Alchemy 50 (Alquimia 50) by Olga de Amaral

Olga de Amaral

Alchemy 50 (Alquimia 50), 1987, Canvas, gesso, gold leaf, and acrylic paint, 165 x 150 cm, Tate; Presented by the artist 2016, T14879, © Olga de Amaral; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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The Alchemy of Faith

Commentary by

At first glance, this intricate weaving has no obvious link to a biblical letter about suffering and salvation. Yet its very title invites a closer look.

This work is part of the Alchemies (Alquimias) series created by Colombian artist Olga de Amaral (b.1932). The ancient practice of alchemy had several aims, but its most famous was the quest to turn lead (or other base metals) into gold. The artist has used actual gold—delicate, thin strips of gold leaf—to create her textured piece.

As a symbol, gold is multifaceted; it is widely seen as the most precious of metals and is admired or coveted for its beauty. The use of gold establishes a connection between the ancestral culture of Colombia’s precolonial past and the later adornment of Christian churches after Catholicism arrived with fourteenth-century Spanish colonialists. In some cultures, it is a symbol of immortality; in others, of knowledge. The term ‘golden age’ (derived from Greek mythology) is often used to describe a period of exceptional flourishing or achievement. De Amaral (2003) herself has noted the association of gold with knowledge.

Peter appeals to another common quality of gold in his letter: its ability to be refined through fire (1 Peter 1:7). Because gold has a low melting point, it can be stripped of impurities or other metals in a hot fire. Peter reminds the suffering Christians who receive his letter that their faith is like gold, and their suffering is like a fire. They are being refined through fire, and their faith will be stronger and more genuine because of their suffering. But their faith is unlike gold in another way: gold, although beautiful and long-lasting, is not immortal. It is—ultimately—perishable. Their faith—and the inheritance that awaits them—is, by contrast, imperishable and unfading. Nothing can defile or destroy it.

Of course, De Amaral’s work is not simply a sheet of gold. It is interwoven with small black threads. The gold shimmers behind a veil, indistinct, not fully visible. Likewise, Peter urges the hearers of his letter to rejoice in things they have not yet seen (1 Peter 1:5, 8), to prepare for the divine ‘alchemy’ that will transform their mortal bodies into glorious and imperishable ones (1 Corinthians 15:42–54).

 

References

De Amaral, Olga. 2003. ‘The House of My Imagination: Lecture by Olga de Amaral at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 24 April 2003’ (Bogotá: Zona)

Goin, Chelsea Miller. 1998. ‘Textile as Metaphor: The Weavings of Olga de Amaral’, in A Woman’s Gaze: Latin American Women Artists, ed. by Marjorie Agosín (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press), pp. 54–63


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