Chapter 87: Art in Alchemy: Visual Communication of Symbols

Alchemical image of the Divine Sophia as a Tree of Learning and source of the Elixir of Life. As such, she was known to alchemists as Sapientia, Lady Wisdom, Lady Nature, Alkimia. The multi-walled enclosure around her may suggest the multi-banded cosmos of the archons. Metaphorically, it represents the alcove of learning, then the exoteric, mesoteric, and esoteric chambers of divine instruction. From many  20th century discoveries of Sassanian  silver vessels that are now placed in various museums, we can identify this goddess as Ardvi Sura Anahita,  from  the pantheon of the  ancient  Iranian religion of Mitra.   She was a mother and fertility goddess, who as the goddess of the water of life, presenting all living beings to drink the life-giving water of the haoma, the Elixir of Life, which flowed  forth from the tree of life. 
According to Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin,, in his La Religion de l'Iran Ancien, Les Anciens Religions Orientales IIIr:"The haoma is not only a plant and a liquor, it is also a god: for him  are sacrifices made, and certain parts of the sacrificial victim were reserved for him. Being a god, one kills him by pressing him. The brahmanas say the same thing of Soma. " 
We can also see the image of Anahita, on the stone relief  at Taq-i Bustan,  giving  the princely  diadem  to King Pirooz I. As well, on the stone relief at Naqsh-i Rustam, where Anahita  presents King Narse  with the Farreh-Izadi, the divine symbol of his sovereign power on the occasion of his investiture.      

The work of art in Alchemy literature, using wide-ranging symbolism, methaphorical concepts, and surreal legends to express the association of chemical and physical concepts with esoteric and mystic ones constitutes a fascinating genre of visual communication design.

At its core exhibiting a very fine balance between metaphysical aspects of life and reality of the chemical processes, which not only invites  viewers to explore spiritual processes, but also suggests , most often fraudulent and sometimes genuine, efforts  to resolve some actual scientific challenges to transmute a base metal into gold or to find a substance that could eradicate death and provide immortality.

any Europeans consider the Persian prophet Zoraster as the "inventor" of both magic and astrology. However, in the Hellenic heritage, Zoaraster was the "prophet and founder of the religion of the Iranian peoples" (e.g. Plutarch Isis and Osiris 46-7, Diogenes Laertius 1.6-9 and Agathias 2.23-5), "the rest was mostly fantasy." He was assumed of belonging to a deeply- ancient past, six or seven millennia BC, and was presented as a sovereign of Bactria, or a cobbler (or a teacher) living on the shores of Babylon. Similar to the ancient Rig Veda that contains hundreds of verses concerning soma, how to press and sieve plants, how to store it and drink it, in order to release its exhilarating and intoxicating effect, Zoroasterin literature is partial to huoma, one of the two trees in the original garden of paradise, a tree with the gift of immortality.

Zoroaster, riding on the back of a fire-breathing salamander,  with three roses in his hand representing body, soul and spirit. 18th century alchemical manuscript - Clavis Artis. Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma, vol. 1.

Deriving from the alchemical practice and its symbolism, underpinned by an extensive literature rooted in  four papyrus rolls of the Asteroskopita (or Apotelesmatika) dealing with astrology or one lost papytus roll of Peri lithon timion (On Virtue of Stones) among other of alleged books of Zoroaster, including his  lost works that appear in many fragments in the works of others, that circulated the Mediterranean world (from the 3rd century BC), he was perceived as the founder the magi and of their magic arts. As well, Zoroaster's patron King Hystaspes and his disciple Ostanes who was described by the 4th century BC Hermodorus (apud Diogenes Laertius Prooemium ) as being a magus in the long line of magi descending from Zoroaster, were considered as practitioner of “magic” – Greek magikos. Pliny the Elder named Zoroaster as the inventor of magic, but that Ostanes was the first writer of it (Natural History 30.2.3, the 1st-century). "This Ostanes," so Pliny reports, was a Persian magus, who had accompanied Xerxes in his invasion of Greece, and who had then introduced magicis the “ the most fraudulent of the arts, ” to that country.

 According to Pliny, Ostanes ‘ introduction of the “monstrous craft” to the Greeks gave those people not only a “lust” ( aviditatem) for magic, but downright “madness” (rabiem ), and many of their philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato traveled abroad to study it and then returned to teach it. (xxx.2.8-10). Pliny also transmits Ostanes’ definition of magic:
“As Ostanes said, there are several different kinds of it: he professes to divine ( divina promittit) from water, globes, air, stars, lamps, basins, and axis, and by many other methods. And besides to converse with ghosts and those in the underworld” (XXX.2.8.-10). 
By the end of 1st century AD Ostanes is cited as an authority on alchemy, necromancy, divination, and on the mystical properties of plants and stones. Both his legend and literary output attributed to him increased with time, and by the 4th century he had become one of the great authorities in alchemy.

The 18th century occultist Francis Barrett wrote of the influence of Zoroaster on the great and noble art of alchemy, in the clearest of terms:
Alchymy, the grand touchstone of natural wisdom, is of divine origin: it was brought down from Heaven by the Angel Uriel. Zoroaster, the first philosopher by fire, made pure gold from all seven metals; he brought the sun ten times brighter from the bed of Saturn, and fixed it with the moon, who thereby copulating, begot numerous offspring of an immortal nature, a pure living spiritual sun, burning in the refulgency of its own divine light, a seed of sublime and fiery nature, a vigorous progenitor. 
This Zoroaster was the father of alchymy, illumined divinely from above; he knew every thing, yet seemed to know nothing; his precepts of art were left in hieroglyphics, yet in such sort that none but the favorites of Heaven ever reaped ben­e­fit thereby. He was the first who engraved the pure Cabala in most pure gold, and when he died, resigned it to his Father who liveth eternally, and yet begot him not: that Father gives it to his sons, who follow the precepts of Wisdom with vigilance, ingenuity, and industry, and with a pure, chaste, and free mind. — Francis Barrett, The Magus, (1801)

From a transcendent aspect of alchemy, the "philosopher's stone", represents the most palpable image for an inner potential of the mind to advance from the limitation of a state of unawareness and naïveté (symbolized by the base metals) to a state of awareness and perfection (symbolized by gold). In this interpretation, mystical development, the transmutation of metals, and the refinement and enlightenment of the soul were understood as the ultimate purpose of a life worth living.

 Alchemists employed an extensive assortment of mysterious substances which are known to modern scientists for their chemical qualities, including cinnabar (mercuric sulphide), spiritus fumans (satanic chloride), saccharum saturni (sugar of Saturn or lead acetate), sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), aqua regia (nitric acid and hydrochloric acid) and aqua fortis (nitric acid). Trying to retain secrecy for various reasons, they worked under the cover of many cryptic and sophisticated procedural protocols, and a system of mysterious symbols as are shown in the following chart.

According to Carl Jung the philosophical tree of the Arab alchemists, producing Elixir, was related to the Haoma tree that grows in the cosmic ocean of the Zoroastrian creation myth.
We may note the curious fact that a lizard is concealed in the tree: “The evil spirit has formed therein, among those which enter as opposites, a lizard as an opponent in that deep water, so that it may injure the Haoma ,” the plant of immortality. In alchemy , the spiritus mercurii that lives in the tree is represented as a serpent, salamander, or Melusina. — Jung, Psychology and Alchemy

Salamander sporting in the flames, from a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library. This fourteenth century illustration from a book of alchemy shows an intoxicated man on Amanita muscaria mushrooms. He holds one mushroom in one hand while dancing with the other hand pushing over his forehead representing his state of ecstasy. Behind him a tree of knowledge can be seen with a spotted mushroom at the top. A salamander or lizard floats upward parallel to the Amanita tree. Next to it another salamander roasts upon the fire in much the same way as the philosopher in the Book of Lambspring roasts a salamander on a fork in a fire. The salamander is an intriguing symbol in alchemy illustrated in many famous alchemical texts including the Book of Lambspring.
The concept of Transmutation of Metals in alchemy stems from the Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) theories, an 8th century Islamic alchemist, born in Tus, Iran. Assuming that every metal was a combination of the Aristotelian four elements each consisting of four properties, two of them interior and two exterior, Geber hypothesized that the transmutation of one metal into another could be effected by the rearrangement of its basic properties. Given that according to the Aristotle theory fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist the transmutation would be mediated by a substance, elixir in Arabic, in the form of a dry powder, made from the "philosopher's stone". The stone was believed to have been composed of a substance called carmot.

The alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, from a 15th century European portrait of Geber,   Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence
Geber's theory and the concept of the philosopher's stone may have been inspired by the knowledge that metals like gold and silver could be hidden in alloys and ores, from which they could be recovered by the appropriate chemical treatment. Geber himself is believed to be the inventor of aqua regia, a mixture of muriatic and nitric acids, which is one of the few substances that can dissolve gold (and is still often used for gold recovery and purification)

This engraving - one of a series of twelve 17th-century pictorial "keys" of the alchemist - contains symbols that refer to stages in the alchemical process. The sun and moon are the male and female elements of alchemy respectively; the two roses, red and white, symbolize the Red King and White Queen. Between them is the symbol of Mercury, the transforming agent of the alchemical process, which is released from the materia prima, transformed and brought to perfection through the alchemist's operations. Fire, an external force in alchemy, is here shown burning in a wooden brazier; alchemical texts often refer to a cool fire, which heats the contents of the alchemist's vessel gently, like a chicken incubating her eggs. The lion and snake are both symbols of raw, unrefined matter.
The Philosopher's Stone, the White Stone by the River, the Sword in the Stone, all refer to a legendary substance, that was supposed to transform base metals into gold. It was sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For a long time, it was the most sought-after goal in Western alchemy. In the view of spiritual alchemy, making the philosopher's stone would bring enlightenment upon the maker and conclude the Great Work. It is also known by several other names, such as 'materia prima.'

Byrhtferth's Diagram, on folio 7v of St. John’s College, Oxford MS 17
This complex diagram entitled De concordia mensium atque elementorum "On the concord of the months and the elements" (also known as the "Diagram of the Physical and Physiological Fours") describes the interrelationship of the Aristotelian four elements of the universe. Byrhtferth, an Anglo-Saxon monk at Ramsey Abbey, studied under Abbo of Fleury during his stay there. 'Byrhtferth's diagram' is an illustration for his treatise on the computation of the date of Easter and other astrological and natural science topics. The contents of the diagram are summarised succinctly by Byrhtferth himself :
Hanc figuram edidit Bryhtferð [sic] monachus Ramesiensis cñnobii de concordia mensium atque elementorum. Retinet haec figura .xii. signa et duo solstitia atque bina equinoctia et bis bina tempora anni; in qua descripta sunt .iiii. nomina elementorum et duodenorum uentorum onomata atque .iiii. ñtates hominum. Sunt insimul coniuncta bis binñ litterñ nominis protoplastis Adñ

Bryhtferth [sic], a monk of the abbey of Ramsey, composed this diagram on the concord of the months and the elements. This figure contains the twelve signs and the two solstices and the two equinoxes and the twice two seasons of the year; and in it are described the four names of the elements and the names of the twelve winds and the four ages of man. At the same time are added the twice two letters of the name of the first man, Adam.

The Mistress of the Inner World- Hieronymus Reussner Pandora Basel - Jehan Perréal ~1582

one of the clearest  symbolical representation of the alchemist's theory is The Mistress of the Inner World- Hieronymus Reussner Pandora manuscript. Like many other alchemical books, there is not much information survived about its author.  We know that it is edited by a physician named, Hieronymus Reusner, and published in Basel in 1582. According to Reusner the book is written by a Franciscan friar with the pseudonym Epimetheus. The book title translates: to Pandora, That Is, the Noblest Gift of God, for it was Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, who accepted Pandora as a gift from Zeus.

The woodcuts in Pandora are drawn from the earliest alchemical manuscript written in German, which was composed between 1414 and 1419, and almost certainly encode an actual sequence of chemical processes. The distilling apparatus the queen stands on links the image to laboratory practice. The picture shows the following stages, (A): The tree comes from the seed of the man and woman. Whereas the seed has wasted in the earth, so that it shoots forth, from it there will be a tree of indescribable fruit, of diverse effects. (B): Sun (gold), (C): Moon (silver), (D): The birds are the seed of the Sun and fly across the mountains of the Moon into the height of heaven and pluck out their feathers and come naked to the mountain again and die there of white death (sublimation and condensation), (E): The birds are the seed of the Moon and fly across the mountains of their father and mother up to the height of heaven, and take up the appearance of the Sun, and by this means they become bright and fall away to the mountains again, and die there of a black death. (F): The distilatory of the Sun, (G): The distilatory of the Moon.

Clavis Artis

Clavis Artis is the title of a manuscript of alchemy published in Germany in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century attributed to Zoroaster (Zarathustra).

The work, in three volumes of medium format, uses a German Gothic cursive font  and is accompanied by numerous illustrations in watercolor, which depict various symbolic images rlated to alchemy. There are also some pen sketches depicting laboratory instruments. Only  few copies of the manuscript are located in various libraries, of which just two are illustrated.

Clavis Artis, attributed to Zoroaster. Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma. the 18th century manuscript on alchemy

Alchemy: Zoroaster Clavis Artis, MS. Verginelli-Rota, Biblioteca dell'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma, 1738

Alchemy: Zoroaster Clavis Artis, MS. Verginelli-Rota, Biblioteca dell'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma, 1738.

The best known copy is the Library of the National Academy of the Lincei in Rome, where it is listed as MS. Verginelli-Rota 15, 16, 17. Another copy is  in Trieste at the Public Library Attilio Hortis, which is cataloged as MS-2-27. A different version, in a single volume and without illustrations, is located at the Bavarian State Library, of Monaco of Bavaria. Unfortunately, another  copy of the manuscript at the Duchess Anna Amalia Bibliothek, in Weimar, was burnt in the 2004 fire that hit the German library.  Sine the second half of the 1980s, after some of the Clavis Artis images appeared in books and  alchemy  websites, they  have become  subject of  various studies by many graphic designers.

Zoroaster Clavis Artis, c. 1738, Ms-2-27, f. 98, Biblioteca Civica Hortis, Trieste.

 Prior to their recent rediscovery, virtually no information about these copies were available and as a result there is a lack of much information  about the author and the origin of the manuscript.  References to the Rosae et Aurea Crucis seem to indicate a connection to Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucians (Orden des Gold- und Rosenkreutz). The first mention of this order may be traced to the early the 18th century, when Samuel Richter in his nomen mysticum Sincerus Renatus  published The True and Complete Preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone of the Brotherhood from the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

It is not yet clear that the Order which operates on lodge system and whose emblem is cross with a single rose in the center, was a product of Richter's imagination or  if there actually existed a historical group. But it is clear that its anti‐papal tone had gradually ceased during the 17th century, and it focused more and more on the laboratory alchemy. It is probable that the text of Clavis Artis  is actually the translation or adaptation of a more ancient manuscript of Islamic origin by an alchemist and Rosicrucian, with the images that are of more recent origin.

DAT ROSA MEL APIBUS "The Rose Gives The Bees Honey", engraved by Johann Theodore De Bry,
From the title page of Robert Fludd's Summum Bonum, published at Frankfurt in 1629, has become well known as a Rosicrucian symbol. It has a seven fold symmetry, seven layers of petals and its stem is formed in the shape of a cross. The engraver, Matthieu Merian, had used a similar grouping of symbols fourteen years earlier in an emblem book.

This exact metaphor of the honey bee as the alchemist and the hive as the alchemical retort seems to have entered the symbolic vocabulary of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through a rediscovered and influential work of the third century Neoplatonist Porphyry, De Antro Nympharum (On the Cave of the Nymphs). In this short essay, Porphyry examined several verses from the thirteenth book of Homer's Odyssey and showed how they were to be interpreted as an allegory of the immortal soul's passage through mortality and on to liberation. The bees and hive are among the objects encountered in this "cave of generation. 

The alchemical King and Queen, Rex and Regina, standing under the dual eternal principals represented by sun and moon, join in the holy wedding, the hierosgamos.  Sol (the sun: the masculine principle) Luna (the moon: the feminine principle) Mercurius (Hermes, Mercury: the chief agent of the process) Lady Alchymia (Anima Mercurii: the spirit of alchemy and its guiding presence and initiator).

The 'secret fire' was the secret of alchemy. It was a fire 'which does not burn'. It was also a a 'water', but one which 'does not wet the hands'. It was the 'treasure hard to attain' which had to be extracted from the 'Prime Matter'; and yet it, itself, was the agent of extraction. Often it was called 'our Mercury' or Mercurius, a personification that indicated the quicksilver which run like water. Mercurius was the essence of alchemy, invisible, unchanging, yet never the same. It was also identified with Hermes Trismegistus , the legendary founder of Hermetic philosophy and author of the Emerald Tablet.

 Woodcut of hermaphrodite from Barthelemy Aneau, Picta Poesis, 1552 
On the top of the image two Pelicans nourishing their young ones with blood from their own breasts, a symbol both of the alchemical stage of 'cibation', or the nourishing of the Philosopher's Stone born of the chemical wedding. 

The Ouroboros– a serpent biting its own tail – is a Greek word meaning 'tail devourer,' and is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. It can be perceived as enveloping itself, where the past (the tail) appears to disappear but really moves into an inner domain or reality, vanishing from view but still existing.

Typically a chemical process begins with an Ourobouros whose ‘poison’ separates the Prime Matter into two primordial principles , ‘our sulphor’ and ‘our mercury’ , male and female, King and Queen, which are rejoined and again separated in the course of many distilatory ‘circulations’. The Raven’s Head appears, signalling the conjunction that is death and putrefaction, a sinking down into the ‘black blacker than black’ of the Nigredo, As the watery ‘body’ of the united King-Queen is further heated, its airy ‘soul’ is seen to ascend to the top of the vessel, or ‘heaven’ whence it condenses and returns as a ‘dew’ to consumate the marriage of the Above and the Below. Months, even years, of circulations might be needed to vleanse and purify ‘our body’ before the sudden iridescence of the Peacock’s Tail heralds the soul’s readiness to raise it up in Whiteness, Luna rising in cold glory out of Sol’s grave.

In alchemy, the king is often a symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone itself, which will undergo transmutation to become the Red King reborn . Hidden within the ailing degenerate king are seeds of the transcendent Red King, the fiery masculine element, symbolic of a mixture of spirit and soul; yet in order to bring them to union he must undergo dissolution and darkness. A new order will grow into the emptiness left by uprooting the old corruption. As the watery ‘body’ of the united King-Queen is further heated, its airy ‘soul’ is seen to ascend to the top of the vessel, or ‘heaven’ whence it condenses and returns as a ‘dew’ to consumate the marriage of the Above and the Below. Months, even years, of circulations might be needed to cleanse and purify ‘our body’ before the sudden iridescence of the Peacock’s Tail heralds the soul’s readiness to raise it up in Whiteness, Luna rising in cold glory out of Sol’s grave.

The famous alchemical work Rosarium Philosophorumfeatures contains 20 woodcut illustrations. The above illustration, “Of Our Mercury which is the Green Lion Devouring the Sun” depicts one of the classic symbols of alchemy. As with most of the striking 'surreal' images it has a bewildering range of possible meanings. The text of the book reads:
“I am the true green and Golden Lion without cares,
In me all the secrets of the Philosophers are hidden.”

In some medieval alchemical texts, gold is certainly consumed by mercury to form an amalgam on which further work is carried out. So if the green lion is a mercury compound then it can surely consume gold. If it is sulphuric acid, it cannot, but what it could do is react with other metals present and form strange compounds. Thus essentially the gold/sun is being dissolved/purified in some powerful solvent/green lion in order to release the seed from which pure gold may be grown. Some alchemical recipes could produce a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acid, and the Compound of Compounds, or at least the late/ post medieval version of it, had a recipe that produced sulphuric and nitric acid mixture and then if Ammonium Chloride was added to give Chlorine ions in solution, it certainly dissolved gold.

In Bibliotheca chemica : a catalogue of the alchemical, chemical and pharmaceutical books published in London in 1906, John Ferguson, a Scottish chemist and bibliographer argued that it is likely that Hermann Fichtuld the founder of the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross was right in believing that the author of Clavis Artis is  Abrahami Eleazaris. However,  he is a fictitious author of an ancient work on alchemy published in Leipsic in 1760, bearing the title "R. Abrahami Eleazaris Uraltes Chymisches Werk." The real author seems to have been Julius Gervasius of Schwarzburg, whose name is given as the editor on the title-page of the first part.Nevertheless, the image of a man in the vestments of a rabbi who is engraved on the cover page of the book of Abraham Eleazar is very similar to that of Zoroaster. There are also some other similarities among the illustrations of the two books.


Clavis Artis, Ms-2-27, Trieste, Biblioteca Hortis, vol. 2, p. 24.

Clavis Artis, attributed to Zoroaster. Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma. the 18th century manuscript on alchemy
Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

Clavis Artis, 18th century

The Clavis Inferni, a ‘grimoire’ or book of spells, 18th century, Germany. The sword and branch refer to God’s twinned powers of destruction and peace. A Latin text below reads “Qui facis mirabilia magna solus finis coronat opus,” roughly “You who alone doeth great wonders: the end shall crown the work.” Books like this flourished throughout the Enlightenment.

Dragon devouring a lizard, from Cyprianus. Ink and watercolour showing a red-winged dragon wearing a gold crown and devouring a lizard. Between the two figures is a snake entwined around a cross with a skull and crossbones at its base. From Cyprianus, 18th century. Cyprianus is also known as the Black Book, and is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenburg, the book from which a witch or sorceror gets his spells.

Alchemy Dragon by George Ripley, 15th century.

Whee! Bavarian State Library, BSB Clm 30150 Konrad Kyeser, Bellifortis. c.1402-1405.

The Tree of Good and Evil Knowledge, from Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians, by J. D. U. Eckhardt, 1788

Alchimie -Hermes from a copy of the Splendor Solis Hermès Trismégiste, le "trois fois grand", symbolise l'Esprit du monde. Il est ici représenté sous un aspect composite, avec un corps humain & une tête en forme d'astre solaire, tenant un caducée dans la main droite, et portant des bottes ailées. Il repose sur une sphère d'où jaillissent quatre colonnes de feu produisant de la fumée.
Alchemy, Le livre de la sainte trinité, ca. 1400

Le livre de la sainte trinité -- The hermaphroditic Christ-stone from the early 15th c. Book of the Holy Trinity [Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit]

Alchemy, Le livre de la sainte trinité, ca. 1400

Alchemical scroll, England, s. XVI

Species: Barocus - Armorial ( 15th century) .

Zoroaster with two demons (Miniature from Pseudo-Aristotle Secretum Secretorum), 1425

Chemical and pharmaceutical processes from an Islamic manuscript in the Freer Gallery in Washington

Chemical and pharmaceutical processes from an Islamic manuscript in the Freer Gallery in Washington
Alchemical symbols in Kitab al-Aqalim by Abu 'l-Qasim al-'Iraqi inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs in British Library in London, MS Add 25724
Symbols in medieval Arabic alchemy inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs: Kitab al-Aqalim by Abu ‘l-Qasim al-‘Iraqi in British Library, MS Add 25724.

Catalogus Stellarum Fixarum, Codex DA 11.13. Persian manuscript illumination of Leviathan or Cetus Illustration from a copy of Al-Sufi's The Book of Fixed Stars. 15th Century.

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