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«Visualization in Medieval Alchemy Barbara Obrist Abstract: This paper explores major trends in visualization of medieval theories of natural and ...»

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Visualization in Medieval Alchemy

Barbara Obrist

Abstract: This paper explores major trends in visualization of medieval theories of natural and artificial transformation of substances in relation to their

philosophical and theological bases. The function of pictorial forms is analyzed in terms of the prevailing conceptions of science and methods of transmitting knowledge. The documents under examination date from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. In these, pictorial representations include lists and tables, geometrical figures, depictions of furnaces and apparatus, and figurative elements mainly from the vegetable and animal realms. An effort is made to trace the earliest evidence of these differing pictorial types.

Keywords: visualization in alchemy, science and craft, transformation, analogy, metaphor.

1. Introduction Visualization in medieval alchemy is a relatively late phenomenon. Documents dating from the introduction of alchemy into the Latin West around 1140 up to the mid-thirteenth century are almost devoid of pictorial elements.1 During the next century and a half, the primary mode of representation remained linguistic and propositional; pictorial forms developed neither rapidly nor in any continuous way. This state of affairs changed in the early fifteenth century when illustrations no longer merely punctuated alchemical texts but were organized into whole series and into synthetic pictorial representations of the principles governing the discipline. The rapidly growing number of illustrations made texts recede to the point where they were reduced to picture labels, as is the case with the Scrowle by the very successful alchemist George Ripley (d. about 1490). The Silent Book (Mutus Liber, La Rochelle, 1677) is entirely composed of pictures. However, medieval alchemical literature was not monolithic. Differing literary genres and types of illustrations coexisted, and texts dealing with the transformation of metals and other substances were indebted to diverging philosophical traditions. Therefore, rather than attempting to establish an exhaustive inventory of visual HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 9 (2003), No. 2, 131-170.

Copyright © 2003 by HYLE and Barbara Obrist.

132 Barbara Obrist forms in medieval alchemy or a premature synthesis, the purpose of this article is to sketch major trends in visualization and to exemplify them by their earliest appearance so far known.

The notion of visualization includes a large spectrum of possible pictorial forms, both verbal and non-verbal. On the level of verbal expression, all derivations from discursive language may be considered to fall into the category of pictorial representation insofar as the settingapart of groups of linguistic signs corresponds to a specific intention at formalization. The main form of these are lists and tables which may or may not be combined with linear, diagrammatic constructs. Occasionally, discursive language is also used to construe figures or parts of figures and sometimes they include portions of texts (Figures 1 & 2).

Figure 1: Venise, Biblioteca nazionale Marciana, ms. gr. 299, fol.

188v (tenth to eleventh century). Zosimos of Panopolis, Authentic Memoirs, V (ca. 300). Symbols of cosmic principles, of substances and illustration of apparatus.

–  –  –

When used independently of specific philosophical systems, the rectangular or square forms tend to be neutral from a semantic point of view, while the circular form is invested with an intrinsic mimetic dimension in relation to fundamental cosmological systems. In the Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophical and theological traditions it expresses perfection; in the Aristotelian context of natural philosophy it refers to cyclical processes within the spherical cosmos. Figurative representations, anthropomorphic or non-anthropomorphic, may be added subsequently just as they may stand alone and form complete scenes.

Figure 2: Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, ms. 80 061, p. 158 (ca 1420). Book of the Holy Trinity. Letter symbolism designating metals and alchemical operations (following Ganzenmüller, 1939, p. 117).

In connexion with alchemical texts, pictorial representation relates either to observable or to unobservable objects and processes, and to conceptual schemes. The category of visible and observable things comprises, above all, apparatus, furnaces and vessels, characteristics of substances, and stages of transformation. While furnaces and vessels are depicted by direct imitation, observable characteristics and their alterations are visualized either diagramBarbara Obrist matically or by way of similes previously developed on the discursive level.

The category of the invisible and unobservable includes the so-called occult or hidden qualities of substances and change of qualities supposed to be either latent and interior to a given substance or subterranean. Above all, it comprises that of substantial change, which was understood, following Aristotle, as the passage from generation to corruption and vice versa (Ganzenmüller 1939). All of these are also visualized by diagrammatic figures and by verbal similes that have been transposed onto the pictorial level. In this case, tables and more elaborate diagrammatic figures tend to relate categories of the visible to categories of the invisible, for instance lists of observable celestial data to processes of subterranean natural generation and to the transformation of substances produced by human art. As to conceptual schemes, they are visualized, above all, by geometrical figures and by diagrams to which may be added personifications and other figurative elements, and which occasionally develop into figurative representations.





Verbal and pictorial similes in alchemical documents may be divided into two main groups: analogies, on the one hand, and diverse rhetorical forms of figurative speech – allegory, metaphor, enigma – on the other. While the basic function of analogies is to help finding unknown terms and to name them, the other category of similes relates to persuasion, clarification, and simple comparison. This division, however, merely indicates major tendencies. Hybrid forms are frequent and even the rule as literary genres of alchemical writings diversify in the later Middle Ages. Moreover, similes taken from the macrocosmic, microcosmic, animal, and vegetal realms do not only have a heuristic function but they are also intended to conceal and to mislead. Following a recurrent complaint, the ensuing confusion was one of the many problems alchemists encountered when choosing the ingredients for their work. Indeed, from its very beginnings in Alexandrian Egypt, alchemy was the only scientific discipline to systematically resort to similes.

However, the use of symbolic signs, which were an integral part of Greek alchemical documents2 (Figure 1), remained sporadic in the Latin West between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. One of the few instances of symbolic notation for metals, which were partly derived from planetary pictograms as well as for sulphur and arsenic, occurs in a late thirteenth-century copy of (pseudo) Albertus Magnus, De alchimia (also entitled Semita recta).3 And in the early fifteenth century the richly illustrated Book of the Holy Trinity used, besides planetary symbols, diverse signs similar to those found in magical texts, such as configurations made of dots and small circles, the swastika, and also letters from the alphabet.4 The presence of pictorial forms in medieval alchemy raises, above all, the problem of their function in medieval scientific texts as well as in texts that deviate from contemporary criteria of scientificity. Medieval alchemy defined Visualization in Medieval Alchemy 135 itself as scientia and as ars. That is, alchemy was not merely a contemplative discipline – the proper concern of ancient and medieval science –, but it was also aimed at efficiency, at bringing about change in the realm of corporeal substances. Its operations resulted in innovations – especially in the era of distillation products – in need of explanation. Accordingly, medieval alchemy made a continuous, always renewed effort to become part of an universally approved and institutionally transmitted cosmological system. But although is was occasionally acknowledged as a science, its scientific status was frequently put into question and even denied, it being considered either a mere craft or the activity of charlatans. Indeed, the problems alchemists encountered highlight a specific medieval reality, namely the gulf between science and the crafts. While science was considered to be an intellectual, rational activity based on true principles, crafts were defined as being based merely on empirically acquired knowledge, on experience. Thus, due to its claim to adopt scientific principles as guidelines for operating, alchemy deviated from standard conceptions of science, just as it stood in sharp contrast to most medieval crafts. Not only did the elaboration and the transmission of its general theories of natural and artificial formation and transformation of substances hinge on literacy, but even the knowledge of its recipes was ultimately based on the written word.

Despite the fact that medieval alchemy defined itself as a science, it cannot be termed ‘chemistry’, nor can it be considered to represent a stage in the history of chemistry and of experimental science. Its general theories of natural and artificial formation of substances were cast in terms of the prevailing Aristotelian and neo-Platonic philosophical frameworks. As long as the conception of the universe as an organic whole prevailed, its dismembering and the experimental reproduction of natural mechanisms were neither thinkable nor realizable.5 Despite multiple attempts at all-embracing explanations of substantial change, natural and artificial, as well as at systematization of operational procedures, theory remained divorced from experimental data. Despite its claim to universality through unifying theory and widely circulating texts, particularism prevailed in alchemy in the same way it did in all traditional crafts of pre-industrial societies due to specific local working traditions, vocabulary, and the practice of secrecy. Lastly, minerals, metals, salts, and other substances used by alchemists varied widely from one geographical area to another in terms of composition and impurities.

On the grounds of these considerations, the analysis of visualization will be based on a historical evaluation of alchemy following the then prevailing philosophical and theological conceptions. Reasons for the absence or presence of pictorial forms is best evaluated with respect to contemporary criteria of scientificity and forms of conveying knowledge, and to the corresponding epistemological issues.

136 Barbara Obrist

2. Alchemy as scientia naturalis and ars: the analogical argument and visualization In Arabic classifications of science and philosophy, which were adapted in the twelfth century, alchemy was defined as a sub-branch of natural philosophy (scientia naturalis), sharing this definition, above all, with medicine.

Thus, about ten years after the first translation of an alchemical text into Latin (Morienus, De compositione alchimie), Dominic Gundissalinus described alchemy as belonging to physics in his De divisione philosophiae (ca.

1150).6 It was a science and an art aimed at the transformation of species.7 Subsequently, by the mid-thirteenth century, Aristotelian philosophy of nature had become the framework for all physical studies in medieval universities. And, since at that time the general attitude was rather favorable toward the teknai, discussions of the artificial production of metals and other mineral substances took place in the context of the study of Aristotle’s Meteorologica.

Together with its frequently unacknowledged Avicennian appendix on the formation of metals and minerals (also transmitted under the title De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum),8 the Meteorologica served, from 1200 onward, as a theoretical basis for the alchemist’s manipulation of substances.

In order to integrate alchemy into generally accepted theories of scientia naturalis (or physica), use was made of an analogical argument, analogy being understood in the sense of a principle of scientific explanation where, as Shmuel Sambursky put it, “one phenomenon is explained in terms of the functioning of another we are acquainted with or have got used to”.9 The argument links three levels: the level of general cosmologic theories, the level of particular areas and substances, and the level of art imitating macrocosmic processes.10 (1) The overall cosmological level was cast in Aristotelian categories of qualitative physics and its neo-Platonic elaborations.11 Aristotle explained change in the sub-lunar, corporeal part of the world in terms of the cyclical association and dissociation of two pairs of opposites, the cold and the hot, the wet and the dry. From this process result the elemental constituents of fire, air, water, and earth. The annual local movement of the sun is the cause of the continuous change of one element into another and of all natural cycles of generation and corruption.12 As to the neo-Platonic philosophical tradition in its Western form, it allowed, above all, to introduce the sphere of the divine;

in its diverse Arabic elaborations, it helped account for a more diversified celestial influence made in terms of astrology and of celestial virtues.

(2) The general theory of the natural formation of subterranean substances was based on Aristotle’s final part of the third book of the Meteorologica where the Philosopher puts forward that metals are formed from compressed humid exhalations, and on the fourth book where the active, formative principle of metals is said to be the cold.13 The more specific theory of the generaVisualization in Medieval Alchemy 137 tion of metals in terms of their basic material and formal constituents, namely quicksilver and sulphur, was set out in Avicenna’s De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum. Here, the active, formative principle was supposed to be heat, the duration and intensity of coction being responsible for the differentiation among metals.



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