Le Vaisseau du Grand Oeuvre
Julien Champagne’s most famous painting, Le Vaisseau du Grand Oeuvre (Vessel of the Great Work), was completed in the year 1910. The painting was a great favorite among the Parisian occultists during the first third of the 20th Century. The voluptuous model for the painting was purported to be the young female alchemist, Louise Barbe (ca. 1879-1919); she was the wife of the infamous Russian “monkey gland” surgeon, Serge Voronoff (1866-1951). Louise was a member of the occult circle which gathered at the salon of the de Lesseps family (children of the great Ferdinand de Lesseps) in Paris. Of course, the “Great Work” is Alchemy, and the painting is filled with alchemical symbolism. The nude female figure is a personification of the philosopher’s stone; she stands within a glass flask and is surrounded by myriad blazing flames. Off the right shoulder of the young woman is the word “POTERE” meaning “power” in English; off of her left shoulder is the word “AVDERE” meaning “to dare” in English. The background on the left and right sides of the flask contain the names of certain philosophers and alchemists written in Latin letters. The names on the left side are as follows: Artephius, Albert le Grand, Synesius, Th. d’Aquin, R. Lulle, Flamel, Rhazes, and Geber. The names on the right side are as follows: Roger Bacon, A. de Villeneuve, Basile Valentin, Van Helmont, Paracelse, Philalethe, Trevisan, and Ripley. In the darkened sky behind the female figure are depictions of the Moon and four planets that are visible to the naked eye: above her right shoulder are Saturn and Jupiter; on her lower right side is a crescent Venus (Morning Star); above her left shoulder is a crescent Moon; and to her lower left is the planet Mars. On her forehead the woman wears a sparkling diamond of the Queen of Heaven, Isis, the Goddess of magic and the occult arts. The diamond represents the “Great Eye,” which Isis is purported to have stolen from Ra, the supreme God of Pharaonic Egypt. Eugène Canseliet used a representation of this painting as the frontispiece in the 1979 reprint of his book entitled Deux logis alchimiques, en marge de la science et de l’histoire (originally published in 1945).