Patrick Geddes’ Lapis Philosophorum (1896)

Wikis > Patrick Geddes' Lapis Philosophorum (1896)
An obelisk is centered over three radiating suns. The obelisk is decorated by glyphs. On either side of the obelisk, on pliths, rests a sphinx.
Lapis Philosophorum, by Patrick Geddes (1896)

“Lapis Philosophorum” is the last image, and in fact the last piece, of the final volume of The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, The Book of Winter. Right from The Contents pages, it is clear that “Lapis Philosophorum” is unlike the other images of this volume. Like the others, it is a pen-and-ink drawing, reproduced photo-mechanically through line-block engraving. Like the others, it is listed under “decorations.” Unlike the others, its title is centered in The Contents, not flush left, perhaps to make up visually for its lack of a listed author. That the artist is Patrick Geddes can be derived from the inscription of Geddes’ initials “P” and “G” on the plinths the sphinxes rest on.

At the center of “Lapis Philosophorum” is an obelisk against three suns. The trio of suns appears to be a reference to Ra, The Sun God, who takes three different forms: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. On the obelisk, are inscriptions, some of which are enclosed in trios in cartouches. On either side of the obelisk, rests a sphinx in profile. The title of the image, which also appears within the image itself, is latin for The Philosopher’s Stone. 

Geddes’ obelisk and pairs of sphinxes appears to be modeled on Cleopatra’s Needle, a London monument. This obelisk was originally one of a pair that stood at the Temple of The Sun in Heliopolis of Ancient Egypt. In the 8th year of his rule, Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar ceased the obelisks and had them transported from Heliopolis to Alexandria, where they decorated the Caesarium, or Palace of the Caesars.  For 15 centuries, the obelisks stood at Alexandria, and there remained (despite an attempt at seizing in Napoleon’s time) until the 1800s, when Mehemet Ali, then ruler of Egypt, offered one obelisk to France, and one to England. It was not until 1877, however, that the obelisk was transported to London. The two bronze sphinxes, designed by architect George John Vulliamy, were added at a later date. 

A stone obelisk stands in front of building. On either side of it is a bronze sphinx.
Cleopatra’s Needle, London (2013)

In the “Critical Introduction to The Evergreen,” Lorraine Janzen-Kooistra writes that “Lapis Philosophorum” is “Geddes’s final word on the interconnection of all things—past and present, east and west, art and science, physical and spiritual—while also gesturing toward some of the underlying Theosophist beliefs informing The Evergreen.” Just like the Tree of Life, Janzen Kooistra writes, the Philosopher’s Stone was an important Theosophist symbol, signifying “ the transmutation of human, physical nature into its highest, divine form.”

But what is the Philosopher’s Stone doing against the backdrop of Cleopatra’s Needle? A curious connection may lie in the name. Though Cleopatra VII Philopator had nothing to do with the obelisk, a Cleopatra does, however, connect to the Philosopher’s Stone. Known as “Cleopatra the Alchemist” (a name that could have been a pseudonym), this Cleopatra was a Greek philosopher, alchemist, author, and thought one of the few with the knowledge to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. Because of their shared name, Cleopatra VII Philopator has sometimes been falsely credited for Cleopatra the Alchemist’s achievements, which included the invention of the alembic. What survives of Cleopatra The Alchemist’ s work shows imagery of conception and death, transformation and renewal, and interconnectedness and eternity — all themes relevant to the closing of The Evergreen’s final volume.

What to make of the inscriptions of Geddes’ obelisk? These glyphs do not match the ones on Cleopatra’s Needle, nor do they seem to correspond to any Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The various symbols do seem to invoke associations with different disciplines: a note for music, the Rod of Asclepius for medicine, the scales for law, the sword for military, the cross for religion, and the butterfly, perhaps, for the naturalist. These glyphs may represent “mystical, spiritual, historical, and technological human advances” (Kooistra, Critical Introduction to The Evergreen). That some of the glyphs are enclosed in cartouches is odd, as cartouches typically enclosed the names of royals in Ancient Egypt. Are these glyphs, in fact, meant to spell out a word? A name? Geddes also enclosed each of his initials, individually, in cartouches. Unless the implication here is the elevating of these disciplines — and of Geddes — to status of “royalty,” then this seems an artistic choice made out of ignorance.

Through “Lapis Philosophorum,” honours The Evergreen and its commitment to the joining of arts, science, and literature. In “The Envoy,” the text that precedes this image, Patrick Geddes and William Macdonald write, “The naturalist evolutionist then, like his artist brother, who would know this House the Sun Built, must follow its changes through the Seasons; and the social evolutionist {again with the artist) must see that human life, like simpler life, is in harmony and tone with these.” 

With “Envoy” and “Lapis Philosophorum,” The Evergreen “sleeps for a season,” ends.

Works Cited

Geddes, Patrick and W. Macdonald. “Envoy.” The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4 Winter 1896-7, pp. 155-156. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.

Hart, George. A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, Taylor & Francis Group, 1986. ProQuest Ebook Central,

King, James. Cleopatra’s Needle: A History of the London Obelisk, with an Exposition of the Hieroglyphics. E-book, Project Gutenberg, 2013.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “Critical Introduction to The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, Volume 4: Winter 1896.” Evergreen Digital Edition, Yellow Nineties 2.0 , Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “General Introduction to The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, Evergreen Digital Edition, Yellow Nineties 2.0 , Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.

Lack, Hannah. “Cleopatra: The ancient alchemist who quested for gold.” CNN, 29 Apr. 2020, Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

Plant, I. M. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

The Royal Ontario Museum. “How to Write Your Name in Egyptian Hieroglyphs.” YouTube, uploaded by Royal Ontario Museum, 22 Sept. 2014, Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.