Adam McLean about Alchemy on the Amstel

We are very happy to post Adam McLean’s first blog, on the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition currently showing in the library. Adam McLean, who really needs no introduction (and if he does, let us direct you to his website will be posting blogs regulaly on topics related to the BPH’s collections of alchemical and hermetic literature.

The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has gone through some difficult times recently, but it never lost sight of the reason for its existence, to collect and make available to scholars important source material and to promote wider interest in hermetic philosophy. So it was a great delight to me to see that they were organising an exhibition on alchemy and in particular focusing on the ways in which alchemy manifested historically in Amsterdam. In the exhibition ‘Alchemy on the Amstel‘ are around 60 items on display from the 15th through to the 18th century.

The exhibition asks us to explore alchemy as the basis for a hermetic medicine, and gathers together some source material documenting this aspect of alchemy. Thus we are presented with a key work of Apollonius of Tyana, which helped to inform the development of hermetic medicine. The library also points our attention to the importance of H. Cornelius Agrippa’sDe occulta philosophia‘ which focused on the medicinal aspects of plants and minerals when seen through the macrocosmic/microcosmic correspondences.

Paracelsus, Archidoxis Magicae, in: Opera Omnia. Genève, Jean Antoine & Samuel de Tournes, 1658.

The exhibition then gives due prominence to the influence of Paracelsus, presenting some of his own writings but also that of later Paracelsists – Khunrath, Borch, Crollius, Helvetius and others. A further section chooses items that demonstrate the emergence of Iatrochemistry in the last half of the 17th Century. Here we see the clear influence of Amsterdam publications on this hermetic medicine – van Vreeswyk, Lancilotti, van Helmont, Sylvius – the list goes on and on.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the strange semi-metal antimony became popular as a medicine, in spite of its poisonous qualities. The exhibition has been able to present some antimony ore and an antimonial cup. Few of these have survived because they were brittle and often became damaged, but the idea arose to let wine or other liquid sit in the cup for some time, absorbing some of the antimony. This was then drunk and usually produced severe symptoms which were thought to be curative.

Engraving by Romeyn de Hooghe of the Triumphant Cariot of Antimony, in: Theodor Kerckring, 'Commentarius in currum triumphalem', Amsterdam, Andreas Frisus, 1671.

The exhibition then focuses our attention on the writings of the supposed 14th-century monk Basil Valentine, which in fact arose out of the mindset of the late 16th century and were likely created by the Paracelsist Thölde. Theodor Kerckring‘s later continuation of ideas presented by the ‘Basil Valentine’ figure, the ‘Triumphal Chariot of Antimony‘, is explored through a series of his publications. The library shows a delightful portrait of Kerckring, the original of which is held by the Kunsthalle Collection in Hamburg. Indeed, for this exhibition, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has not merely relied on its own extensive holdings, but has been able to augment this with material from other institutions.

This exhibition is an excellent survey of the hermetic medicine derived from alchemy, primarily seen through how it emerged and developed in Amsterdam. For those unable to attend the exhibition in person, there is an excellent illustrated descriptive catalogue, with colour reproductions of the Kerckring portrait, a number of illustrations of manuscripts and some objects, including a magical amulet and the antimonial cup.

With exhibitions such as these, the library has more than overcome its temporary difficulties. It has fulfilled its founder’s dream of providing a vehicle for the promotion of serious interest in hermetic philosophy. We look forward to more such exhibitions in the coming years.

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