Alchemical Emblems, Glyphs and Allegories
One of the ways alchemists maintained their secrets from gold–seekers and the uninitiated was by using glyphs in lieu of words to represent various chemicals, metals, and other substances. Another common practice was to include emblems. The rich visual imagery could be “read” by those who could understand and interpret the illustrations. An adept could decipher the emblems and use them to perform the scientific and spiritual processes outlined in the image. Alchemists often used both written and visual allegories to describe various processes. The meanings of some of these emblems, glyphs, and allegories have been uncovered, and yet many others remain mysterious and unknown.
Phosphorus hermeticus, sive Magnes luminaris Christiani Adolphi Balduini.... Francofurti, Lipsiæ,: sumpt. G.H. Frommanni, 1675.
Christian Adolph Balduin (1632–1682) describes in this work his method of preparing a phosphorescent form of calcium nitrate. For this discovery he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1676. Seen here is the Frankfurt edition which was printed in the same year as the Amsterdam edition, but with a different title. This fold out plate illustrates the Emerald Tablet.
Traittez dv vray sel, secret des philosophes, et de l’esprit general dv monde: contenant en son interieur les trois principes naturels, selon la doctrine de Hermes: oeuure tres vtile & necessaire à quiconque desire arriuer à la parfaitte prattique de ce pretieux elixir ou medecine uniuerselle, tant celebree des anciens, recognuë & experimentee. A Paris: Chez Ieremie Perier & Abdias Bvisard, 1621.
French poet Clovis Hesteau de Nuisement (c.1550–c.1624) was the author of several books of poems, and also wrote this alchemical treatise on salt. In this engraving, the figure is standing on a base with the inscription “Trinus et Unus” (“Three and One”), which refers to God, nature and man, being three distinct figures and one united at the same time.
Hohe und tieffe Gründe von dem dreyfachen Leben des Menschen: nach dem Geheimnüss der dreyen Principien göttlicher Offenbahrung. Zu Amsterdam: [s.n.], gedruckt im Jahr Christi 1682.
Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) was a German mystic and theologian. His alchemical writings were influenced by the great alchemist and physician Paracelsus. Bohme was drawn to alchemy as a metaphysical science and used alchemical symbolism to describe spiritual and religious theories. Seen here is an engraving of a sphere containing alchemical symbols, with beasts below and angels in the heavens above whose energies filter down through a phoenix which is surrounded by eyes.
Medicinisch–Chymisch und Alchemistisches Oraculum: darinnen man nicht nur alle Zeichen und Abkürzungen welche so wohl in den Recepten und Büchern der Aerzte und Apothecker als auch in den Schriften der Chemisten und Alchemisten vorkommen findet. Ulm: Bey August Lebrecht Stettin, 1772.
This work is a comprehensive collection of symbols and abbreviations in alchemical medicinal works. The title page woodcut is titled “Ora et Labora” (“Prayer and Work”).
Opus magni philosophia opus. [ca. 16--?].
Mss 095 Item 023
This Latin alchemical manuscript contains hand drawn illustrations by an unknown owner. Seen here is one about the Philosopher’s Stone.
Fünff Curieuse Chymische Tractätlein: in welchen die allerdeutlichsten Ausdrücke derer, so jemals, als wahrhafftige Kunstbesitzer, von dem so sehr beruffenen Stein der Weisen geschrieben haben, anzutreffen sind. Leipzig: Bey Stocks Erben Schilling und Weber, 1757.
Collection of alchemical texts, some of which are not printed anywhere else. Seen here is the engraving preceding Brunnen der Weisheit (“Fountain of Wisdom”).
Joh. de Monte–Snyders, Metamorphosis Planetarum: das ist: eine wunderbarliche Veränderung der Planeten und metallischen Gestalten in ihr erstes Wesen: mit beygefügtem Process und Entdeckung der dreyen Schlüssel, so zu Erlangung der drey Principia gehörig, und wie das universale generalislimum zu Erlangen. Frankfurt am Mayn: Verlegts Georg Heinrich Oehrling, 1700.
Little is known about German alchemist, Johannes de Monte–Snyder; however, this work contains one of the greatest alchemical allegories. Metamorphosis Planetarum (“Metamorphosis of the Planets”) was immensely popular and many struggled to understand its complexities, including the renowned scientist Isaac Newton. Seen here is the engraved title page.
Ein richtiger Wegweiser zu der einigen Warheit in Erforschung der verborgenen Heimlichkeiten der Natuhr. Zu finden in Berlin: Bey Johann Michael Rüdiger, 1701.
Franz Clinge was a lawyer in Berlin, about whom little else is known. The engraving seen here of a lion, lobster, dragon, and a bird inside of a flask represents the process of an alchemical tincture.
Theatrvm Chemicvm: præcipvos selectorvm avctorvm tractatvs de chemiæ et lapidis philosophici antiqvitate, veritate, jure, præstantia, & operationibus, continens: in gratiam veræ chemiæ, et medicinæ chemicæ studiosorum (ut qui uberrimam inde optimorum remediorum messem facere poterunt) congestum, & in quatuor partes seu volumina digestum. Argentorati: Sumptibus Lazari Zetzneri, 1613–1622.
Theatrvm Chemicvm (“Chemical Theatre”) is the earliest and most comprehensive compendium of alchemical writings. Seen here are two woodcuts. On the left is a mermaid, which often represents the mercury of the wise destroying the solid counterpart. On the right shows the sun (mercury) and the moon (sulfur) engulfed in flames, which represent the union of opposites.
Della tramvtatione metallica sogni tre. In Brescia: Appresso Pietro Maria Marchetti, 1599.
Giovanni Battista Nazari’s (c. 16th century) allegorical treatise on the transmutation of metals. This image depicts a giant donkey playing music on a flute with tiny people dancing in a circle around him.
The Ouroboros symbolizes life on every level, it is both the macrocosm and the microcosm -- the serpent and the egg, the universal and the individual. The circle represents the movement of divine energy and is a pictorial representation of the dictum “my end is my beginning.”
The Double Ouroborus shows two serpents which are integrated as one and symbolizes perfection and the union of opposites. The alchemical dictum associated with the double ouroboros is “Solve et Coagula” meaning “dissolve the body and coagulate the spirit.” The bottom, wingless serpent must be dissolved as it represents the unenlightened body. The top, winged serpent is elusive and must be coagulated. The continual circle ends when the two are integrated and become one.
R. Abrahami Eleazaris Uraltes Chymisches Werk. Schwartzburgicum, P. M. & I. P. E. Erfurt, Verlegts Augustinus Crusius, 1735.
Engraving of the double ouroboros in front of a tree bare of leaves and on the left a tulip–like flower is growing. Tulips are thought to represent the attainment of spiritual awareness.
R. Abrahami Eleazaris Uraltes Chymisches Werk. Schwartzburgicum, P. M. & I. P. E. Leipzig, in Lankischens Buchhandlung, 1760.
Nicolas Flamel’s engraving, “Crucified Serpent” appears in this volume. It represents the fixing of the volatile or the removing of poison and the making the elixir of mercury. In the left foreground a tulip–like flower is wilting and behind this a tree stump sprouts new leaves.
For five thousand years the Caduceus has been a symbol of healing and remains recognizable in modern medicine. Also known as the Wand of Hermes, the two snakes around the pillar represent the unity of opposites: male/female, sun/moon, soul/spirit between the heaven and earth. The crown represents divine nature and the wings represent transcendence.
Miracula & mysteria chymico–medica: libris quinque (quorum summam pagina versa exhibet). Amstelodami: Apud Ægidium Janssonium Valkenier, 1656.
This is one of several chemical and medical works by Philipp Müller (1585–1659), a professor of Mathematics at Leipzig University.
Institutiones chimicae prodromae i.e. Ioannis Ioachimi Becheri ... Oedipus chimicus obscuriorum terminorum & principiorum chimicorum mysteria aperiens & resolvens. Opusculum, omnibus medicinae & chimiae studiosis, lectu perquàm utile & necessarium. Francofvrti, apud Hermannvm à Sande, 1664.
Alchemists took delight in their cryptic texts and often compared alchemical riddles with the riddle of Sphinx. Seen here is an engraving of Oedipus holding a caduceus approaching the Sphinx.
Institutiones chimicae prodromae id est, Joannis Joachimi Becheri. Amstelodami, apud Elizeum Weyerstraten, 1664.
The frontispiece engraving for a textbook on Paracelsian medicine. Again, Oedipus meeting the Sphinx can be seen in the background of the alchemists’ laboratory.
Hortulus hermeticus flosculis philosophorum cupro incisis conformatus, & breuissimis versiculis explicatus quo chymiatriae studiosi pro philotheca vti, fessique laboratorium ministri recreari possint. Francofurti: Impensis Lucae Jennisii, 1627.
Daniel Stolcius (1600–1660) was a Bohemian physician and alchemist. He studied alchemy with Michael Maier. Seen here is his well-known emblem book displaying seals for Summa Textualis Philosophica, Codex Veritatis De Sapientia Philosophica, Oswaldus Crollius Veteranus Philosophicae Discipulus and Johannes–Daniel Mylius, Veteranus, Philosophicae Discipulus.
Hortulus hermeticus flosculis philosophorum cupro incisis conformatus, et brevissimis versiculis explicates. [c. 16--?].
MSS 095 Item 026
This manuscript copy of the Stolcius’s emblem book contains additional material clipped out of unidentified book. The emblems are mounted on pages with the printed material copied by an unknown hand. Open to the same seals as in the published copy on the left.
Ioannis Danielis Mylii Vetterani Hassi M.C. Opus medico–chymicum: continens tres tractatus siue Basilicas: quorum prior inscribitur Basilica medica: secundus Basilica chymica: tettius Basilica philosophica. Francofurti: Apud Lucam Iennis, 1618–1630. Volume One.
Johann Daniel Mylius (c.1583–1642) was a German philosopher, composer and alchemist, who also studied theology and medicine. He wrote many alchemical treatises, and is best known for his works on alchemical emblems. Seen here across from the beautiful title page engraving are the handwritten notes by a previous owner.
Ioannis Danielis Mylii Vetterani Hassi M.C. Opus medico–chymicum: continens tres tractatus siue Basilicas: quorum prior inscribitur Basilica medica: secundus Basilica chymica: tettius Basilica philosophica. Francofurti: Apud Lucam Iennis, 1618–1630.
Volume three of Mylius’s Opus Medico–Chymicum which he wrote while still a medical student. This treatise is about Paracelsian medicine, which was highly controversial.
Ioannis Danielis Mylii T. & med. candidati vetterani hassi Philosophia reformata continens libros binos: I. Liber in septem partes diuisus est...: II. Liber continet authoritates philosophorum. Francofvrti: Apud Lucam Iennis, 1622.
This is a first edition of Mylius’s best–known work, Philosophia Reformata (“Philosophy Reformed”) is a beautifully illustrated book that discusses concepts of metals and the stages of alchemy.
Basil Valentine (c. 15th century) was a Benedictine monk who was incredibly knowledgeable about chemistry, medicine, philosophy, and alchemy. He reportedly became Canon of the Priory of St. Peter at Erfurt in Germany. Mysteriously there is no extant evidence to support his affiliation with the Benedictines or the Priory of St. Peter and many believe “Basil Valentine” was a pseudonym.
Regardless, he is credited with a number of important writings related to the valuable and practical experiments he performed. He discovered many chemical preparations, such as the preparation of sulphuric acid; he was the first to introduce antimony into medicine and the first to explain how to extract antimony from sulphuret.
Haliographia de praeparatione, vsu, ac virtutibus omnium salium, mineralium, animalium, & vegetabilium. Bononiae: [Apud Andream Salmincium], 1644.
In this work Valentine discusses the preparation of salts. Here he is the first to discuss artificial mineral baths, chiefly nitre, vitriol, alum, and salt of tartar and examine the medical benefits for treatment of skin diseases. This work is also the first to describe the process for fulminating gold.
Les douze clefs de philosophie de frere Basile Valentin, religieux de l’ordre Sainct Benois: traictant de la vraye medecine metalique: plus l’Azoth, ou, Le moyen de faire l’or caché des philosophes: traduction francoise. A Paris: Chez Ieremie et Christophle Perier ..., 1624.
The frontispiece engraving shows the sun and the moon, which often represent mercury and sulfur and triangle with a bird inside which represents a chemical process.
The Twelve Keys
When Basil Valentine’s The Twelve Keys was first published in 1599 it did not contain any illustrations. A 1602 edition included woodcuts. The twelve engravings that the work is now famous for did not appear until 1618 when the alchemist Michael Maier included The Twelve Keys in his Tripus Aureus (Golden Tripod).
Seen here are seven of the twelve keys; each emblem is rich with alchemical symbolism and appears in many editions. The meanings of some of the symbols within each emblem are known; however, the interpretation of the keys as a whole remains an enigma to the uninitiated.
Les douze clefs de philosophie. A Paris: Chez Pierre Moët, 1659.
The First Key: The King and Queen represent the sun and the moon or mercury and sulfur. They stand between antimony, symbolized by the wolf and lead, symbolized by the man with the scythe, which also symbolize animality and death. The King holds up three fingers and the Queen holds three flowers suggesting that the process needs to be repeated three times. This emblem represents the chemical process of purification.
Les douze clefs de philosophie. A Paris: Chez Pierre Moët, 1659.
The Second Key: Mercury is standing between polar opposites, sun/moon, life/death, earth/air and the fixed/volatile. This emblem often represents the chemical process of separation.
Dyas chymica tripartita: das ist: sechs herrliche Teutsche philosophische Tractälein, deren II. von an jtzo noch im Leben: II. von mitlern Alters: und II. von ältern philosophis beschrieben worden: nunmehr aber allen filiis doctinæ zu Nutz an Tag geben, und mit schönen Figuren gezieret. Franckfurt am Mayn: Bey Lvca Jennis zu finden, 1625.
The Seventh Key: Depicts materials of the four seasons surrounded in chaos. Inside the triangle is “water” and at the base of the triangle is “salt of the philosophers.”
The Eighth Key: Depicts twelve arches representing each key or step in the process. The one hidden behind the alchemists’ target is Resurrection.
The Ninth Key: Depicts a man and woman forming the shape of a cross, with four birds at their head and feet. These birds symbolize different chemical processes. For example the black crow is putrefaction and the phoenix is resurrection.
Ioannis Danielis Mylii Vetterani Hassi M.C. Opus medico-chymicum: continens tres tractatus siue Basilicas: quorum prior inscribitur Basilica medica: secundus Basilica chymica: tettius Basilica philosophica. Francofurti: Apud Lucam Iennis, 1618-1630. [Volume 4]
The Eleventh Key: Seen here the Sun and Moon, or the spirit and the soul, are united through death. This emblem sometimes represents the process of conjunction.
Ioannis Danielis Mylii Vetterani Hassi M.C. Opus medico-chymicum: continens tres tractatus siue Basilicas: quorum prior inscribitur Basilica medica: secundus Basilica chymica: tettius Basilica philosophica. Francofurti: Apud Lucam Iennis, 1618-1630. [Volume 2:]
The Twelfth Key: The alchemist achieves the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone in this emblem which is represented by the golden flower and the lion eating the snake. Sometimes this emblem is used to represent the chemical process of calcification.