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Embracing The Beauty Of Alchemical Illustrations


Ignorant though we remain of the hermetic key, alchemy books appeal as much to the imagination as to reason.

Talking about alchemy in the 21st century may seem anachronistic or merely an eccentric curiosity. Advances in modern science and cyber technology in the service of consumption have accustomed us to seeing our lives and our shared reality as entirely rational and entirely dominated by specialized knowledge. This leaves questions relative to the spirit out there in the orbits of superstition, fantasy, and obscurantism.

Still, it might be remembered that modern science is but the industrialized side of this process of thought. It’s one that was elevated by people who not only cultivated rational thought but who lived with the constant struggle to translate the rules of the invisible world into rational representations of this, the path of initiates. Flammel, Guialdi, Bonacina and other alchemists or today obscured in the history of science by the likes of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. But they all share a common commitment to understanding the laws of the universe and to representing them so that others can benefit from the knowledge they revealed.

When we think of alchemy, we may relate it to witchcraft or to some elaborate form of intellectual elitism. The term alchemy derives from the Arabic “kimia” which was, in turn, translated to the Coptic word “khem,” that is, the fertile, black land periodically flooded by the Nile River and which constituted the very flowering of the desert. In metaphorical terms (or as Rimbaud put it, the “alchemy of the verb”), this “khem” constitutes Primordial Matter, the root from which all existing matter is but a decadent variation and expression. In this sense, the alchemist is a seeker of that original root, of the Philosopher’s Stone (hermetic knowledge), capable of transforming corrupted matter back into gold, the element which, according to the tradition, is closest to that original material.


Today, alchemical knowledge arrives to us in the form of a scattered compilation of fables, formulas, engravings, and documents. There is no unitary archive of “a history of alchemy.” But rather, there are accounts of ways in which the alchemists tried to verbally and pictorially represent the transformations of the spirit in its quest for essential purity. Making a somewhat anachronistic comparison, images from the books of alchemy are reminiscent of surrealist paintings. And the stories of Basileo Valentin, Christian Rosencrautz, Ostanés, or many other anonymous alchemists, don’t detract in beauty and imagination from those of more canonical writers and artists.

Whether we approach alchemy by seeking first a knowledge of things, or we’re attracted only to its astonishing aesthetic and character, our imaginations are immediately drawn to the fantastic machines put to use by angels and demons, the geometric figures, the phrases, landscapes, and maps. Elements of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Latin traditions converge to describe the turns the soul takes in search of its (irrecoverable?) primordial stage. That is, in the eternal youth of the universe.


*Images: The Public Domain Review

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