Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

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Alchemical Images

  • Peter J. ForshawEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_472-1


Natural philosophy Astrology Religion Natural magic Emblematics 



The focus of this entry is on the visual imagery found first in Western alchemical manuscripts and later in print publications from the introduction of alchemy into Europe in the twelfth century until the heyday of emblematic alchemy in the seventeenth century.

Types of Alchemical Imagery

Alchemical imagery can be divided into various categories, the most prominent being (1) illustrations of laboratory apparatus (furnaces, vessels); (2) bestiary (dragons, lions, toads, birds); (3) religious analogies (Passion and Resurrection of Christ; Crowning of the Virgin Mary; Adam and Eve); (4) mythological analogies (e.g., Apollo and Diana; Venus and Mars; Vulcan); (5) geometric diagrams; and (6) glyphs or notae representing cosmic principles (e.g., four elements), alchemical substances, and processes. A great part of this imagery is concerned with Chrysopoeia or gold-making, although some can be found that relates to Chymiatria or chemical medicine.

Visual Imagery in Western Alchemical Manuscripts

Although images can be found in medieval Greek manuscripts attributed to Zosimos of Panopolis, there was next to no visual imagery in Western medieval alchemical manuscripts until the end of the thirteenth century (Obrist 1982, 2003). The earliest known Western instance of a diagram in an alchemical work can be found in the Book of the Secrets of Alchemy, compiled by Constantine of Pisa in 1257 (Obrist 1990), in a rudimentary representation of the generation of metals, a stack of ten horizontal crescents, each containing verbal labels of what they represent. By the mid-fourteenth century, in The Secrets of My Lady Alchemy, this abstract “creation diagram” has become figurative, with personifications of the metals (the head of Saturn as Lead; Mars as Iron, etc.).

In the fourteenth century, drawings of laboratory apparatus, such as vessels and furnaces, also begin to appear, in works like the Semita recta (The Right Path), attributed to Albert the Great. Alchemical works pseudonymously attributed to the Franciscan “doctor illuminatus” Ramon Lull (c.1232-c.1315), such as the Testamentum, contain geometrical diagrams concerning the elemental compositions of the Sun and Moon or relations of the different principles of practice (e.g., quicksilver, vitriol, etc.) (Pereira and Spaggiari 1999). Later in the century appear the first images representing stages of the Great Work, in Gratheus’s Introduction to Alchemy, which includes the image of glass vessels containing personified substances, such as King Ylarius and Queen Virgo, who produce several children, including a dragon. This is possibly the earliest instance of the alchemical opus being described as analogous to human and animal generation. Gratheus goes further, moreover, by introducing a religious dimension, with the image of Christ’s haloed head surrounded by glass vessels and another of Christ emerging from the tomb, symbol of the vessel in which the alchemical matter dies and is regenerated as the Philosophers’ Stone (Birkhan 1992; Obrist 2003).

Aurora Consurgens (Dawn Rising, 1420s)

Hermaphroditic “Tripod” in Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. 172: Aurora consurgens. http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/fr/list/one/zbz/Ms-Rh-0172

By the fifteenth century, alchemical imagery has become far more sophisticated, with manuscripts of high artistic quality and far more fantastical in their symbolism. One of the foremost examples is the Aurora Consurgens (Dawn Rising), the oldest copy dating from the 1420s, its richly illuminated text intended for princely patrons (Obrist 1982; Gabriele 1997; Crisciani and Pereira 2008). The Aurora’s 37 images include representations of the 2 main ingredients of the Philosophers’ Stone (Sun and Moon, sulfur and quicksilver): on an astro-alchemical level, their oppositional nature depicted as the Sun riding a lion jousting with the Moon on a griffin; this echoed on a naturalistic level as a cockerel with a hen. Other striking images include a “tripod” formed of a male and female figure embraced by a large blue eagle, representing the Sun and Moon united or dissolved by Mercury, or the gruesome beheading of the Sun and Moon by Mercury, still blue in color, but this time in the form of a human-headed serpent. Also to be contemplated are various birds, symbolizing different stages of the Work: a raven (the blackness of calcination or putrefaction), a swan (the whiteness of solution or washing), a peacock (the many-colored stage), a phoenix (symbol of the red Philosophers’ Stone), plus eagles (sometimes representing volatile salts), in addition to a dragon (symbol of Mercury).

The Aurora also links alchemy with other disciplines, namely, astrology and theology. Alchemy is sometimes described as a lower, terrestrial astronomy; hence the presence of a menstruating woman encircled by the signs of the zodiac, with her sextant pointing toward the fire sign Leo, best choice for the birth of the red Stone. Also included is an alchemical version of the traditional medieval Christian symbol for the interconnectedness of the Holy Trinity, the Scutum Fidei or Shield of Faith, beside which stands an alchemical vessel containing three birds (black, white, and red), symbolizing the three major stages of the Opus.

One of the most memorable images in the Aurora shows the mythical founder of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus, holding his Emerald Tablet. The image is based on an ekphrastic description of a statue of Hermes discovered inside a pyramid, in the tenth-century Tabula Chimica of Senior Zadith (Muhammed ibn Umail), while in the Aurora, Hermes is seated in the “Treasure House that God’s Wisdom has built on a Rock,” alluding to a passage in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs 9:1–10 (Ronca 1998).

Das Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (The Book of the Holy Trinity, 1410–1419)

The association of alchemy with religion is also found in another influential alchemical manuscript from the early decades of the fifteenth century, indeed the first German vernacular alchemical work, Das Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (The Book of the Holy Trinity, 1410–1419), attributed to the Franciscan Frater Ulmannus (Obrist 1982; Völlnagel 2012). This enigmatic work promotes a mystique of the Trinity, in particular the sufferings of Christ represented in its images, as symbols of the alchemical processes of mortification, calcination, and purification. In the first of these, we see the figure of Christ, bearing the five wounds of the cross, fused with the body of a large black two-headed eagle, with the alchemist being told that one should calcine the copper that constitutes Christ’s torso, which is then transformed by Christ’s power into gold. As was the case with Gratheus, the successful production of the Philosophers’ Stone is represented by Christ’s resurrection from the tomb of the alchemical vessel.

The Book of the Holy Trinity also includes an extremely novel depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin, novel on both religious and alchemical grounds. As an example of religious art, the image is a new way of presenting Mary, and alchemically, too, the linking of the four evangelists, with the four elements, is a new image in alchemical literature. The goal of alchemy, the Philosophers’ Stone, had always been presented as the perfect union of opposing principles. In the Book of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ becomes the ultimate hermaphrodite, a unity of contrary parts, human and divine and male and female, and as such is analogous to the Stone. In addition to this theo-alchemical or alchemo-devotional aspect, we also find novel representations of two bat-winged Hermaphroditic alchemical figures, one good and Mercurial and the other evil and Luciferian. There is also the image of Adam, Eve, and a female-headed serpent piercing Adam with a lance, calling to mind Mercury as headsman in Aurora Consurgens. Although there is a strong connection here with religious imagery, the author displays a convincing amount of chemical knowledge and familiarity with laboratory apparatus, which are also depicted.

Some Manuscripts in the Age of Print

Production of illustrated manuscripts continues in the fifteenth century, with the eye-catching imagery of the Ripley Scrolls, with its dragons, lions, human-headed Hermes’ Bird, toad, figures of Adam and Eve, and series of roundels with flasks containing human figures in the act of procreation and generation of their philosophical son (Rampling 2014). A similar series of vessels containing symbolic substances appears in the Donum Dei (Gift of God) (Völlnagel 2012). The early sixteenth century witnesses the appearance of the Splendor Solis (Sun’s Splendour), with its series of 22 images, some clearly drawing from the Aurora Consurgens, including the dismemberment motif, as well as human figures, birds, and dragons in vessels, set against an astrological background of the Children of the Planets, which have been described as “the most elaborate illustrations ever executed in alchemical manuscript illumination” (Völlnagel 2012, 2004).

Alchemical Imagery in Print

Book of the Art of Distillation (1500)

Many other important manuscript images could be mentioned, through the Enlightenment and beyond. Now, however, let us turn to alchemical imagery and the advent of print. Although Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400–1468) first introduced his movable type around 1439–1440, it is not until 1500 that we see a publication with a substantial number of alchemical images. This is the Liber de arte distillandi of the surgeon, alchemist, and botanist, Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450-c.1512). The first part of the Book of the Art of Distillation includes woodcuts of laboratory apparatus, from furnaces to vessels such as pelicans, eagles, condensers, and receivers (Taape 2014). Some of these images were recycled by the publisher, Johannes Grüninger, in a German translation of Phillip Ulstad’s Coelum Philosophorum seu liber de secretis naturae (Heaven of the Philosophers or Book on the Secrets of Nature, 1527).

New Pearl of Great Price (1546)

Regenerated King and his Children, in Lacinio G (ed.), Pretiosa Margarita Novella (1546). (Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam)

The first example of a printed alchemical work with symbolic imagery is the Pretiosa Margarita Novella (New Pearl of Great Price) of the fourteenth-century Ferrarese alchemist Petrus Bonus, published in 1546 by the Aldine Press in Venice (Gabriele 1997; Völlnagel 2012). Strictly speaking, the images are not part of Bonus’ heavily Aristotelian theoretical discussion of the truth of alchemy but the work of the book’s editor, the Calabrian Franciscan Giano Lacinio, who incorporates both enigmatic diagrams of metallic rods or trees and a sequence of 15 woodcut images depicting the killing of a king, representing gold, by one of his sons, and then his subsequent interment and resurrection, resulting in the ennoblement of all his children (the rest of the alchemical metals).

Rose-Garden of the Philosophers (1550)

Mercurial Hermaphrodite, in Rosarium Philosophorum (1550). (Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam)

One of the most influential works of alchemy was published in Frankfurt in 1550, as the second volume of De Alchimia Opuscula complura veterum philosophorum (Several short works on alchemy of the old philosophers). This is the Rosarium Philosophorum or Rose-Garden of the Philosophers, a florilegium or a collection of sententia from a wide diversity of ancient and medieval alchemical sources (Principe 2013). Save for the title page, with a version of the Mercurial Rebis or Hermaphrodite from the Book of the Holy Trinity, there are no images in the first volume. In the predominantly Latin Rosarium, however, we discover a series of 20 simple but memorable woodcuts, some accompanied by lines of text from an originally independent fourteenth-century German poem, Sol und Luna, which provide structure to the quotes from alchemical authorities, arranged in thematic groups (Telle 1992).

The Rosarium’s first image is of a mercurial fountain, which introduces the primal matter of chrysopoetic alchemy. This is followed by the main sequence of erotic woodcuts presenting the opus as analogous to sexual generation, with female quicksilver and male sulfur enthusiastically engaging in a series of conjunctions and unions leading to the birth of the Stone. This highly charged sequence of images culminates in two far more chaste woodcuts that hark back to the Book of the Holy Trinity: the Crowning of the Blessed Virgin and Christ resurrected, stepping forth from his tomb.

Pandora, That Is, the Noblest Gift of God (1582)

Distillation of the Sun and Moon, in Reusner, N (1582) Pandora. (Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam)

The influence of the Book of the Holy Trinity as well as Senior’s ekphrastic description of Hermes Trismegistus already noted in the Aurora Consurgens can be found in another important work, Pandora, Das ist/Die Edelste Gab Gottes (Pandora, That Is, the Noblest Gift of God, 1582), by the physician Nicholas Reusner. Perhaps predictable from the subtitle for his book, the Gab Gottes or Gift of God, Reusner’s first series of 12 woodcuts containing symbolic substances in alchemical flasks is clearly drawing from the fifteenth-century Donum Dei manuscripts. There are also a few basic images of laboratory apparatus, but the most impressive visual impact is a sequence of 18 full-page images, each of which is accompanied by an analysis and identification of at least some of the visual elements, each clearly labelled A, B, C, and so on (Bachmann and Hofmeier 1999).

Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom (1595/1608/1609/1653)

The Oratory-Laboratory, in Khunrath, H (1608) Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae. (Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam)

With the Leipzig “doctor of both medicines and faithful lover of theosophy,” Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605), we move into the higher-quality domain of copperplate engravings, in the Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom. The first edition, published in 1595, is adorned with four large, circular, hand-colored “Theosophical” figures, which are supplemented in the more widely available 1609 expanded edition with 5 double-page, rectangular “Hieroglyphic” figures. Not all are alchemical, but three of the circular engravings (Adam-Androgyne; Rebis; Oratory-Laboratory) and three of the rectangular (Pyramid; Alchemical Citadel; Calumniators) variously engage with the themes of chrysopoetic and Paracelsian Spagyric alchemy (Forshaw 2006).

Khunrath’s engravings are far more complicated than most of the images that have gone before. They experiment with deep perspective, bird’s-eye view, mirror-writing, plus more traditional elements, such as the inclusion of text in banderoles. Two of the engravings, the “Oratory-Laboratory” and “Calumniators,” also include notae or glyphs for alchemical substances. Although the astrological symbols for the seven Copernican planets, doubling up as symbols for the seven alchemical metals, can occasionally be found in earlier manuscripts and publications, Khunrath’s images are early instances of them appearing in printed engravings. It is not until later in the seventeenth century that we find tables of symbols, such as the “Table of Chymicall & Philosophicall Characters with their significations” in Basil Valentine’s Last Will and Testament (1671). Whereas many of the manuscript and woodcut images seem fairly tethered to the accompanying text, this is not the case with the 1609 Amphitheatre. Umberto Eco has pointed out that no two surviving copies seem to have the engravings bound in the same location in the text or in the same sequence (Eco 1989). Khunrath, who identifies himself as the “Inventor,” “Constructor,” and “Fashioner” of the images, implies that they are the Amphitheatre, while everything else is supplementary, contextual material.

Atalanta Fleeing (1617–1618)

Title page, Maier M (1618) Atalanta Fugiens. (Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam)

One of the most famous examples of alchemical imagery appears in the Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta fleeing, 1617), of the German physician Michael Maier (1568–1622), whose major interest is in the “Golden Medicine,” rather than gold-making (De Jong 2002; Klossowski de Rola 1997). The German physician’s “New Chymical Emblems of the Secrets of Nature” are a novel combination of 50 alchemical engravings, accompanied by 3-voice musical canons or fugues, and alchemical discourses. Perhaps influenced by the Rosicrucian manifestos, which were highly critical of alchemical works that drew analogies with the life of Christ, and for which Maier was an apologist, the Atalanta Fugiens is one of the prime examples of a work that claims to discover alchemical secrets in Egyptian and Greek mythology (Tilton 2003). Not all of Maier’s emblems are mytho-chymical, but some stand out as particularly relevant. Emblem XIV with the dragon devouring its tail includes references to dragons; the Golden Fleece; the Garden of the Hesperides, with its golden apples; plus discussion of dragon symbolism in alchemical works such as Pseudo-Lull. Maier’s most mytho-chymical image is Emblem XLIV concerning the dismemberment of Osiris by his brother Typhon, a motif already encountered with the figure of Mercury in Aurora Consurgens and Splendor Solis. Maier shows that he is familiar with other works making use of alchemical images, most notably the Rosarium Philosophorum and the 12 Keys of Basil Valentine.


From the late thirteenth until the seventeenth century, we thus have a concern with visual representations of alchemy, from practical and prosaic items of laboratory equipment to phantasmagoric instances of symbolism, seemingly with the joint task of instructing the worthy and perplexing the profane. As Lawrence Principe has demonstrated, it is possible to extract alchemical recipes from apparently fantastical images (Principe 1987). Such imagery represents a variety of practices: chrysopoetic, chymiatric, and, occasionally, theo-alchemical. Some of the sources mentioned gave rise to imitations, variations, and appropriations. The Rosarium Philosophorum was, for example, included in the 1572 Artis Auriferae with a series of re-cut images, and the German alchemist Johann Daniel Mylius’s Philosophia Reformata of 1622 includes variants of the Rosarium images. Reusner is an early example of an author who recycles images, with his reuse of the Donum Dei and Book of the Holy Trinity, and Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg’s Viridarium Chymicum (1624) in its turn recycles the copperplate engravings from works of Valentine and Maier.

Reusner makes clear efforts to be didactic with his labelling of images, and the discourses that Maier provides after every image help explain much of his symbolism. Many images have a symbiotic relationship with their text, neither being complete without the presence of the other. They can be argued to represent a wide variety of uses: didactic, admonitory, polemical, devotional, aesthetic, entertaining, and even at times initiatory. Some printed images seem to aim for a kind of cultivated ambiguity, perhaps intending to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible, while at the same time maintaining a sense of secrecy and mystique about the work. As Ivo Purš remarks, Khunrath’s Amphitheatral “Pictures” bear only an indirect relationship to the Amphitheatre’s “Scripture,” thereby “allowing space for multiple interpretations” (Purš 2015). In the early period of alchemical illustration, the striking images reinforce the message of the dominant text, but gradually the balance changes, until some engravings, like Khunrath’s, were perhaps also sold separately as stand-alone images.

In his reflections on the psychological significance of alchemical imagery, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) wrote, “What the written word could express only imperfectly, or not at all, the alchemist compressed into his images; and strange as these are, they often speak a more intelligible language …” (Jung 1953). Likewise, historian of alchemy Frank Sherwood Taylor suggested that “we may think that the alchemical picture was a truer expression of what alchemy was about than the alchemical book or recipe. The picture gave the inwardness of the process” (Sherwood Taylor 1958). Let us conclude with one of the most intriguing image sequences in the late seventeenth century, a work almost devoid of words, the Mutus Liber, in quo tamen tota philosophia hermetica, figuris hieroglyphicis depingitur (The Silent Book, in which however the whole hermetic philosophy is depicted with hieroglyphical figures, 1677).

Mutus Liber (1677). Courtesy of the Ritman Library, Amsterdam



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for History of Hermetic PhilosophyUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the History of Philosophy and ScienceRadboud Universiteit NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands