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Forum Home > #B - The History of Alchemy > Alchemy: Renaissance and early modern Europe

Reverend Stormy FireDragon
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Renaissance and early modern Europe

During the Renaissance, Hermetic and Platonic foundations were restored to European alchemy. The dawn of medical, pharmaceutical, occult, and entrepreneurial branches of alchemy followed.

In the late 15th century, Marsilo Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum and the works of Plato into Latin. These were previously unavailable to Europeans who for the first time had a full picture of the alchemical theory that Bacon had declared absent. Renaissance Humanism and Renaissance Neoplatonism guided alchemists away from physics to refocus on mankind as the alchemical vessel.

Esoteric systems developed that blended alchemy into a broader occult Hermeticism, fusing it with magic, astrology, and Christian cabala. A key figure in this development was German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), who received his Hermetic education in Italy in the schools of the humanists. In his De Occulta Philosophia, he attempted to merge Kabbalah, Hermetism, and alchemy. He was instrumental in spreading this new blend of Hermeticism outside the borders of Italy.

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541) cast alchemy into a new form, rejecting some of Agrippa's occultism and moving away from chrysopoeia. Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine and wrote, "Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines."

His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man the microcosm and Nature the macrocosm. He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. Paracelsian practical alchemy, especially herbal medicine and plant remedies has since been named spagyrics (a synonym for alchemy from the Greek words meaning to separate and to join together, based on the Latin alchemic maxim: solve et coagula). Iatrochemistry also refers to the pharmaceutical applications of alchemy championed by Paracelsus.

John Dee (13 July 1527 – December, 1608) followed Agrippa's occult tradition. Though better known for angel summoning, divination, and his role as astrologer, cryptographer, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, Dee's alchemical Monas Hieroglyphica, written in 1564 was his most popular and influential work. His writing portrayed alchemy as a sort of terrestrial astronomy in line with the Hermetic axiom As above so below. During the 17th century, a short-lived "supernatural" interpretation of alchemy became popular, including support by fellows of the Royal Society: Robert Boyle and Elias Ashmole. Proponents of the supernatural interpretation of alchemy believed that the philosopher's stone might be used to summon and communicate with angels.

Entrepreneurial opportunities were not uncommon for the alchemists of Renaissance Europe. Alchemists were contracted by the elite for practical purposes related to mining, medical services, and the production of chemicals, medicines, metals, and gemstones. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the late 16th century, famously received and sponsored various alchemists at his court in Prague, including Dee and his associate Edward Kelley. King James IV of Scotland, Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Henry V, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Augustus, Elector of Saxony, Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, and Maurice, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel all contracted alchemists. John's son Arthur Dee worked as a court physician to Michael I of Russia and Charles I of England but also compiled the alchemical book Fasciculus Chemicus.

Though most of these appointments were legitimate, the trend of pseudo-alchemical fraud continued through the Renaissance. Betrüger would use sleight of hand, or claims of secret knowledge to make money or secure patronage. Legitimate mystical and medical alchemists such as Michael Maier and Heinrich Khunrath wrote about fraudulent transmutations, distinguishing themselves from the con artists. False alchemists were sometimes prosecuted for fraud.

The terms "chemia" and "alchemia" were used as synonyms in the early modern period, and the differences between alchemy, chemistry and small-scale assaying and metallurgy were not as neat as in the present day. There were important overlaps between practitioners, and trying to classify them into alchemists, chemists and craftsmen is anachronistic. For example, Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), an alchemist better known for his astronomical and astrological investigations, had a laboratory built at his Uraniborg observatory/research institute. Michael Sendivogius (Michał Sędziwój, 1566–1636), a Polish alchemist, philosopher, medical doctor and pioneer of chemistry wrote mystical works but is also credited with distilling oxygen in a lab sometime around 1600. Sendivogious taught his technique to Cornelius Drebbel who, in 1621, applied this in a submarine. Isaac Newton devoted considerably more of his writing to the study of alchemy (see Isaac Newton's occult studies) than he did to either optics or physics. Other early modern alchemists who were eminent in their other studies include Robert Boyle, and Jan Baptist van Helmont. Their Hermetism complemented rather than precluded their practical achievements in medicine and science.

 

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February 20, 2016 at 2:13 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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