Overview Floor - Forms of usage of alchemical emblems Room
Early Period Floor   Early Europe Floor   Seventeenth Century Floor    Eighteenth Century Floor   Floorplan  Back to alchemy website

The images in alchemical manuscripts and printed books served various purposes. One use was to illustrate points made in the text, another was to provide a decorative title page which served to summerise the content of the book. Later books in the 17th and 18th century often had an engraved frontispiece placed opposite to the printed title page. There were also sequences of emblems which showed the development of a process. In some manuscripts and books the emblems were the focus of the work and there was little or even no text, and thus the emblems were not illustrating ideas in the text, but presenting the alchemical work directly in a visual way.

Illustrations in manuscripts

Line drawings of apparatus
Here the little drawings in the text illustrate apparatus necessary for the work. There are many examples of this use of imagery in alchemical manuscripts.
15th century manuscript of alchemical recipes

Line drawings of apparatus and symbolic figures
Similar to the previous manuscript except that this work contains an emblematic figure of the hexagram associated with the planets with the caduceus like image of the intertwined snakes and the sun at the centre.
15th century manuscript

Symbolic figures in the text of a manuscript
In the manuscript of Denis Molinier which contains the famous Flamel images, this section has many little symbolic figures set in the text.
18th Century French manuscript
This first section demonstrates that in some manuscripts images were incorporated within the text in order to illustrate points.

Emblems in manuscripts

Emblematic figures detached from the text.
In this relatively early manuscript we find emblematic figures standing clear of the text itself.
Ars sive doctrina de transmutatione metallorum, a manuscript written in 1461.

Line drawn alchemical emblem
Here the emblem fills an entire page. There is another manuscript of this image with beautifully painted figures. You can see some of the images from this in one of the side galleries.
Latin manuscript in St Marks, Venice dated 1475.

Emblematic painting
This 18th century manuscript has a number of delightful emblematic paintings. These emblems are made in the style of 15th or 16th century manuscript images, rather than painted in the style of the 18th century. In a sense they refer back and try to evoke the classic age of alchemical imagery.
From an 18th century manuscript, Zoroaster, Clavis Artis.
This section shows examples of manuscripts where the emblematic image is becoming more dominant and is probably as important a part of the work as the text itself. Here we are moving towards images that do not merely illustrate points in the text, but appear are emblems that stand as equal partners to the text.

Illustrations in books - Title pages

Small emblem on title page
This is an example of the use of a small emblem on the titlepage. In this case it is a woodcut printed with the text. These could be confused with the printer's devices which some printers used to ornament the titlepages of their books, which they imitate, but in this case and in many others one can see the obvious emblematic content of the image. Here it is a tree of the planets, set in a circle.
Rosarium novum Olympicum, 1608.

Engraved border
This was a common form of title page using an emblematic border with a central area for the title text. These were probably derived from purely ornamental borders found in some books. Often these were woodcuts, with a central space cut out, so that they could be used by the printer for different books. This also happened with engravings. In this case the border tells in emblematic figures the story of Hippomenes and Atalanta, which is the core myth used in the book itself.
Atalanta fugiens, 1617.

Fully engraved title
Here we have a fully engraved title page. This is for a printed book version of the Splendor solis which included 22 engravings of the figures. Here on the titlepage we see the key emblematic components of the Splendor solis - note on the top left the seven flasks associated with the planets.
La Toyson d'or, 1612

View side gallery of emblematic printer's marks

Illustrations in books - Engraved frontispieces

Frontispiece from Johann Schütze Tractätlein von dem Gebenedeyten Stein,1682
Divided into two sections. The upper section has Dee's hieroglyphic monad symbol in an egg shaped space. The four elements are at the corners "Qui non intelligit. Aut taceat. Aut discat". In the lower section we see Jesus being attacked by Invidia, Ira and Odium, while in the background a city burns.

Frontispiece from the 'Aphorisms of Urbigerus', 1690.
A tree labelled "Virtus unita Fortior" grows out of a river. Underneath its branches on the left is a serpent with a crescent Moon on its head, while on the right is a winged dragon with a crescent Moon on its head, a Sun on its belly and a cross at the end of its tail. Below on the left, Apollo and Diana, with Sun and Moon on their respective heads. On the right, these have fused together into a hermaphrodite with a double-head, who holds Diana's bow in one hand and Apollo's Sun in the other.

Frontispiece from Monte-Snyders Metamorpohosis planetarum, 1663
This shows a round mirror set upon a pedestal in a landscape. A God-like figure (possibly here representing Mercury) sits upon a globe, his right foot rests upon a globe containing the symbols of Sun, Mars and Venus, while his left rest upon a globe with the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn. This echoes the ideas in ther text, which is an ellaborate allegory of alchemical transmutation.

Rather than produce an engraved titlepage some printers preferred to insert an engraving before the printed title. This became a standard format for many books in the 17th and 18th centuries. A frontispiece engraving often attempted to sum up in emblematic symbols the main ideas in the book itself. Sometimes these frontispiece engravings were re-used in other books, so one has to be careful to contextualise the frontispiece. For example, the Johann Schütze frontispiece was re-used in a 1751 German edition of the works of Nicolas Flamel.

Illustrations in books - Emblem sequences

Engraving from Trismosin Aureum vellus, 1708
An engraved version sixteenth emblem from the Splendor solis sequence. This shows a peacock, and makes little sense unless it can be seen within the sequence of 22 emblems that constitute the full Splendor solis series.

Woodcut 8 from the Rosarium philosophorum, 1550
This emblem makes no sense at all unless we see what went before and what follows in the emblem sequence. There are 20 emblems in this well known series.

Sixth engraving from Basil Valentine's 'Twelve Keys', from Maier Tripus aureus, 1618.
This is the sixth in a series of twelve emblematic images which illustrate Basil Valentine's Twelve keys. The work must be considered as a whole, and one cannot really understand the individual 'keys' except within the context of the whole sequence.

Many emblems in alchemical books must be seen as part of a sequence rather than as standing entirely alone. This means that their symbolism must be read through the sequence and not merely within the frame of the single emblem. There are, of course, many books and manuscripts containing individual emblems and these can be read from within their own symbols, but when an emblem is part of a complex sequence then it can only be fully appreciated within the context of that sequence.