Alchemy (page 2)
From the skills of Egyptian artisans, Eastern mysticism, and the Aristotelian theory of composition of matter, alchemical science blossomed up. Aristotle advocated that all matter was composed of four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. According to his theory, different materials found in nature had different ratios of these four elements. Therefore, by appropriate treatment, a base metal could be altered into gold.
These ideas were further strengthened by astrological speculations from Mesopotamia. Astrologers believed that celestial bodies the Sun, the Moon, and the stars had a profound influence on the activities of men. Thus, for alchemists to transmute metals efficiently and effectively, the heavenly bodies had to be in an auspicious configuration.
In the 8th and 9th centuries alchemical lore from China, Greece and Alexandria came into the Arab world. Their alchemists changed the Aristotelian concept of four elements by postulating that all metals were composed of two immediate components: sulfur and mercury. They additionally embraced the Chinese alchemists' concept of the Philosopher's Stone a medicine that could transform a 'sick' (base) metal into gold and additionally perform as an Elixir of Life.
Arab alchemical treatises, such as those by Persian physicians al-Razi and Avicenna, became very popular during the Middle Ages. With the fall of the Roman empire, Greek philosophy and science declined in Western Europe. Nonetheless, close contact with Arabs in Spain and Sicily in the 11th and 12th centuries, resulted in renewed interest in Arabic philosophers, physicians, and scientists.
In this painting, The Discovery of Phosphorus (Derby Art Gallery), the dazzled alchemist kneels awestruck before the luminous spectacle of phosphorus within his receiver.
As a consequence, Greek manuscripts were translated indirectly through Syriac and Arabic into Latin and European languages. Treatises of such scholars as Arnold of Villanova, Roger Bacon, and Albertus Magnus, were included with alchemical explanations of the nature of matter. These treatises contained not purely mystical theory, but also important practical recipes. Arnold of Villanova described distillation of wine; Roger Bacon gave a formula for gunpowder and instructions for constructing a telescope.
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The alchemist became a familiar figure on the European scene, and kings and nobles habitually endorsed them in the hope of increasing their assets. Often, however, alchemists who failed in their attempts to produce the promised riches lost their lives. In time, alchemy fell into disrepute because of the nefarious character of its practitioners. It is said that Frederick of Wurzburg maintained special gallows, gold painted, for hanging failed or dishonest alchemists. The inscription on a gibbet where an alchemist was once hanged read:
"Once I knew how to fix mercury, and now I am fixed myself."
Marco Bragadino, another unfortunate would-be puffer, was hanged by the Elector of Bavaria; William de Krohnemann was dangled by the Margrave of Bayreuth, and David Benther killed himself before he could be executed by Elector Augustus of Saxony. Marie Ziglerin, one of the few female alchemists, end up burned at the stake by Duke Julius of Brunswick.
The typical alchemist's laboratory was a dark, cluttered place that stank of smoke and mysterious chemicals. In order to save money and avoid outside interference, many alchemists worked at home. Some settled in the kitchen, to take advantage of the cooking fire. Others chose the attic or cellar, where late-night activity was less likely to be noticed by nosy neighbors.
These small, makeshift laboratories were frequently packed with a mucky mess of instruments, manuscripts, skulls, animal specimens, and an assortment of mystical objects. Most alchemists also made room for an altar an aid they considered essential to the spiritual aspects of their pursuit.
In these surroundings that owed more to mysticism than to science, adepts searching for the philosophers' stone inadvertently laid much of the ground work for the later discipline of applied chemistry. Alchemists were the first to isolate a number of chemicals, from phosphorus to hydrochloric acid, and they also developed new equipment and methods for distilling fluids, analyzing metals, and controlling chemical reactions. Some of their devices and techniques are still used at the present day.
"A perfect Master ye may call him true, that knoweth his Heates both high and lowe," wrote Thomas Norton, a 15th century British alchemist. Heat was the essential requirement of nearly every alchemical process, from distilling dew to smelting lead. To reach and sustain just the right temperature, alchemists experimented with a number of furnaces, water baths, and other heating apparatus. Some self-regulating furnaces could stay hot without tending by the use of ingenious draft systems, but these were rare. Given an typical alchemist's limited funds, furnaces could be as crude as a household fire vigorously tended, as shown in Adriaen van Ostade's Alchemist, painted in 1667 (above right).
From the 15th to the 17th century, alchemical symbolism and allegory became increasingly complicated. Practical alchemists turned from attempting to make gold toward preparing medicinal formulas. A leader in this movement was Philipus Aureolus Paracelsus, the first in Europe to mention zinc and to use the word alcohol to refer to the spirit of wine. After the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, alchemy became marginalized and interest in transmutation became limited to astrologers and numerologists. Nonetheless, the chemical facts that had been accumulated by alchemists as a by-product of their search for gold became the foundation for modern chemistry. In the West, interest in the spiritual dimension of alchemy was reawakened in the mid-20th century through the works of the psychiatrist Carl C. Jung on gnostic and alchemical spiritualism.
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But the Renaissance was undoubtedly alchemy's golden age. The surge of rebirth and renewal washing over Europe brought remarkable innovations to all the arts and sciences. With the Protestant Reformation that began early in the 16th century, religion as well experienced mighty changes. Alchemy part science, part art, part religion moved swiftly on the growth of innovation, particularly as it applied to the everlasting human quest for gold.
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