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American Metaphysical Religion, Ronnie Pontiac

Roots of American Metaphysical Religion #1: The Slacker Emperor

Prague Castle at night.

 What is a Bohemian?

Bohemian.  The word in English is a polite way of dismissing a beatnik, hippie, or hipster.  To say that someone is bohemian accuses them of being artistic, kooky, way out of the ordinary, probably devoted to underground arts or shady spiritual pursuits.

In the early 19th century the French occultist Papus wrote a book called The Tarot of the Bohemians.  Today the title inspires visions of disheveled hipsters shuffling cheap plastic cards hoping to divine the future.  People have forgotten Bohemia was a country in central Europe.  How did the name of the people of what we now call Czechoslovakia become a synonym for counterculture?

The ass cheeks of Anubis support the wheel of fortune.

The paranoia shared by today’s progressives and conservatives alike is fear of a surveillance state: a society where nothing is private, where everything happening everywhere is known by the authorities, whose arbitrary decisions about how to treat that information govern everyone’s lives.  Brave new world, we call it, or 1984.  But the surveillance state existed in the Dark Ages thanks to the confessional.  The Catholic sacrament of confession allowed Roman Catholic authorities access to information from the lowest to the highest levels of society.  The Pope didn’t need the internet or cameras, he had the confessions of all Catholics.

Then the renaissance broke like dawn over the Dark Ages, bringing with it renewed interest in the pagan wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus, and the Mysteries of Orpheus, made available by Ficino and his circle of Florentine Platonists.  Individual freedom seemed possible again.  Why must a man turn to a priest for forgiveness and a relationship with the divine when the pagan mysteries promised every person that right?

A page of Ficino’s translation of Plato with beautiful hand painted decorations.

Next came the Reformation.  Luther reduced the individualizing ideals of the renaissance to the unanswerable questions he nailed on that church door; unanswerable because to answer them honestly would have meant the end of Catholic domination of the political and religious life of Europe.  Protestant beliefs flourished in the Netherlands, in England, in Germany, and even within the borders of Spain, France, Austria and Italy itself, so near the Pope’s throne.

In 1555 began the longest peace in German history when the powers of Europe ended their endless war by agreeing that religious differences would be recognized by territory.  But the legitimacy of the new forms of Christianity was never allowed.  If a high ranking church official decided to follow the new faith that was alright with mother church, no inquisition or burning would be necessary, but their lands and all their resources would always belong to the Vatican.

Though it produced peace, no one was happy with this agreement.  The Jesuits wanted to win back Europe for the true faith and stamp out dangerous heresies throughout Germany and England.   The new Protestant merchant class, the ancestors of today’s business men, were impatient with their lower legal status, which created all sorts of complications when going before the courts.   And true reformers of the new faiths were angry that the Pope would not give them formal recognition; they, in fact, believed their own forms of Christianity superior to Catholicism, which they considered tainted by paganism idolatry, and power.

Vatican idolatry or Liberace’s decorator?

The Counter-Reformation was beginning.  Jesuits were busy hatching plans to regain power over Europe.  They would force all Europeans, from slaves to royalty, back into the confessionals.  But the Catholic church was no longer a monolith obedient to the Pope’s will.  In fact, the powers of Europe were three.  For centuries the church relied on one family, the Hapsburgs, to provide successors to the throne of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Rudolf’s father and grandfather may have been Holy Roman Emperors, but the Hapsburgs of Austria controlled much less than their cousins, whose kingdom included key possessions in Germany, Italy, and the New World.  The most powerful man in Europe was Philip II, King of Spain.

In Italy at the Vatican the Pope and his Jesuits schemed, manipulating the political power in the west against that in the east.  Drawing wealth from the New World, confident that it had been divinely granted for the saving of souls, they felt as ready to conquer the Protestant savages as they were to conquer the natives of the Americas.   After all, Catholic bishops still controlled entire cities from Germany to Mexico.

But a third religion was in the mix, a religion so pervasive even Catholics were reading its texts and experimenting with its practices.  The third religion was the catalyst for changes so radical they were the beginnings of the modern world.

European Metaphysical Religion blended together astrology, Neoplatonism, alchemy, the writings attributed to Hermes, the lore of the cunning folk, and the Jewish Cabala.  Alchemy was all the rage.  Catholics and Protestants alike tinkered with matter in alembics, pored over the mysterious symbols in alchemical emblem books, and cherished opportunities to peruse treasures like unpublished manuscripts by Paracelsus.

Children pretended to be alchemists.  Poor people dreamed of turning lead into gold, or at least convincing a king they could.  The best educated minds debated the best techniques and truest theories of transmutation.  And anyone with money, mostly nobles, changed a storage room into a lab and filled it with glassware and an alchemist.  “Only fools and lawyers hate alchemy,” was a popular saying of the time.  Even Philip II kept a well stocked alchemical laboratory in his castle.

Natural magic was then synonymous with science then.  If you experimented to gain a greater understanding of the world you weren’t a scientist, you were a natural magician.  For all the greatest masters of these arts, and all arts, one destination was more attractive than any other: Emperor Rudolf’s Prague.

Growing Up with a Creepy Uncle

Young Rudolf painted by the Spanish court painter Coello.

Rudolph’s older brother sickened and died so near Rudolph’s birth that their mother could never show anything but cold courtesy to her second son.  Now, that’s good old-fashioned old country superstition!  Maria of Spain was the sister of King Philip II.  She was a Spanish royal through and through, strictly Catholic, ready to report to the Pope and to work on his behalf, and her brother’s, to influence her husband and sons.   It’s hard to believe she got along with Rudolf’s father, but apparently they got on alright, since they had seventeen children.

Maria of Spain, Rudolf’s mommie dearest.

The Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian was the kind of ruler who gives emperors a good name.  He was amiable and decent.  He braved not only the endless river of paperwork that is an empire, but also the difficult relationships of rulership, and he was a master at resolving the constant contradictions of opposing demands.  He disapproved of how his brother in law Philip ran the Spanish empire.  He was famous for being so charming that opponents usually wound up agreeing with him even though they had been bitterly opposed to his point of view.  He was an art collector, an avid lover of flowers, and had a great interest in the esoteric.  He even had the famous Nostradamus himself calculate Rudolf’s astrological chart.

Maximillian shared with his father and his son the love of collecting.  He built a zoo to house all the exotic creatures ambassadors from far off lands brought him including tigers and what they called Indian crows (parrots).  Maximillian loved to put on allegorical spectacles including a sparking and smoking artificial volcano, or a real elephant, with a symbolic King of India riding up top.  Maximillian was a tolerant Emperor, he allowed men of all beliefs in his court where Catholics, astrologers, Calvinists, and even atheists coexisted.

Believing the Catholic church in serious need of reform, Maximillian tried to convince the Pope to allow priests to marry.  But reform was not on the Roman Catholic agenda.  Jesuits were already debating how to, and when to, stamp out the Protestant heresy once and for all.

Maximillian waged wars but without real victories.  He wound up having to pay tribute to the Turks who were still in Hungary despite his best efforts to expel them.   Typhus fever ravaged his army in Hungary and from there the scourge spread all over Europe.

“Religious questions cannot be resolved by the sword. ” Emperor Maximilian II 

Maria and Philip together pressured Maximillian to send Rudolf to Madrid for a few years to experience life with the other side of the family.  To prepare his son for ruling an empire, and perhaps to get him better acquainted with the competition, Max sent Rudolf to live with Uncle Phil.  Rudolf was only eleven years old.  This must have been like moving in with the Adams Family for the poor boy, except no fun or public displays of affection, or easy open laughter.  Rudolf was asked to audit the class when Philip served as both judge and chief prosecutor against his enemies.  And then there was the mandatory attendance at the burning of heretics at the stake.  Philip’s father had set up the Spanish Inquisition, and Philip not only relied on it, he gave it more power.

 Philip II of Spain, possible conehead, painted by Coello.

Philip read every document that passed under the royal seal, he personally met with petitioners and devoted himself to all the meticulous details of running an enterprise as enormous as the kingdom of Spain.  He was ruthless against enemies at home and abroad, what was left of the Muslims of Moorish Spain suffered his wrath, so did the Protestants who lived in the north of his domains, and it wasn’t a happy time for the Jews of Spain, though during his long reign of five decades he became a more tolerant ruler.

The creepy Spanish royal household is a horror movie producer’s dream come true.  The royal castle was a former monastery.  Joanna of Castile may have once been Queen of Spain, Sicily, Naples and the Americas but a decade after her death she was known as Juana la Loca, crazy Joanna.  She had been locked up in a nunnery where she couldn’t sleep because she was afraid the nuns were trying to kill her.  They say she could or would do nothing for herself.  Children frightened each other with stories about her.

Even creepier was Philip’s son Don Carlos, a hunchback with a cruel streak.  He thought it was fun to roast living animals, their cries of agony delighted him.   His cruelty was tolerated but word got out that the heir apparent to the throne of Spain, and because he was older than Rudolf, and a first born son, the heir apparent to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, was a madman.  Apparently Philip wanted to spend a few years with Rudolf because he knew his nephew would be the next Holy Roman Emperor, and possibly King of Spain.

 Garden of Earthly Delights, by Bosch, owned by Philip II

Philip was a great collector of art and among his paintings were several masterpieces by Bosch including the Garden of Earthly Delights.  In fact, without Philip’s avid collecting of his paintings it’s doubtful the art of Bosch would have survived.  Rudolf would stare at the paintings for hours. He had grown up around a great legacy of art, collected by family members over the generations, with many masterpieces to see, but nothing like the macabre art, and society, he encountered in Spain.  Philip’s collection included a handkerchief said to have caught the tears of Mary the mother of Jesus, a nail from the cross, and of course bones of saints.  Philip would lead his children, and Rudolf, to these sacred keepsakes to kiss them.

But Don Carlos got worse.  Perhaps he did not relish the idea that his formerly betrothed Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II King of France and Catherine de’ Medici, was pregnant with what his father hoped would be the heir to replace him.  Elizabeth was the one person to whom Don Carlos showed only kindness.  But an unfortunate servant at court was heaved out a window, and one of the nobles had a knife pulled on him.  That was it for Philip.  His son was going to have to go the way of Juana la Loca.  Into a room with walled up windows he went, where he starved himself to death at age 23.

 Don Carlos, the original “that boy ain’t right.”

Elizabeth, Queen of Spain, was Rudolf’s only friend at the Spanish court.  She had been the childhood roommate of Mary Queen of Scots.  She was an aspiring portrait painter; one of her best friends at court was the great female artist Sofonisba Anguissola.  Philip was so enamored of his fourteen-year old bride he became a doting husband, even staying by her side when she almost died of smallpox.  Their first children, female twins, miscarried.  Then she bore him two daughters.  Tragically, at age 23, she died giving birth to a son who lived only a few moments.

 Elizabeth of France, Queen of Spain, Rudolf’s only friend at the Spanish Court.

Elizabeth may have been an important influence on young Rudolf.  He emulated her friendships with artists, and like her he would not be content observing, he would practice some of the arts he admired.  He cried at her funeral.   How must he have felt a year later when he heard his twenty year old sister Anna of Austria was to wed King Philip?  But theirs would be a rare happy royal marriage.  Philip was in love with Anna, and she with him.   He had no mistresses during their marriage.  Hers was a cheerful, vivacious presence.  Even her blonde hair seemed to add warmth and light to Philip’s somber court.   Her favorite past time was needlework.  She bore him sons including his heir King Philip III of Spain.  She would die after only ten years giving birth to a daughter.  Philip would never remarry.

After Philip had become his uncle and his brother in law the command Rudolf had been hoping for finally arrived, he was to return home to Vienna.  Uncle’s final words of wisdom to his nephew included the ignored suggestion that he read only books provided by his confessor.  But he also gave him this valuable advice: “trust no one, listen to everyone, make decisions alone.”

Rudolf spent eight years with Philip at that strange court.  At the very least he had realized that kings, like everyone else, are subject to suffering and the ironies of fate.  From his uncle he learned a deliberate and mannered self carriage that his Austrian subjects mistook for arrogance.  They disliked his silence, his rigid posture, and his unfriendly expression.  His unwillingness to include others in his decision making seemed haughty and it broke with the open minded tradition of his father.  Some feared he had returned a rabid Catholic.  His father pleaded with Rudolf to lighten up, but Spain had a lifelong influence on him.  He always dressed in black.  He preferred to use Spanish in formal conversation, and he always seemed to trust people with Spanish connections more than others.  He even imitated Philip’s way of making decisions, always waiting until the last moment, and never allowing anyone to know beforehand which way he was leaning.

In 1575 Maximillian was crowned King of Poland, but a Polish prince with Catholic support chased him off the throne and out of Poland.  Maximillian’s army was ready to invade so he could reclaim the crown when he got sick and died.  The world was scandalized by the revelation that the Holy Roman Emperor had refused the last rites of the Catholic faith.

The Slacker Emperor

Emperor Rudolf by Rota.

Rudolf was 24 years old when adorned with the ancient crown and royal jewels, seated on the antique throne, he watched the assembled princes one by one kiss his feet.  He toured his new lands familiarizing himself with the archaic institutions of the Holy Roman Empire.  His first public event was his father’s funeral, which he made a very splendid spectacle complete with a new monument.

The first crisis of Rudolf’s reign involved his twenty year old brother Matthias.  Local nobles ruined by the war between the Dutch Protestants and the Spanish Catholics begged Matthias to represent them in an effort to make peace.  Rudolf was furious that his little brother had not consulted him first before agreeing to try to help.  He never forgave Matthias.   He never let him marry.   He controlled and watched him, not realizing he was sealing his fate by nurturing a ruthless enemy in his own family.  But his first reaction was to force all his brothers to agree to a document of succession that gave Rudolf all power.

Rudolf’s first project was to move the imperial capital from Vienna to Prague.  The move took him seven years to complete.  Why did he move the capital of the Holy Roman Empire away from the city that represented three hundred years of Hapsburg rule?  As the rest of his life reveals, Rudolf was not a man who enjoyed the company of family, nor did he care for the rigors of the court.  When he harbored ambitions in his youth of being a second Augustus he apparently did not realize that the first emperor of Rome built his success on meticulous accounting and daily reporting of activity across the empire.  Rudolf didn’t want to be bothered with accounting, or ceremony, or diplomatic meetings, or the nagging from his mother and other family members his absence from them would produce.  He would become notorious for being late to such events, often he would postpone them, or claim that he had attended incognito.  But flight from tradition and family weren’t the only reasons he left Vienna.  The Turkish army was only a hundred miles away, battling Imperial forces in Hungary.

Then came the comet of 1577.  Tycho Brahe and all the other astrologers of the day didn’t like the look of it, and the timing, at the beginning of Rudolf’s reign suggested an ill omen.  Tycho pointed out that the comet was astrologically linked to Saturn, and its reddish color gave the quality of Mars, a disastrous combination.  Poor Rudolf didn’t take the news well.  He was soon bedridden with what was at first diagnosed as fish poisoning.  But the stomach pains and exhaustion lingered for almost four years.  Rudolf disappeared from the life of his court and every day the empire awoke to fear the news that he had died.  Even after his health returned, his subjects ever after thought of him as frail, though he reigned for over thirty years.

While Rudolf was sick his mother schemed to gain more power for herself and her other children.  Since he refused to see her, she wrote letters to him urging him to accept the guidance of his Uncle Philip.  She scolded him for being afraid that he would lose his throne and his people.  Meanwhile she married off daughters to powerful princes.  She gained what control she could in a court ruled by Imperial bureaucrats.  And she convinced her brother Philip to give his daughter Isabella, the Infanta herself, the daughter of his friend Elizabeth, in marriage to Rudolf.  She must have been elated by this coup which gave Rudolf the right to reunite the Holy Roman Empire as King of Spain and monarch of the entire Catholic empire.  Such an arrangement could not have been made without at least the approval of the Pope.

 The Infanta Isabella painted by Coello

At first Rudolf agreed.  The marriage proposal seemed to help pull him from his sick bed.  But soon he and his uncle were squabbling over details and negotiations broke down.  Isabella was only a child, after all, so they had plenty of time to work out an agreement.

What was it like to meet Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor?  First of all, it wasn’t easy.  The best advice anyone could give you would be to find some rare and fine work of art, or a unique souvenir from a far away place, and offer it as a gift you would like to personally present.  Even if it was something fabulous Rudolf might decide he didn’t really want to meet you, so you’d show up, wait around, then be asked to leave your gift and get in touch for another appointment.  This kind of treatment was especially likely if you were known to have a pressing Catholic or for that matter Protestant agenda.  On the other hand if alchemy, astrology, scientific instruments, clock making, or fine art collecting enhanced your reputation, you might actually meet Rudolf.

 Indigo Rudolf by von Aachen

He was short, just over five foot three.  He was friendly, a charming man whose easy manner in no way diminished his dignity and obvious intelligence.  Rudolf didn’t like jokes and he seldom laughed.  He avoided noisy conversations, mostly listening.  He would have fit right into the American new age movement of the 1980s, to control his heart palpitations he carried crystals and amulets.  Born under the sign of Cancer, Rudolf would have preferred to be a Capricorn, and he used the sign of Capricorn as his own symbol on occasion, inspired by his favorite Capricorn, the Roman emperor Augustus.

At the height of Rudolf’s reign the population of Prague was about fifty thousand, much smaller than Imperial Rome’s one million.  Prague was 75% Protestant, but the 25% Catholic minority were backed up by the Catholic mega-majority just across the border.

In Rome they whispered that one of his alchemists had bewitched him.  But the people of Bohemia thought Rudolf’s melancholy was a symptom of wisdom, his solitude suited a man deep in the study of the mysteries of soul and world.  Certainly some of them understood that by keeping both Catholic and Protestant extremists at bay this disinterested monarch gave them peace and prosperity.  Like his grandfather, and his father, Rudolf was renowned for his love of flowers.  He was the sort of ruler the I Ching had in mind when describing happy times.

The Collector

 Gray Andalusian colt.

Rudolf had special stables built for his collection of three hundred of the most beautiful horses from all around the world, his favorites were his gray Andalusians.  The gift of an especially fine horse was known to be one of the best ways to gain one of those rare audiences with him.  When pleased his signature gift was a breeding pair of Andalusians.

In his heated hillside aviary Rudolf had birds of paradise, parrots, and even a dodo bird.  In the nearby Lion’s Court tigers, bears and other great predators were housed, but Rudolf’s favorite lion, a cub he received as a gift from the Sultan of Turkey, was allowed run of the castle but was usually found snoozing beside the Emperor like an overgrown house cat.  Tycho Brahe was struck by the astrological connections between the charts of lion and Emperor and he declared their fates were entwined.

 Rudolf’s agate Holy Grail.

Among the curiosities included in his collection of rare valuables were colorful corals from the tropics, exotic bird feathers, a ruby-studded rhino horn, various fossils, whale teeth, a six foot long unicorn horn (probably from a narwhal), two nails from Noah’s Ark, and a grain of the earth from which Jehovah made Adam.  Rudolf owned an agate bowl that at the time was widely considered to be the Holy Grail.

The court was full of fascinating inventions.  The inventor of what he called a perspective lute claimed to capture the relationship between tones and colors.  Perpetual motion machines were a constant fascination.

Rudolf encouraged the publication of lavish hand colored herbals and bestiaries.   He commissioned beautiful illustrated books including Museum of Rudolf II, two volumes of painted vellum by leading artists depicting natural wonders from the Imperial collection.

He was a collector of clocks, including some of the first clocks to ever measure seconds.  He had clocks that followed the positions of the planets.

 A clock from Rudolf’s collection.

Rudolf assembled the greatest collection of paintings in the world at that time, including masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Titian, Bosch, Corregio, Holbein and Veronese.  But Rudolf wasn’t just a collector of paintings, he had a collection of painters, as well.  He liked to watch the process and would occasionally give a little word of advice, not wanting to intrude, just an imperial tidbit, what he liked to call his “impressions.”  Rudolf would arrive early every morning to see what work his artists had done since his last visit.  He would tinker with everything from the arrangement of subjects to the lighting.  But not all of his artists worked in the castle, others were sent to picaresque places or unknown frontiers to sketch waterfalls, trees, and mountains.

Not content to collect, Rudolf learned to carve ivory, including a piece where one complex shape was carved inside another.  He regularly visited his alchemy workshop where he pursued his own experiments in addition to checking on the progress of his protégés.

Then Rudolf’s Uncle Ferdinand died.  His father’s brother, Ferdinand had built a castle called the Star Summer House, in the shape of a six pointed star, Solomon’s seal as the magician’s called it.  The foundation stone had been laid according to the correct astrological day and hour.  The sacred geometry of the castle inspired the great surrealist Andre Breton four centuries later to remark: “built with the Philosopher’s Stone.”  Ferdinand also had a great library and a passion for collecting that may have most inspired Rudolf’s own.  Although Rudolf was sad to lose one of his favorite uncles, he was delighted to inherit his possessions.

Star Summer house

Rudolf’s relations with flesh and blood women were always alienated.  Even with the woman with whom he had a relationship for most of his life, who bore him many children, he would or could share neither real intimacy, nor legal legitimacy.  He enjoyed regular deliveries of imperial courtesans, who traded their favors for jewels and other gifts.  He had other prospects for empress, too.  Marie de Medici, Margaret of Savoy, and even his lovely cousin Anne of Tyrol were potential empresses.  The Scottish writer John Barclay wrote acidly about Rudolf’s “concubine troop” and the “virgins who greatly valued their chance to be deprived of that title.”  “Free love” was how he described the romantic philosophy of Rudolf; he used the term with contempt.

Engraving from Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens,” lady points out big cock.

 Imperial Porn or Magical Realism?

The art of the high renaissance was a celebration of classical antiquity.  Ideals of perfection, the very Platonic ideas themselves, those original forms that give everything in the world its shape and identity, could be rendered by artists, providing a source of spiritual inspiration.  Mannerism, the art of Rudolf’s time, has been described as a reaction against the art of the high renaissance, and as the earliest beginning of surrealism.  But European Magical Realism might be more accurate.

 Venus and Adonis painted by Spranger.  Watch out for that dog, dude!

Mannerism wasn’t really a rejection of high renaissance art, in fact, they shared many of the same inspirations, especially Neoplatonism.  But Mannerism was more interested in metaphor and symbol than revealing the Platonic ideal.  Imperfections became more interesting than perfection.  Perhaps the best example is Arcimboldo, who besides being one of Rudolf’s favorite painters also designed many fabulous costumes for court masques and other official spectacles.   Rudolf’s favorite portrait of himself was Arcimboldo’s “Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons.”

 Arcimboldo’s “Rudolf painted as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons.”

Rudolf spent a fortune finding and acquiring the finest art in Europe, although it was said to be easier to get a promise of payment from the Emperor than the actual money.  One huge painting was carried by four soldiers who had to lug the huge framed canvas upright over the Alps through snow, never letting it touch ground.

All of Rudolf’s favorite art, and therefore the great trend among artists of his time, was art as the revealer of mysteries, whether in engraved gems, allegorical paintings, or in the study of the occult and the Cabala.

 Mars and Venus painted by Spranger, the first blonde all over centerfold?

Rudolf had quite a collection of nudes to ogle.  He collected and commissioned many erotic paintings and sculptures.  In these paintings old satyrs cavorted with naked nymphs; Minerva, bare breasted and alluring, trampled an anonymous but muscular native who symbolized ignorance.  On the back door to his personal quarters in his castle in Prague was a carefully fashioned metal sculpture of a naked woman, the knocker was a penis that entered her mouth.  Possibly the first knock knock joke in history.

A Fascination for Transmutation

Bruegher’s engraving “The Alchemists.”

Agrippa, Trithemius, Porta and above all Paracelsus, taught that only practical experience, and experimentation, could arrive at the truth.  Paracelsus famously said that to read the book of nature you must walk its pages with your feet.   His cures weren’t based solely on tradition or logic, he had traveled the back roads and wilderness trails of many countries, learning cures where ever he went.   He was the father of pharmaceutical science.  When his German disciples published his books in the 1560’s and 1570’s theories and practices of medicine radically changed.  Most of those books were published in Prague.

 “What light do you shed, you doctors of Montpellier, Vienna, and Leipzig, about as much light as a fly on diarrhea.”  Paracelsus

Paracelsus walked the pages of nature all across Europe and as far away as Africa and Asia Minor.  He gave zinc its name, and popularized the improvement of the accuracy of dosage of medicine by forming it into pills.  His focus on chemicals and minerals has remained a central interest of modern medicine.  Paracelsus was greatly influenced by Pythagoreanism, the Neoplatonists and the Hermetica.  He practiced astrology not only to understand his patients better, but also because he believed picking an herb on the right day at the right hour gave it greater healing power.  He used the classic European four elements in his theories (fire, air, water, earth), but also alchemy’s three elements (salt, mercury and sulfur).  The elements of salt, mercury and sulfur are symbols of qualities rather than literal substances, for example, the human body is salt, the soul and its projection mind are mercury, and sulfur is emotion.  Paracelsus also invented the Alphabet of the Magi which he used to make talismans he believed captured energies that could heal as effectively as medicine.

In a world of harmonies and signatures where every being is a symbol, the ultimate goal was the philosopher’s stone.  Not only could this mysterious item regenerate lead turning it into gold, but it could also heal any disease or injury, prolong life indefinitely, bring reform to every society, and truth to any person.  This soft apocalypse of universal utopia was supposed to herald the return of Christ and the commencement of the end times.  While rumors of the creation of the philosopher’s stone have never subsided those suspected of solving the mystery tend to disappear or end badly, since others would do anything to get the secret, including stealing or killing its possessor.

The Cosmopolitans, as the alchemists were known then, were lonely figures on the road between castles.  Some would claim to have authored popular anonymous tracts, a few actually did.   In the collective imagination of Europe these wanderers are descendants of the troubadours, and cultural ancestors of the mysterious initiates, said to be the secret guardians of the human experiment, whose superior powers allow them to appear and disappear, to live far more than human life spans, and to speak the languages of many places.

 Museum recreation of alchemy workshop.

Charlatans and adventurers masquerading as alchemists didn’t last long at Rudolf’s court.  They received a warm welcome and then, when their ineptitude was quickly discovered, a cold exit out of the castle and onto any road away from Bohemia.

The Emperor’s favorite doctor wrote Lexicon of Alchemy.  The Emperor’s next doctor, Michael Maier, wrote music to go with the emblems he created to capture the art of alchemy.  Several of his books earned a place in the history of science as the pinnacle and closing statement of the era when careful observations of nature were analyzed in the light of the ideals of alchemy and astrology, practiced as arts that reveal the divine pattern of creation.  Listen to one of Dr. Maier’s alchemical ditties here:

Maier’s book on the Laws of the Rosie Cross made him a popular first choice as en example of that rarest of fabulous creatures, a real rosicrucian; and he was friends with the Englishman Robert Fludd, author of encyclopedic books about the harmonics underlying music, the motions of heavenly bodies, even the wonders of our human organs.  Fludd is another popular nomination for an actual Rosicrucian.

When his twenty year old niece Lucy broke her arm falling off a horse  Rudolf called for Maier who first set her bone, then six times, for several minutes each time, he directed healing energy into her arm.  Lucy later said she felt as if she had been awakened from a nightmare by a miraculous doctor.  Maier wrote many books, discussing them with the Emperor as they progressed, but all were published after Rudolf’s death.  Fludd and Maier had the same publisher, so naturally when Maier visited England they met, and what a pity there is no recording of that conversation.  Maier died in 1622 at a siege near the beginning of the Thirty Years war.

 Alchemist’s Alley in Prague, also called the Golden Lane.

Another popular candidate for real Rosicrucian is the Polish alchemist Sediwoj, better known as Michael Sendivogius.  His book New Light on Alchemy was a favorite of Isaac Newton’s, whose own copy was filled with his margin notes.

At first Sediwoj’s time in Prague was difficult, he was imprisoned for unpaid debts.  His appeal to Rudolf was answered and Sediwoj was given a chance to demonstrate his alleged knowledge of alchemy.  Sediwoj claimed to have some of the real philosopher’s stone given to him by his Scottish mentor the alchemist Seton.  Though he had not yet learned the secret of the red powder, Sediwoj insisted he could make gold.  Apparently the demonstration was impressive since Rudolf had a plaque put up on the wall for all his alchemists to see: “Let anyone else do what the Pole Sendivogius has done.”  Rudolf made Sediwoj a baron and gave him the right to sit with him at meals.

An English Wizard in Prague

 John Dee’s magic mirror, made of polished black volcanic glass.

John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and alchemist.   WIth his favorite medium and partner in esoteric pursuits Edward Kelley he practiced natural magic to communicate with angels who not only advised him on household affairs but issued startling predictions of world wide reform that conveniently coincided with the dramatic events Dee saw unfolding in the stars, an astrological omen of the end of the power of the Pope.

After a misadventure in Poland that should have raised doubts about the angel’s advice, the angels ordered Dee and Kelley to visit the Emperor in Prague.  They arrived in style with multiple carriages and a troop of guards.  Rumors persisted that Dee paid for these extravagances with alchemical gold, but his lists of expenses to be reimbursed by Queen Elizabeth still exist.

Dee had dedicated his most famous book, the highly influential Hieroglyphic Monad, to Rudolf’s father.  Rudolf was interested in the alchemical knowledge and experiences of Dee and Kelley but Dee spent most of their meeting relaying alarming information from the angels who commanded Rudolf to get his spiritual life in order, or else.  If he did they would help him unite all Europe to defeat the Turks.  He would establish a new Imperial order built on the truth of natural magic, or science, instead of the lies of church and politics.

 Dee’s enigmatic hieroglyphic monad.

Dee later claimed that Rudolf understood the courage and tenderness, the true loyalty and even love it required for Dee to repeat such dire messages.  Perhaps Rudolf was only humoring him.  How was he to get his spiritual life in order anyway?  By listening to Dee’s channeled angels?  Rudolf ordered a noble he trusted to investigate by attending Dee’s angelic chatroom.  The report must have been lukewarm since Dee was not appointed Rudolf’s spiritual advisor.  Instead he was given an honorary degree from the local university.  Then the Pope’s delegate presented formal evidence to Rudolf that Dee was practicing necromancy and other forbidden arts.   Dee was given 24 hours to leave Bohemia.

But Rudolf didn’t stop Dee and Kelley from quickly returning to Bohemia where they took up residence for several years with Vilhelm Rosenberg, the most wealthy and powerful noble in Bohemia, second only to Rudolf.  Rosenberg had been invited to sit on the throne of Poland but political maneuvering by Polish rivals had prevented him.

When Rudolf was crowned in Prague in 1575 his crown was carried by Vilhem von Rozmberk, or as we would call him today William Rosenberg.  He was Catholic but when an agent of the Pope complained about the shrinking numbers of Catholics in Bohemia, Rosenberg said Catholics had only themselves to blame.  Their own venal behavior had alienated the people, he declared, sounding like a Protestant.  But as much support as he gave to alchemists and astrologers he also did whatever he could for the Jesuits and the cause of the Roman Catholic church.

 Vilhelm von Rosenberg

Vilhelm’s doctor was the famous Khunrath author of many books including Amphitheater of the Eternal Wisdom of the Christian Cabala.  He was a well known alchemist of his time, and may have been the one who arranged for John Dee’s visit to Prague.  Rudolf thought enough of Khunrath to grant him a sort of imperial copyright, comprehensive protection from plagiarism for his books on medicine, alchemy and the Cabala,                                                                                                                                                                   Vilhelm had his sixth alchemical lab built just for Dee and Kelley.  As 1586 came to a close Kelley quickly produced a small amount of gold.  He claimed the process was still unstable and unpredictable but the bits of gold he produced kept his patrons enthralled.  Historians speculate that he learned metallurgical tricks for changing the color of gold.

Rosenberg also encouraged the angelic conversations, wanting advice about which woman to wed so he could father an heir, and asking how to regain the Emperor’s favor for Dee.  He was happy to receive reassurance from the angels that he would have an heir to inherit his throne for he would certainly become King of Poland.  Neither happened.

1587 was the year the Faust Book was published, the first printed edition of the most infamous of all myths of magicians.   That year also brought some surprises from the angels.  Kelley reported that they wanted he and Dee to share all their possessions in common, including their wives.

Old man Dee was on his third wife, an attractive young thing.  Neither wife was happy with this angelic proposition and Dee suffered grave doubts that angels would order fornication.  Kelley explained it was all part of the theory of alchemical opposites.   Their sexual energy was part of the transformational process.  So Dee signed half his possessions over to Kelley, and the gloomy wife swap went forward.  The results were bad.  The wives became depressed.  Dee and Kelley bickered.  The angels wanted the Emperor to be told that Dee had the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone.  SInce Dee wasn’t making gold, what did the angels mean?

 John Dee, don’t call him Gandalf.

But then Kelley showed off what appeared to be another advance in the process.  Only to disappoint everyone with more unstable and unpredictable results.  In 1588 when the Spanish armada threatened England, Dee was involved in some form of magical activity that took to him to different parts of the city.  Angelic magic was supposed to be able to control the weather.  Did Dee involve his friends in Bohemia in a great ritual to thwart the King of Spain?  if so he must have been elated when news arrived that the armada had been battered by weather so severe few ships had returned.  Dee understood that Spain’s power had been broken.  The wealth squandered on the war against England was to be paid for by the English Conquest.  Now began the slow decline of the Spanish Empire.

Dee worried that while he labored at gold making his plan for universal reform was being forgotten.  Kelley showed him a letter in which Rosenberg wondered about how to get Dee to leave.  Then Queen Elizabeth I sent an urgent summons for Dee to return to England.  Dee signed over to Kelley his books and alchemical powder, to free himself from any further debts.  When he returned to England he found his beloved house and library had been pillaged and partially burned by a mob who believed he was practicing black magic.  Elizabeth welcomed him home with genuine affection and a gift of two hundred gold coins called angels.  She made him Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Warden of Manchester College to provide him support and shelter.  Not long before she died she heard he was selling silver dishes so she sent him forty golden angels.  But then Bess died in 1603.  Two years later Dee’s tolerant third wife died.

Dee didn’t interest the new King.  He found himself an all but forgotten relic of old times that seemed quaint to the new generation.  Dee, the inspiration to mathematicians, natural philosophers, reformers political and religious, had always been a pious Christian in his own strange Pythagorean Hermetic way, but now he was merely a symbol of superstition.  His last few years were spent selling off what he had left to support himself and his daughter who devoted her life to caring for him.

 Kelley’s house in Prague, now called Faust House.

As for Kelley, as soon as Dee left Prague, Rudolf sent for him.  The Emperor seemed to believe that providence had provided Edward as he called him just in time to solve a problem in the great work.  Kelley became Rudolf’s personal alchemist with a generous salary.   Rudolf gave him a patent of nobility, naming him a Golden Knight of Bohemia.

Kelley showed off just enough success making gold that he became a celebrity.  Nobles from all over Europe visited to glimpse his alchemical work.  Kelley sent Queen Elizabeth the cheeky gift of a silver bedpan half transformed into gold.  Vilhelm Rosenberg gave him a town of his own, nine villages, and estates.  Kelley bought a brewery, a mill, two luxurious mansions in Prague, and a dozen houses to rent out.  He married a wealthy and powerful Bohemian woman with whom he had a son and daughter.  His stepdaughter became a famous poetess in Prague whose pen name was Westonia.

But Kelley’s good fortune ended when he broke the strict rule against duels, killing an Imperial officer.  He tried to escape but when he was caught Rudolf had him imprisoned.  Rudolf’s questions to be put to Kelley survive in a letter from his secretary.  For example, “what is the significance of the secret characters in Kelly’s notebook?” and “how is the potable gold made that Kelley gave the Emperor to taste?”  Kelly tried to escape but fell and broke his leg.  Most of the information after that is sketchy at best.  He seems to have returned to work for Rudolf but then was imprisoned again.  Dee says he heard Kelley died in 1595 but some historians believe Kelley may have survived to see 1600.  In Rosenberg’s castle to this day they say he died taking poison in front of his wife and daughter because he couldn’t bare to suffer imprisonment again.

Rudolf tinkered with the dark arts in self-defense, he thought.  His own human shaped mandrake roots, and his spirit-summoning bell inscribed with magic sigils survive to this day.  At his command a magician tried to defend Rudolf using the grimoire known as Picatrix, the manual preferred by necromancers, a translation of an Arabic work on astrology, alchemy and the hermetica, including the magic of talismans.  Rudolf hoped to have sacred forces intervene on his behalf, if he could not be Solomon commanding angels and demons, he could at least receive their protection as Holy Roman Emperor.

Star Stuff

Tycho Brahe gives Rudolf II the gift that keeps on giving, a celestial globe.

The Maris poll released July 4, 2011 showed that thirty percent of Americans believe the sun orbits the earth, or don’t know which orbits which.  Rudolf knew that the earth orbits the sun.  That belief was considered a sin by the Roman Catholic church.  Rudolf wondered how observable mathematical truth could be heresy.

Tycho Brahe, one of the pioneers of modern astronomy was appointed Imperial Astronomer by Rudolf.  His successor was that other legend of early astronomy Kepler who spent the most productive decade of his life in Prague under the Emperor’s wing.

Tycho and Kepler may have midwived Galileo’s birth of the modern science of astronomy but they were both creatures of Rudolf’s court, students of astral influences, cosmic harmony, and stellar portents.  Kepler’s metaphysical properties of light have more in common with Neoplatonism than the science of astronomy.  He was inspired by Pythagoras to a vision of the harmony of the planets, the geometry itself a sacred symbol of a divine creation.  Many less well known astrologers and proto-astronomers contributed; if astronomy was a community project anywhere, it was in Prague.

 An astrological chart by Tycho Brahe

Tycho meticulously recorded the movements of the planets in astronomical tables. Kepler devoted himself to continuing Tycho’s work.  Rudolf was getting first hand accounts of the movements of the planets as seen through the earliest telescopes.  He was seeing the planets himself, through the telescopes of Tycho and Kepler.

Kepler was also experimenting with optics and light.  He was in touch by letter with Tom Harriot, first man to map the surface of the moon, the Englishman who inventoried New England for Sir Walter Raleigh.  Along with him on Harriot’s fateful journey to America was the first Jew to set foot there, the metallurgist Joachim Gans of Prague, from a family of cabalists, alchemists, and most alarming of all, astronomers.  Kepler’s first book was about Pythagorean harmony.   In England Harriot was accused of being a Pythagorean, a grave offense, and symptom of devilry, according to British religious pundits and authorities.

The great Giordano Bruno was invited to debate the wisest professors of Oxford University, about which Bruno wrote: “The leader of the academy on that somber occasion stopped fifteen times over fifteen logical propositions, like a chicken in stubble.”

 Durer’s The Astrologer

Bruno got into trouble with Rome when he insisted that the earth travels around the sun, not the other way around.  That stars are not fixed lights in the sky but suns like our own.   His popular lectures all over Europe gained him secret clubs of followers who practiced his techniques and shared his aims.  Bruno’s techniques included memory exercises.  He explained that the written word had blunted human imagination.  To think through complexity is where we find connection to the divine.

Imagine a wheel, then place ideas on sections of the wheel, not unlike our game show Wheel of Fortune.  Now do the same thing for a second wheel.  Next imagine each section of the first wheel meeting every section of the second wheel.  Once you’ve got six of those wheels going you’ve completed the exercise.  Less than a hundred years later this technique inspired the philosopher Leibniz to invent one of the first calculators, an ancestor of our computers.

In Prague in 1588, to get Rudolf’s attention, Bruno published a book dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor he hoped would rise up like a second Hermes Trismegistus to restore the true hermetic religion and inaugurate a golden age.   “One Hundred and Sixty Articles Against Mathematicians and Philosophers” was a response to some points made by Rudolf’s mathematician and astronomer Fabrizio, or as Bruno called him, that “triumphant idiot.”  Rudolf sent Bruno a little money to thank him but never met him.  Some of the lovely geometric illustrations in this book, symbols of the intellectual principle and the principle of love, for example, look remarkably like Hindu representations of chakras.

 Bruno’s chakras.

Bruno was an enthusiastic supporter of science at its earliest stages but that’s not what got him killed.  Bruno believed he understood ancient Egyptian religion which he considered the mother of all wisdom.  Moses must have learned the Cabala in Egypt he declared.  Pythagoras and Plato traveled to Egypt.  To Bruno, Egyptian religion was rooted in the belief of One In All.  All life blazes with the consciousness, the form, the beauty of the divine creativity at the heart of every one of its creations.  In Bruno’s world the living planet Earth spun around the living sun, just one among an infinite number of living stars in just one of an infinite number of dimensions of being.

While teaching in Venice, Bruno was denounced by a student.  The Inquisition rightly accused him of believing in reincarnation, but wrongly of practicing black magic and spell craft.  Years of imprisonment and torture, and refusal to confess, earned him a dirty rag stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams when he was burned at the stake in 1600, a very clear message from mother Church about what free thinkers could expect from Rome over the next few decades.

Cabala and the Imperial Court

A cabalistic talisman prepared for Rudolph by Jewish friends.

Though his own father had given in to peer pressure joining his Spanish relatives in the expulsion of the Jews, Rudolf’s father Maximillian II was a blessing to the Jews of Prague, restoring their ancestral rights, and even strolling with the Empress through the Jewish quarter as they cheered.  Jews were the core of Imperial finance.  The richest man in Prague was Jewish, and no stranger to Rudolf or the nobles.  Meanwhile, among the astrologers and alchemists, even among the nobles of Europe, the Cabala became a fascinating obsession.

But Christians weren’t the only ones enamored of the Cabala, it experienced a revival among Jews themselves as Isaac Luria and Moses Cordovero sparked a popular movement, emphasizing expectations of imminent world reform, and the belief that prayer is a creative power.

The Supreme Chief Rabbi of Prague Judah Loew was a scholar respected among all the educated of Europe.  He wrote books praising the irrational and the supernatural in the torah.   He used the Cabala masterpiece the Zohar to argue that neither science nor modern insight could be a better source of wisdom than holy scripture wherein the true divine pattern of creation is revealed.  But he also warned Cabalists that their study of the sephiroth was only clinging to categories reflecting not divine reality but the limits of human perception.  Loew was a friend of Michael Maier, and it’s surprising how little has been made of this friendship between the alleged Rosicrucian and a confirmed master cabalist.

Rudolf had heard of Loew for some time, he probably knew the legend that Loew had created a living being from sculpted river mud by placing in it a parchment with the word life written on it in the true language of the angels.  The golem, prototype for zombies and the Frankenstein monster, haunted the alley ways of Prague.  But the invitation to the castle came after Rudolf heard Loew give an eloquent lecture on the need for all religions to work together for peace.  No one knows what they spent so many hours discussing, but Rudolf must have asked Loew about aspects of the Cabala he had not yet understood.  The Rabbi was perhaps surprised to find the Emperor so well read in the subject.

Thought Forms at the Death Bed of Rudolf II

 He took solace among the alchemists and the artists. Rudolf painted by von Aachen

The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, was it a bad omen?  That year Bohemia was terrified that the Pope was about to attack.  But Rome had chosen a more subtle approach.  By 1584 Catholic power was increasing in Bohemia.  New seminaries were built, missionaries and teachers were imported, festivals and ceremonies were encouraged,  converts were multiplying, enough that a representative of the Pope submitted a plan to Rudolf to wipe out all heresy in Bohemia.  Rudolf, of course, had no interest in pursuing such a vigorous mission.

 The Emperor’s impractical pistol.

In 1589 Philip II King of Spain died, only adding to Rudolf’s depression and sense of foreboding.  Philip the Pious, the new King of Spain, proved to be much less zealous than his father, he’s remembered as an ineffective monarch whose “only virtue appeared to reside in his lack of vice.”

In 1591 a Flemish priest was found hiding with a crossbow in Rudolf’s bedroom.  It’s probable he never felt safe again, if he ever had.

 Durer’s famous hare drawing, Rudolf owned it.

When the Ottoman Turkish Empire demanded that their tribute be doubled, they beheaded the diplomats Rudolf sent to negotiate and declared war.  In 1593 their well prepared invasion quickly captured two of the key fortresses on the way to the old Imperial capitol of Vienna.  Rudolf pulled himself together to raise the money from his vassals and allies to pay for the war, but Prague was paralyzed as Protestants and Catholics argued about every detail of the proceedings.  Eventually Rudolf was forceful enough, and the Turkish army successful enough, to unite the factions for what would be thirteen years of war.

Plans for Rudolf’s marriage to the Infanta went all the way back to 1568 when she was only two years old.  By 1582 Uncle Philip became suspicious of his nephew’s delays.  But Rudolf managed to drag the proceedings out for another fifteen years until in 1597 Philip married the heartbroken 31 year old princess to Rudolf’s younger brother Albrecht, who became known as a great peacemaker in northwestern Europe, where he helped end three wars there.

Rudolf was furious and devastated even though for decades he had avoided making Isabella empress.   A year later Philip violated imperial borders, giving his troops winter quarters in a suddenly disputed territory.  The Pope must have joined the King of Spain in wondering if he would make a better Holy Roman Emperor than his weakling nephew.

By 1598 all Europe was fretting over the Emperor’s apparent inaction.   But Kepler saw it differently, writing that Rudolf in his personal motions and his political actions moved with the elegant precision of an equation by Archimedes, applying only just enough force to stalemate the war, tiring out the Turkish army with deliberate restraint.

 Kepler, still waiting for that sushi order.

In the late 1590’s the Catholics led by the Pope’s local delegate presented exciting new plans for Rudolf that they thought would help him counter the ever more demanding Protestant powers of Bohemia.  Locals called the agents of this attack on Protestant culture and legal rights the Spanish Party.  The Spanish Party’s true goal was to establish a Catholic Autocracy, a spiritual dictatorship.  In the 1620’s they would realize their dream.  But not before Rudolf, seeing the actual results of the power he gave them, about faced.  The Spanish Party fell from royal favor.

Had it not been for his brother Matthias building alliances with powerful Protestants in surrounding states Rudolf would probably have never communicated with the Pope or any of his representatives.   He never attended a Catholic ritual after that, nor did he ever take confession again.   He maintained only the most minimal contact with Rome.  Imperial bureaucrats and civil servants ruled the day.  More than once the Pope and his cardinals discussed excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor.

The atmosphere must have indeed been apocalyptic as Rudolf watched one grand old Czech noble family die out after another, as if Bohemia had been cursed to produce no legitimate male heirs.

1600 was a bad year for Rudolf.  He was convinced he would die before he turned fifty in 1602, before fifty, like his father.  Now time seemed to be running out.  Tycho stopped calculating Rudolf’s astrological transits, the Emperor was stressed out enough.  Tycho had already warned him that his chart indicated a monk might try to kill him, or Rudolf’s own family could turn against him, if he wasn’t constantly vigilant.  But Rudolf was still fascinated with the mystical more than the practical.  A note from 1600 proves Rudolf was trying to locate and purchase the Cabala masterpiece Sefer Yetzirah.

 Cabala masterpiece Sepher Yetzirah.

In September 1600 the enraged Rudolf banished two of the most powerful people at his court, so powerful that one of them had been Chamberlain then High Steward and President of the Privy Council.  No one knows what really happened, but the suspicion that they had actually been working for the Spanish, not Rudolf, was popular then and now.   Rudolf became more depressed than he had ever been in his life.   He berated his ministers publicly.  He could not hide his revulsion at his own court, filled with courtiers he could never trust.

Meanwhile the Turks had been at war with him in Hungary for ten years.   In 1590 the Turkish Empire had made peace with Persia.  One year later it began the campaign to conquer Europe with attacks along the border of Hungary where fifty years of peace ended and fifteen years of war began.  Rudolf found that the monarchs of Christian Europe did not rally to him, and the war was bleeding the imperial treasury dry.  But the Persians had a plan.

Enter in October 1600 Sir Anthony Sherley, please don’t call him Shirley.   Anthony and his brothers were world travelers, adventurers.  Anthony had explored Africa’s western coast, he had visited central America, survived a mutiny, and dined with the Shah of Persia.  He brought Rudolf the exciting news that as Holy Roman Emperor he should unite the armies of Europe,  then Persia would attack with them, opening multiple fronts in a war the Turks could not win.   Anthony had plans to bring Moscow into the war and Rudolf was heartened to hear the distant Czar considered himself loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor he had never met.

Was there really such a plan from Persia?  Sherley certainly profited from his adventures, gaining titles and royal audiences, for himself and his brothers Sir Thomas and Sir Robert.  But the great war against the Turks never happened.  Perhaps only because the leaders of Europe still refused to rally behind Rudolf, who understood that he was now merely a symbol without the power that his rank was created to wield.  The triumphant golden crown he had made in 1602 seems almost ironic in its splendor, a wish fulfillment in its depiction of him on horseback leading the way to victory over fleeing enemies.

Rudolf feared Roman Catholic power enough that he began avoiding the Pope’s delegates, he ordered the words about apostolic authority be left out of the absolution his personal priest still gave him, and he avoided attending any public church ritual though they were becoming quite splendid supported by the creativity and treasury of Rome in a bid to increase papal influence peacefully.

But by then Rudolf didn’t have much love for Protestants either, he had grown weary of the ever dividing sects and their hostility toward each other.  Think Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the People’s Front of Judea scoff at the Judean People’s Front.

Rudolf even lost interest in his alchemists, no longer making his daily rounds.  Had he given up his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone?  Rumors spread among the Catholics of his court that Rudolf was possessed by the devil.  Gossips whispered that he would turn pale and tremble when passing near a cross.  His chief of finance in a plaintiff note reports that Rudolf felt he could trust no one, that he was being bullied, and that he would die any day of poison.

In his deep melancholy Rudolf was given to uttering bleak pronouncements to startled guests.  “I know I am dead and damned; I am a man possessed by the devil,” he is reported to have said to Philip Lang.  Lang held such control over which petitioners got to see Rudolf, some speculate they may have been lovers.   Other historians believe rumors of Rudolf’s homosexuality were part of a whisper campaign against him to weaken his position before his removal.

Rudolf decided his troubles might be due to the negative spiritual influences of the militantly Catholic Dominican monks but then the monks bought him a beautiful painting.  More Catholic gifts of art followed, calming the Emperor’s wrath.   The new Pope sent a new confessor, a cultured man, author of a book on the Cabala, both a priest and a doctor, who reported that Rudolf was not possessed, but he did fight melancholy, though it had never taken root in him.  He even convinced Rudolf to attend communion and confession during the Holy Week of 1601, but the rumors of the Emperor’s madness or possession persisted.

 The famous Cellini Salt Cellar, Rudolf owned this, too.

In 1604 a nova, another new star in the sky, raised expectations that the world would end, Jesus would return to rule for a thousand years, or the philosopher kings would defeat the Pope.  It only added to Rudolf’s fear that his time was up.

In October 1605 the long siege of the Turkish army on an important imperial stronghold at last succeeded, the Imperial soldiers even sold their military gear to the Turks.  Back home the leadership of the Imperial army was split between Germans and Italians.   Rudolf had a war hero beheaded for killing a rival commander in a duel just after he had banned dueling.  The military failure, and the execution of a popular hero, especially as the rumor spread that Rudolf had too late tried to stop it, further undermined his position.

Rudolf no longer visited his animals, or his gardens where he once loved to listen to live music in the woods, he didn’t look at his collection of wonders from around the world anymore.  The beautiful nude paintings and sculptures surrounding him must have seemed ironic to this solitary and sickly man in a hushed palace.  Rumors spread everywhere that he was already dead, only his ghost could be seen walking the castle halls.

in 1605 Rudolf gave his eldest but illegitimate son Don Giulio the Rosenberg estate where John Dee and Edward Kelly had talked to the angels, castle Český Krumlov.  Don Giulio was Rudolf’s favorite child.  He provided him with a good education, and looked for a place for him at the royal courts of Europe.  But Don Giulio was about to become another example provided by the Hapsburgs of the dangers of inbreeding.

 Minerva Victorious Over Ignorance – Spranger

In the fall of 1606 Matthais secretly convened his fellow archdukes declaring that Rudolf’s reign must come to an end.   Could a madman obsessed by alchemy and occult superstitions be allowed to lead the war against the Turks?  With the blessing of the Pope, Matthais was elected head of the Hapsburg family and next Holy Roman Emperor.  Rudolf was devastated by this insult and betrayal.   Less money found its way to Rudolf’s court and more power was exerted daily by Matthais.  The following spring Rudolf pointed at three flies on his table and commented: “Ah, it’s the Pope, the King of Spain, and Archduke Matthais.”

Matthais made an expensive peace with the Turks, giving up most of Hungary and a rich tribute.  Rudolf refused to sign the treaty.   He thought the terms disgraceful.   Matthias arrived at the border of Bohemia with twenty thousand troops.

The leaders of Prague were as shocked to see the pale gray old man as they were to hear his feeble voice when he finally addressed them publicly after so long an absence.  Rudolf’s Protestants protested their loyalty but he could only raise four thousand men to defend his throne.

Peter Rosenberg, having taken over his family’s great wealth after the death of his brother Vilhelm, joined the Protestants opposed to Matthais, but Rudolf gave up.  He gave the crowns of Hungary and Austria to his little brother.  Matthais had himself crowned King of Hungary just outside his big brother’s castle wall.

Rudolf was about to suffer another family betrayal.  In 1607 Don Giulio asked a local barber to let his daughter Markéta move into the castle with him.  The barber approved.  But as time passed Don Giulio grew irritated at his commoner playmate.   He beat her.   Then he cut her and threw her out a window.   The poor girl landed in a trash heap. Though parts of her were missing she regained her health hiding with her parents.

 Red Gate, main entrance to Krumlov castle.

Don Giulio wanted her back at the castle.  When Markéta’s father refused Don Giulio imprisoned him.  After five weeks of death threats Markéta’s mother brought her daughter to the castle on a wintry February Sunday in 1608. The next day in a fit of rage Don Giulio killed the girl.  He cut off her head, and other parts of her body.  She went into her coffin in pieces.  The nobles of Europe were scandalized and Rudolf could make no excuses.  He would imprison his favorite son for life, as Uncle Philip had imprisoned cousin Carlos.

After committing the murder Don Giulio refused to shave, or wash, or change his clothes.  When food and fresh clothes were brought to him he threw them out the window.   He hurled at his servants whatever was in reach.  He never left his castle, though he would have been allowed to take a walk or ride.  By 1609 he was living in his own filth and trash.  The stench was terrible, and his violence so ready, no one dared enter his room.  He slept on carpets and used his torn old clothes as blankets.  That summer his ulcer ruptured and suffocated him.

Rudolf II wanted his favorite son buried in a manner befitting the eldest son of an Emperor, but he died before he could see it done.  Locals say Don Giulio is buried in the wall of the castle, which is said to be haunted by more than one ghost.  Don Giulio’s brother, another of Rudolf’s illegitimate sons, would die young, too, in a fight with a friend over a prostitute.

In 1609 Rudolf, pressured by the Protestant leaders who had stayed loyal, banned all religious persecution in Bohemia.  The year before Henry IV, King of France had granted the edict of Nantes, guaranteeing the rights of French Protestants.  Rudolf both bowed to the pressure and rose to the occasion.  As if by some great alchemical transmutation freedom of religion was legally guaranteed in the capitol of the Holy Roman Empire.

 The ironic heroic bronze bust of 1609 depicts Rudolf as Hercules.

In 1609 a Tuscan ambassador complained that Rudolf had all but turned the Imperial throne into a workbench.  The Emperor liked building clocks.  He wasn’t only visiting his alchemical workshops again, he was back to participating in the experiments.

In 1610 Henry IV of France was assassinated by a monk, the very fate Rudolf feared, especially after he had granted the right to freedom of conscience.

To protect himself from enemies Rudolf was known to take up his unicorn horn and his Holy Grail, both symbols of purity, and with a Spanish sword draw a ceremonial circle around himself.  He also drank water from the Holy Grail claiming it healed him body and soul.

Rudolf’s unicorn horn.

When Matthias left Vienna with another army, intending to make himself Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf made another mistake, siding with his charming but inept nephew, whose only motivation was deluded self interest.  On his nephew’s advice Rudolf hired ten thousand mercenaries his government couldn’t afford to pay, who became the scourge of Prague.  The Jewish ghetto suffered rape and pillage.  Protestant hotheads burned down Catholic churches.   Most of the citizens, Catholic and Protestant, had seen enough.  The ambassador of Spain withdrew along with the Pope’s delegate, both reassigned to serve Matthais.  In March 1611 to save Prague, Peter Rosenberg paid off the Emperor’s debt to the mercenaries, thought it cost him his family fortune.

Trying to find a way to stop Matthais from becoming the next Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf reached out to well placed Protestant widows and the Protestant alliances of Europe.  But it was too late.  By November 1611 Rudolf was forced to attend a conference abut the succession.  They demanded he choose his successor but Rudolf only thanked them and assured them he would make a decision soon.  He considered the conference his death sentence.

As Matthais approached Prague to claim his throne Rudolf stayed up all night drinking heavily, running through the darkened hallways crying out incoherently.

 Prague around 1600.

Matthais marched into Prague accompanied by Hungarian and Bohemian nobles while Rudolf cowered in his castle, unwilling to attend the coronation of his nemesis brother.  Three weeks later the Protestant powers of Prague upheld the new Emperor’s authority but only if he respected the agreement Rudolf had made regarding freedom of religion.

Rudolf was shocked that the people he had protected through out his reign so readily abandoned him and he cursed Prague, looking out over the rooftops, proclaiming: “Ungrateful Prague, I made you famous now you drive me out!   Let there be revenge!  Damn you, and all the Czechs!”  A curse sorrowful old people would recall after the total destruction of Bohemia a decade later.

Rudolf did not attend the wedding when Matthais married Anne of Tyrol, one of Rudolf’s favorite fantasy empresses.  Rudolf was allowed to retain the title of Emperor and to live in his castle on a small allowance.

Matthais banned the court musicians, masters collected from all over Europe, replacing them with military bands.  Rifles were fired whenever Matthias arrived or departed.  The noise tormented Rudolf.  Matthais reported to Rome the rumors he heard of black magic being used against him by Rudolf.  A dog had been baptized Matthias then slaughtered.  His clothes had been cursed.  Rudolf watched ritual sex on an altar in a circle of magical protection to counteract alleged baleful influences from Matthais.  Who knows if Rudolf agreed to any of these desperate measures, or if they ever occurred?

 Holy Roman Emperor Matthias, painted by von Aachen.

Rudolf wanted to leave the castle, but he stayed because Kepler wanted to stay there to complete his astronomical calculations.  On infrequent visits from old ambassadors and other guests if his brother was mentioned Rudolf would groan: “He stole my crowns, one after the other.”

Comenius, the father of modern education, wrote after Rudolf’s death that the Emperor had created a Society of Peace.  Two ambassadors had been sent to forty princes Protestant and Catholic who the Emperor hoped loved peace.  They would guarantee freedom of religion.  He hoped even the Turks might be inspired to join.  His peaceful compromise failed because no other prince would support him.   His last living act was to induct an old friend the Duke of Brunswick, a noble with a love like his own for alchemy and the hermetic mysteries.  The Emperor wished that the secret society continue, its sole purpose the protection of freedom of worship.

Comenius was a believer in dreams and visions, and a follower of the great German mystic Boehme, yet he was a practical man.  He outlined the system of schools we’re still familiar with today: elementary, middle, high.   His improvements in teaching methods and his skill at organizing schools was perhaps the most practical application of the Rosicrucian dream of the universal reform by the invisible college.  His influence on America becomes obvious when Cotton Mathers reports Comenius turned down the job of being one of the first presidents of Harvard College.

Lion by Durer, 1521.

Near the end of his life when he was a recluse in a few rooms Rudolf had his favorite horses paraded by his window so he could sit up in bed and watch them pass.  Trapped in his few rooms, the lion was still his companion.  When the old lion died, Rudolf knew his own time had come.  He developed bronchitis, then swelling in his legs.  He ignored his doctors and forced his shoes on every morning so he could visit his collection of wonders, his only pleasure.  In pain, he kept his shoes on for two days; gangrene began to take his feet.  He refused medicines, instead relying on an alchemical potion.

On his death bed Rudolf recalled the feeling of elation that had kept him up all night when his father had recalled him to Austria from Spain.  How much more excited should he be now, he wondered, when he was about to return to his true home?

Rudolf, followed his father’s example, but people weren’t as surprised to learn that the mad Emperor of Prague had refused the last rites.   He was said to have quipped to one of his two remaining servants that he would only accept last rites from a priest of their own kind, a comment much prized by Protestants but probably more appropriately claimed by the hermetic tradition.  According to rumors after his death several million gold coins, an inheritance from his father, were found in his private rooms.

Matthias kicked out the remaining astrologers and alchemists.  He had Rudolf’s favorite painter do his portrait as Emperor.  Rudolf’s collections were lost after he died.  Some was taken away to storage in Vienna by Matthias and those who came after him, the rest was pillaged during the Thirty Years War.

But Matthias’s grip on power didn’t last long.  On the seventh anniversary of his taking the crown his Catholic lieutenants were thrown out of their windows by Protestant Bohemians.  Matthias sired no heirs, and neither did his brothers.  Instead, the next Emperor would be one raised by the Jesuits, a Catholic avenger, and defender of the faith with a vengeance, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, who drained the wealth of the Holy Roman Empire by fighting the Thirty Years War.   With his own hands he destroyed Rudolf’s letter guaranteeing freedom of worship.

 Frederick and Elizabeth by Adriaen van de Venne.

Thus the stage was set for the sacred marriage, for the sacrificial alchemical couple who would preside over the debacle of the Rosicrucian revolution.  They would walk the halls of Rudolf’s memories, strangers in his castle, the Winter King and Queen whose reign was only one winter long.  They are a truly tragic love story.  From their flaming nest of European Metaphysical Religion would rise the phoenix of American Metaphysical Religion.

Is it too much to say that a new and improved version of Rudolf’s Prague was born two hundred years after his reign?  In the United States of America where Cotton Mather was reading the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, and where most of John Dee’s library wound up, came the fuller flowering of the freedom of religious conscience Rudolf tried to provide.


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The Spread of Rosicrucianism in Nothern Europe

Brill, 1998

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Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition

No. 19, Vol. 2 2010

Enochian Angel Magic:
From John Dee to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Submitted by 590055951 to the University of Exeter as a dissertation towards the degree of MA in Western Esotericism.
September 2011

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A Study in Intellectual History 1576-1612

Oxford University, 1973

Kamen, Henry
Philip of Spain

Yale University Press, 1999

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The Magic Circle of Rudolf II:
Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague

New York, 2006

Spoto, Stephanie
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Uncanny Intelligence Conference
University of Kent, 2011

Szonyi, Gyorgy
John Dee’s Occultism:
Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs

State University of New York Press, 2007

White, Ralph
The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited

Lindisfarne, 1999

Wyatt, Matthew
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Article written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.


4 thoughts on “Roots of American Metaphysical Religion #1: The Slacker Emperor

  1. great article. must print out and read carefully, thanks

    Posted by Mark Shulgasser | October 15, 2012, 3:25 pm


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