A great many alchemical texts have been written about constructing the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone is not thought of to be literally a stone. However, what the “stone’ is exactly is highly disputed, often it is described as “red earth.” This mysterious substance allegedly has the ability to transform base metals into gold. Also called “the stone of the wise,” some have viewed it more abstractly as a transformation of the spiritual self, representing personal enlightenment.
Quinta essentia, das ist, die höchste Subtilitet, Krafft vnd Wirckung, beyder der fürtrefflichsten, vnd menschlichem Geschlecht am nützlichsten Künsten, der Medicin vnd Alchemy. Leipzig: [Gedruckt bey Hans Steinman, Typis Voegelianis, 1574].
Swiss goldsmith Leonhard Thurneisser zum Thurn (c.1530–1596) led a successful career in metallurgy with a special interest in minerals and alchemy. He garnered the attention of Emperor Ferdinand I and his family, eventually being commissioned by the Empress to travel to Africa to collect minerals, plants, and medicinal specimens. Upon his return he considered himself a pharmacist and after several notable employments by bishops and politicians, he began a thriving business of selling his own medicines. Thurneisser took considerable advantage of his position and is considered today to have been a charlatan. Quinta Essentia is one of his early alchemical works on medicine. The engraving seen here is a famous image of “Lady Alchemia,” who is first mentioned in The Emerald Tablet. Alchemy is often personified as a woman by adepts.
Aureum vellus, oder Guldin Schatz vnd Kunstkam[m]. Getruckt zu Roschach am Bodensee: [s.n.], annno [sic] MDCCVLII [i.e. 1598]–1604.
Salomon Trismosin was the legendary teacher of Paracelsus (1493–1541), the great Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer who revolutionized medicine and alchemy. This collection of his selected works includes Splendor Solis, which is famous for containing a series of twenty–two hand–colored illustrations which demonstrate various alchemical processes primarily related to the Philosopher’s Stone. The earliest surviving text of Splendor Solis is dated 1523 and was often reprinted. This woodcut of the King standing under a sun and the Queen standing under a moon are part of the matter of the Great Work. The sun is mercury and is considered fixed, while the moon is sulfur and is considered volatile, they are drawn from the same source. The sun/king is the father and the moon/queen is the mother of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Le grand esclairsissement de la pierre philosophale pour la transmutation de tous les metaux. A Paris: Chez Louys Vendosmes Marchand Libraire ..., 1628.
Alchemist Nicolas Flamel (c.1330–1418?) reportedly achieved both the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, which enabled him to share immortality with his beloved wife, Perenelle. Shown here is the ornate title page engraving for his text discussing the Philosopher’s Stone for the transmutation of all metals.
Trois traitez de la philosophie naturelle non encore imprimez. Paris, Guillaume Marette, 1612.
In 1407, Flamel and his wife had this arch erected in the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris. The carvings are now eroded, but the drawings remain.
Histoire critique de Nicolas Flamel et de Pernelle sa femme; recueillie d’actes anciens qui justifient l’origine & la médiocrité de leur fortune contre les imputations des alchimistes. A Paris, Chez G. Desprez ..., 1761.
A comprehensive and critical history of Flamel and his wife, argues that their wealth was less than believed and obtained by means other than alchemy. Frontispiece engraving of Nicolas Flamel from the portal of St. Genevieve of Ardens dated 1402.
Le texte d’alchymie; et, Le songe–verd. Paris, Laurent d’Houry, 1695.
Bernard of Trevisan (1406–1490) was an alchemist devoted to finding the Philosopher’s Stone. The motto “Ex Uno, Per Unum, In Uno. Omnia in Uno. Per Me Totum” roughly translates into “Out of One, Through One, In one. All things in one. Through all of me.”
Delarvatio tinctvræ philosophorvm. Nieder–Wasserberg: Gedruckt durch Mercurium Schwefelmann, 1769.
This frontispiece first appeared in Johann Georg Schmid’s Der von Mose u. denen Propheten übel urtheilende Alchymist Chemnitz in 1706 and was reused in this treatise on the Philosopher’s Stone.
Lambspringk is a German alchemist of whom we know very little. His most famous work relates to the Philosopher’s Stone, which is a substance that is needed to transmute base metals into gold. His treatise is accompanied by fifteen engravings.
Musæum Hermeticum, reformatum et amplificatum: omnes sopho–spagyricæ artis discipulos fidelissimè erudiens. Francofurti: Apud Hermannum à Sande, 1678.
Title page engraving of Lambspringk with his furnace.
Musæum Hermeticum, reformatum et amplificatum : omnes sopho–spagyricæ artis discipulos fidelissimè. Francofurti: Apud Hermannum à Sande, 1678.
The sixth figure shows the ouroboros, the winged dragon holding its own tail in his mouth. In Lambspringk this image represents mercury as a liquid that is to be coagulated.
Musæum Hermeticum: omnes sopho–spagyricæ artis discipulos fidelissime erudiens, quo pacto summa illa veraque medicina, qua res omnes, qualemcumque defectum patientes, instaurari possunt (quæ alias Benedictus Lapis Sapientum appellatur). Francofurti: Sumptibus Lucae Jennisii, 1625.
The tenth figure shows how the tincture is treated by fire, which augments its power. Salamanders have magical properties and are said to live in fire. Salamanders also represent the chemical sulfur, which is frequently represented by fire and the sun.
The Elixir of Life
There are many desirable alchemical elixirs which served different purposes. Alchemists who followed the “wet path” understood how to utilize dew and perform various distillation processes to create elixirs. Among the most sought after was the Elixir of Life, which reportedly has incredible healing properties, not only for an individual’s health, but also to remedy imperfections in metals including silver and gold. The Elixir of Life could restore youth, and produce longevity and even immortality.
Mutus Liber, one of the most famous alchemical works, consists of fifteen engravings which demonstrate a man and woman performing a sequence of chemical processes. The book contains no text, which is why it is known as the “Mute Book.” Alchemists could read and follow the instructions in the images to create the Elixir of Life, which is said to promote good health, longevity and even immortality.
First printed in 1677, the author of the work is unknown and attributed to an anonymous figure called “Altus.” Swiss physician and writer, Jean-Jaques Manget, (1652–1742) compiled a two volume alchemical compendium which included Mutus Liber. Manget’s work was very influential and works within his compendium earned high recognition, especially Mutus Liber.
Mutus liber, in quo tamen tota philosophia hermetica, figuris hieroglyphicis depingitur. Rupellae: Apvd Petrum Savouret, 1677.
First edition of Mutus Liber, open to the engraving showing the “Distillation of Dew.” Dew is an essential ingredient in the Elixir of Life and other alchemical elixirs. Dew is collected by stretching cloths across wooden posts in a field (seen in the center). Dew forms overnight and saturates the cloths. In the morning the alchemists wring the dew out of the cloth. The ram and the bull in the meadow seem to indicate that collection should occur during the zodiac signs of Aries and Taurus (April and May/springtime).
Jo. Jacobi Mangeti, medicinæ doctoris ... Bibliotheca chemica curiosa, seu, Rerum ad alchemiam pertinentium thesaurus instructissimus. Coloniæ Allobrogum: Sumpt. Chouet, G. De Tournes, Cramer, Perachon, Ritter & S. De Tournes, 1702.
Eighteenth–century printing of Mutus Liber, this engraving shows the alchemists pouring the dew they collected into a vessel which is set inside a furnace. The dew is distilled and saved for the next step involving reflux which continues for forty days. The residue from the distillation is collected and then given to Saturn.