Juan de Valdes Leal (1622-1690) was a Spanish painter of the Baroque era. His style was considered mature and bordered on the macabre, with flagrant brushstrokes and much going on in the background. Only two allegories in his work on the transience of life and death, which he himself is said to have described as “hieroglyphs of our after life”, have remained truly popular. This is the Wikipedia version, but in looking closer at the imagery one realizes that there is so much more happening. Finis Gloriae Mundi and In Icti Occuli translate to “the end of the glory of the world in the blink of an eye”. This was also the title of the master alchemist Fulcanelli’s third book, which was never published (the one out now is supposedly a fake). The task of editing Fulcanelli’s books fell upon his adept, Eugene Canseliet, author, artist and alchemist, who in his own words said, “It is only for Finis Gloriae Mundi that a few notes were actually written and they were not included in the parcel with the other notes. I don’t know why. I have used those texts, since they were outside, in order to get an idea of what the third book might have been like. What would have been in actuality, I have no idea. But Fulcanelli wanted the parcel back and he took it from me. Perhaps there were very serious matters in there.”

Canseliet continues, “The two texts that were published from these notes appeared in the second edition of the Mysteries of the Cathedrals and in Dwellings of the Philosophers. They are chapters dealing respectively with the cyclical cross of Hendaye and the paradox of the unlimited progress of sciences.” Having read through these passages many times, they contain dire warnings about the future of nuclear energy and the coming age of iron, the age of death. The first edition of Mysteries of the Cathedrals was published by Jean Schmidt in 1926. Then it was republished again in 1957 with the added chapter on the cyclical cross of Hendaye. An account of the cross was originally written up by Jules Boucher in 1936, but Fulcanelli took it one step further by identifying it with the four ages of a man. The first age was the Creda Yuga, or the age of innocence, when innocence was firmly established on earth. The second age, the Treda Yuga, corresponding to the age of silver. The third age, the Trouvabara Yuga, or the age of bronze. Finally, the age of iron, the fourth and last age and the one that we currently live in, the Kuli Yunga, the age of misery, misfortune, and decrepitude. These four ages in Hindu mythology can be attributed to the form of a cow that symbolizes virtue, and goes from standing on four legs, to a final and weakened state, barely able to balance on one leg. Fulcanelli also leaves us with this little mystery written on the cross, “OXCRUXAVES PENUNICA” which could be read “O crux ave spes unica“(Hail o cross, the only hope) but the translation should read unicus not unica. In using the “secret language of the birds” or the green language” a phonetic wordplay with it’s origins in ancient Greek, by using a permutation of the vowels, Fulcanelli comes up with this sentence, “Il est ecrit que la vie se refugie en un seul espace” (it is written that life takes refuge within a single space). 

Back to our Spanish painter Valdes Leal. His benefactor, Don Miguel de Manara, was a Knight of the Order of Calatrava, and whose life was rumored to be the inspiration behind one the many Don Juan myths of the time. Old Don even has an opera named after him composed by Franco Alfano. One late night, coming home from a raucous party (supposed orgy), after living a life of decadence, Don Miguel had a horrifying and life-changing vision. The vision consisted of a large funeral procession, and when he looked in on the open casket, he realized that the corpse inside was none other than himself, only as a dead man.  After that he cleaned up his act and became a benefactor of the Hospital de la Caridad and the attached church, originally opened to help the poor and the down and out, as penance for his previous life. It is his epitaph that really says a lot about the kind of man that he might have been, “Here lies the bones and ashes of the worst person who ever lived on earth.”  His last will and testament contains the most humble self accusations, not only as a “great sinner”, but also an “adulterer, robber, and servant of the devil”. All in all, it’s a pretty damning depiction.

Finis Gloriae Mundi, the glory of the end of the world. The painting might be based off of Don Miguel de Manara’s vision of his funeral procession. If so, that’s him lying with his eyes wide open, no signs of decay as though freshly dead, or undead, the herald of the Knights of Calatrava readily visible on his arm. To his left  is the corpse of a bishop in a state of extreme decay with bugs crawling over it. In the background is a female hand bearing the mark of the crucifixion which emerges from the clouds holding a set of scales. The words nimas (neither more) and nimenos (nor less) can be read together as “neither too many, nor too few”. On the left set of scales there appears to be a snarling lamb of god ( it looks more like a puppy), a skull of a goat which could symbolize the ‘golden fleece’ which is interesting because Fulcanelli states that the ‘art gotique’ as ‘argot’ was the secret language of the Argonauts, those who manned the Argo on its voyage to “the felicitous shores of Colchis”. Hence, the symbolic language or the very architecture of the great cathedrals’ becomes the vessel, the “argot” whereby the truth, symbolized by the fleece, is transmitted across the ages. On this same train of thought, there was also an “Order of the Golden Fleece” that was closely connected to the “Order of Calatrava”. Also depicted is a toad (familiar), a fan of peacock feathers (vanity), and a heart. Again a heart on the right set of scales but with the initials IHS (Jesus Hominum Salvator),  a closed book ( subtext), a loaf of bread, and religious adornments. Don Juan appears to be staring glassy eyed at the left set of scales. There is an ominous looking owl perched on the third of the seven steps that lead to the light, staring towards the bishop. The French word for owl comes from “chouette” from the old Occitan word “chou”. In Greek, “chous” signifies tumulus, or the mound above a tomb. In old Khem, “Shu” or “Chou” is the light of the east that divides heaven and earth. He represents thought and consciousness. This nocturnal bird of prey also symbolizes Lucifer. In this painting its body is in the shadow of the stairway, while its head is in the light. Night being the symbol of death and the head bearing the light: the two aspects of Lucifer, at once the guardian of the underworld, but also the” bearer of light”.

In Icti Occuli, or in the blink of an eye. The allegory of death presents the triumph of the grim reaper, who sweeps into the picture as an imposing figure. One skeletal foot stand on the globe, while the other stands on armaments the trappings of office and insignia of power. Under his arm he carries a coffin and in his hand a scythe. His right hand snuffs out the life-light represented by the candle as he stares at the viewer from the very depths of his empty eye sockets. The candle stick and the bishop’s cross form a radius over the bishop’s hat in which death is snuffing out the flame at the top. On the coffin rests pontifical robes, a bishop’s crosier, a papal cross and tiara. Close to the tiara, two royal crowns rest on some purple fabric. From one hangs the chain of the “Order of the Golden Fleece”, the pendant which represents Saint Michael slaying the dragon. Notice the open book with the architectural drawing which looks to be the drawing of a cathedral. This same image turns up in another one of his paintings as well. There are always the pictures of open and closed texts, knowledge open and knowledge hidden. Printed on the spines of the three books represented can be found the words: history, science, and religion – the vanities of this world.

This curious portrait also hangs in the chapel, a strangely related picture that might make this series a trinity. It’s Don Juan again with his beloved emblem (“Leyendo la regal de la Caridad“- he must have really loved to have his portrait painted.)  Once again the open and closed books are featured – symbols of closed or half-hidden knowledge (i.e.:- occult or esoteric). The odd looking child (or dwarf?) in the habit seems to be saying, “ Shhhh - don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret, but I’ve been reading that somehow, someway, 17th C. Don Juan knows exactly what a mushroom, cloud looks like. He’s pointing right to it!” Perhaps it is a surmise to the description of the first two paintings, or a warning of how one could truly end the world in the blink of an eye. “Behold I show you a mystery; We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed.”

There are theories pertaining to these paintings that the imagery and the way that they are positioned on the walls have to do with the coming rotation of the earth’s poles, which was a favorite pet hypothesis of Fulcanelli’s and he gives a significant warning about it at the end of Mysteries of the Cathedrals and in Dwellings of the Philosophers. Roughly every 12,000 thousand years, under the sign of Leo or under that of Aquarius, Saturn brandishes his scythe and with his foot tips the earth on its axis. He is, in alchemy, the secret fire which purifies matter. In Dwellings of the Philosophers, Fulcanelli sagely writes, “… human evolution expands and develops between the two scourges. Water and fire, agents of all material mutations, work together during the same time and each in an opposing terrestrial region. And since the solar movement – that is to say the ascension of the star to the zenith of the pole – remains the great driving force of the elemental conflagration, the result is that the northern hemisphere is, alternately, submerged at the end of one cycle and charred at the completion of the following…One must await with sangfroid the supreme hour, that of punishment for many, and martyrdom for others.”