Lead is a heavy but pliable metal with the symbol Pb (from the Latin ‘plumbum’ of ‘plomb’ in French). It is easily extracted from its ore, abundantly present in the Solar System and on earth it is found mainly combined with the mineral galena (Pbs), with zinc ores. The largest lead deposits are located in Australia, China, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia and the United States. In the US the Missouri lead belt is most significant, and I start this compilation with some historic footage of this mining that for many years has been providing lead for among others acid-lead batteries in our cars, which is still a significant use of lead. Since the 1920s lead was also added to petrol to make the engine of our cars run better, but since the 1970s this is largely contested and abandoned because of the lead pollution this caused in the air. But the use of lead is known since 6.000 BC. The Egyptians used it for facial make-up, in ancient China lead coins and pennies were used as currency, but most well-known for their use of lead were the Romans who used it massively for the piping of their water systems and used it to sweeten their wine. Some even argue that the downfall of the Roman Empire has partly been due to lead poisoning which deranged the Romans, who did not yet know of the poisonous qualities of lead. On the other hand, lead is known for its protection against radiation, even in heavily contaminated areas such as Chernobyl.
Lead was crucial for the invention of the printing press, but it is also a core metal in bullets. Lead cast bullets have a soft lead core, and a brass casing. The (in)famous “full metal jackets” are lead cast bullets that are used, among others, by UN soldiers in international operations. Lead’s pliable strength and low melting point makes it also an ideal component in roof toppings and welding. Lead is also a component in crystal glass wear, where it gives the glass a beautiful bluish shine (but you have to drink your wine quickly, after a few days the lead releases small particles in the wine), and it is famously used in colorful stained glass in churches all over the world. When lead is kept with vinegar in a container for 40 days (and in earlier days covered in horse manure to keep it warm), it turns all flaky and white and can easily be grounded into a white powder that has been used for facial powders and creams. Elisabeth I, queen of England (1533-1603) is famous for her white face. Her transformation from princess into Queen through this transmutation of whitening is rendered quite beautifully in Shekhar Kapur’s film with Cate Blanchet as Elisabeth. But also the Venetian and French aristocracy in the 16th and 17th century knew this fashion of whitening. In Japan geisha’s used lead white to paint their faces. Lead-white and lead-yellow was also famously used as a pigment in oil paint. Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Vermeer are a few of the countless references to this use of lead.
Lead is heavy and so it’s symbolic use reflects this heaviness as in expressions such as “soleil de plomb” in French, sun of lead or blazing sun; or “years of lead”, referring to periods in history that are full of heavy political unrest or situations. The specific references are often to indicate the 70s and 80s political turmoil in Italy and Germany. And in Morocco “les annees de plomb” refer to the state violence and harsh dictatorial regime of King Hassan II (between 1961-1999) The alchemical planet connected to lead is Saturn. Saturn is the ringed planet with 62 moons. Saturn takes 29.5 years to orbit the Sun but it turns very quickly around its own axes, so a day on Saturn takes about 10.6 hrs. It has been known since Antiquity, but astronomers Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) discovered its rings.
In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of seeds, crops, and the harvest (agriculture), leader of the titans, father and founder of civilizations, social order, and conformity. The famous rings of the planet Saturn that enclose and surround it, reflect the idea of human limitations. Saturn is associated with focus, precision, nobility, ethics, civility, lofty goals, career, great achievements, dedication, authority figures, ordered hierarchy, stability, virtues, productiveness, valuable hard lessons learned, destiny, traditions, conformity, structures, protective roles, balance, and karma (reaping what you have sowed or divine cosmic justice) but with limitations, restrictions, boundaries, anxiety, tests, practicality, reality, and time. It concerns a person's sense of duty, discipline, responsibility, including their physical and emotional endurance during hardships. Saturn also represents the part of a person's concern with long-term planning or foresight. The Return of Saturn is said to mark significant events in each person's life. Saturn symbolized processes and things that were dry and cold, which are necessary balancing aspects to maintain life. It governed the melancholic humor. The crew in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar,needs to travel to Saturn to find a space portal. The beautiful images of Saturn in this film close this journey, following the lead.