Last week I taught a class on Western esotericism and visual culture at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). When preparing the class I happened upon the excellent Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) website, which contains an impressive selection of fine art devoted to ‘The Art of Iatrochemistry’ that is on display as part of the permanent Transmutations exhibition at the foundation’s museum in Philadelphia. What particularly struck me about the CHF collection was the sizeable number of Netherlandish artists, such as Mattheus van Helmont (1623-after 1679), Gerard Thomas (1663-1721) and Balthasar van den Bossche (1681-1715), working in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, who were drawn to depicting iatrochemists at work. These paintings demonstrate how Netherlandish artists of the period were fascinated by the role of medical alchemists in Dutch and Flemish society.
In order to understand the cultural context in which iatrochemists were repeatedly the subjects of attention of leading Netherlandish artists, one could do no better than viewing the current exhibition Alchemy on the Amstel: On Hermetic Medicine at the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. One of the key aspects of this exhibition is the emphasis on the enhanced respectability of iatrochemistry in the Dutch Republic in the late seventeenth century: both in terms of academic acceptance and wider social prestige. It was in 1658, for example, that the University of Leiden appointed the Paracelsian Franciscus de la Boë Sylvius (1614-1672) as Professor of Medicine. Moreover, it was only in 1695, that the University of Utrecht permitted Johann Conrad Barchusen (1666-1723) to operate a chemical laboratory on the site of its botanical garden.
What is striking about the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition is how it highlights how this academic foundation facilitated something of a golden era in Dutch iatrochemistry, with the likes of Theodor Kerckring (1638-1693) and Steven Blankaart (1650-1704) attracting respect across Europe. What is more, in the 1670s and 1680s, the mineralogist and Master Miner Goossen van Vreeswyk (1626- after 1689) published a series of richly-illustrated alchemical tracts. This period arguably culminated in the pioneering medical and chemical experiments of Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738).
Interestingly, Netherlandish artists, such as Mattheus van Helmont were evidently fascinated by the human dimension of alchemy and iatrochemistry, with numerous variations on the theme of the practitioner at work in his laboratory, workshop and/or consulting room. However, the alchemical works on display at the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica reveal plentiful evidence of how the iatrochemists themselves adhered to a different artistic vision that embraced the symbol and emblem tradition that had flourished after the publication of Andrea Alciati’s Emblemata in 1531.
From a personal perspective, it is also satisfying to see that the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition is running in conjunction with the recently opened ‘A Curious Tsar: Peter the Great and Discovering Nature’s Secrets in Amsterdam‘. It is well known that Dutch culture greatly influenced Peter the Great and his efforts to reform Russian society, and that the Russian monarch immersed himself in Amsterdam’s rich and inspiring scientific milieu on his two visits to the city (in 1697-1698 and 1716-1717). Less well known is the iatrochemical career of Robert Erskine (1677-1718), the tsar’s chief physician and the founding director of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera. Erskine had studied at Utrecht under Barchusen at the turn of the eighteenth century and was strongly influenced by the Leiden professor of chemistry Jacob Le Mort (1650-1718)
Erskine escorted the Peter the Great on his second visit to Amsterdam, and in 1717 he met and corresponded with Johannes de Wilde, a self-styled philochimicus, who offered the Scottish physician various alchemical recipes, including the Paracelsian potable gold (aurum potabile) elixir. After leaving Amsterdam, Erskine invited de Wilde to enter Russian service, which the latter declined (citing his wife’s discontent at the idea). We know next-to-nothing about the career of de Wilde in Amsterdam, despite the fact that he was familiar with leading figures of the day, such as Albert Seba (1665-1736) and Fredrik Ruysch (1638-1731). Yet, whilst de Wilde may remain an elusive figure, the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition helps to demonstrate why he was able to ply his trade (with evident success) well into the second decade of the eighteenth century. Basically, he seems to have benefitted from the continuing high-regard for Dutch iatrochemists among European physicians and court grandees.
The Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition helps to remind us that the esteem enjoyed by the likes of Sylvius, Blankaart and Kerckring did not simply rest on their status as aloof alchemical adepts, but rather centred on their practical application of iatrochemical principles to the health needs of their clients and the wider readership of their publications. This essentially philanthropic goal also comes across in the van Helmont painting of an alchemist immersed in his work. The iatrochemist is portrayed in a sympathetic manner, with the écorché model on his work desk symbolizing the physician’s dedication to human concerns. He also seems oblivious to the hubbub of life carrying on behind him, whilst in turn the men depicted drinking and laughing seem unaware of the services being performed by the alchemist for the benefit of humanity. However, whilst these characters appear to ignore the work of the iatrochemist, the artist’s gaze is firmly focused on the alchemist; thereby demonstrating the prominent role enjoyed by such physicians in the culture and society of the Low Countries in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century.