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A look behind the logo of Alchemy on the Amstel

Posted on by BPH

The logo of Alchemy on the Amstel comes from a manuscript called the Tractatus artis notoriae et expositiones eius quas Apollonius flores aureos appellavit, and it’s magic! Although the manuscript was written in the middle of the 17th century, the work itself is one of the pseudo-Solomonic magical works that can roughly be dated to the 13th-14th centuries. Apollonius of Tyana, to whom the work is attributed, was a neopythagorean philosopher and theurgist, and a contemporary of Jesus. In fact Philostratus (c. 170-c. 250), the biographer of Apollonius, saw similarities between the miracles worked by Apollonius and those performed by Jesus.

Another famous work belonging to the so-called pseudo-Solomonic tradition is the Hebrew Sefer Raziel. The BPH owns two copies of the first edition of Raziel, which was printed in Amsterdam in 1701. Astrology is of key importance in all of these works. Sefer Raziel for instance claims that ‘the key to this book lies in the knowledge of the 7 planets and their properties’. These works remained popular into the 17th century: the magus John Dee for one, to whom Peter J. Forshaw will be devoting a webinar in January, is known to have used them as well. Stephen Clucas has shown parallels between Dee’s Liber mysteriorum and manuscripts belonging to the pseudo-Solomonic magical tradition.

Magical works like the Tractatus artis notoriaequas Apollonius flores aureos appellavit basically offered the reader knowledge of the secrets of the universe in a nutshell. In fact ‘reader’ is not a good word to use, because these manuscripts had to be actively perused. The user read the orations but more importantly, he or she had to actively contemplate the magical seals – ‘not to be read but to be inspected’ – the user gained inspectival knowledge, in the words of Stephen Clucas. The wonderful engraving in Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae showing the Oratorium and Laboratorium gives us a good idea of how manuscripts like this one were used. Those of you who have watched Peter Forshaw’s first webinar on the German theosopher Heinrich Khunrath, will know that the magus kneeling in front of the book in a pose of contemplation is Khunrath himself – his name is on the canopy above. If you haven’t watched that webinar yet, don’t miss out on something rather wonderful!

The seal is of course the Seal of Solomon, showing the symbols of the seven planets and metals: the sun (gold), the moon (silver), Mars (iron) and Venus (copper), Jupiter (tin) and Saturn (lead). Mercury is in the middle on the right and not only stands for the planet and the metal, but also for one of the three basic alchemical principles according to Paracelsus. The symbols from left to right stand for Sulfur, Salt and Mercury. These three principles are what the cosmos is made of, but they also stand for: soul (sulfur), body (salt) and spirit (mercury). In laboratory terms: the spirit rises from the heated matter, extracts the soul after which the vapour precipitates in purified matter. This is an image from the Rosarium philosophorum (1550) in which you see how the soul is lifted from matter by the soul (the clouds).

The Seal of Solomon is to be found at the end of the oration on alchemy in this magical manuscript. The oration concludes with a saying by Hermes (‘dicit Hermes’):

‘In the centre of the earth lies hidden the true source & blessed watery form which solves and cures all’ – the Philosopher’s Stone.

This saying comes from a famous alchemical treatise, Hermetis Trismegisti Tractatus aureus de lapidis physici secreto: The Golden Treatise of Hermes Trismegistus on the Secret of the Stone. It was first printed in Ars chemica in 1566, though it, too, dates from the Middle Ages and was regarded as Arabic in origin. It was also a saying that was often quoted, for instance by Sir Isaac Newton, in one of his alchemical notebooks that are kept by the Royal Society. Here it forms an appropriate ending to an oration on alchemy, the Art of Arts.

This manuscript was sold in 1933 by the antiquarian bookseller Joseph Baer as part of the collection of a ‘collector form northern Germany’, together with the art collection of the banker Eduard Beit von Speyer.

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