An Alchemical Triumphal Chariot 2


While leafing through a sturdy little volume of more than a thousand pages, brought out by the Stuttgart publisher J. Scheible in the Das Kloster, weltlich und geistlich series in 1846, I came across an image of a triumphal chariot that was completely unknown to me. The enigmatic picture is full of allusions to the business of alchemy and features a few famous alchemists.

Das Kloster 1846

The volume in question is called Christoph Wagner, Faust’s Famulus; Don Juan Tenorio von Sevilla; die Schwarzkünstler verschiedener Nationen and deals with many more practitioners of the Black Arts than the Faust and his famulus mentioned in the title: the works contains various reprints of older magical works like the Clavicula Salomonis after the edition by Andreas Luppius of 1686, Zoroasters Telescop (a translation into German of the French original of 1796), the Magia divina after the edition of 1745 and an as yet unidentified Romanus-Büchlein (a word for word reprint of a book printed in Venice that ‘used to be’ sold at the annual fairs, according to Scheible). The title also refers to Don Juan and the apparition of his ‘Stone Guest‘, the subject of numerous plays, operas and poems, followed by a parade of less well-known men who bargained with the Devil or dabbled in the black arts. This section, which also includes Johannes Trithemius, features the illustration of the triumphal chariot.

Detail of tomb relief of Johannes Trithemius

Trithemius (1462-1516) was the learned German abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Sponheim near Bad Kreuznach, who later became abbott of the abbey in Würzburg. He was a ‘Wunder seiner Zeit’, a miracle of his age, an outstanding cleric, a man devoted to his books and studies without neglecting his monastic duties. As an abbott he was above reproach. Under his care, the monastery of Sponheim which had falled into destitution, once more flourished and the library, originally consisting of 48 minor works, grew into a collection of 2,000 works famous throughout Germany.

Trithemius also gained a reputation as a lexicographer, historian, cryptographer, polymath and occultist. Scheible notes that he was accused of witchcraft by the ‘unwissende Haufe’, the ‘vulgar ignorant’, because of his exceptional knowledge of the secrets of nature. Although Scheible goes to great lengths to praise Trithemius for his piety, rectitude and devotion to the service of God, the link with magic is undoubtedly the reason why he awarded him a place in his work on ‘Schwarzkünstler’ or practitioners of the black arts.

Detail of Das Kloster 1846

The illustration in this section shows the ‘Triumph of alchemy’ and the central figure in the chariot is the legendary Benedictine monk and alchemist Basilius Valentinus. He is flanked by Johannes Trithemius and a ‘Dionysius Abbas Papisiensis’ – the year 1240 is written next to this figure (Papisiensis could mean: of Pavia, but I have not yet been able to establish who this abbott Dionysius might be). There is no close connection between text and image, other than that Trithemius here features as a subsidiary figure in an alchemical setting with positive overtones. The other illustrations in Scheible’s highly diverse collection of texts are all copies of illustrations originally occurring in the works reproduced in the volume. A portrait of the abbott of Sponheim would have been the more obvious choice in this biography of Trithemius. As with his choice of texts, however, Scheible here demonstrates a keen eye for the remarkable, the forgotten and the unknown: this image is a drawing made after a painting which in 1846, when he was compiling this volume, was still in Stuttgart, probably in a private collection, as is suggested by the caption underneath the image which reads: “Das Original befindet sich bei Alb. Bechter in Stuttgart” (the original is with Alb. Bechter in Stuttgart).

Oil on panel, measurements 150 x 315 mm, c. 1600, France?

As far as I have been able to establish, this original painting (on panel) has never been reproduced in any alchemical reference work. Joost Ritman, however, is very familiar with it: for more than 25 years now it has been hanging on the wall of his private library.

The first thing that strikes you when you look at the image in the book or at the painting itself is: does this really have anything to do with the title of one of Basilius Valentinus’ alchemical works, the Triumphwagen antimonii, the first edition of which dates to 1604, and which is a key item in the current Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition?

Detail Oil on panel, measurements 150 x 315 mm, c. 1600, France?

I will try and shed more light on this enigmatic panel in another blog, also examining the place or country of origin. Is it really a French painting, as the dealer who sold the panel to Joost Ritman claimed, when it actually features two German scholars and alchemists? The art dealer based his judgement on the painting’s style and technique. But perhaps the coat of arms on the panel may be able to tell us more about the origin of this work? Or would the collector, Bechter, be able to provide any clues? To be continued…

José Bouman


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2 thoughts on “An Alchemical Triumphal Chariot

  • Hester Albach

    Beste José,
    De foto van het schilderijtje heeft niet genoeg resolutie om het goed te kunnen zien, maar zou het kunnen zijn dat er staat: Dionisius Abbas Pa R isiensus, inplaats van Pa P isiensus? Dat de prentmaker de naam niet goed heeft overgenomen? Dan zou het slaan op Dionisius de Areopagite en dat zou het trio tot een (heilige) drieëenheid maken, die werd bewonderd in het jezuïetenmilieu in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden.
    Ben benieuwd naar je vervolgaflevering! Groet, H.

  • Adam McLean

    How marvelous that you have found some examples of this image, particularly the oil panting.
    Back in 2008 I tried to get some information about this image. I initially found the print in the Hennin collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale but in 2011 I managed to find another different engraved version of the image. I posted out a request for information on my alchemy discussion forum

    http://www.alchemydiscussion.com/view_topic.php?id=237&forum_id=8

    I was so intrigued by this complex image with its many symbolic references that I was impelled to produce a coloured version.

    It is so good to see some other examples of this.