man is therefore tripartite being in the image and likeness of the creator who in all the most ancient traditions of humanity presents three aspects. These aspects are known in Christianity as: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We shall refer to this nomenclature as part of the Western translation: the Holy Spirit is the creative intelligence, as his very name indicates, the source of the highest part of man, which gives him individual self-consciousness, the spirit, which is capable of giving form. The Son is life, the source of the median part of man, which weaves between the high and the low, giving the ability to feel and share the whole of existence beyond the external differences, the soul, lives it in the processes of time. Finally, the Father as the origin of creation is the source of the body, the part that gives man existence in space.
The experiments took place through the Athanor, “the Without Death,” a furnace which represented outwardly the outer space of their soul. The experiments thus conducted were very profound spiritual experiences that allowed the Rosicrucian to become a sharer in the reality of the spiritual worlds, in the activity of the angelic hierarchies, and to perceive the spiritual individuality incarnated in man. This occult activity of the Rosicrucians is described in the words of Rudolf Steiner:
In reality, nothing was ever written about this inner work, and what was written about it was always by people who, ignoring the true condition of things, considered external phenomena as an end in themselves. Only a false alchemist considered the value in the obtained matter and in its use. A true alchemist did not consider at all the matter he obtained through the process, but only the process itself and the experiences derived from it. The contemplation of the process and the inner experiences, intellectual and moral, were important to him. That is why it was a strict law for all of them never to sell for money, but only to give away the material obtained. The man of today does not even have a fair idea of what he can feel in front of such natural phenomena. The medieval theosophist experienced a whole drama of the soul, while he obtained a metal in his laboratory. From the process that was needed, for example, to obtain antimony came the experimental alchemist, enormous moral experiences, and these things had to precede the current scientific investigation. It was a sacred natural science, the one that was being pursued by experts.
It is therefore necessary to make a distinction: where in antiquity laboratory alchemy was practiced, there were two main approaches to operational practice. There were those who practiced alchemy for the sole purpose of producing metallic gold, and those who, while employing the same identical alchemical operations, were well aware that the production of metallic gold is but a by-product of the process of producing philosophical gold. Thus, in history we can distinguish between the false alchemists and the true ones. The false alchemists were the so-called Blowers, who tried to make physical gold in order to exploit it to increase their wealth, ingratiating themselves with the powerful and reigning, always dependent on other people’s weaknesses. While the true alchemists were the Rosicrucians, those who, by practicing spiritual alchemy together with physical alchemy, infused the Spirit into matter in their laboratory operations. The Rosicrucians knew well the occult maxim that there is no spiritual operation that has no effect in matter and vice versa there is no material operation that has no spiritual effect. Each of their experiments led to an outward result which, however, had no value for the Rosicrucians: the metallic gold thus produced was donated in a completely anonymous form. In this the true Rosicrucian alchemists distinguished themselves from the Blowers who, desecrating their athanor, sought to accelerate the process of transmutation of physical metals into metallic gold. These were the ones who originated “chemistry” as an entirely external form of alchemy.
The Great Work was composed of a series of stages, varying in number according to the resolution with which they were observed and distinguished in their qualities. These stages were articulated in paths of activation of the centers of the subtle bodies, the so-called chakras in the Eastern nomenclature, which are true organs of the soul. The Rosicrucian alchemists saw the seven chakras as the seven planets, just as in the macrocosm there were 7 planets, just as in man there were 7 organs in both the physical body and the soul. These chakras are partly formed, by the powers of the angelic hierarchies, and partly still in formation: the stages of the Great Work therefore correspond to the awakening of the chakras, of the organs of the soul, so that the alchemist could perceive the realities of the super-sensitive worlds, of the world of life, soul and spirit.
Let us now see the main stages in which the Great Work is composed:
1. Nigredo, the black work
In Alchemy the Earth is associated with Nigred, the state of decomposition of earthly man that leads to a subsequent purification of the elements. It is a deep melancholic state of depression, the Dark Night of the Soul, the Secret of the Raven who feeds on carrion, which, though dead, gives him life. It is the beginning of every genuine spiritual path, which begins with the mortification and dissolution of all that is material illusion, separating the soul from the cravings, instincts and automatisms of the body.
At this stage the false image of the inferior ego is deposited, the vices decompose by darkening the shell that holds the soul captive. The seven planetary chakras are crossed in the order in which they are found in the occult system of the planets, that is, in the geocentric system: Saturn – Jupiter – Mars – Sun – Venus – Mercury – Moon.
2. Albedo, the white work
In Alchemy, Water represents the purifying agent, the one that washes the ashes of Nigredo and leads to Albedo, when the soul washes away all its waste. The new purity acquired by the soul is the result of suffering, it sets the conditions so that the soul can now acquire a new life in unison with the Spirit. It is the Secret of the Swan, who lives his life in the purity of absolute fidelity to his companion and sings only once at the moment of his death.
At this stage the soul awakens to new life, having been purified of all its corruptible components. New life dawns in her. The path is a spiral through the seven planetary chakras: Sun – Venus – Mars – Mercury – Jupiter – Moon – Saturn.
3. Citrinitas, the dawning of the spirit
The ripening of the albedo leads to a further change, i.e. from the whiteness of the soul to a pale citrine yellow glow.
In Alchemy, the Air represents the animating agent of things, the one who brings the dawn of spiritual knowledge to the purified soul in the Albedo. The alchemist’s soul is tinged with yellow as it grows in wisdom and thus reaches Citrinitas. Wisdom, in fact, is not the point of arrival, but the means to move on to the next stages of the Great Work. That is why the Secret of the Peacock is hidden there: the multicolored vision of the peacock’s tail announces that the path to the spirit has finally unfolded, but it is also because of its colorful being that it disorients those who are looking for an easy inflation of the soul in the astral world.
4. Rubedo, the red work
In Alchemy, Fire is the principle of each transmutation. The heat applied to alchemical transmutations is slow and constant, unlike the violent and abrupt chemical reactions. Alchemy in itself is modulation of the fire of the alchemist’s will, in contrast to the heat of chemism, which is explosive and sudden. The stage associated with fire is the Rubedo, that is, the stage in which the will is capable of making the free sacrifice of itself, the Secret of the Phoenix, which dies and is reborn from its own ashes.
The soul purified and permeated with wisdom is finally able to make the sacrifice of the lower self (the astral ego) and is clothed in the red of Christ’s blood. The astral ego bleeds from the cross of the elements where it has been crucified, so that all the forces living in the soul can finally unite in the center, the place where a void is made capable of uniting opposites and opposites. For the spirit to manifest itself in the soul, in fact, it must make itself hollow, like a chalice ready to receive the Holy Host. Here the planetary chakras are crossed in a dance that alternates subsolar and suprasolar planets: Sun – Moon – Mars – Mercury – Jupiter – Venus – Saturn.
5. Auredo, the gold work
In Alchemy the Spirit is associated with the fifth and final phase of the Great Work, the Auredo, when the Spirit of man becomes one with the Spirit of the Sun who is Christ, so that man becomes a “Christopher” a “Bearer of Christ”, a man who radiates spirit and life from himself as the Sun radiates light and life. This is the fifth secret stage of the Great Work, it is the sum and overcoming of all previous stages. In the final stage of the Great Work the soul is sanctified and begins to shine with its own light, golden. “Ours is not the gold of the vulgar,” the gold of philosophers was made within the human soul by the action of the solar spirit. Once the Rubedo is complete, the sacrifice of the Soul to the Spirit is complete: the lower self has been completely transformed and expanded into the higher self, following the motto of St. Paul: “Not I, but Christ in me!”. In this way what was a personal selfishness becomes extended to the whole of humanity, overturning in altruism. The planetary chakras are crossed in the same order of cosmic evolution, that is, the cosmic week: Saturn (Saturday) – Sun (Sunday) – Moon (Monday) – Mars (Tuesday) – Mercury (Wednesday) – Jupiter (Thursday) – Venus (Friday). We then return to Saturn, but now an octave above the first accomplishment of the Great Work, thus reaching the stage of Vulcan, he who is the great alchemist and forger of metals.
The Auredo, is the authentic creation of philosophical gold, the Philosopher’s Stone, the so-called Summum Bonum and is also called the secret of the Holy Grail. The chalice of the soul is finally able to welcome the solar spirit. Just as Christ was welcomed into the chalice of Jesus of Nazareth at baptism in the River Jordan, so now the Spirit is welcomed into the chalice of the soul in the new baptism of Fire. Finally, the soul is tinged with the red of Christ’s blood. From this holy union, from the soul of man and the spirit of Christ, a golden splendor arises which progressively transmutes the soul and even the physical body into light. Ultimately, the good part of all that is mortal becomes immortal, even the archetype of the physical body: the so-called Body of the Resurrection. The Rosicrucians, in fact, in the union of the symbol of the cross with roses, saw the fact that the soul was purifying itself by means of alchemical transmutations, finally coming to overcome the death of the cross in a spiritual resurrection. Christ himself in his body was the philosopher’s stone, while his blood was the elixir of long life, that is, the bread and blood of the Eucharist, the solid bodily and liquid vital form of the conquest of solar self-consciousness, the Sun being the luminary from which the gold itself originates. The philosopher’s stone was represented as a perfect cube which, as it unfolded, became the cross of the physical body; the elixir of long life was the blood flowing from the five wounds inflicted in the crucifixion, which, falling to the ground on the Mount of Golgotha, the Skull, ensured that the soul did not die in the tomb of matter but could flourish like roses.
Christ as the Spirit of the Sun who becomes the Spirit of the Earth, through death and resurrection, shared in all the alchemical transmutations of the alchemist Rosicrucian, until his resurrection in spirit. This resurrection was both human and divine, earthly and celestial, so that when the alchemist had finally obtained the philosophical gold, he not only had obtained the immortality of the consciousness of the spirit, but at the same time he had infused a drop of gold into matter, even into the center of the Earth, so that in the future the planet could become the new Sun.