The alchemist’s motto “as above, so below” is most beautifully represented by sky and earth, particularly when they are reflected in water and appear to switch places. It was the art critic John Ruskin who pointed out that it is our habit to ignore the infinite vastness of sky. Instead, we tend to think of sky as a backdrop to the landscape. As soon as our eyes meet the sky they bounce back into the trees and bushes. Ruskin also said of Nature that she “is never distinct and never vacant, she is always mysterious, but always abundant.”
Ruskin was referring to the difficulty of distinguishing objects at a distance. From afar, we can’t tell one blade of grass from another. Far away trees tend to blur into a mass of green. I find this particularly true when I’m not wearing my glasses. Yet, in the blurring there is an abundance of things we can’t see but imagine to be present. For example, a painter would not be able to paint all the insects in the trees. One wonders what else is present in the details that our senses fail to inform.
The alchemists believed that spirit is reflected in matter and the outer world is a mirror to what we carry within. What we carry within is mostly unknown to us in the same way we don’t see the insects and other scary crawly things in the dark forest of our unconscious.
The color red of Earth and the green of vegetation and the ripening of fruit are complimentary colors, like the elements in alchemy clashing together in the struggle of life and its many challenges. Trees carry the red of Earth from their roots to the green leaves above. The alchemists consider this the ‘rootage,’ the balance between above and below. There is a similarity in how trees take in nutrients from the soil and how we learn and grow from the decomposition of our experiences. What we assimilate from life’s challenges is held in leaves at the highest branches in the sky where they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and photons from the Sun. Their green pigment absorbs light to provide energy and creates the oxygen that we breathe. It is a perfectly orchestrated dance, one that relies on our suffering as the source of our “evergreen” awakening.
Clouds are similar to leaves in the way they are suspended between Sky and Earth. They are reciprocal in their exchange of life giving water. Like leaves, they absorb from the experiences of Earth and exist suspended below the upper limits of sky. We perceive sky as neutral until wind, rain, and lightning make it heavy and more impenetrable. Gas molecules in the atmosphere scatter light waves away from our view, all except the shorter waves of blue. The color blue is the rarest color on Earth. Blue draws our attention away from the foreground and for this reason is connected in mythology to the spiritual and to what lies beyond. Blue captures our perception from the theater of life and takes it to what lies beyond the clouds and mist of our everydayness.
The night sky offers a view beyond the refraction of ideas cast by our mind during the hours of foraging and fact finding. Sky gives way to a view of the stars and planets only at night when we are able to peer beyond the darkness of what we keep hidden from ourselves and unassimilated; the parts of us we selectively ignore. It is then that the backdrop of our existence opens to stars and galaxies that appear as spotlights casting on our efforts for other immortals to marvel. If I could pull that off you will hear me laughing on the other side of my paintings.
Ruskin, J., Selected Writings (Oxford University Press 2009), p.4