October 07, 2006
In 1578, Jaroš Griemiller of Třebsko completed an illustrated manuscript containing the first translation into Czech of an alchemical text known as the Rosarium Philosophorum (‘The Rosary of the Philosophers’). This document is the sole known record of Griemiller’s life, although a Pavel Griemiller (d. 1593, also ‘of Třebsko,’ and presumably a close relative of Jaroš) is known to have been a practising alchemist, who meanwhile held an official position as a county assayer. The manuscript was dedicated to Vilém z Rožmberka (or, Wilhelm von Rosenberg: 1535-1592), a nobleman & diplomat who was also a ‘great benefactor of alchemical research.’ The unusually high quality of the illustrations in the manuscript suggest that either Griemiller was an accomplished artist, or else that he was assisted by a painter employed in the Rožmberk court.
The Rosarium Philosophorum was first printed in Frankfurt in 1550, where it formed the second part of a collection of alchemical treatises entitled De Alchimia. This edition was illustrated by a series of twenty woodcuts, which had presumably been copied from an earlier manuscript. The origin of the Rosarium is obscure, but quite likely extends back into the 15th Century. The work is one of several that was long associated with the name of the 13th-Century physician, pharmacist, and alchemist Arnaldus de Villanova, but this is an attribution ‘of very doubtful authenticity.’
The text of the Rosarium is divided into sections associated with these twenty illustrations. These sections introduce ideas arising from the symbolic content of the woodcuts, and weave these remarks in with quotations from various well known alchemical authorities, often using quite lengthy extracts from other alchemical writers. So the Rosarium is a gathering of material within a certain framework, rather than being an entirely original textual statement of alchemical ideas.
The text of the Rosarium is quite peculiar in that it seems almost to move in and out of focus. At one point in a section one seems to have a clear precisely drawn idea, which as it is developed in the text becomes more unfocused, more diffuse, and one finds oneself unclear as to what level the text then refers. Then, just as one’s puzzlement is growing into irritation, the text moves sharply back into focus with another clear statement of an idea. This may be a quite conscious technique on the part of the anonymous writers rather than just a failing of the translation. At any rate, the text constantly shifts between physical alchemy, statements about experiments with substance, and the realm of soul alchemy, the task of the inner transmutation of forces within man’s soul. In that it sought to unite these two alchemical realms, the Rosarium set a style for alchemical literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which the physical process became a mirror for soul development, and the inner content of soul experiences became projected upon outer processes in the laboratory or the natural world—Adam McLean.
The quality of Griemillar’s manuscript has been taken as evidence of there having been a high standard of alchemical knowledge in Bohemia even prior to the arrival of the Rudolfine court there in 1583. One of the leading figures in Bohemian alchemy at that time was one Bavor Rodovský of Husitřany (1526-1592?), who ‘inherited his first name from his grandfather Bavor the Senior, who was believed to be a wizard and could supposedly produce gold.’ Alas, he cannot have produced much, as ‘his family wasn’t even wealthy enough for the native manor to provide sustenance for his five descendants, Bavor Junior being one of them.’ Bavor jr. ‘devoted himself to alchemy, astronomy, and mathematics, but was also interested in history and philosophy,’ and was apparently as keen a practioner of the culinary as the spagyric arts, as evinced by a collection of forty recipes he compiled. Rodovský, it has been recorded, was a friend of Pavel Griemiller’s.
The illustrations in Griemiller’s Rosarium differ from those in the 1550 Frankfurt edition: he omitted some designs containing overtly Christian symbolism, and added a few more pictures of his own, some of which appear to have been of his own devising, while others were inspired by the arrestingly strange imagery in another alchemical opus, the Aurora Consurgens (‘Rising Dawn), most notably the pair of promiscuously symbolic images at the end of the manuscript. Of the exceedingly complex, and, to my eyes, rather ugly penultimate image, we read that ‘the meanings hidden in this illustration are so numerous that an extensive treatise could be written about them… [it] is a very comprehensive symbol of the alchemical work’s basic agent, which alternately kills the materium of the great work and brings it back to life. The illustration is also a mnemonic aid, from which a number of important, quite practical findings may be deduced, referring to the strictly-defined prerequisites for work on the Philosophical Stone.’
My source for the images above (click on them, by the way, to see them enlarged and in full), is a book entitled Opus Magnum (‘The Book of Sacred Geometry, Alchemy, Magic, Astrology, the Kabbala, and Secret Societies in Bohemia,’ previously mentioned here), published under the Trigon imprint in Prague, 1997. More specifically, the images, and a good deal of the information above, are drawn from an essay therein by Ivo Purš, entitled ‘The “Rosarium Philosophorum” of Jaroš Griemiller of Třebsko’ Some of the same images can be seen in smaller-format on this French page about the Aurora Consurgens. See also this recent-ish entry at Bibliodyssey, featuring images from a different manuscript copy of the Rosarium Philosophorum.
Posted by misteraitch at October 7, 2006 09:08 PM
just came to see how you are doing.
You are the master of blogging, my friend.
Have you found anything interesting about "The Emerald Tablet" yet?
Lea: hi! Good to see you back on-line. No, I’ve not had cause to think about the Tabula Smaragdina since mentioning it in passing last year. I trust you enjoyed your time in Italy—or are you still there?
Alchemical images are very appealing, aren't they? Much more so than the texts, which are always incredibly dull. I quite liked Jung on the Rosarium--a load of nonsense, of course, but beautiful nonsense nevertheless.
Conrad—yes, while I’m drawn to the pictures, I’ve been left baffled or bored by the texts (at least by those I’ve read thus far). Surely there ought to be at least one or two alchemical screeds out there with literary merit… but where?
I often wondered about that. The same point came up in our discussion of imprese a while ago. I suggest that the illustrations often are not any better than the texts. They really are just diagrams. Maybe the question is, how did the images enter the field of our taste, while the texts did not? (And Michael Maier’s fugues are pretty dull too!)
Since the Romantic era, different parts of culture have been singled out as objects of æsthetic appreciation. For example, non-European artifacts have relocated from Natural Science museums to art collections. Or, the work of mental patients ceased to interest the medical profession (OK, I am oversimplifying here) to be embraced by the art world. The Surrealists seem to have played a huge part in this process. And yet no one has tried (or succeeded at) redeeming these esoteric texts. Maybe technical prose is intrinsically a tougher sell than pictures; after all, I can enjoy a crocheted model of Lorenz’s equation without understanding any of the underlying math.
Sorry for the long note. What do you folks think?
No doubt I will be chagrined when you do that piece on the Tabula Smaragdina. I have a story called "The Smaragdine Knot" coming out (in John Klima's upcoming anthology, "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories," in which all the stories began with a winning 'spelling bee' word) that touches on that mysterious entity, along with emeralds, the power of the color green, fallen angels, the seventeenth-century poet Edward Taylor, Puritan meditation techniques, etc. Probably the story would have been just a tad better if I had first read a post about the Tabula Smaragdina by Mr. Aitch!
A crocheted model... Must go take a look at that one.
That's a lot of crochet stitches.
"one or two alchemical screeds out there with literary merit… but where?"
Finnegans Wake? A Midsummer Night's Dream? Fulcanelli? A bit tangential, I suppose. The best alchemical-related texts are satires--notably, The Chanouns Yeomans Tale and The Alchemist, about which I wrote here. I wouldn't mind getting hold of Elias Ashmole's Theatrum, which is available on Kessinger--but I haven't got around to it yet. There's probably something of merit in there.
Also, Michelangelo--some of the theoretical impresa literature (eg., most obviously, Paolo Giovio) is quite interesting from a semiotic perspective, in terms of the rules for formulating designs--mot and image, Pythagorean soul and body. I consulted it for an article I wrote on imprese in the work of Thomas Nashe.
Michelangelo—you are probably right about the general quality of alchemical illustration: it’s repeated a few times in the article I scanned these pictures from, for example, that Griemiller’s manuscript is exceptional rather than typical. I’d say that at least some of these illustrations are not reductively diagrammatic but more emblematic, and it could be the fact that the king & the queen aren’t just a king and a queen (but also the solar & the lunar, and the sulphur & the mercury…) that helps create in them an illusion of meaningful depth. I suppose I’m more likely to find appeal in a sequence of emblematic images than a chapter of allegorical prose: I don’t know how much of that is due to my own taste, and how much I just partake of a zeitgeist with little patience for allegory. Perhaps later generations will find a way to relish these texts.
Thinking about it, I suppose that we shouldn’t expect to find any more literary value in the bulk of alchemical texts than we would expect to find in most contemporary chemical ones. But perhaps there were some alchemists who wrote literature inspired & informed by their science in a similar way that, say, Primo Levi’s Il Sistema Periodico was inspired & informed by his work as a chemist: if there are any such books, I would love to read them.
And marly@2—that sounds my kind of story: I’ll have to order a copy of that anthology when it comes out.
I’m more likely to find appeal in a sequence of emblematic images than a chapter of allegorical prose: I don’t know how much of that is due to my own taste, and how much I just partake of a zeitgeist with little patience for allegory. Perhaps later generations will find a way to relish these texts.
In 1949, Borges wrote a short essay on this topic, which is contained in the marvellous Selected Non-Fictions
from Penguin. It is entitled From Allegories to Novels
. I will not butcher Borges’s ideas by trying to summarize an already concise exposition, but I will quote the the essay’s beginning and end, hoping it will tempt someone to read it.
For all of us, allegory is an aesthetic mistake. (I first wrote, “is nothing but an error of aesthetics,” but then I noticed that my sentence involved an allegory.)
The passage from allegory to novel, from species to individual, from realism to nominalism, required several centuries, but I shall have the temerity to suggest an ideal date: the day in 1382 when Geoffrey Chaucer, who may not have believed himself to be a nominalist, set out to translate into English a line by Boccaccio—“E con gli occulti ferri i tradimenti” (And betrayal with hidden weapons)—and repeated it as “The smyler with the knyf under the cloke.” The original is in the seventh book of the Teseide; the English version, in “The Knightes Tale.”
Michelangelo—I’d read the Selected Non-Fictions a few years ago, and, while I’d almost forgotten about that piece, there’s every chance that an indistinct recollection of it prompted my answer: it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that JLB has planted a thought in my head… I re-read the essay yesterday, wondering whether Borges mentions pictorial allegory at all (he doesn’t), so I guess I’ll have to try & dream up some theory of my own as to why I have so much more appetite for emblematic imagery than allegory in prose & verse.
This is all so well put together and fascinating. I'm awed. But for me, with my limited grasp, it always get down to this point by Adam McLean:
At any rate, the text constantly shifts between physical alchemy, statements about experiments with substance, and the realm of soul alchemy, the task of the inner transmutation of forces within man’s soul. In that it sought to unite these two alchemical realms, the Rosarium set a style for alchemical literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in which the physical process became a mirror for soul development, and the inner content of soul experiences became projected upon outer processes in the laboratory or the natural world.
Great job, Misteraitch. I also look forward to a posting regarding the Tabula Smaragdina.
ps If only to see it picked apart.
oh my, i just found your blog. finally destiny let us meet! ha! how wonderful!
Michelangelo - a picture is worth a thousand words, and is a lot quicker to take in. I would imagine that even if there is anyone left who actually believes in alchemical possibilities, such people would not overlap much with the people now interested in the images. It is like peoples ability to enjoy Christian/Muslim/Buddhist art without belief - this usually does not extend to theological writing. Since one imagines that many of the writers were at the least somewhat inflating their real results or experiences in alchemy, or clutching at straws, one should not really expect the texts to be compelling.
The very few extracts I have read had quite a bit in common with advertising copy for dubious investments - alternating between numbing technicalities and cloudy overblown vagueness. In the pictures ("artists impression" as the brochures put it) they can let rip.