The horror film As Above, So Below (dir. Dowdle, 2011) taps into the popular perception of alchemy as a mysterious, decedent, unnatural art. Delving deep into the Parisian catacombs in an attempt recover the mythical ‘Philosophers’ Stone’ – an artefact said to grant eternal life and turn base metals into gold – the story’s protagonists are instead picked off one-by-one by the ghosts and demons that dwell within. Whereas modern fiction writers have focused mainly on the negative aspects of alchemy, early modern period practitioners would not have viewed their endeavours as being morally or spiritually suspect in any way. As we shall see, alchemy was considered a learned and noble pursuit.
Fol. 2v. Dedication to John Dee and inscription of ‘Jo. Huniades’ (top left) (photo: Stephen Gordon)
Latin MS 82 from the John Rylands Library in Manchester is a fascinating, if often overlooked, alchemical miscellany dating to the early seventeenth century. According to an inscription on the top of fol. 2r, the book appears to have once been owned by ‘Jo. Huniades’ – Janos Banfi-Hunyadi (1576-1646) – a Hungarian alchemist who lectured in chemistry at Gresham College, London, and was good friends with Arthur Dee, the son of the famed astrologer, John Dee (to whom the book is dedicated).
The book contains extracts from a variety of well-known alchemical and scientific works, including those by Thomas Norton, Raymond Lull, Heinrich Khunrath, Paracelsus and Michał Sędziwój (otherwise known as Sendivogius). While the purpose, processes, and symbolism of alchemy are much too dense to go into detail here, for the remainder of this post I just want to take you through some of the more interesting folios from this manuscript.
Fol. 4r: John Dee’s Monad Heiroglyphica (photo: Stephen Gordon)
One of the most striking pages from this miscellany included a representation of John Dee’s famous Hieroglyphic Monad. The Monad defies easy explanation, but can generally be read an amalgamation of the seven main astrological symbols (pictured to the left and right of the Monad) and as an expression of the alchemical process – i.e. the mystical joining of the sun ☉ and moon ☽; the four elements emerging from the fifth (represented as a cross); enabled through the active ingredient of fire ♈. In sum, the Monad is a symbol of physical and metaphysical perfection. Alchemical bon mots that frame this central image include:
- Omne domum perfectum à יהוה (every perfect gift is from God’, taken from James 1:17)
- Orando et Laborando quaeras, & invenies (You strive by prayer and work, and you will discover)
- Est in mercurio quicquid quaerunt sapientes (there is in Mercury whatever wise men seek)
- Unum in Omnibus Omnia in Uno (one in everything; everything in one)
Fol. 23r: The Unitrinum alchemical monster (photo: Stephen Gordon)
The idea of the interconnectedness of things – ‘one in everything, everything in one’ – is a central tenet of alchemical philosophy. Often this idea was expressed in the form of the ‘alchemical monster’, such as that seen on fol. 23r and which, incidentally, is my favourite image from the manuscript. The name of the monster, the Unitrinum, seems to derive from Nicholas of Cusa’s 1441 treatise, De docta ignorantia, specifically the passage “join together what seems to be the opposite and you will not have ‘one and three’ or the reverse, but ‘one-in three or a ‘three in one’ (unitrinum seu triunun), that is the Absolute Truth”.
As with all alchemical illustrations, the image is thick with symbolism. The head to the far left, with the red, bird-like beak, incorporates another version of Dee’s Heiroglyphic Monad, while the other two heads would seem to represent the sun or moon (or else the ideals of mercury and sulphur). The wings attached to the feet of the monster provide further references to Mercury.
Fol. 26r: Diagram of the alchemical citadel (photo: Stephen Gordon)
The compiler of Latin MS 82 – perhaps Banfi-Hunyadi himself – incorporated a number of engravings from Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (1595), such as this diagram showing the ‘alchemical citadel’. According to Khunrath, there is only one true door to alchemical and spiritual truth – a truth represented by a tiny version of the Hieroglyphic Monad atop the entranceway to the inner sanctum.
Fol. 69r: the ponderous life of an alchemist (photo: Stephen Gordon)
Alchemy wasn’t all about discovery and creation, it also involved a lot of thought and spiritual contemplation. This ink drawing of a woman, head in hand and looking pensively out at the reader, is titled nescio quid meditans (‘Contemplating I know no what’), a quote taken from the from Satires of the Roman poet Horace. Are we seeing here the inner thought and frustrations of Banfi-Hunyadi?
Fol. 12v: Thomas Norton’s alchemical poetry (photo: Stephen Gordon)
Fol. 73r: The ‘alchemical furnace’ from Latin MS 82 (left) (photo: Stephen Gordon), compared to diagram found in the Latin Aurora Thesaurusque Philosophorum (Basel 1577) (right)
While most of Latin MS 82 is written in Latin, there are numerous vernacular passages and annotations interspersed throughout the text. Folio 12v, for example, contains two extracts from Thomas Norton’s poetic Ordinal of Alchemy (1477), an alchemical reference guide that enjoyed much popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Another text copied into Latin MS 82 includes part of the vernacular version of the Anatomia Corporum adhuc viventium (‘the anatomy of still living bodies’) by the physician and mystic, Paracelsus. Specifically, the compiler has copied the section relating to the distillation of urine and the diagnosis of illness. As you can see here, the monstrous-looking still has been given the proportions of an average human figure. It was believed that a diagnosis of the patient’s illness could be made by observing the parts of the ‘body’ where the urine vapours condensed. Although dubious to modern sensibilities, this is one of the most practical extracts in the entire manuscript.
Fol. 18r: Further alchemical/astrological diagrams
Latin MS 82 provides a fascinating insight into the world of early modern occultism and the erudition of its practitioners. Of course, it is difficult for the modern reader to truly understand the nuances behind alchemical symbolism. Books of spiritual alchemy were intentionally obtuse, making that much harder to decipher the intentions behind such images as the monstrous Unitrinum. Further work needs to be conducted on Latin MS 82 for it to truly reveal its secrets.
Appleby, John H., Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities, Ambix 24 (1977), 96-109
Forshaw, Peter J., ‘The Early Alchemical Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica’, Ambix 52 (2005), 247-269
McGinn, Bernard, ‘Unitrinum seu Triunun: Nicholas of Cusa’s Trinitarian Mysticism’, in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. by Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 90-117