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How Alchemy Has Been Depicted in Art Through the Ages

Secret symbols aplenty.

<em>The Perfection of the Work</em>, a hand-colored engraving with gilding in Johann Michael Faust's <em>Compendium alchymist[ae] novum sive Pandora</em>, 1706.
The Perfection of the Work, a hand-colored engraving with gilding in Johann Michael Faust's Compendium alchymist[ae] novum sive Pandora, 1706. All Images: The Getty Research Institute

In the 1738 edition of Physica subterranea, written by German alchemist Johann Becher, there is a particularly intriguing illustration. Titled The Body as an Alchemical Laboratory, it depicts a figure framed by drapes and surrounded by floating symbols. To an untrained eye, these symbols are indecipherable. But for those that studied alchemy—primarily known for attempting to turn base metals into gold—they codify formulas, elements, planetary metals and ingredients. 

Some of the symbols shown relate to Venus (linked to copper), Mercury (linked to quicksilver), along with “primary catalysts” like sulfur. Their design is almost mystical, akin to the hidden codes of a secret order. It’s a fascinating example of how alchemy has been depicted over the centuries, which is the subject of the new Getty Research Institute exhibition, The Art of Alchemy.

<em>The Body as Alchemical Laboratory</em>, engraving in Joachim Becher's <em>Physica subterranea</em>, 1738.
The Body as Alchemical Laboratory, engraving in Joachim Becher’s Physica subterranea, 1738.

But there was more to alchemy than trying to create gold. It encompassed elements of chemistry, and also had the loftier aim of extending life. Or, as David Brafman, the curator of the exhibition puts it, “alchemy was a science tinged with spirituality and infused with a spritz of artistic spirit.”

The exhibition explores alchemy as depicted in art and rare books, across Europe and Asia, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 20th. It includes the 20-foot-long Ripley Scroll, an 18th century artwork that shows two alchemists sharing secrets from a locked book.

Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from the exhibition, which runs through February 12, 2017. 

<em>Mercury 'The Hypocritical Planet'</em>, a watercolor in Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, </em>Kitāb al- ́ajā ́ib wa ́l-gharā ́ib (Book of Wonders and Oddities)</em>, 1553.
Mercury ‘The Hypocritical Planet’, a watercolor in Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, Kitāb al- ́ajā ́ib wa ́l-gharā ́ib (Book of Wonders and Oddities), 1553.
<em>Allegory of Distillation</em>, a watercolor by Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle Nove, for <em>Book of Alchemical Formulas</em>, 1606.
Allegory of Distillation, a watercolor by Claudio de Domenico Celentano di Valle Nove, for Book of Alchemical Formulas, 1606.
<em>The Doctor of Fools</em>, Theodor de Bry, 1657.
The Doctor of Fools, Theodor de Bry, 1657.
<em>Calculating Celestial Movement</em>, Peter Hille, 1574.
Calculating Celestial Movement, Peter Hille, 1574.
<em>Strip-Mining Sulfur at Pozzuoli</em> by Anton Eisenhoit, an engraving in the 1717 book <em>Metallotheca Vaticana </em>.
Strip-Mining Sulfur at Pozzuoli by Anton Eisenhoit, an engraving in the 1717 book Metallotheca Vaticana .
<em>The Chemical Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite</em>, an engraving by Matthaus Merian the Elder, for <em>Scrutinium chymicum</em>, 1687.
The Chemical Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite, an engraving by Matthaus Merian the Elder, for Scrutinium chymicum, 1687.
<em>The Ripley Scroll</em>, England, c. 1700.
The Ripley Scroll, England, c. 1700.