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The Crowning of Nature - Introduction

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by Adam McLean

The impulse that led to my publishing this book began in the early 1970's, when I first noticed some enigmatic illustrations in John Read's Prelude to Chemistry. Some years later, when I saw a fuller set of these illustrations in Stanislas Klossowski de Rola's The Secret Art of Alchemy, I knew that here lay one of the most profound works of Alchemical symbolism.

The de Rola book reproduced part of the manuscript version of the Crowning of Nature, in the collection of the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, however it was not identified under this title. I worked with this version of the series for some time, and although I found great difficulty in comprehending it in its totality, I still felt strongly that here lay a most important alchemical item.

Inspired by the de Rola, I consulted again the Read book and identified the source of his illustrations. These turned out to be taken from Johann Conrad Barchusen's Elementa Chemicae, a late alchemical work of 1718, in which there is included a series of 78 engravings based on the Crowning of Nature manuscript. Contemplation of these illustrations gave new insights into the symbolism, though I was later to find that there were several defects in the symbolism in the engravings. These engravings, however, made such an impression upon me that I chose to use one of them for the cover symbol of the early issues the Hermetic Journal magazine, as I felt it encapsulated in symbolic form the essence of the alchemical process.

Next an amazing and most significant event occurred. While looking through the catalogue of the Ferguson Collection of alchemical manuscripts, I was intrigued by a mention of a particular manuscript containing 67 enigmatical figures, and some others mentioning hieroglyphic figures. There were no definite titles or other indications that might link the manuscripts together in any way, but I decided to investigate. Imagine my surprise when the four manuscripts the librarian placed before me turned out to be independent original copies of the series of symbols I had been seeking for so long. As I turned the pages of the manuscripts, and revealed each illustration in colour, I was profoundly moved. There lay before me the most amazing find, and I realised immediately that the minor imperfections and errors of copying inevitable in each manuscript could be resolved by comparing them directly with each other. The Ferguson Collection had given me the possibility of producing a complete and authoritative version of the work, and in that moment I knew that the task lay before me of publishing this work.

Two of the manuscripts (MSS. Ferguson 245 and 253) had Latin text associated with the illustrations, and as I set about the slow work of transliterating and translating this into English, the first thing to emerge was the true title of the series "The Crowning of Nature". Up until then I had called the work "the Barchusen series", or following de Rola the "de summa manuscript". It is also called in some versions the "Opus Angelorum".

During a further visit to the Ferguson Collection for the purpose of working upon the translation, ther unexpectedly turned up, under another entitlement altogether, a small manuscript in English (Ms. Ferguson 155) which on inspection proved to be a translation of the Latin text. Now the whole work was complete.

There were, however, still other finds to be made. The catalogue of the Sloane manuscripts in the British Library revealed a manuscript in English with the title of "The Crowning of Nature" (Ms. Sloane 12). I immediately requested a microfilm copy of this manuscript, and was most gratified to find that Ms. Ferguson 155 and Ms. Sloane 12 proved to be exact copies. There were minor omissions and errors of copying which seemed to indicate that Ms. Ferguson 155 was copied from the Sloane manuscript. At the same time I was also able to trace other manuscript versions, though I was not able to consult directly all these versions.

As not every version of the manuscript has the text, and from internal evidence it is obvious that the text does not discuss many facets of the symbolism unfolded in the figures, I believe we should see the text as a commentary on a work which primarily communicates through its symbolism. Indeed the text may not even be contemporary with the figures, and in any case is almost entirely derived from the Rosarium Philosophorum which it quotes extensively.

Through inwardly working with this series, contemplating its mystery, and meditating upon the complex structure of its symbolic figures, various patterns began to emerge out of a process of analysis and synthesis, a breaking down of the series into smaller units and building them up into a wholeness, and in this, I believe, lies the key to the Crowning of Nature, rather than in the text. It is this approach that I have taken in the commentary I have provided, which I present here as merely one interpretation of the symbolism, but perhaps one which can act as a foundation upon which others can create and build further interpretations of this multifaceted work.

The History of the Crowning of Nature

The various manuscripts of the Crowning of Nature, belong mostly to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries (MS. Ferguson 245 has a note on the flyleaf "Franciscus Stewart in the 17th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth").

The text itself quotes extensively from the Rosarium Philosophorum, one of the most important works of sixteenth century Alchemy. I believe we must begin to see the Crowning of Nature series as one of the formative works of the transition between the purely physical aspect of Alchemy, which had been quite well revealed in sixteenth century publications, and the inner soul aspect of the subject, which remained more esoteric and hidden from public view until the early seventeenth century, when writings of a more completely spiritual orientation appeared. The Crowning of Nature is grounded in both these realms of alchemy, first appearing towards the close of the sixteenth century, at a time when physical alchemy was approaching the summit of its achievement, it was the forerunner of the more spiritual and soul alchemical works of the Rosicrucian period in the early seventeenth century, as found in Michael Maier, Mylius, Fludd, Thomas Vaughan, etc. In this sense it also has a definite spiritual connection with the Rosarium Philosophorum, although this takes a different perspective on the Great Work, one which is difficult to directly parallel with the Crowning, nevertheless, both of these works have behind them the same impulse, that is, to reveal the spiritual and soul development aspects that complement the physical work of alchemy.

The Crowning describes in such close detail the alchemical process, that it seems likely that within it are hidden enough clues, to make it one day possible to rediscover this in physical terms. Then one could realise the physical process in parallel with the work of soul development, and perhaps in this lies much that is the key to alchemy.

The Crowning of Nature would have been the text book of a particular alchemical school, and the pupils of the particular master or group of masters would have been set the task of copying this work as part of their spiritual discipline. Indeed, in MS. Ferguson 8, the outlines of each of the figures have been pricked through with a pin, and obviously this was done to facilitate copying the images.

Some of the manuscripts are reputed to be as late as the eighteenth century, which indicates that the work had kept its reputation for a number of generations of alchemists. Indeed, in the latter part of the eighteenth century the sale of a copy seems to have raised some considerable interest and a high price. This sale took place in 1797, and MS. Ferguson 245 includes a cutting of the original advertisement appearing in the Morning Herald of November 24th, 1797.

"A valuable original Manuscript containing Sixty Seven Hieroglyphic paintings showing the Separation and Conjunction of the Elements, like the diversified colours in the approach to perfection of the Grand Philosophical Arcanum. To be disposed of for 200 Guineas, pecuniary embarrassment rendering it indispensible to the present possessor, who, with the deepest concern, is thus necessitated to expose to public view that which for ages has been kept secret. Yet to prevent as much as possible the intrusion of idle curiosity, half a Guinea will be demanded before the manuscript will be shown. Please to enquire at No 25 King Street, Gloucester Place, Portman Square."