Scholarly Colloquiums and Conferences Report Series

Art and Alchemy and The 3rd Interdisciplinary John Dee-Colloquium
6-9 December 2001, University of Aarhus

Alexandra Lembert (University of Leipzig)
Susanna Akermann (Swedenborg Library, Stockholm)

There is an intrinsic connection between art and alchemy. Both art and alchemy, the latter of which has often been termed the 'Secret' or the 'Hermetic Art', represent specific modes of the human effort to refine nature. More so, alchemy has been using art to transmit its ideas: In alchemical manuscripts and printed publications images and emblems frequently occur. Likewise alchemical allusions might be contained in works of art. The focus of the Aarhus conference on Art and Alchemy was to explore the relationship between the two more deeply. Scholars, mainly art historians, from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Hungary, and Germany engaged in discussions about art and alchemy from different angles.

In his keynote speech James Elkins (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) addressed the relationship between contemporary art and alchemy. His main concern was to work out rules under which alchemical interpretations of works of art are justified. For modern art - which is often devoid of apparent alchemical symbolism - this approach is of special relevance. Elkins proposed to pay more attention to the details and the 'language of painting', which is the best ground for alchemical metaphors; this can produce an exegesis powered by the study of alchemy. György E. Szönyi (University of Szeged, Hungary) approached alchemical imagery from an iconological point of view. He set out to draw an outline of the semiotics of occult discourse. Applying theories of Peirce and Gombrich in his study of emblems from Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens, Szönyi discussed the value of the theories for a semiotic discourse on these emblems. Szönyi further emphasised the need to include Maier's music in any such study. Irene Werner Stage (independent scholar, Denmark) introduced a different model of interpretation for alchemical emblems which has its root in ritual theory.

M.E. Warlick's (University of Denver, Colorado) focus was on the depiction of gender and sex in the emblems of the famous Ripley scrolls. Sex and gender have until recently been only marginally studied in the context of alchemical imagery. An analysis of how its depiction has changed throughout the years, however, would help to clarify the relationship of history and alchemy. The relation between gender, sex and alchemy was also at the centre of the next two talks. Sascha Scott (George Washington University) introduced John Graham's allegorical work on "Leda": a series of drawings. The surrealist Graham, who had a misogynistic attraction to wounds and blood, depicted his cross-eyed wife Linda as Leda with many allusions to gender polarities. Elisabeth K. Menon (Purdue University, Indiana) showed several images from Paris of the 1890's in which prostitutes are depicted as wicked females of subversive nature. In some cases, the portrayals consist of magical or allegorical-alchemical elements which were incorporated into the pictures, in order to enhance the assumed occult nature of these sexually threatening women.

Laurinda Dixon's keynote speech (Syracuse University, New York) concentrated on alchemical allusions in the work of the famous Dutch painter Hieronymos Bosch. Dixon differentiated two levels in Bosch's use of alchemy. On the one hand, Bosch referred to alchemy on a very concrete level which is expressed in his depiction of alchemical apparatuses. On the other hand, Bosch used alchemy allegorically and thus linked Christian concepts with alchemical ideas. For Dixon, Bosch's usage of alchemy is mainly serious and is part of his moral message that he conveyed in his paintings.

Jacob Wamberg (University of Aarhus) concentrated on North Italian landscape paintings of the 14th century in his analysis of alchemical themes. The tendency to depict nature in terms of architecture in these works of art reveals that the discussion of the time about the relationship between art and nature was carried into painting. Further, the specific depiction of nature in the paintings allows an alchemical interpretation. Wamberg insists, however, that the lack of a definite alchemical iconography asks for a careful interpretation of the role of alchemy. In his talk Jonathan Hughes (University of East Anglia, Norwich) emphasised the need for studying alchemical emblems in their historical context. Sally Metzler (Loyola University, Chicago) described the allegorical content of Spranger's paintings for the court of Rudolph II. Aksel Haaning (University of Roskilde, Denmark) reminded the audience of the spiritual roots of Western alchemy in its early period.

The next group of talks centred around the relationship between alchemy, art and the natural sciences. For a long time, the alchemical roots of modern science - especially chemistry - had been neglected. To give one example, it is only recently that Newton's alchemical work has been fully acknowledged. In this respect, Lawrence Principe and Lloyd DeWitt (Philadelphia) brought good news about the rapprochement of chemistry with alchemy. Principe and DeWitt provided an overview of alchemical paintings of the Edelman-Fisher collection at the 'Chemical Heritage Foundation' in Philadelphia. In their talk, changing attitudes towards alchemy and chemistry - as shown in the pictures - were outlined.

Jane Russel Corbett
(Queen's University, Ontario) examined a different perspective on alchemy by looking at 17th
century portraits of alchemists. Laurie Dahlberg
(Bard College, New York) explored the relationship between art, alchemy and science from yet a different angle. Dahlberg noted that references to alchemy appear in the discourse surrounding early American photography circa 1850. Photography was often accused by its critics of being neither a legitimate art nor science. Photography, like alchemy, was seen rather as a bastard of both. 

The relationship between alchemy and science, often controversially discussed by historians of science and cultural historians, has also become a theme in modern art. Lea Rosson DeLong (Iowa) exhibited the productive result of a working relationship between the American artist Vivian Torrence and the scientist and poet Roald Hoffmann. In their work "Chemistry Imagined" they set out to explore the links between alchemy and chemistry. Denise M. Rompilla (St. John's University, New York) focused on the depiction of alchemy in the work of the artist Jess. The artist, who formerly worked as a scientist on the development of the atomic bomb, questions the ability of science to fruitfully engage with nature and reality in his collages. In general, he contrasts the creation myth of alchemy with the creation myth of modern science.

Urszula Szulakowska (University of Leeds) explored the relationship between modern German art and alchemy by looking mainly at the works of Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. Szulakowska introduced the thesis that their artistic treatment of alchemy as well as their idea of the Magus-painter follows the Paracelsian concept of imagination. The effect of alchemy in the work of the American artist Leonora Carrington was discussed by Robert Lima (Pennsylvania State University).

The working artist René Maisner presented a series of photo-collages that she described in terms of the colour stages of the alchemical process. Even though Maisner had never attempted to illustrate the alchemical process, her finished work turned out to show close similarities with it. In the description of her work, the link between alchemy and the artistic imagination revealed. Irene Werner-Stage presented a film on alchemy which she had produced for Danish television.

The influence of alchemy on art is not only to be found in the visual arts but also in literature. James Bulman-May (University of Aarhus) explored the rich use of alchemical metaphors in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. According to Bulman-May, the writer's reference to alchemy is used in his search for new metaphors - an attempt which has become a marker of post-colonial writings.

           In the conclusive discussion Lawrence Principe argued that a Jungian analysis of alchemy is relevant for works of art produced after the publications of Jung's writings on psychology and alchemy in the 1940's and 1950's. After the publication,  many artists came to see parallels between the artistic process and alchemy. For earlier periods, as Principe explained, an interpretation of alchemical works on the ground of the Jungian categories is not useful since alchemical texts often only describe the alchemical process rather than promoting spiritual reflection. Finally, James Elkins proposed that a future conference on alchemy and art should bring in practising alchemists who could carry out their experiments. This would help scholars to decide whether or not they recognise the various stages presented by the emblems of alchemy. The audience expressed their interest in such a conference which would help to bridge the gap between alchemy and art criticism. The Aarhus conference, nevertheless, was a first and very successful step into this direction. It was a much enjoyable and highly stimulating event. Thanks again to Jan Bäcklund and Jacob Wamberg for organising a wonderful conference!


          The Third Interdisciplinary John Dee conference in Aarhus, Denmark, hosted by Jan Bäcklund, opened with a keynote paper by György E. Szönyi (University of Szeged) discussing the influence of Guillaume Postel on Dee in view of the former's interest in Enoch as a figure of transfiguration and metempsychosis. Szönyi pointed out that a fair amount of lore on Enoch was available in 1550's, even though the Coptic Book of Enoch was not available in the West until the 1730's. Enochian magic may have been facilitated by Postel's knowledge of Coptic sources.

        Peter Forshaw (Birkbeck College, London) discussed the images from Kunrath's Amphitheatrum and described how Kunrath depicts the twenty false paths to the philosopher's garden and how only the twenty-first gate decorated with Dee's Monas lead into the garden of delights. Dee's meeting with Kunrath in Bremen in 1597 thus had a strong influence on the latter. For the Art and Alchemy section Forshaw also presented Kunrath's imagery, among them a hand-coloured copy of the Amphitheatrum at the Royal library in Copenhagen. Kunrath's image of a cliff with the text of the Tabula Smaragdina symbolised his interest in Kabbalah and spiritual alchemy, like with his use of  the phrase Ruach Hochmoel, the wisdom of the spirit of the Lord.

      Sophie Page (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge) described Dee's magic in comparison with medieval magic and prayer. Page has found a Polish sixteenth century prayer book of Wladislaw Warnenczyk describing scrying in a crystal. Dee's actions with spirits were not an isolated case. Clucas commented that a conference on religion and magic focusing on similarities between evocations and prayer would be a useful path to proceed.

        Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck College, London) presented the mathematical theory of calculating the curvature of burning mirrors used to focus solar power in a crucible. He discussed Thomas Harriots and Dee's attempts in this vein giving precise descriptions of their calculus. Influenced by the classic description of how burning mirrors could set ships on fire from a distance incited Renaissance mathematicians to find the curvature of mirrors to produce this ultimate weapon. They all believed it possible, but they all failed to produce a functioning copy of it.

       Hilde Norrgén (independent scholar, Norway)  analysed Johannes Pantheus' Voarchadumia contra alchimiam (1530) to which Dee refers in his Monas. Pantheus criticised certain alchemists on the ground that their processes did not lead not to real transmutation. He did single out another path concerned with specifiable chemical properties. It was agreed that further close readings of texts surrounding Dee would be valuable. Norrgrén argued that Pantheus used a corpusclar model of matter and it was suggested by Lawrence Principe that this might be the minima assumed in the tradition of Geber.

        Susanna Åkerman (Swedenborg Library, Stockholm) discussed an interpretation given in the Bureau d'adresse meetings arranged by the Paracelsian Theophraste Renaudot in Paris 1639. The meeting in Paris was championed by a commentator who argued that the Rosicrucian mark FRC should not be interpreted as Fratres Roseae Crucis, but rather as Fratres Roris Cocti or brothers of boiled dew. The Parisian also alluded to the blessing of Isaac over Jacob: De rore caeli et pinguedine terrae det tibi Deus "God give thee of the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth," found on the frontispiece of Dee's Monas. Dew can be reduced to saltpetre as used in the process and that in the next step with vitriol crystallises as a  green rose. Seventeenth century claims are that the hieroglyph of the Rosicrucians is sal nitre thus alluding to Michael Sendivogius process in Novum Lumen Chemicum (1604).

      Håkan Håkansson (Lund University, Sweden) argued that there is a need for Dee scholars to handle Dee's syncretistic tendencies and not try to simply place him in Hermetic, Neo-Platonic or Pythagorean-Kabbalistic traditions and believe that he is fully explained. Rather we should work on his texts in the context of his own readings that range widely over different traditions.

         The paper presented by Alexandra Lembert (Leipzig University, Germany) focused on the magus John Dee from yet a different angle. In her discussion of Peter Ackroyd's novel The House of Doctor Dee, she argued that the character of John Dee is depicted with strong Faustian features. Like Faust, Dee is possessed with the desire for ever greater knowledge and power, which culminates in the novel in Dee's attempt to create an homunculus. An analysis of Dee's homunculus project reveals the far-reaching consequences of the magus's dream for the future.

           Nicholas Clulee (Frostburg State University, Maryland) closed the conference by informing us of his project of launching a complete scholarly edition of John Dee's written work. A publication on the Internet would be possible at a not so high cost, but it would be preferable that a publisher took on the project which would produce a canonical edition. Clulee is approaching the National Endowment for the Humanities. Comparisons are near at hand with the ongoing projects of publishing the Boyle papers and also  the Newton alchemical and theological papers. Is it not possible to present Dee as a quintessential Renaissance man and thereby gain support for a Dee edition from foundations in the humanities?