Exhibition ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’

Alchemy on the Amstel:
On Hermetic Medicine in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic

Exhibition in The Ritman Library
15 October 2012 – 17 May 2013

In the 17th century, many apothecaries not only sold pharmaceutical remedies made on the basis of medicinal plants but also alchemically produced medicines: the so-called iatrochemical remedies. In the Dutch Republic, buyers interested in these latter medicines were guided to apothecary shops selling them by means of a sign showing a salamander in a fire basket. Iatrochemical medicines were manufactured through distillation, and fire was an essential element in the process. In Antiquity it was assumed that the salamander was able to survive even in the flames; the reptile therefore symbolized the element of fire for alchemists. In Amsterdam several alchemists were active in laboratories preparing medicines in the Golden Age, amongst whom Johann Rudolph Glauber from Germany. His house on Looiersgracht was auctioned after his death complete with his laboratory and laboratory equipment. Mostly thanks to the efforts of the Leiden medical professor Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, Leiden University established a laboratorium chimicum in the late 1660s. This laboratory was added to Leiden’s hortus botanicus and theatrum anatomicum, which had also been set up earlier to serve medical science.

Galen versus Paracelsus

Classical medicine as represented by the Graeco-Roman physician Claudius Galenus (2nd century CE) was challenged in the sixteenth century by the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, a great advocate of observation and experiment. He did not accept the authority of the classics per se and launched a revolution in medicine by applying the art of alchemy to the art of healing. Amongst his followers were the authors of the Rosicrucian Manifestoes Fama fraternitatis and Confessio fraternitatis in Germany and the physician Theodor Kerckring in the Dutch Republic. Today the latter is best known as an anatomist and also as a fellow pupil of Benedictus de Spinoza at the Latin school of Franciscus van den Enden, who was later to become Kerckring’s father-in-law. As a chemical physician Kerckring, like Paracelsus, apparently adhered to the Hermetic world view. Alchemy on the Amstel opens with a brief exploration of traditional Galenic medicine as it was still practised in the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age, to meander via the rise of Paracelsian iatrochemistry and one of the most  evocative – and controversial – iatrochemical medicines, antimony, to the medical biography of Theodor Kerckring, physician and alchemist and a follower not only of Paracelsus but also Hermes Trismegistus, whom he extolled as the pater omnium chymicorum, the father of all alchemists.

This exhibition is presented in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) in conjunction with Leiden’s Luxuriance, Green discoveries in the Golden Age, on show 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 will show an exhibition on the History of Pharmacy from 5 October through 31 December 31 2012. This exhibition includes pharmacopeia, rare books on botany and books on the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541).

The Ritman Library opening hours: Monday-Friday, 10:00-12:30 and 13:30-17:00 (from October onwards).