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Picturing the Triumphant Chariot of Antimony

Posted on by Cis van Heertum

Picturing the Triumphant Chariot of Antimony

In 1604 the first edition of Basilius ValentinusTriumph-Wagen Antimonii appeared, a panegyric on the medicinal use of the semi-metal antimony, with clear alchemical recipes included. The Triumph-Wagen Antimonii was the first of eight works in this edition, and was followed by: Von der Tinctur oder Oleo Stibii, Rogeri Baconis Angli; Von den Particular und Universal Tincturen; Vom Stein der Weisen. Theorica unnd Practica Georgii Phædronis Rodocheri; Der uhralter Ritterkrieg; Opus Saturni Isaaci Hollandi; Philosophisch Betrachtung, von der materia Lapidis und seiner Bereitung and De occulta philosophia chemicorum. These works were published to benefit all those ‘who seek the foundation of ancient medicine and are devoted to Hermetic philosophy’. The edition was reprinted twice in Germany in the first half of the 17th century, in 1611 and in 1624, while in 1646 it was also translated into Latin by the French physician and alchemist Pierre-Jean Fabre for those readers ‘who do not know the German language’ – for the international market, therefore. Fabre also added annotations to the several works in the margin. In 1661 an English translation of the Triumphant Chariot of Antimon by John Harding was published in London, with the assurance that the work had been ‘faithfully Englished and published for the common good’.

None of the German, French or English editions were illustrated, but in 1671 the Amsterdam chymical physician Theodor Kerckring published his own annotated Latin translation of the Triumph-Wagen antimonii, and this edition has a frontispiece engraving by the versatile artist Romeyn de Hooghe.

From: Theodor Kerckring, ‘Commentarius in currum triumphalem’, Amsterdam, Andreas Frisus, 1671.

De Hooghe’s signature is in the lower left corner: ‘Romijn de Hooghe fecit 1671’. This was of course a ‘customized engraving’, one made to order by De Hooghe for either the author, Kerckring, or the publisher, Andreas Frisius, who was a friend of Kerckring. The year before, Frisius had published Kerckring’s Spicilegium anatomicum, this time with a frontispiece engraving by another well-known engraver, Abraham Blooteling. Obviously the author and publisher were willing to spend some money on these two editions, because illustrations were usually a costly business. The engraving of the ‘triumphant chariot’ appears to be original and not cut after an existing model. In a recent volume of essays on Romeyn de Hooghe, Romeyn de Hooghe. De verbeelding van de late Gouden Eeuw (2008), Andreas Frisius is mentioned as one of the publishers for whom De Hooghe cut frontispicies for Latin-language works in the 1670s. In spite of the prices he asked for his work, book illustrations by De Hooghe were nevertheless commercially attractive for publishers, because the artist managed to capture the contents of the works he had been commissioned to illustrate so well. The engraving he made for Kerckring and|or Frisius shows Dame Antimony, the symbol of which she carries on her breast, in the triumphant chariot; to her right is Mercurius (i.e. mercury). The chariot is driven by Vulcan (i.e. fire, indispensable for laboratory work) and drawn by the planets Saturn (lead), Diana (silver), Venus (copper) and Mars (iron). Mercurius and Antimony clasp hands through a crowned ring handed to them by Fama, the goddess of fame. De Hooghe’s engravings were very popular and often imitated. Five years later, the engraving of the triumphant chariot was copied in reverse in Germany and included in a reprint of the German Triumph-Wagen des Antimonii of 1676, published by Johann Hoffmann, a bookseller and art dealer in Nuremberg. Romeyn de Hooghe’s engraving continued to appeal: in 1724 the first German translation of Kerckring’s edition of Basilius Valentinus was published with a frontispiece engraving of the triumphant chariot cut by the Augsburg engraver Johann Georg Beck, faithfully copied after De Hooghe’s engraving though lacking the elegance of the original.

The German engravings were probably pirated, but another illustration depicting Basilius Valentinus’ triumphant chariot of antimony seems to have been purely the product of the artist’s imagination, because no model has so far been found. The artist in question was Burghard de Groot, an Amsterdam schoolmaster, and the subject of next month’s BPH blog, by Frank van Lamoen. Only one work by Basilius Valentinus was printed in a Dutch translation, in 1632, but in the early 18th century Burghard de Groot provided a Dutch translation of all works by Basilius Valentinus, a translation which has remained unpublished (only one volume of the manuscript has survived). De Groot also illustrated the works he copied or translated himself. Where De Hooghe’s triumphant chariot is stately and classical, Burghard de Groot’s depiction is deft and dynamic.

From: Basilius Valentinus, 'All syn chymische schriften' (tr. B. de Groot) Manuscript on paper, Netherlands, early 18th century.

His triumphant chariot is not drawn by planets or metals, as in De Hooghe’s engraving. Instead, he chose to depict the traditional Roman symbol for triumph, the quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, though with an achemical twist. The driver is dressed in a contemporary outfit, wearing gloves and a high-crowned hat. He is loosely holding the horses’ reins with his right hand while carrying the staff of Asclepius, god of healing, topped by the symbol of antimony, in the other. In the middle, lurking behind the reins, is a green dragon or serpent with its jaws wide open: the symbol of chaos, prima materia, which the alchemist has to come to terms with? The meaning of the dragon or serpent is open to interpretation, but the scene itself has great dramatic quality.
In alchemic imagery, the triumphant chariot is usually associated with Basilius Valentinus’ treatise. The March BPH blog, by José Bouman, will be devoted to a fascinating panel dating from the 16th century in which the triumphant chariot is used to symbolize the process of alchemy, and much more.

Cis van Heertum

Works consulted
Garrelt Verhoeve & Piet Verkruijsse, ‘Verbeelding op bestelling. De boekilustratie’; Piet Verkruijsse, ‘Short-title lijst door ROMEYN DE Hooghe geschreven en geïllustreerde boeken’, in Romeyn de Hooghe. De verbeelding van de late Gouden Eeuw.  Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers & Amsterdam: Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2008, ed. Henk van Nierop et al., pp. 146-169; pp. 258-286.

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Cis van Heertum

Cis van Heertum