Joseph Wright, “The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical astrologers” (18th century), oil on canvas (via Derby Museums)
Alchemy is a discipline with ancient roots stretching back into some of the earliest chapters of history, with objectives in both the philosophical and physical worlds. Philosophically, alchemy looked toward the transformation of the self in pursuit of spiritual refinement, a crucial counterpart to the more practical endeavors of alchemy, with the belief that one could not perform the earthly transformations without first mastering the spiritual one.
The physical aspect of alchemy was focused on the transformation of elements, namely the conversion of one set of materials into higher materials of great power. One example was the transmutation of base metals into gold. However, in order to accomplish this feat, the alchemist needed to first discover the secret of creating the most sacred and sought after object in their field — the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Philosopher’s Stone, first described in Alexandrian and Arabian texts, was said to not only hold the power to create gold, but also granted the power of health and immortality. One anonymous early text stated:
“all infirmities might be cured, human life prolonged to its utmost limits, and mankind preserved in health and strength of body and mind, clearness and vigour. All wounds are healed by it without difficulty, and it is the best and surest remedy against poisons”
Despite its name, the Philosopher’s Stone may not have been a stone at all, with descriptions from alchemists varying wildly. Another early work states:
“It is called a stone not because it is like a stone, but only because by virtue of its fixed nature and that it resists the actions of fire as successfully as any stone.”
Sometimes referred to as a powder, its color descriptions include red, blue, white, yellow, or black with some reports even noting its taste and smell. 16th century Femish alchemist, chemist, and physician Jan Baptiste van Helmont described it as “yellow, the color of saffron, in the form of a heavy powder, with a brilliancy like glass,” while Renaissance alchemist, physician, and occultist Paracelsus favored the more common description of a solid, dark red, ruby-like object.
Remains of the Saint-Jacques church, viewed from the Rue Nicolas Flamel (via Wikimedia)
Among the few claims of success in creating the Philosopher’s Stone is the story of Nicolas Flamel, a bookseller and scribe. Flamel was said to have been born in the Pontoise region of France in 1340 before moving to Paris, where he would sell books and manuscripts in a small shop behind the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. Flamel was already well versed in the Hermetic arts and filled his shelves with a variety of alchemical texts. One day a man came into his shop offering to sell him an ancient and unfamiliar book on alchemy. Flamel described the book as:
“a gilded book, very old and large, which cost me only two florins. It was not made of paper or parchment as other books are, but of admirable rinds, as it seemed to me, of young trees; the cover of it was brass, well bound, and graven all over with a strange sort of letters.”
The author was listed as “Abraham the Jew-Prince, Priest, Philosopher, Levite, Astrologer, and Philosopher,” and its pages were filled with unfamiliar language and symbols.
After twenty-one years of trying to crack the code and consulting scholars without success, Flamel decided to travel to Spain with several copied pages in hopes of finding someone who could understand the messages. Upon arriving in Leon, he found an elderly scholar who recognized the text as ancient Chaldean and asked to travel back with him to see the book himself. The scholar would die on the return trip, but not before translating several of the pages Flamel had brought on the journey.
Nicolas Flamel (via Skara kommun)
Three years later, Flamel claimed that he and his wife Pernelle were able to translate the remaining text and had accomplished transmutation, turning a half-pound of mercury first into silver and then into gold:
“Still following word for word the directions of my book, about five o’clock in the evening of the twenty-fifth day of the following April I made projection of the Red stone on the same amount of Mercury, still at my own house, Peronelle and no other with me, and it was duly transmuted into the same quantity of pure gold, much better than that of the ordinary metal, softer and more pliable. I speak in all truth. I have made it three times.”
Rather than keep the riches, Flamel donated it to charity and funded the construction of several schools, seven churches, and fourteen hospitals, with each location receiving plaques containing alchemical messages. Flamel would continue his study of alchemy and write many books on the subject. However, believing access to such easy wealth could ruin people, he hid the book and stopped creating gold, choosing to carry out his life as a scholar and philanthropist. Flamel died peacefully with records indicating his age at the time of death was between 80 to 114. He was buried at the end of the nave of the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie which was mostly demolished in 1793, with only the Saint-Jacques Tower remaining today.
Auberge Nicolas Flamel (via Wikimedia)
It’s fitting that a man who dedicated his life to transmutation should leave behind pieces of that life to be adapted, changed, and reimagined. The house where Flamel reportedly achieved the greatest success of practical alchemy is still standing in Paris at 51, rue de Montmorency. The structure was severely damaged after his death due to ransacking by the public hoping to find his alchemical secrets, but the surviving section has been converted to a restaurant called the Auberge Nicolas Flamel. Also surviving is his tombstone, which is preserved at the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The tombstone was designed by Flamel himself before his death, and bears images of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, alchemical symbols, and an inscription detailing his charity work. A street was even named after Flamel, and other that intersects with it was named for his wife Pernelle.
Along with lead being turned to gold, houses into restaurants, and tombstones into museum exhibits, the name of Nicolas Flamel has achieved a kind of immortality he could only dream of through the pages of the same items he once sold.
Plaque on the home of Nicolas Flamel (via Wikimedia)
Tombstone of Nicolas Flamel (via Wikimedia)
Nicolas Flamel’s “His Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures - His Secret Booke of the Blessed Stone called the Philosopher’s” (via University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)