Alchemical images revisited

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By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

Does monumental Truth lurk behind the colourful alchemical imagery of manuscripts held at the Wellcome Library? Images of this kind have fascinated scholars and artists for centuries, their rich symbolism being drawn on by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Goethe, Hugo, Jung, Nabokov and many others.

Surely these venerable figures did not approach the same subject in vain? Surely the images offer practical advice on the attainment of infinite riches and immortality, or at the very least an exalted understanding of subjective reality?

This author certainly thinks so. But being part of the uninitiated horde, denied access to the lofty mode of contemplation required for alchemical study, and with only a layperson’s understanding of the cosmos, he offers below some 21st-century interpretations of such images.

1. Care of pets advice #a – Always ensure large pets have had enough to eat and plenty of exercise

Image from alchemical manuscript.

MS. 800 (alchemical manuscript in German, c. 1625), folio 30v.


2. Care of pets advice #b – Some pets are just too big for indoor living

Alchemical image.

MS. 800, folio 30r.


3. Life in the city advice #a – Always help those less fortunate than you, even if they have been lying in place so long they have sprouted an enormous tree

Image from an alchemical manuscript

MS. 190 (alchemical manuscript in Latin, mid-17th century), folios 17v–18r.


4. Life in the city advice #b – It is always important to find a place for quiet contemplation and yoga

Alchemical image.

MS. 29 (alchemical manuscript in Latin, mid-17th century), folio 1r.


5. Flat decorating advice #a – Do not locate your hot tub beneath your upstairs neighbour’s bathroom

Alchemical image.

MS. 4775 (Thesaurus thesaurorum, c. 1725), page 58.


6. Flat decorating advice #b – Make the most of your small flat by filling it with wine, flowers and decorative lighting

Alchemical image.

MS. 4775, page 34.


7. Dating advice #a – Public nudity will not help you win your man

Alchemical image.

MS. 4775, page 25.


8. Dating advice #b – Goth girls love electric guitar

MS. 190, folios 19v–20r.

MS. 190, folios 19v–20r.

The esoteric, spiritual-seeming images produced by alchemists have proved fascinating to scholars and artists up to the present day. What may initially have been practical, but obscure, advice for the creation of valuable material – transmuting base metals into gold – was eventually interpreted as a means of illustrating impressions of subjective reality.

Given that such images have made strikingly different impressions on different viewers over the centuries, you must agree that the advice pertaining to contemporary living set out above is no less valid an approach to these images than the weighty contemplation of early modern scholars set out in the Library’s calfskin and vellum bound tomes.

Peter Judge

Peter Judge is a Consultant Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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