John Read, who was Professor of Chemistry in the University of St Andrews for all of 40 years, from 1923 to 1963, had an avid and serious research interest in the history of chemistry. His legacy to the institution therefore includes fine collections of both printed books and manuscripts on Alchemy which were funded by the University.
In his Through Alchemy to Chemistry (London, 1957; p. 1) Read introduced the concept of alchemy:
“At a very early stage in the evolution of man as an observant and thinking being he must have formed some kind of misty idea respecting the nature of the material world around him. He planted his feet upon the solid earth, waded through the running streams, and breasted the strong winds of his environment. Also he discovered how to produce fire. So he became conscious of earth, air, fire and water, and also of many kinds of matter, or ‘stuff’, with which he came into contact. He discovered many uses to which they could be put, either in their native state or after treating them in various ways. He found that fire… could be brought under control and used with advantage by reason of certain changes that it could bring about in the nature of material things…”
And thus, with instinctive human “insatiable curiosity”, came about theories regarding the composition of the world in which we live, which centred upon the four elements of fire, wind, earth and water. Intermingling scientific analysis of physical evidence with philosophical and religious enquiry into the origins and purpose of things, Alchemy was born. To quote Read again, “alchemy …[was] a system of philosophy which claimed to penetrate the mystery of life as well as the formation of inanimate substances”. (Prelude to Chemistry (London, 1936), p.2).
The modern image of Alchemy as the crackpot imaginings of the ignorant with a desire to make their fortunes by changing lead into gold, is far from the truth. It was a serious study, characterised by laboratory experimentation undertaken by such scientific luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton (some of whose alchemical notes, in his own hand, are held within the Manuscript Collection).
In the introduction to Prelude to Chemistry, Read comments on the intense pictorialism of alchemical writing. Often allegorical, symbolising of substances with animals, and using obvious biblical reference points, to modern eyes the illustrations can appear weird, even offensive. Often colourful, and drawn with extraordinary detail, they also have a subtle beauty and skilled artistry. Images consistently found within alchemical writing are those frequently described as ‘The Figures of Abraham the Jew’, which were drawn by Nicholas Flamel in his Livres des figures hieroglyphiques, examples of which, from several different manuscripts, illustrate this post. There is a discussion of this work, and the illustrations, in Read’s Through Alchemy to Chemistry, pp.47-50.
The illustrations which are the subject of this post come from just four manuscripts within the Read Collection. ms38188 is an 18th century copy in German of the famed tract known as Lapis Philosophorum (The Philosopher’s Stone). It includes both diagrams of equipment and 13 coloured illustrations.
ms38189 is an eighteenth century copy of Livres des figures hieroglyphiques by the famed 14th-century Parisian Nicolas Flamel, into which have been inserted seven full-page coloured drawings on vellum from another source.
ms38190 is a French manuscript of the early 18th century, containing Philosophorum Praeclara Monita (The most renowned maxims of philosophers), an anonymous alchemic tract written in French and Latin. It contains forty eight allegorical illustrations in colour from various earlier works.
And finally, ms38176 is the earliest, a 14th century codex volume simply entitled Alchimiae Tractatus, which consists of alchemical treatises by some pre-eminent alchemists of earlier times, including Albertus Magnus, Morienus, Hermes, and Walter Otyngton. It is clearly a working manuscript – a practitioner’s guide. The illustrations are thus diagrammatic, rather than artistic or symbolic.