Overview Floor - Manuscripts, woodcuts and engravings Room
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The first alchemical emblematic images appeared in manuscripts from about 1400. This was before printing was invented. Printed books first appeared from 1456, but only a small number of titles appeared during the incunable period, that is the infancy of printed books up till 1500. Printing really got going during the 16th century. There were almost no early alchemical books and these only began to appear in the 16th century. The earliest printed illustrations in books were woodcuts. Though copperplate engraving was invented in the 15th century it did not become widely used for printing illustrations in books until the late 16th century, so the earliest period of alchemical emblematic images in books were in the form of woodcuts.

Illustrations in manuscripts
The first alchemical emblematic illustrations appear around 1400. Alchemical manuscripts began to be written from about the 13th century, but these were primarily works of scholasticism and philosophy and did not use illustrations. Among the earliest alchemical manuscripts bearing images is a work ascribed to Constantine of Pisa, his 'book of the secrets of alchemy'. This appears to have been written in Northern Italy around the later part of the 13th century. The text includes descriptions of imagery. The earliest manuscript of this which has survived is dated to 1361 but it does not contain any actual drawings, but the second oldest copy, which is now in Vienna has pictures of these images. This is possibly the earliest example of alchemical imagery. Within a few decades extremely sophisticated alchemical imagery appears.
Here we look at the different types or styles of illustrations in alchemical manuscripts.

Line drawing
Constantine of Pisa
Late 14th century.

Coloured line drawing
Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit
about 1410

Good quality illumination
Aurora consurgens
About 1420-1430

Highest quality illumination

Splendor solis
about 1530
Most of the illustrations in manuscripts are simple line drawings, some very coarsely executed. A person interested in alchemy was not necessarily a good artist! Some of the manuscripts were undoubtedly made for patrons and were of the finest quality, such as those in the Splendor Solis made by a leading artist of the early 16th century.
The important thing to bear in mind is that the images in alchemical manuscripts vary in quality of execution. Some being almost scribbles or rough sketches, while others have work of exquisite quality. To appreciate alchemical emblems one has to appreciate all these types of illustration.

Woodcuts as illustrations in books
Many early printed books were illustrated with woodcuts. The woodblocks could be made the same height as the metal type and thus printed together on the page. There were few early books on alchemy and one of the earliest printed books relevant to alchemy to contain woodcut illustrations was Hieronymous Braunschweig's Liber de arte distillandi (the book of distilling), 1500. Many of these woodcuts were created by copying drawings from earlier manuscripts, for example the Reusner Pandora of 1582 which printed woodcuts of the drawings in the Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit manuscript made 170 years earlier. A very influential early series of emblematic woodcut illustrations is the Rosarium Philosophorum of 1550.

Braunschweig 'Book of Distillation'

Reusner Pandora

Rosarium philosophorum
Woodcuts continued to be used through the 17th century, but eventually printers preferred to use engravings which could incorporate more subtle detail. In a small number of books woodcuts were coloured after printing.

Engravings as illustrations in books
Copperplate engraving was first developed in 1452 by a Florentine goldsmith. The first book to be illustrated with copperplate engravings was De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (Fall of Princes), printed in Bruges in 1476 by Giovanni Boccaccio (not an alchemical work of course). Although, this new graphic technology was available early in the history of printing it took many years for it to become widely used. This was partly due to the fact that engravings had to be printed on a different sort of press to letterpress type. Thus printers had to print the engravings then put these printed sheets through another printing press to add the text. It was not always easy to register the image and the text and there must have been a lot of wastage, so printers only moved to this method of illustrating their books when it became commercially necessary to compete and thus absorb the greater costs. Engravings, with their finer lines than woodcuts could depict scenes in a more naturalistic way. Copperplate engravings began to be used to illustrate alchemy books in the late 16th century and became very popular during the early seventeenth century. Very few engravings were coloured after printing.

Maier, Atalanta fugiens engraving 2

Hierne, Actorum Chymicorum

P.M. von Respurs