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Alchemy in art and entertainment

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Alchemy in art and entertainment

"David Garrick as Abel Drugger in Jonson's The Alchemist" by Johann Zoffany.

Alchemy has had a long standing relationship with art, seen both in alchemical texts and in mainstream entertainment. Literary alchemy appears throughout the history of English literature from Shakespeare to modern Fantasy authors. Here, characters or plot structure follow an alchemical magnum opus. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer began a trend of alchemical satire that can still be seen in recent fantasy works like those of Terry Pratchett.

Visual artists had a similar relationship with alchemy. While some of them used alchemy as a source of satire, others worked with the alchemists themselves or integrated alchemical thought or symbols in their work. Music was also present in the works of alchemists and continues to influence popular performers. In the last hundred years, alchemists have been portrayed in a magical and spagyric role in fantasy fiction, film, television, comics and video games.

Visual art

Alchemical engraving published by Lucas Jennis in Michael Maier's Tripus aureus (1618)

Jan Bäcklund and Jacob Wamberg categorize alchemical art into the following four groups:

  1. images made within the alchemical culture proper;
  2. genre images which portray alchemists and their environment;
  3. religious, mythological or genre images which appropriate alchemical ideas or motifs as a kind of Panofskian ‘disguised symbolism’; and
  4. images which show structural affinities with alchemy without iconographically alluding to it.[1]

Within the first group are the illuminations and emblems found within the alchemical texts themselves. Illustrations appeared in early works such as the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra but were largely absent in medieval works until the mid-thirteenth century. In the early fifteenth century, significant pictorial elements began to appear in alchemical works such as the Ripley Scroll and the Mutus Liber.[2] This trend developed further in sixteenth century emblems. Inspired by the work of Horapollo, this allegorical art form was adopted by alchemists and used in the engravings of Matthäus Merian, Lucas Jennis, Johann Theodor de Bry, Aegidius Sadeler, and others.[3]

The trend of depicting alchemists in genre works began with Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), and was continued in the work of Jan Steen (1626-1679) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690).

Alchemy has also played a role in the evolution of paint. Alchemists and pigment manufacture intersect as early as the Leyden papyrus X and Stockholm papyrus, and as late as Robert Boyle's Origin of Formes and Qualities (1666). The pigment recipes of artists such as Cennino Cennini and Theophilus have been influenced by both the practical and theoretical aspects of alchemy, and contained some allegorical and magical elements.[4]

Modern art and exhibition

Some contemporary artists use alchemy as inspiring subject matter, or use alchemical symbols in their work. While alchemy is marginal to current visual art, alchemical thinking remains central. Some lesser known artists such as Brett Whiteley, Krzysztof Gliszczynski, and Thérèse Oulton openly use alchemical symbols. On the other hand, alchemical influences in the work of renowned artists such as Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí may be more superficial, and not the primary importance of the work. It is more the idea of alchemy, than alchemy itself, that has influenced these artists.[5] Other examples of alchemy in modern art include:

Novels and plays

Alchemist Faust, depicted in novels, plays, and operas.

Like alchemy in visual art, the intersection of alchemy and literature can be broken down into four categories:

  1. The alchemical texts themselves;
  2. Satirical attacks on alchemists;
  3. Stories that incorporate alchemical iconography; and
  4. Works that are structurally alchemical, known as literary alchemy.

In the first category are the writings of alchemists. Beginning with Zosimos of Panopolis (AD 300)[7] and extending through the history of alchemy, texts appear in the alchemical corpus that are more allegorical than technical. A much later example of this can be found in The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616).

In the second category are critiques of alchemical charlatanism. Starting in the fourteenth century, some writers lampooned alchemists and used them as the butt of satirical attacks. Some early and well-known examples are:

A number of 19th-century works incorporated alchemy, including:

In twentieth and twenty-first century examples, alchemists are generally presented in a more romantic or mystic light, and often little distinction is made between alchemy, magic, and witchcraft. Alchemy has become a common theme in fantasy fiction.

Literary alchemy

Literary alchemy goes beyond the portrayal of alchemy and alchemists in literature. Works in this category may or may not mention alchemy, but are structured alchemically. This trend has been noted in novels and poems like those of William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Émile Zola, Jules Verne, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Gustav Meyrink, Lindsay Clarke, Marguerite Yourcenar, Umberto Eco, Michel Butor, Amanda Quick, Gabriel García Marquez and Maria Szepes.[9] John Granger, who studies the literary alchemy in J. K. Rowling’s, Harry Potter series explains:

If you recall your Aristotle on what happens in a proper tragedy, the audience identifies with the hero in his agony and shares in his passion. This identification and shared passion is effectively the same as the experience of the event; the audience experiences katharsis or “purification” in correspondence with the actors. Shakespeare and Jonson, among others, used alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of the theater in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the work of alchemy in that same transformation. The alchemical work was claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience in the theater, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations was the same in both.[10]

In an early example, Sir Thomas Malory uses alchemy as a motif that underlies the personal, psychological, and aesthetic development of Sir Gareth of Orkney in Le Morte d'Arthur.[11] Sir Gareth's quest parallels the process of alchemy in that he first undergoes the nigredo phase by defeating the black knight and wearing his armor. After this, Gareth defeats knights representing the four elements, thereby subsuming their power. In fighting and defeating the Red Knight (the overall purpose of his quest), he undergoes and passes the rubedo phase. Gareth, toward the end of his quest, accepts a ring from his paramour, Lyoness, which transforms his armor into multicolors. This alludes to the panchromatic philosopher's stone, and while he is in multicolored armor, he is unbeatable.

The Tempest is the most alchemically influenced of all William Shakespeare's work, steeped as it is in alchemical imagery (dying Kings and sons, Ariel as the spirit Mercurius etc.) with Prospero as the archetypal Magus. The main character in the play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), by Ann-Marie MacDonald, succeeds in determining the alchemy behind Shakespeare's Othello. Literary alchemy continues to be popular in novels such as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988).


Some Renaissance alchemists expressed their ideas through music. A similar trend continues today as some musicians express themselves using alchemy.

Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae contains illustrations of musical instruments alongside the text, "Sacred music disperses sadness and malignant spirits", suggesting that music may have played a role in alchemical practice. The strongest example of music within alchemy can be found in the seventeenth century work of Michael Maier. His Atalanta Fugiens included fifty fugues. The fugues were arranged in three voices symbolizing the philosopher’s stone, the pursuing adept, and obstacles in his way.[12] These have also been interpreted as corresponding to the alchemical tria prima. The text of Maier’s Cantilenae Intelectuales de Phoenice Redivivo is organized similarly, in three musical voices. Maier writes:

All things in this Universe, all forms, heavenly or earthly, being created in NUMBER, WEIGHT, & MEASURE, there is, between them, an exact and marvellous proportion of parts, strengths, qualities, quantities and effects, such that, together they seem to resemble an extraordinarily harmonious Music, and there is between spiritual beings, amongst which is to be numbered the Mind, or intellect in man, a similar musical concord. [...] ‘Tis the same too for the hidden subject of the Hermetic Philosophers: a sort of philosophical micro-world, naturally divided into three ordered parts, bass, tenor and soprano, just as the hammers heard by Pythagoras in the smithy played a pleasant harmony by reason of their various and proportional weights.[13]

Alchemy continues to influence musicians. In more recent times, concept albums have been created around alchemical motifs. Alchemy can be incorporated into song or album structure, cover art, and lyrics. Some examples include:

Film, television, and webisode

Literary alchemy has been extended to film and television. The alchemical quest is plainly visible to the audience in movies such as The Holy Mountain (1973).[14] The Vanishing (1988) is a less conspicuous example. Based on The Golden Egg, this film features direct alchemical devices such as the appearance of the Mutus Liber. More significantly, the plot can be seen alchemically, as the villain completes a twisted interpretation of the alchemical great work. In the American remake of The Vanishing(1993), the alchemical elements were stripped.[15]

Alchemical influence may also be seen in film adaptations of myths and legends. Evidence of an alchemical interpretation of Jason and the Golden Fleece can be found as early as the writings of John of Antioch (seventh century).[16] The alchemical ties to this (and other) myths continued through to Renaissance alchemists, notably in the fifteenth century alchemical book Aureum vellus (Golden Fleece) attributed to Solomon Trismosin. Newer incarnations of these stories like Jason and the Argonauts (1963 film) have the capacity to carry forward alchemical allegory on film. Movies like the Harry Potter film series, serve the same function for more recent fiction. Like other twentieth century forms of entertainment, movies and shows featuring alchemy often include elements of magic and fantasy. Sometimes this extends to magic realism as is in Parash Pathar (1958). This same sort of portrayal can be found in science fantasy movies like 9 (2009), or in fantasy films like The Dark Crystal (1982).

Experimental film

  • The experimental filmmaker James Whitney planned a series of four alchemical films in the mid-1970s. Of these only one was made, called Dwija (1976),[17] described by William Wees as "an alchemical vessel dissolving and materialising again and again within a pulsating stream of coloured light."[18]
  • Jordan Belson[17] and Harry Everett Smith[19] also referenced alchemical ideas and imagery in their experimental films.
  • The German experimental filmmaker Jürgen Reble has referenced alchemical processes in his physical and chemical manipulation of the filmstrip, describing one particular work, Alchemy, as bridging the gap between the "processing and fixing" of the film.[20]
  • In 2010 the moving image artist Richard Ashrowan created a video installation, Alchemist, which used texts by the twelfth century alchemist Michael Scot and included performances related to alchemical themes.

Comics and cartoons

Alchemy and alchemical concepts appear in comics and cartoons, as well as Japanese manga and anime in a fashion consistent with twentieth century fantasy fiction. A few examples that feature alchemy heavily are:

Video games

Alchemy is an element in numerous fantasy genre games. Characters can be portrayed or played as alchemists. Transmutation, spagyric potion making, homunculi, and alchemically created items may be incorporated into the gameplay. Games which include alchemical concepts include:


  1. ^ Jacob Wamberg. Art & Alchemy Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. p.13
  2. ^ Barbara Obrist. Visualization in Medieval Alchemy HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 9, No.2 (2003), pp. 131-170
  3. ^ Stanislas Klossowski de Rola. ‘’The Golden Game. Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century.’‘ Thames and Hudson. 1988. p.13-15.
  4. ^ Philip Ball. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color. University of Chicago Press, 2003. p.80-82
  5. ^ James Elkins. “Four Ways of Measuring the Distance Between Alchemy and Contemporary Art” HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 9, No.1 (2003), pp. 105-118.
  6. ^ See M.E. Warlick. Max Ernst and Alchemy
  7. ^ Clare Goodrick-Clarke. Alchemical Medicine for the 21st Century: Spagyrics for Detox, Healing, and Longevity. 2010. p.16
  8. ^ see Alice Raphael: Goethe and the Philosopher's Stone, symbolical patterns in 'The Parable' and the second part of 'Faust', London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.
  9. ^ David Meakin. Hermetic Fictions: Alchemy and Irony in the Novel. Keele University Press, 1995.
  10. ^ John Granger (25 November 2001). "Touchstone Archives: The Alchemist’s Tale". Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Bonnie Wheeler, ‘“The Prowess of Hands”: The Psychology of Alchemy in Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth,”’ in Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend, ed. Martin B. Shichtman and James P. Carley (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 180–95.
  12. ^ John Read. From Alchemy to Chemistry. Courier Dover Publications, 1957. p.72-73.
  13. ^ Mike Dickman. Intellectual Cantilenae in Nine Triads upon the Resurrection of the Phoenix by Michael Maier. p.35-36. Glasgow. 1992. ASIN: B001ACAK7U
  14. ^ Cobb, Ben (August 17, 2007). Anarchy and alchemy: the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Creation Books. p. 125.  
  15. ^ Karen Pinkus. Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence. Stanford University Press, 2009. p.66-68
  16. ^ Maurice P. Crosland. Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry. Courier Dover Publications, 2004. p.8
  17. ^ a b Moritz, William. "Non-Objective Film: The Second Generation", 1979
  18. ^ Wees, William. "Light Moving in Time". University of California Press, 1992
  19. ^ Sexton, Jamie. "Alchemical Transformations: The Abstract Films of Harry Smith". Senses of Cinema, 2005
  20. ^ Reble, Jurgen. "Chemistry and the Alchemy of Colour". Millennium Film Journal, 1997
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