Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Art of Alchemy and the Philosophers' Stone

The idea of the philosophers’ stone, said to be able to heal the sick, turn base metal into gold and unlock the mysteries of the universe, has fascinated people for centuries. It continues to appeal to spiritual explorers today, as well as inspiring the imaginations of writers such as Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream.

If you want to find out more about the history, art and science of alchemy, an exhibition called Signs, Symbols, Secrets: An Illustrated Guide to Alchemy is currently on at the Science Museum in London. I went to see it the other day. Actually, I'd been meaning to go for months and realised that if I didn't visit soon I'd miss out - as the event is only on until early April.

At the heart of the exhibition is a wonderful scroll depicting mythological creatures, angels, strange devices and someone who looks very wizardly. This work of art is a Ripley scroll, and it has never been displayed in public before.

According to the Science Museum: "These rare scrolls include some of the most complex and fascinating alchemical imagery in existence. Only 23 Ripley scrolls are known to exist. This one dates from the 18th century and is the most recently discovered. Scholars believe that all the surviving examples are copies and variations upon a lost 15th-century original. They are named after the famous English alchemist George Ripley, although there is no evidence that Ripley designed the scrolls himself."

The reason why there are so many strange works of art relating to alchemy is that the alchemists who tried to create the stone did not write up their lab notes in plain English (or Latin, for that matter). Instead, they used signs and symbols, both figurative and allegorical, to show the processes they used and the concepts they represented. Books and pictures showed dragons, trees, men and women, the earth, sun and moon etc to represent the different stages in the creation of the stone.

Even though I've gone along to a few talks and workshops about alchemy, I still find the symbolism obscure. Nevertheless, the Ripley Scroll is so gorgeous to look at you really don't need to be an expert alchemist to enjoy its beauty. The Science Museum says: "Its rich symbolism offers clues – both practical and theoretical – for the creation of the philosophers’ stone."

Alongside it are other texts and images from the Museum’s collections as well as plenty of information about what they all mean. It doesn't cost anything to visit, so if you have 20 minutes to spare and are in London near South Kensington, pop in and have a look before the exhibition ends on Sat 27 Apr 2013

But, if you don't think you've learnt enough to start turning lead into gold from the Science Museum exhibition, you could sign up for alchemy evening classes at Atlantis Bookshop with David Goddard, author of Tower of Alchemy: An Advanced Guide to the Great Work. The classes are on Tuesday evenings from 5 March at Atlantis Bookshop, 49a Museum Street, London WC1A 1LY. They run from 7pm to 9pm and cost £12 per class. To book a place call 020 7405 2120.
Thank you.

The photos at the top, left and right show reproductions of panels from the Ripley Scroll (I didn't photograph the original as it can be damaged by light). The picture at the bottom shows another reproduction from an alchemical text at Signs and Symbols. Please note I earn commission from some links.

Links and previous related posts
The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream
Tower of Alchemy: An Advanced Guide to the Great Work


petoskystone said...

Beautiful works!

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye. Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye. Thank you very much.

Roberto said...

Thanks for the info. I will be visiting LOndon by the end of march,can you advise some places to go related to ageless wisdom, alchemy or hermetic philosophy. Thans for your time. BR Roberto

Badwitch said...

Roberto, I would look at my events listing page for details of events in London that might be of interest to you during the time you are here.