Alchemy: Renaissance Alchemy

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The Renaissance and post-Renaissance period marked both the high point and the turning point of alchemy in the West. During the same years in which Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton wrote their revolutionary scientific works, more alchemical texts were published than ever before. But under the impact first of the Reformation and later of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, alchemy was profoundly changed and ultimately discredited. The organic, qualitative theories of the alchemists were replaced by an atomistic, mechanical model of change, which eventually undermined the alchemical theory of transmutation. The balance between the spiritual and the physical, which had characterized alchemical thought throughout its long history, was shattered, and alchemy was split into two halves, theosophy and the practical laboratory science of chemistry.

The Practice of Alchemy

For the most part Renaissance alchemists accepted the theories and practices of their ancient and medieval predecessors. By the time the study of alchemy came to Europe, it was already an established discipline with a respected past. The theories upon which it was based were an integral part of ancient philosophy. Western scientists accepted these theories precisely because they provided plausible explanations for the way events were observed to occur in nature and the laboratory. Transmutation was seen to be an aspect of all forms of change. Caterpillars turn into butterflies; ice melts; food becomes flesh. Long before there were practicing alchemists, the mechanism behind these transformations was investigated. The ancients had supplied explanations that satisfied most alchemists up to the seventeenth century. By combining Aristotelian physics, Stoicism, and Hermetism, Western alchemists evolved a vitalistic philosophy that viewed all phenomena as alive and striving for perfection. Whatever is imperfect (the base metal lead, for example) will eventually become perfect (gold) in the course of time or with the help of the mysterious substance known to alchemists as the philosopher's stone.

Although transmutation appeared straightforward on a theoretical level, it proved more difficult to accomplish in practice. Thomas Norton, a famous fifteenth-century English alchemist whose Ordinall of Alkimy was one of the most popular alchemical works of the period, describes how frustrating the work of an alchemist could be. Just finding the appropriate raw materials was difficult enough. Norton gives a poignant portrait of an alchemist who has fallen into despair because after years of fruitless experimenting he cannot decide what to try next. Even if an alchemist was lucky enough to choose the right ingredients, there arose the additional problem of determining what to do with them.

The steps of transmutation were laid out clearly in respect to color. The work had to proceed from the black stage, during which time the alchemists believed they killed the substances in their vessels, through the white stage, during which the ingredients were purified, to the final red stage, which marked the successful fabrication of the philosopher's stone. As Norton explains, "Red is the last work in Alkimy."

Although the color sequence was well established, Renaissance alchemists could not agree on the chemical processes necessary to produce the change from black to white to red. The most optimistic practitioners said the stone was made from one substance in one vessel in one operation, but judging from pictures depicting the cluttered array of apparatus littering laboratory floors, most alchemists took a less sanguine and simplistic view of their task. Daniel Stolcius illustrates eleven chemical processes in his book on alchemical emblems (Viridarium chymicum , 1624). Salomon Trismosin reduced the number to seven in his Splendor Solis. George Ripley, another respected English adept, describes twelve steps in his Twelve Gates of Alchemy. Dom Pernety, a French alchemist living in the eighteenth century, associates each process with one sign of the zodiac:

  1. calcination (Aries)
  2. congelation (Taurus)
  3. fixation (Gemini)
  4. dissolution (Cancer)
  5. digestion (Leo)
  6. distillation (Virgo)
  7. sublimation (Libra)
  8. separation (Scorpio)
  9. ceration (Sagittarius)
  10. fermentation (Capricorn)
  11. multiplication (Aquarius)
  12. projection (Pisces)

Alchemy had always been profoundly influenced by astrology. Since the alchemical signs of the seven metals were those of the seven planets, it seemed reasonable to assume that in their reactions they would respond to the movements of their namesakes in the heavens above.

It is not easy to describe and distinguish all the different alchemical processes. Calcination is simple enough: it involved heating a substance in an open or closed vessel and usually included oxidation and the blackening of the substance. (This process may have given alchemy one of its many names, "the black art.") Calcination was described by alchemists as "mortification," "death," or "putrefaction," and the alchemical vessel in which it occurred was the "tomb," the "coffin," even "Hades" or "Hell." Congelation and fixation consisted of making the substances solid and nonvolatile. This essential step brought the alchemist closer to gold, the most stable and "fixed" of all the metals. Dissolution and digestion were connected with the white stage and purification. Distillation and sublimation were confused by alchemists until the eighteenth century, but both processes awed them. When they saw vapors rise, condense, and revaporize, they thought they were witnessing a miraculous transformation in which the "soul" of matter separated from its "body" and reunited with it in a purer state.

Separation was an elastic term describing the filtration, decantation, or distillation of a liquid from its residue. With fermentation, multiplication, and projection, one arrives at the heart of the alchemical work of making the philosopher's stone. Through fermentation, the stone became akin to yeast and acquired the power to transmute substances. Multiplication augmented the power of the stone to such a degree that it could transmute many times its weight of base metal without losing its strength. In the final process, projection, the stone was made into a powder and thrown on whatever was to be transmuted.

Estimates about the length of time it took to make the philosopher's stone varied from one day to twelve years. The common analogy between the stone and a child (the stone was often referred to as the "royal child" or "son") explains why nine months was frequently cited. The conflicting estimates lead one to agree with Norton that for the alchemist patience was a preeminent virtue.

Another difficulty facing the alchemist was regulating the fire. Since a practical thermometer was not invented until the eighteenth century, this was an almost impossible task. Many alchemists inadvertently blew up their experiments by applying too much heat or ruined months of work by allowing the fire to die out. The problem of heat was so crucial that Norton devoted a chapter of his Ordinall to the subject and describes the alchemist who properly controls the fire as "a parfet Master."

The obscurity of alchemical texts provided a final and often insurmountable obstacle facing Renaissance alchemists. Alchemists were masters of metaphor. They dressed up their instructions in parables and allegories, veiled them in symbols, delighted in enigmas, and preferred to call a substance by any name other than its common one. Even the great genius Newton found himself baffled by the obscurity of alchemical literature and symbolism.

The opacity of alchemical writings was partly a response to opposition from the church, which was suspicious of the religious implications of alchemical symbolism. Alchemists were also justifiably afraid of running afoul of national laws against counterfeiting; they were afraid of being kidnapped as well. Alchemical literature is filled with stories of adepts captured by impoverished adventurers intent on wresting the secret of transmutation from them. It was therefore only prudent for alchemists to disguise their secret wisdom as well as their own identities.

Aside from the real dangers of imprisonment, excommunication, or capture, there were other reasons for the obscurity of alchemical writings. Over the centuries, the meaning of many alchemical terms changed, and the continual translation of alchemical texts (from Greek to Arabic to Latin and then into the vernaculars) compounded the confusion. The most important reason for their obscurity, however, is rooted in the nature of alchemy itself. Alchemy shared the same mystical associations that surrounded mining and metallurgy among ancient and primitive peoples. Alchemy was as much a spiritual process as a physical one, and the obscurity of alchemical language reflects its religious orientation.

Alchemy as a Spiritual Discipline

Mystery and religion, which were a part of alchemy from its beginnings, gained in importance from the Renaissance onward. In many cases alchemy moved out of the laboratory altogether and into the monk's cell or philosopher's study. "Our gold is not common gold," wrote the sixteenth-century author of the Rosary of Philosophers. The popularity of alchemy as a spiritual discipline coincided with the breakdown of religious orthodoxy and social organization during the Renaissance and the Reformation. Petrus Bonus was one of the many alchemists to emphasize the spiritual nature of alchemy. It was, he says in his work The New Pearl of Great Price, revealed by God, not for humanity's material comfort, but for its spiritual well-being. For these spiritual alchemists, alchemy had nothing to do with the making of gold. (They dismissed those alchemists benighted enough to think it did as "sooty empiricks" or "puffers.") All the ingredients mentioned in alchemical recipesthe minerals, metals, acids, compounds, and mixtureswere in truth only one, the alchemist, who was the base matter in need of purification by the fire; and the acid needed to accomplish this transformation came from the alchemist's own spiritual malaise and longing for wholeness and peace. The various alchemical processes had nothing to do with chemical change; they were steps in the mysterious process of spiritual regeneration. Spiritual alchemists constantly stress the moral requirements of their art. The author of Aurora Consurgens, for example, insists that alchemists must be humble, holy, chaste, virtuous, faithful, charitable, temperate, and obedient. These are not qualities expected of a practical chemist. That they were emphasized by spiritual alchemists demonstrates how dominant the religious aspects of alchemy had become.

The interpretation of alchemy as a spiritual discipline offended many churchmen, who viewed the combination of alchemical concepts and Christian dogma in the writings of spiritual alchemists as dangerous heresy. One of the most daring appropriations of Christian symbolism was made by Nicholas Melchior of Hermanstadt, who expounded the alchemical work in the form of a mass. Melchior had been anticipated to some extent by Norton, who had called his book an "Ordinall." Heinrich Khunrath (15601601) provides another example of alchemy's spiritual extremists. In his The Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom, Khunrath interprets transmutation as a mystical process occurring within the adept's soul. He calls the alchemist's laboratory a Lab Oratorium. Spiritual alchemists like Khunrath often identified the philosopher's stone with Christ on the grounds that both redeemed base matter. Hermann Kopp, the nineteenth-century historian of alchemy, was scandalized by the parallel drawn between Christ and the philosopher's stone, which subject took up more than fifty pages in the alchemical tract Der Wasserstein der Weysen (Die Alchemie in älterer und neuer Zeit, 1886, vol. l, p. 254). Not only did spiritual alchemists identify the philosopher's stone with Christ, but they identified themselves with both. The heresy involved is obvious. Luther was one of the few highly placed churchmen to praise alchemy both for its practical uses and for its verification of Christian doctrine.

Alchemists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drew many of their ideas from Renaissance Neoplatonism and Hermetism. In all three systems, the world was seen as a single organism penetrated by spiritual forces that worked at all levels, the vegetable, animal, human, and spiritual. Frances Yates has brillantly described the "magus" mentality that evolved from these ideas and encouraged people to believe they could understand and control their environment. This state of mind is illustrated in the writings of Paracelsus (14931541). For Paracelsus, God was the divine alchemist, who created the world by calcinating, congealing, distilling, and sublimating the elements of chaos. Chemistry was the key to the universe, which would disclose the secrets of theology, physics, and medicine. The alchemists had only to read the reactions in their laboratories on a grand scale to fathom the mysteries of creation.

Renaissance Alchemy and Modern Science

By instilling some of the grandiose ideas of spiritual alchemy into the practical study of chemical reactions, Paracelsus and his followers transformed alchemy into a universal science of matter concerned with every aspect of material change. "Chemistry is nothing else but the Art and Knowledge of Nature itself," wrote Nicolas le Fèvre in his popular book, A Compleat Body of Chemistry (1670). This greatly expanded vision of alchemy's role struck a responsive cord in the millenarian movements prevalent in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Rosicrucian manifestos were typical of the utopian visions in the air. Using the language and imagery of spiritual alchemy, they called for the regeneration of society and outlined in broad strokes the social, economic, political, and religious reforms necessary.

No one knows who wrote the Rosicrucian manifestos. They have been attributed to Johann Valentin Andrea (15861654), whose acknowledged writings contain a similar blend of utopianism and spiritual alchemy. In his most famous work, Christianopolis, Andrea describes an ideal society organized to promote the health, education, and welfare of its citizens. One of the institutions in this society is a "laboratory" dedicated to the investigation of nature and to the application of useful discoveries for the public good.

Francis Bacon (15611626) was one of the many philosophers influenced by the Rosicrucian manifestos. Bacon looked forward to what he called a "Great Instauration" of learning that would herald the return of the Golden Age. He described this in his own utopia, The New Atlantis.

Neither Andrea nor Bacon said much that was new or significant in terms of science. What was novel in their visions was the idea of a scientific institution whose members worked by a common method toward a common goal. The secrecy and mystery that had been such a basic part of alchemy played no role in the scientific societies each describes, although their visions had been sparked by the utopian schemes of spiritual alchemists. This was one of the most important innovations to emerge in all the utopian literature of the seventeenth century and the one that had the greatest impact on the decline of alchemy. Once alchemists openly communicated their discoveries, the stage was set for the tremendous advances that have come to be expected from the natural sciences.

In 1655 a small book was published entitled Chymical, Medicinal, and Churgical Addresses: Made to Samuel Hartlib, Esquire. Between the covers of this slim volume, the old and the new alchemy lie side by side. The arcane and bombastic variety of spiritual alchemy is represented by Eirenaeus Philalethes's Ripley's Epistle to King Edward Unfolded ; but the new alchemy, dedicated to the cooperative investigation of nature for the public good, is advocated in a treatise by Boyle significantly entitled An Invitation to a free and generous Communication of Secrets and Receits of Physick. Boyle urged alchemists to share their secrets for the sake of common charity and scientific advancement.

The Reformation was both a cause and a consequence of a growing attitude of philosophical skepticism, which brought all the wisdom of past ages into doubt. Although skepticism was bitterly opposed by philosophers and theologians on the grounds that it undermined the very possibility of rational knowledge, it paradoxically contributed in the long run to the development of a constructive scientific method that benefited all the sciences. Observation and experiment became the shibboleths of the new science and, eventually, the cause of alchemy's undoing. As more and more negative evidence was gradually accumulated through careful laboratory experiments, the alchemical dream of transmutation faded into the recesses of history.

See Also

Metals and Metallurgy.


General accounts of the history of Renaissance alchemy and the emergence of chemistry may be found in my Alchemy: The Philosopher's Stone (Boulder, Colo., 1980); Allen G. Debus's The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 vols. (New York, 1977); Eric J. Holmyard's Alchemy (Baltimore, 1957); John Read's Through Alchemy to Chemistry (London, 1957); and J. R. Partington's A History of Chemistry, 4 vols. (London, 19611970). Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry (Cambridge, 19371979) contains important specialized articles. Maurice P. Crosland's Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry (London, 1962) provides an invaluable guide to the intricacies of alchemical terminology. Betty J. Dobbs's The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy (Cambridge, 1975) sheds light on the period of transition from alchemy to chemistry. The best introduction to Paracelsus is Walter Pagel's Paracelsus (New York, 1958). Renaissance Neoplatonism, Hermetism, and the Qabbalah are brilliantly described and analyzed in Frances Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London, 1964). She discusses the Rosicrucian manifestos in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London, 1972). H. J. Sheppard has published important articles on alchemical symbolism in Ambix. Jacques van Lennep's L'art et l'alchimie (Paris, 1966) is also useful. J. W. Montgomery discusses Luther's views on alchemy in "Cross, Constellation and Crucible: Lutheran Astrology and Alchemy in the Age of Reformation," Ambix 11 (1963): 6586.

There are several collections of Renaissance alchemical texts. Thomas Norton's Ordinall and George Ripley's Twelve Gates can be found in Elias Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652; reprint, New York, 1967). Theatrum Chemicum (16591661) provides six volumes of alchemical writings. Another collection, the Musaeum Hermeticum Reformatum (Frankfurt, 1678) has been translated by Arthur E. Waite as The Hermetic Museum, 2 vols. (London, 1893).

New Sources

Beitchman, Philip. Alchemy of the Word: Cabala of the Renaissance. Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Debus, Allen G., and Michael T. Walton, eds. Reading the Book of Nature: The Other Side of the Scientific Revolution. Kirksville, Mo., 1998.

Dee, Arthur. Fasciculus Chemicus. Translated by Elias Ashmole. Edited by Lyndy Abraham. New York, 1997.

Hakansson, Hakan. "Seeing the Word: John Dee and Renaissance Occultism." Ph.D. diss., Lund University, Sweden, 2001.

Linden, Stanton J. Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration. Lexington, 1996.

Secret, François. Lectures on the Rosticrucian Enlightenment, the History of Alchelmy in the Renaissance, Guillaume Postel en 1981, Christian Kabbalah, Postel's Kabbaslistic Mysticism. [Calgary], 1981.

Szulakowska, Urszula. The Alchemy of Light: Geometry and Optics in Late Renaissance Alchemical Illustration. Leiden and Boston, 2000.

Allison Coudert (1987)

Revised Bibliography