The Inner Geometry of Alchemical Emblems

Adam McLean

From the Hermetic Journal, Winter 1983.

Over the past five years of the Hermetic Journal, I have often illustrated in the Alchemical Mandala feature and other articles the profound symbolism wrapped up in the old sixteenth and seventeenth century emblematic engravings of alchemists and Rosicrucians. I have sometimes indicated how certain of these diagrams can be seen to have an underlying geometric skeleton structure upon which the symbols are arrayed. However, I never analysed this aspect in great depth and merely pointed out some simple geometric features. Patricia Villiers-Stuart in her publications has often brought to my attention the complex geometry that lies beneath such emblems, but I had not considered that this aspect was of paramount importance, until I recently requested from the British Library a microfilm of an important Rosicrucian book in their collection, the 'Speculum Sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum' of Theophilus Schweighardt, published in 1618. Although a printed book this particular copy contains a number of manuscript additions made in the 18th century bound into the volume. Some of these manuscript additions analyse in great detail, the geometry underlying two emblems contained in this collection.. The first figure shows the emblem (contained incidentally in the 'Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians', the Geheime figuren, Altona 1785, and found in other Rosicrucian sources), and the second, third and fourth illustrations show an ascending series of intricate geometrical analyses of the emblem. 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. The engravers of that period, de Bry, Matthieu Merian, Lucas Jennis, may well have worked a complex geometric message as well as a symbolic one into their beautifully executed engravings. I consider that this discovery is of great importance and hope that some of my correspondents might have the inclination to follow up in detail this aspect with regard to other engravings. There may be a whole layer of meaning that we are at present unaware of woven into these ancient emblems.