Allegorical Knowledge: The Art of Alchemy

Johanna Drucker reviews two new exhibits at the Getty, “The Art of Alchemy” and “The Alchemy of Color.”

Allegorical Knowledge: The Art of Alchemy

ALCHEMY. The word suggests transformative practices and the mutation of base substances into precious ones through mysterious processes that depend on secret knowledge. The third-century corpus hermeticum is attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, whose identity combined qualities of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes. In a hand-colored woodcut, he is shown with calipers in hand, drawing an image of the philosopher’s stone by encircling naked male and female figures in a series of ideal geometrical forms. The print, taken from a 17th-century French book, communicates symbolic and literal meanings simultaneously, like much of the imagery in the Getty Museum’s new exhibit on The Art of Alchemy. Curator David Brafman has combined greatest hits and hidden treasures in his selection of materials for display, and his culling of works is complemented by the manuscripts in his colleague Nancy Turner’s exhibit in the North Pavilion, The Alchemy of Color, which details the pigments and precious metals that were produced as part of the alchemist’s art but used for illumination. These exhibits — both of which run through February 12, 2017 — are bibliographical at their core; and, in keeping with their theme of transformation, they demonstrate the remarkable capacity of books to be much more capacious in their interiors — and more resonant in their potency — than their sometimes modest dimensions would suggest.

Every object on display has been selected for its graphical impact and intellectual substance. Some are milestones in the history of printing. Hartmann Schedel’s 1493 Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) contains Michael Wolgemut’s canonical image of God as the architect of the cosmos, his disembodied hand diagramming the perfect circles of the world. Athanasius Kircher’s 1678 Mundus Subterraneus, an early work of vulcanology, shows the coagulation of sulfur and mercury, two prime minerals, in labyrinthine tunnels through the center of the earth. Luca Pacioli’s 1509 De Divina Proportione presents woodcut versions of Leonardo’s diagrams of geometric forms in their crystalline perfection, accompanied by an antique icosahedron crystal shimmering even in the subdued light.

Unique and unusual works are also on display, such as Hans Hanberg’s notebooks in secret code, or the forged text attributed to the eighth- to ninth-century Asian alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, the Summary of the Mastery of Perfection, and the remarkable 1606 manuscript Book of Alchemical Formulas of Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle Nove, with its quintessentially emblematic images composed of assembled elements such as the sun and moon and disembodied eyes. The works in The Alchemy of Color, organized to show the relationship among alchemical processes, pigment production, and illumination, are equally stunning. The never-before-exhibited final page of the extremely beautiful and unique Georg Hoefnagel illustrations in a 16th-century manuscript produced for Emperor Rudolf II, with its image of Hermes holding a paintbrush instead of his staff, makes a vivid pictorial argument for the link between alchemy and art.

Alchemy was a proto-science, and in an age when the observation of the universe was limited by the capacity of human vision, the imagination of chemical structures and processes produced conjectural understandings and explanations rooted in beliefs of perfect form and an animate universe. From our contemporary perspective, the “mystery” of alchemy is long since resolved, though words associated with its practices — such as elixir, alembric, essences, and congelation — still resonate with suggestive allure. The practices that formed its core, from late antiquity through the medieval era and Renaissance, were eventually disciplined into separate domains — the many realms of chemistry, including cosmetics, paint and pigment production, pharmacology, metallurgy, and so on. Each of these shares with the others a dependence on transformation of materials into reconstituted form — from solid to liquid, from crude to refined, from dull to brilliant — and, in the mythic formulation of alchemical quests for transmutation, in accord with its specialized vocabulary of terms (calcination, fixation, dissolution, and so on). The processes of heating, titrating, distilling, cooling, and combining through which such transformations were wrought were not understood at the molecular level. Knowledge of chemistry and physics was based on the paradigms of Greek science, the work of Ptolemy and Archimedes and other canonical thinkers of the Hellenistic era.

But whether in manuscript or print form, alchemical images bear the imprint of medieval thought. They are symmetrical, hierarchical, and fixed with regard to categories and forms. Atoms, wonderfully figured in Wenzel Jamnitzer’s 1568 Perspectiva corporum regularium, are not only shown, but understood, as geometric solids. Their crystalline perfection suits their idealized role as the elemental forms making up a perfect universe. No stray electrons or unstable shells or fields of energy appear; instead, we see expertly rendered visions of the smallest particles of imaginable matter. The system of attributes that rule every structure, from human anatomy to celestial spheres, is comprised of the same fundamentals: elements, humors, astrological signs, and alchemical values. These make up a fully allegorical system, one in which the figurative portrayal is meant literally, even if it appears to be metaphorical.

Salomon Trismosin’s Aureum Vellus oder Guldin Schatz und Kunstkammer (1598) shows the chalky corpse of a slain man in a metaphoric depiction of the necessity of destroying life to preserve it through decay into precious substances. The images are vivid, their meanings cloaked in the symbolic forms that were popularized through the emblem book of Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, published in 1593. Inscribing meaning in allegory is not merely an act of symbolic encoding, it is a doubling of values so that literal and figurative, referential and metaphoric, are intimately bound together. Higher orders and actual substances are one and the same, but one is manifest and the other must be revealed. The allegorical mode of presentation continues into the 18th century. The 1707 version of the Ripley Scroll is named for the renowned 15th-century British alchemist, George Ripley (author of Compound of Alchemy), who may have little authorial connection to the amazing artifact. The scroll is filled with cryptic imagery layered with symbolic values, mythical forms, emblematic characteristics, and other visual components resistant to interpretation. Such resistance is crucial to the mystique of alchemical works. The artistry on these paper-and-parchment surfaces is, however, at the service of knowledge, and so the exquisiteness of their execution has a use value to the alchemist trying to follow instructions and identify materials. Sigismund Bacstrom’s 1797 instructions for distilling “Secret Fire” from “Lunar Humidity” (or moonlight) were published in a period when the steam engine, another transformative device, had already been in use for decades.

Many of the works in The Art of Alchemy were selected from the collection of Manly Hall, whose Secret Teachings of All Ages, first published in 1928, remains a classic reference for studies of esoterica in many traditions. The Getty acquired Hall’s collection in 1995 from his widow, and it is an invaluable source for study of the history of esoteric knowledge. Assembled beginning in the 1920s, the collection contains works that have fascinated readers for centuries, as well as texts produced in the 20th century. Indeed, the spirit of California’s New Age sensibility, which has had echoes in prior generations’ engagements with theosophy, magic, and crystallography, is well suited to the reception of alchemical traditions. That antique books in glyphs and secret codes have become a trope of popular culture is hardly surprising: after all, Hall’s chronicler, William Poundstone, labeled him a “Hollywood alchemist,” with all the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances that designation implies.

In alchemy, materials and processes are associated with astrological signs, essences are encoded in sigils and codes (the regenerative power of the salamander, the virtues of the Paschal Virgin), and properties of innumerable animals are considered embodied in substances. Even the retorts and vessels in Giambattista della Porta’s 1608 De distillatione carry symbolic meanings as part of their literal form. The symbolic aspects of Hydra-headed, snake-shaped, and conjoined-twin forms are inseparable from their function. The alchemical treatises are not merely texts to be read, they are emblematic productions of image, sign, word, and symbol, with potent allure.

From the 20th century, the exhibit features remarkable graphic works by Ernst Haeckel, whose studies of form and pattern led him to examine Kristallseelen (Liquid Crystal Souls) (1917), substances whose volatility he viewed as a link between animate and inanimate worlds. These drawings echo the electrical force fields in Martinus van Marum’s Elektrisier-Maschine (1786–’98), which vibrate with the life of energy in motion. Both works resonate well with the vision of contemporary physicist and philosopher Karen Barad’s 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, which develops a theory of “agential realism” that sees the physical world as imbued with agency, a marked departure from classical Newtonian mechanics.

It is easy, when looking at the bibliographical feast at the Getty, to imagine that we are distanced from this allegorical mode of knowledge production, that its symbolic techniques are no longer operative, and that, since the coming of empirical methods and Enlightenment science, we have finally performed that most alchemical of intellectual tasks — separating the true essence of science from its metaphorical guise. But that attitude may conceal a blind spot to the figurative character of knowledge in our own times. We can see the features and forms of alchemy, and thus we imbue them with an aura of mystery. But we no longer imagine the atom in the tinker-toy vision of the nuclear world, with electrons as balls in orbit around a nucleus of protons and neutrons. The motif, so recently eclipsed, now seems as antiquated as the crystalline perfection of Da Vinci’s atoms.

Yet perhaps we do not so much know more as know differently. Allegories of quantum connections across space-time and of the genetic code twisted in a helix do not strike us as metaphors. In some future time, the concept of humors, of primal elements and alchemical symbols, may appear more explanatory than they do now. But more likely, we will see our own figurations — of chemical entities, genomes, species identities — as caught in a paradigm that becomes allegorical after the fact. In the present, the allegorical operation — representing one thing through the figure of another — is invisible. The figure and the knowledge pass for one another, seemingly naturally, so that we see the animal and vegetable kingdoms as distinct, living and non-living substances as divided. But these notions, and their presentation in visual figures that fix the distinctions in our collective understanding, have no more claim to absolute authority than those of any other era.

Ultimately, I came away from this beautiful, wondrous, imaginatively rich exhibit with much more than a sense of the presence of the past. What I glimpsed was the pastness of the present. The historicity of our own contemporary moment comes through poignantly when gazing at this rich world of visions and beliefs, whose explanations of phenomena were conceived within a totalizing cosmology expressed through the vivid languages of allegory.


Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has written extensively on graphic design and digital aesthetics.

LARB Contributor

Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.


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