Friday, October 7, 2011

The Inner Geometry of Alchemical Emblems

Adam McLean has a tantalizing post on the Alchemy Website suggesting that alchemical engravers might have encoded a geometrical message into their emblems. He takes the example of the 'Speculum Sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum' of Theophilus Schweighardt, pointing to the "underlying geometric skeleton structure upon which the symbols are arrayed." He goes on to write,

"The evidence of these drawings certainly convinces me that there is another level to many of the emblematic engravings of this period that has yet been fully considered - the key of their inner geometry"

I have long been fascinated by the interesting geometries that show up in alchemical illustrations. I once made an image mapping the fibonaci spiral onto the Michael Maier "egg test" emblem, which I'll post as soon as I can dig up or duplicate. There is certainly a huge need for studies of these images that take into account the impact of geometrical planning on the visual project. What does this geometrical element do to the alchemical message? It resonates with neopythagorean potential. But I have not found much useful information on this topic, and I would love to hear anybody who's interested in alchemical geometry. I'm thinking as I finish this post that I need to read more Szulakowska.

Here are the images that McLean directs our attention toward

McLean wrote an interesting book on "The Alchemical Mandala" which is another great place to look for alchemical geometries. He certainly demonstrates how they can be used as mandalas, having selected many emblems that resonate perfectly with that sort of geometry.

Here are some of my favorite alchemical illustrations with interesting geometrical properties


  1. This blog entry was an utterly fascinating find, thank you! I wanted to share some findings I made from the images you have provided.

    I found your blog entry while researching some graphics for an art project. I ended up downloading some of the graphics from the Schweighardt book, and I decided that I needed some better line work. I rebuilt the second diagram in Adobe Illustrator. Please bear in mind, I did it quickly and without much precision (not snapping to grids/points, not creating the most absolute scale, ect). My draftsmanship was pretty slapdash.

    However, when I started aligning the circles and triangles on different axes, this was the result:

    I found the alignment in Figure 2 to be most startling. Figure 3 makes another fascinating diagram (and it unfortunately shows my poor draftsmanship).

    The implications (to me) spur my imagination. The hexagram? The seven (or so) spheres aligned central to it? Are the graphics addressing the subconscious? Are alchemical treatise meant to be read until you are "crosseyed"?

    I should attempt to accurately build and align the vectors and shaped to make them equidistant and scaled correctly. But just this cursory attempt was an enlightening task! I am considering tackling the other two as well. Wish me luck!

    If you'd like to see my finished art project, please let me know, and I would be happy to share when it is finished. Thanks again for this wonderful blog post!

  2. Hi Jonathan. Thanks for your kind comment, and your work sounds interesting. By all means link me to more information--and would you be interested in doing a guest post analyzing the geometry of alchemical emblems? I'm especially interested in what's happening with the geometry behind 17th century emblems like Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens. See for example the "egg test"

  3. What's the name of the first figure?

  4. Could anybody explain the meaning of the fourth figure and it's name?

  5. Could anybody explain the meaning of the fourth figure and it's name?