Three ravens: Black, white, and the red that brings all things to an end
In Dead Leaves, movement out of the labyrinth is symbolized in the flight of birds. Varo included a winged aspect of the whitening in the form of two birds that emerge from the stone passageway in the torso of the faceless black figure. Although the first whitening in alchemy refers to “unworked innocence,” and thus the patriarchal definition of virginity, the second whitening is suggested in the form of a bird, “a white and gleaming condition of the soul” (Hillman, 2010: 129, 128). In Varo’s painting, the flight from the labyrinth of the white bird hints at the presence of a woman who is “one-in-herself,” which Esther Harding describes as the older meaning of virgin (1971: 105).
Varo also hinted at the crystallization of the alchemical process, the rubedo, or reddening, in Dead Leaves by painting a red bird emerging from the labyrinth. In the alchemical reddening, the passionate activity of the soul, the feminine Eros, is resurrected “and revivifies matter, crowning it in beauty and pleasure” (Marian, 2005:190). This “ ‘final stage’ of the alchemical transformation,” wrote Jungian analyst Stanton Marian, brings about “the final dissolution of sunlit consciousness” (191), for the reddening—and the goal of alchemy—has at its core a relationship to darkness that holds the mysterious forces of the transcendent Self and the unknowable essence of the unconscious. That the white and red birds fly out together points to the relationship between the alchemical opus and the second whitening, brought forth through the distillation and assimilation of complexes, the differentiation of the numinous Self, and a relationship with its transcendent forces such that one belongs to, and is one in, one’s Self. Alchemically speaking, the reddening, or revivification and birth of new forms, requires the white virgin, the archetypal state in which soulful creativity is perpetually inseminated from the spirit within (which is why women do not need muses).
In revisiting Varo’s painting Sympathy, we find the artist linking revivification and vibrancy with her relationship with the objective unconscious. In this painting, the cat, the table and cloth, and the woman and the chair the woman sits on, are all colored richly in red. Because of their ability to hunt at night, cats are associated with the ability to see in the dark, and thus with the moon and the underworld. Alchemically, the cat in Sympathy brings in the reddening, the reconstituted and revivified personality now animated with cosmic energy, symbolized by gold sparks of revelation shooting into the room. A gold liquid spills from the table onto the floor, soaking the foundation of the room in knowledge and insight.
In her painting The Weaver of Verona, Varo provides a different glimpse into the process of reddening: The personality, solidified by storm and stress, is woven from an inner figure (Edinger, 1985: 85). In this image, a dark-haired woman with bluish-grey skin sits in the back of a room, in a black chair. With knitting needles, the woman weaves a surprising garment—a giantess, a woman with red hair made from golden threads that loop and swirl into the air on an invisible loom. In Varo’s painting, the red woman being woven from the golden threads appears as if she is ready to fly from a room high in a tower out into a city filled with other towers.
In a similar painting, The Red Weaver, an image Varo painted in 1956, the same year she created The Weaver of Verona, the skin and clothing of the woman weaving the red giantess is colored a blue so deep as to almost appear black. The woman weaves the red giantess from blue thread that spools into the room through a window, a blue mist of clouds hinting at the source of the thread being used to give life to the red giantess who is readying herself to take flight through an opening in the tower wall.
In the foreground of the painting, a black cat paws a black-and-blue colored ball of yarn. The yarn is both a toy and the material from which the cat comes into being. Play, Varo seems to suggest, is for the kitten a selfgenerating, life-giving process. “Black cats,” wrote Sandra Thomson, “are often considered symbols of death and darkness and, therefore, associated with the moon and all that is ‘dark’ (shadow) about the feminine, including feminine calculation, mystery, and hidden wisdom” (2003: 91). In The Red Weaver, the animating presence of the black kitten seems to place an emphasis on the looming birth of the woven red giantess. With the imagery, Varo seems to suggest that the alchemical reddening, the consolidation and revivification of the personality, is made possible through a playful engagement with shadow and imagination, symbolized as a conjunction of color (the kitten whose fur is both black and blue).
One of the more obvious places Varo used the color red, as a possible hint at the reddening and the coagulation of new elements coming together within her psyche, is in the flowing manes of hair of the women in her many painted self-portraits. For a woman artist such as Varo, hair carries symbolic power. “The vitality of hair is stunning,” writes an essayist in The Book of Symbols (“Hair,” 2010: 346). In all three paintings in her triptych—Toward the Tower, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, and The Escape—the hair of the maidens is light red, suggesting a latent rubedo and innate vitality. In the third panel, The Escape, the maiden’s hair is longer, a clue that the woman has escaped the conformity enforced in her early training in the convent and that her connection to the man with whom she escaped is maturing beyond the naivete of an innocent girl. A striking difference is found when we compare the red hair in each of the paintings in the triptych with that of the woman in Dead Leaves, whose richly-dark reddish-orange hair flows down below her waist, suggesting her potency in relationship to the rubedo as she winds into herself the ball of yarn that had been knitted into the unseen passageways of the labyrinthine unconscious.
1 The words “rendered visible” are from the artist Paul Klee. They signify his thought that “art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible” the invisible. See: Klee, P. (1961). Notebooks, Volume 1: The Thinking Eye (J. Spiller, Ed.) (p. 76). London, UK: Lund Humphries.
Cheetham, T. (2012). All the world an icon: Henry Corbin and the angelic function of beings. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Edinger, E. (1985). Anatomy of the psyche: Alchemical symbolism in psychotherapy. La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Hair. (2010). In A. Ronnberg & K. Martin (Eds.), The book of symbols: Reflections on archetypal images (346-9). Cologne, Germany: Taschen.
Harding, E. (1971). Women’s mysteries. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Hauck, D. W. (1999). The emerald tablet: Alchemy for personal transformation. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Hillman, J. (2010). Alchemical psychology. Putman, CT: Spring Publications.
Jung, C. G. (1955-56/1970). Mysterium coniunctionis (R. E C. Hull, Trans.) (H. Read et al., Eds.), The collected works ofC. G. Jung (Vol. 14, 2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kaplan, J. (1988). Unexpected journeys: The art and life of Remedios Varo. New York, NY: Abbeville Press.
Marian, S. (2005). The black sun: The alchemy and art of darkness. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
McLean, A. (1979). The birds in alchemy. Hermetic Journal, 5. Retrieved from www.levity.com/alchemy/alcbirds.html
Thomson, S. A. (2003). Pictures from the heart: A tarot dictionary. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Varo, R. (1997/2018). Letters, dreams & other writings (M. Carson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press.
White. (2010). In A. Ronnberg & K. Martin (Eds.), The book of symbols: Reflections on archetypal images (660-1). Cologne, Germany: Taschen.
Birds and eggs