Alchemy – The Art of Change

Today, the exhibition Alchemy on the Amstel – On Hermetic Medicine in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic has opened its doors. In the past months curator Cis van Heertum together with curator José Bouman searched for manuscripts, sources and objects belonging to the Ritman library, Museum Boerhaave in Leiden and the Royal Library (KB) in The Hague. Panel texts, title cards and a digital presentation together guide the visitor through the exhibition. Last week these various elements were combined in what might be called an alchemical Gesamtkunstwerk. You have the opportunity to visit the exhibition and become inspired by the magical world of Alchemy until May 17th 2013.

De Alchimia, University Library Leiden, Cod. Voss, chem. (16th century)

The Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition is subdivided in 5 sections and opens with a brief exploration of traditional Galenic medicine as it was still practised in the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age. This first part presents an overview of classical medicine largely based on humoral pathology, which is based on the assumption that there were four humors active in the human body which corresponded with four temperaments and affected the well-being of man. The second section concentrates on the medical reformer Paracelsus his spagyric ‘art of healing’. Paracelsus proposed that the practice of medicine was based on four pillars: Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, Alchemy and Ethics. He was also an adherent of the Hemetic world view – in the German-speaking lands he was known as the ‘Trismegistus Germanus’.

The third part of the exhibition focuses on iatrochemistry in the Dutch Republic tto continue in the fourth section with a discussion of the toxic chemical element antimony and its characteristics. Antimony was perhaps the most evocative and controversial of iatrochemical medicines. The fifth and final part elaborates on Theodor Kerckring, physician and alchemist, who strongly advocated the use of antimony in medical practice. Kerckring, a friend of Benedictus de Spinoza, studied in Leiden and was a follower not only of Paracelsus but also of Hermes Trismegistus, whom he extolled as the pater omnium chymicorum, the father of all alchemists.

Although the exhibition in the Ritman Library mainly focuses on ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ and its presence in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, it might be worthwhile to put the exhibition in a larger context by dwelling on the concept of Alchemy. When exploring the world of Alchemy, a range of theories, practices, meanings and various etymological interpretations offer themselves. The word Alchemy itself derives via Old French chimie and Medieval Latin chimia from the Arabic al-kimia (الكيمياء), and ultimately from Ancient Greek chemeia (χημεία) or chemia (χημία), which is in itself related to the Egyptian kēme and the hieroglyph Khmi meaning ‘black earth’. Also a Grecian relation forms chumeia (χυμεία), which is associated with mixture. With reference to ‘-al’, the Arabian mystic Jamīl Shāmi asserts that there is a use of ‘al-‘ that signifies the essence of something. Applied to chymia or chemia, it would then refer to the essence of chumeia, chimia or chemia, in short the essence of mixture.

Alchemy has also attracted a variety of interpretations. For instance Eirenaeus Philalethes (pseudonym of George Starkey) calls it ‘The Divine Art and Science’ in his Exposition of Ripley’s Vision (1678). Others simply refer to it as ‘The Art or ‘The Sacred Art’ and many, many more interpretations exist. In the same way as the meaning of the word Alchemy as a discipline or practice can involve different intentions, styles and ways. According to some, alchemy is a pure spiritual discipline; others integrate a physical element to it or interpret it rather physically than spiritually. Some alchemists relate it to the quest for a panacea, the so-called Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher’s Stone, which even became the theme of the first part of the world famous Harry Potter series. Others apply Alchemy to the work of transforming ‘lower’ metals into ‘gold’ in a literal sense or rather in a symbolical sense as a process of transmutation: the ‘conscious’ change of the ‘status quo’ to another status quo of a higher order. In this, of course, risks do exist when forthcoming experiments go wrong and instead of a higher order, a lower order becomes the result of an alchemical experiment or experience. Nevertheless, all these different viewpoints and associations would seem to belong to what might be called the concept of The Art of (conscious) Change. And it seems here a ‘potential’ connection might be suggested with Magic, in the sense of attracting forces to someone or something to achieve another state of ‘being’ and as it were evoking intentional change in this manner.

When speaking of Alchemy as ‘The Art of Change’, it reveals a potential, which might be significant for the times we live in today. Our present times are so to speak characterized by transition, involving the dissolution of traditional social structures, which seem to have functioned for so long, though not necessarily seem to provide optimal answers for the rapidly changing world of today. Transition forms the adagio of this time for it reflects an in-between phase with change as the way to walk from the world of yesterday to the world of tomorrow. Change is growth and growth can be unsettling, it can be destabilizing or traumatic as the old assumptions must be discarded without precisely knowing what to expect. However, change can also be a positive and healing experience, even an educational one and it generally fosters a sense of harmony within the individual and within society and between the two. Change is, so to speak, a practice and when change becomes conscious change fired with intention it becomes an Art. It is Alchemy, which deals with this Art of Change in the broadest sense of the word and it is this Art of Change, which forms the larger context of the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition.

Stephan Michelspacher’s Cabala, Speculum Artis Et Naturae In Alchymia (1654)

The Ritman Library presents the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition in conjunction with Leyden’s Luxuriance, Green discoveries in the Golden Age, which can be visited in Museum Boerhaave from 11 October 2012 through 5 May 2013.
In addition to ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ and ‘Leyden’s Luxuriance’, the Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden is showing an exhibition on the History of Pharmacy from 5 October through 31 December 2012. This exhibition includes pharmacopeia, rare books on botany and books on the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541).

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