Beginner's guide
Alchemical imagery and symbolism
I am continually asked by people who have recently discovered alchemy to give them some advice on how to get started. Regrettably, I do not really have the spare time to give people more than a cursory account of how they should proceed, so I have decided to place some information onto some web pages.
Back to beginners guide index page

Alchemical books and manuscripts are often illustrated with emblematic imagery. It is possible to study this iconography as a thing in itself, though one must never lose sight of its original context in the book or manuscript. Indeed, often the imagery and text are closely interwoven so that one cannot understand the one without the other.

Alchemical emblematic drawings began to appear in manuscripts from the closing decades of the 14th century and the early 15th century. It quickly became a coherent iconography and by the beginning of the 16th century many complex series of images had been created, the Aurora consurgens, the Donum Dei, Ripley Scroll and so on. With the growth of printing, alchemical books were illustrated with woodcuts and copperplate engravings. Over the next centuries, more than 1000 books were issued with alchemical illustrations, many containing multiple images, so there are thousands of such woodcuts and engravings in existence. The manuscript tradition continued to the end of the 18th century so there are thousands more drawings and paintings in manuscripts.

It has become fashionable (in the wake of the Da Vinci code) to see alchemical imagery in well known artworks. This is almost always a projection of the modern mind. In order to study and investigate alchemical imagery, one need look no further than the alchemical books and manuscripts.

This website provides masses of such imagery, as this is one of my primary interests. I have created study courses on alchemical symbolism and I also provide coloured images as prints and on a series of CD-Roms.

Alchemical imagery initially draws on earlier illuminated manuscripts, and during the rise of printing the imagery to a great extent is linked with the emblematic tradition and also with the formulaic emblem books. To fully grasp the significance of alchemical iconography, we must study other parallel emblematic forms.

This website is a good place to start. One must take care when investigating alchemical imagery to keep it in its correct context. For example, Carl Jung's Psychology and alchemy, though a good source for alchemical images, often mischievously reinterprets emblems as alchemical. Fabricius' Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and Their Royal Art is a sad attempt to locate alchemical imagery within Freudian psychology, and Roob's The Hermetic Museum has a mass of images totally decontextualised and crushed together under his self devised headings. So it is wise to view modern books on alchemical imagery with suspicion, as many of the authors seem merely to be using this to decorate their own agenda. To truly understand the iconography one must get back to the original images and try to place them in their proper context and historical succession.