The composition derives from an engraving by Girolamo Olgiati of 1569. In that, the original inscriptions are preserved: (on the banner, above) 'Hoc Monstrum generat, tum perficit ignis, et Azoch' and (on the tablet, below) 'Quidquid in Arte sacra, doctissima Turba [Philo]sophor[um] Scripsit, mysterius plena Figura notat; Materia in uarias formas, mutata uidetur, Ast optata, scienti, unica, et efficitur'. The first inscription means: 'This produces raw matter, while fire and mercury perfect it [the united action of fire and quicksilver being believed to transform raw matter into the 'philosopher's stone'].' The Turba Philosophorum referred to in the second is one of the earliest Latin alchemical texts, translated from Arabic and probably dating from at least the tenth century. It introduced many of the key themes of the alchemical tradition and was often quoted in later writings.
The imagery derives from Orphic tradition, a cult dating from the archaic Greek period onwards and associated with the worship of Dionysus, mixed with Pythagorean philosophy and some Near Eastern and Egyptian beliefs. The Orphic poems that form the basis for the cult are mainly theogonies (although many refer mystery cults and initiatory rites, with an apparent especial connection with Eleusis and subsequently Mithraism) based upon that of Hesiod, but radically altered. Depicted in the present work is Phanes, the central figure of Orphic worship, who emerged from the Cosmic Egg as the child of Nyx [Night], who had borne the Egg without recourse to any male element. Phanes was succeeded by Zeus, who was in turn succeeded by Dionysus, who alone of all gods could intercede on man's behalf with Persephone after death.
Phanes was a tripartite god, also known Metis and Ericapaeus, the three being aspects of one Power, and represented here by the figure's three faces. In the Renaissance, the imagery of Phanes was associated with Aeon, the Hellenistic god of Time, who is often shown in the centre of the zodiac wheel, turning it with one hand; Olgiati's image, however, perhaps draws more on the Creator status and somewhat protean nature of the god, thereby linking him with alchemical thought and tradition. Most directly, however, this composition derives from an ancient bas relief now in the Galerie e Museo Estense, Modena, that shows Phanes emerging from the Cosmic Egg, surrounded by the four winds and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The similarities with the present figure are clear: a serpent coils itself about his body, while the heads of a goat, lion and ram are visible between the serpent's coils, and from Phanes' shoulders emerge the horns of a crescent moon, behind which are his wings; in his right hand he wields a thunderbolt, and in his left he holds a staff.