Medaille auf die Transmutation

Medal with alchemical and mystical symbolism (Medaille auf die Transmutation, Bezeichnung des Objektes im Germanischen Nationalmuseum), o.J., 16./17. Jahrhundert, Gold geprägt, Sammlung Münzen-Medaillen im Germanischen Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, Inv. Nr. Med5830

Alchemical medals represented together with alchemical coins a category of artifacts that were to be made of precious metals obtained by the alleged transmutation of base metals, often to commemorate this supposed success. They mostly used alchemical symbolism, but in some cases, they also bore an inscription referring to the alleged transformation of metals. However, more types of objects were included among the alchemical medals and coins. Vladimír Karpenko divided them into four categories: I. Coins and medals made from a precious metal allegedly produced by the alchemical transmutation of base metals. II. Coins and medals that were not made from alchemical metal, but have been regarded as alchemical due to a misunderstanding of the symbols minted on them, or based on legend. III. Coins and medals made from various metals, mostly non-precious, that were used as amulets or talismans. IV. Copies of alleged alchemical coins and medals made from non-precious metals.[1]Karpenko 2001, p. 55; Karpenko 2007, p. 125.

The described medal falls into the second category. Its inscriptions and symbolism relate to the goal of alchemy, i.e., the Philosophers’ Stone as a transmutation agent and universal medicine. The inscriptions do not refer to successful transmutation, but to a reminder of the importance of divine favor for the successful outcome of laboratory work, i.e., for the „magisterium.“[2]Abraham 1998, p. 121.

The production of alchemical medals was popular in the 17th and first half of the 18th century, which was related to the fact that this period was characterized by reports of several spectacular transmutations. Among them, let us mention the one performed by Johann Konrad von Richthausen at Prague Castle in 1648 in the presence of Emperor Ferdinand III (1608-1657).[3]Schmieder 1832, pp. 397-402; Bauer 1883, pp. 35-37; Müller-Jahncke 1986, pp. 243-244; Karpenko 2001, pp. 55-56; Karpenko 2007, pp. 126-129. The emperor ordered to mint a medal from the gold produced, which is known only from the depiction.[4]Johann Joachim Becher, Tripus hermeticus, Frankfurt am Main 1689, p. 24. Of the surviving medals, the most famous one might be the medallion for Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705), which was made by Wenzel Seiler of Reinburg in 1677 (Abb.> or >). Two-thirds of the medal claimed to be made of silver were seemingly changed into gold. Chemical analysis proved that this object whose mass is 7200 grams was made from an alloy of Au, Ag and Cu.[5]KHM Wien, Nr. I 21758; Strebinger / Reif 1932, pp. 199-213; Müller-Jahncke 1986, pp. 251-252; Karpenko 2001, pp. 56-57; Karpenko 2007, pp. 131-133.

The obverse of the GNM’s gold medal dated around 1700 depicts an alchemist kneeling in his laboratory with folded hands. He looks towards the glowing cloud with the word FIAT, from which a stream of rays emerges towards him. On the opposite side of the laboratory, there is a brick furnace with a water bath, in which the distillation apparatus is placed. The distillate is collected into a flask standing next to the furnace. In the middle of the space between the furnace and the alchemist is a significant symbol of a six-pointed star with intertwined arms, inside which is another small six-pointed star. It is a symbol of the Philosophers’ Stone created by combining marks for the elements of water and fire or the Sun and the Moon.[6]Abraham 1998, pp. 191-191. The room is displayed using a central perspective, which was depicted by the lines of paving. Along the walls of the laboratory are shelves with many bottles, vials, and cucurbits. The legend on the obverse reads ACQUIRITUR PRECIBUS AD DEUM MAGISTERIUM (A rare magisterium is obtained from God).

The medal’s reverse shows two triangular crucibles turned against each other and connected by two streams of vapors, which extend both from bottom to top and from top to bottom. Between these two streams, a plant with five flowers grows on a small hill behind the lower crucible. Next to the upper crucible are placed the symbols of the sun and the moon. The legend on the reverse reads NON A ME SED EX DEI OMNIPOTENTIS GRATIA (Not from me, but thanks to God’s almighty grace).

The use of various iconographic sources allows for a relatively accurate dating of the post quem medal. The so-called Seals of Philosophers from the work of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus medico-chymicum (Frankfurt, 1618/20) were used as templates. The obverse of the medal is modeled after the last two seals pictured on sheet ten (10). They are dedicated to Oswald Croll and Johann Daniel Mylius (Abb.).[7]See the entry „Mylius, Siegel der Alchemisten,1618/20“ on this plattform. The motif of a kneeling alchemist to which the divine enlightenment descends with the word FIAT is taken from the first of these seals, while the distillation furnace and shelves featuring several vessels and books are modeled after the second seal. Both seals were inspired by the title page of Croll’s work Basilica chymica (1609) (Abb.), created by the engraver Aegidius II Sadeler (1570-1629) working for Emperor Rudolf II.[8]Purš 2015, p. 66. The lute motif, an important reference to the contemporary interpretation of alchemy as the „Art of Music“[9]Cf. Meinel 1986, pp. 201-227. (which is missing from the medal) (Abb.), was also taken over from this title page. The double hexagram symbolizing the Philosophers’ Stone on the medal also had an important place on the title page of Croll’s work,[10]Purš 2015, pp. 71-74. but it was probably taken from other seals featured in Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum, where it appears several times.

One of Mylius’ seals on sheet one (1) (Abb.>) also served as a model for the medal’s reverse. It is dedicated to the legendary Maria the Jewess. Several technological discoveries have been attributed to her, such as the kerotakis, or the water bath for distillation, named after her Balneum Mariae.[11]Schütt 2000, pp. 117-122; Hild 1998, pp. 235-236. The creator of the medal supplemented this pattern with motifs of the sun and the moon. Mylius‘ seal is accompanied by an inscription that is important for understanding its symbolism: Fumus complectitur Fumum et herba in montibus capit utrumque (Vapor embraces the vapor and the herb receives both). The motif of this seal, including the inscription, was taken from Michael Maier’s work Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum (Frankfurt 1617), where it accompanied the depiction of Mary the Jewess (Abb.>).[12]Maier 1617, p. 57. Maier’s inscription says „herba alba“, meaning „white herb.“ Instead of a crucible, two vessels resembling craters were depicted here, which Maier comments on as „Hermes vessels.“[13]Idem, p. 63. Let us add that the images from Maier’s Symbola were taken over into Daniel Stolcius‘ emblematic work Viridarium chymicum (Frankfurt 1624), while Mylius‘ seals were incorporated into another one of Stolcius‘ works, Hortulus hermeticus flosculis philosophorum (Frankfurt 1627).

Although the symbolism of both sides of the medal seems to be quite different, we can find a unifying point of view that connects them, namely the importance of celestial influence in alchemical works. On the obverse, it is expressed as the necessity of God’s grace, which the alchemist must receive in order to understand the principles of alchemical theory and practice, and to be able to realize the Great Work, i.e. to produce the Philosophers’ Stone. The necessity of divine revelation has been associated with alchemy since its origin, and in the Middle Ages this illumination was often referred to as Donum Dei, God’s gift.[14]Karpenko 2001, pp- 59-60; Karpenko 2007, pp. 144-146; Karpenko 1998, pp. 63-80. The alchemist had to ask God for a favor through prayer, exactly as depicted on the medal’s obverse where the revelation of divine light is complemented by the eloquent word FIAT, a reference to the initial words of Genesis. The accompanying inscription clearly confirms this interpretation of symbolism, which is underlined by the central perspective used, referring to one of the most famous depictions of the alchemical laboratory / oratory from the work of Heinrich Khunrath Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (1595, 1609) where we can also see the alchemist in prayer.[15]Cf. Forshaw 2006, pp. 199-201; Forshaw 2010, pp. 170-176; Purš 2015, pp. 50-89.

On the medal’s reverse, the symbolism shows that just as the alchemist himself must accept the influence descending from heaven, the processed material itself must be subjected to it too. According to the Dialogue of Mary [the Jewess] and Aron, it is necessary to combine the white herb with two fumes, which contain two lights,[16]Theatri chemici Volumen sextum, Argentorati 1661, p. 479. i.e., the Sun and the Moon, and these are exactly what the medal’s creator added. Both fumes refer to two alchemical principles of metals, sulfur and mercury,[17]To the so-called Mercury-Sulphur theory see Ganzenmüller 1938, pp. 141-144; Newman 1998, pp. 288-290. which, in accordance with the ancient belief in the relationship between celestial bodies and metals, have their terrestrial and celestial hypostases, as expressed in the words of the Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.[18]„Quod est inferius, est sicut (id) quod est superius, et quod est superius, est sicut (id) quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei Unius.“ see Ruska 1926, p. 2. As the legend on the reverse states, the proper conduct of the operation depends on God’s grace.

We see another remarkable connection between the medal’s obverse and reverse. While the obverse refers to distillation work, the reverse, concerning the crucibles shown, refers to those processes which are carried out using metallurgical and assaying methods. The assayers tested metals by two basic methods: the „wet“ method, i.e., dissolution in mineral acids, and the „dry“ method, which used a range of metallurgical techniques such as cupellation.[19]Cf. Halleaux 1986, pp. 277-291. Alchemists had adopted this symbolism, claiming that the Philosophers’ Stone could be made in either the „wet“ or „dry“ way,[20]Principe 2013, p. 161. with the former being long and the latter short. There is no doubt that alchemists combined their laboratory procedures in various ways. The division into two „ways“ often applied only to the final phase of the Great Work, which was to be carried out either in a crucible with high temperatures or in a glass vessel under long-term heating in an athanor. The alchemical iconography was related especially to the second way because when using it, the alchemist could observe many awe-inspiring phenomena.

Ivo Purš


Literature about the medal

Hartlaub 1959, ill. 35, p. 49 and ill. 39, p. 50; Müller-Jahncke, Wolf-Dieter/Telle, Joachim, Numismatik und Alchemie. Mitteilungen zu Münzen und Medaillen des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, in: Meinel 1986, pp. 229-275; Karpenko, Vladimir, Alchemistische Münzen und Medaillen, in: Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums 2001, pp. 59-60; Karpenko, Vladimír, Witnesses of a Dream: Alchemical Coins and Medals, in: Linden, Stanton J. (ed.), Mystical Metal of Gold. Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, New York 2007, pp. 144-147.

Other literature

Schmieder 1832 (2005); Bauer, Alexander, Chemie und Alchemie in Österreich bis zum beginnenden XIX. Jahrhundert, Wien 1883; Ruska, Julius, Tabula smaragdina. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hermetischen Literatur, Heidelberg 1926; Strebinger, R./Reif, W., Das alchemistische Medaillon Kaiser Leopold I., in: Mitteilungen der Numismatischen Gesellschaft in Wien, 16 (1932), pp. 199-213; Ganzenmüller 1939, pp. 142-144; Halleux, Robert, L’alchemiste et l’essayeur, in: Meinel 1986, pp. 277-291; Meinel, Christoph, Alchemie und Musik, in: Meinel 1986, pp. 201-227; Abraham 1998; Hild, Heike, entry „Maria“, in: Priesner / Figala 1998, pp. 253-236; Newman, William R., entry „Prinzipien“, in: Priesner/Figala 1998, pp. 288-290; Karpenko, Vladimír, Alchemy as donum dei, in: HYLE – An International Journal for the Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 4, 1998, pp. 63–80; Schütt 2000; Forshaw in Wamberg 2006; Forshaw 2010; Principe, Lawrence M., The Secrets of Alchemy, Chicago 2013; Purš Oswald Croll 2015; Purš, Ivo, Perspective, Vision and Dream: Notes on the Plate „Oratory-Laboratory“ in Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae, in: Latin Alchemical Literature of Czech Provenance, ed. by Tomáš Nejeschleba and Jiří Michalík, Olomouc 2015, pp. 50-89.

Endnoten
Endnoten
1 Karpenko 2001, p. 55; Karpenko 2007, p. 125.
2 Abraham 1998, p. 121.
3 Schmieder 1832, pp. 397-402; Bauer 1883, pp. 35-37; Müller-Jahncke 1986, pp. 243-244; Karpenko 2001, pp. 55-56; Karpenko 2007, pp. 126-129.
4 Johann Joachim Becher, Tripus hermeticus, Frankfurt am Main 1689, p. 24.
5 KHM Wien, Nr. I 21758; Strebinger / Reif 1932, pp. 199-213; Müller-Jahncke 1986, pp. 251-252; Karpenko 2001, pp. 56-57; Karpenko 2007, pp. 131-133.
6 Abraham 1998, pp. 191-191.
7 See the entry „Mylius, Siegel der Alchemisten,1618/20“ on this plattform.
8 Purš 2015, p. 66.
9 Cf. Meinel 1986, pp. 201-227.
10 Purš 2015, pp. 71-74.
11 Schütt 2000, pp. 117-122; Hild 1998, pp. 235-236.
12 Maier 1617, p. 57. Maier’s inscription says „herba alba“, meaning „white herb.“
13 Idem, p. 63.
14 Karpenko 2001, pp- 59-60; Karpenko 2007, pp. 144-146; Karpenko 1998, pp. 63-80.
15 Cf. Forshaw 2006, pp. 199-201; Forshaw 2010, pp. 170-176; Purš 2015, pp. 50-89.
16 Theatri chemici Volumen sextum, Argentorati 1661, p. 479.
17 To the so-called Mercury-Sulphur theory see Ganzenmüller 1938, pp. 141-144; Newman 1998, pp. 288-290.
18 „Quod est inferius, est sicut (id) quod est superius, et quod est superius, est sicut (id) quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei Unius.“ see Ruska 1926, p. 2.
19 Cf. Halleaux 1986, pp. 277-291.
20 Principe 2013, p. 161.