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Hallie Ford Museum of Art Exhibits

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, Dali

The Tree of Life is also referred to as The Philosopher's Tree. It represents the alchemical process, comparing it to the growth of a living organism. The Tree also symbolizes the alchemist's mental growth as he becomes more enlightened throughout the alchemical process. Biologically, the Tree takes many forms: sometimes an oak, palm, or vine, as is the case with Dalí's Tree of Life. It is sometimes depicted inverted with its roots growing into the sky, indicating that the alchemical process requires the nourishment of divine inspiration. It can also be related to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and is sometimes presented with the Alchemical Adam. 

Dalí's tree is represented as a vine in a double helix like Mercury's caduceus, his staff entwined with two serpents. Two figures are dwarfed by the Tree-a faceless woman in an intricately patterned gown, and a faceless man in flowing classical garments. Both figures hold a single large flower-the man lifts his above his head as an offering to another figure: the head of Mercury emerging in the top corner of the print. Mercury's face looks similar to an ancient marble bust, and he is recognizable by a wing sprouting from his headband. The headband is decorated with three jewels attached to the print. Mercury is the primary figure in alchemy, appearing in most alchemical texts. He is often called the father of alchemy. Red and yellow flowers fall around the Tree; these also hold an alchemical significance. Flowers sometimes represent the beautiful colors that are said to occur in the alchemical vessel when the purification process is at its most perfect. However, flowers of these colors also indicate two vital stages in the process: citrinitas and rubedo, the yellowing and the reddening. The flowers in this print are poppies, and allude to a specific alchemical text by Zosimos of Panopolis, in which he recalls a dream. Dalí references the poppy's narcotic properties by using them as a symbol of dreams and oblivion. 

Excerpts from the alchemical texts in Alchimie des Philosophes: 

"The Raven winging through the air in August sheds its feather in the hollow of an oak tree, and it possesses a yellow feather which falls from it while it is devouring Serpents, and its head becomes red as a poppy." -The Alchemical Bestiary

"The tree embodies in potential the pear; if the Stars in the sky and Nature are in accord, around the month of March its branches grow, and then its buds; they then open and allow its flowers to appear. And likewise, until the pears ripen, in the autumn of the Tree. It is the same with minerals when they are first born within the Womb of the earth, under the influence of the stars; the Alchemists who seek the Treasure of Treasures should pay the greatest attention to that." -The Mineral and Metallic Tree of the Great Work