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The Rosarium Philosophorum


April 2009

The Rosarium Philosophorum

 18th century
Sp Coll MS Ferguson 210

Illustration 7: ‘The Extraction or Impregnation of the Soule’

Alchemy eludes definition and is difficult to understand. It has been associated since its inception with charlatans, opportunists, and deluded chemists, and nowadays is often confused with sorcery and occultism. However, its strange imagery continues to capture the popular imagination. Its cultural influences have been wide, encompassing not only chemistry and medicine, but also philosophy, psychology, art, music and literature.

The aims of alchemy have always proved hard to explain. The 16th century work, The Mirror of Alchimy maintains that it is ‘a Science, teaching how to transforme any kind of mettall into another… by a proper medicine… Alchemy therefore is a science teaching how to make and compound a certain medicine, which is called Elixir, the which when it is cast upon mettals or imperfect bodies, doth fully protect them’1.

These then are the two primary aims of Alchemy: to transmute metals (ultimately into gold) and to create the Elixir or medicine, also variously called the Quintessence or the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the power to ‘perfect’ all people or objects it touches.

The Rosarium philosophorum or Rosary of the philosophers is recognised as one of the most important texts of European alchemy. Originally written in the 16th century, it is extensively quoted in later alchemical writings. It first appeared in print as the second volume of a larger work entitled De alchimia opuscula complura veterum philosophorum, in Frankfurt in 1550. As with many alchemical texts, its authorship is unknown. Many copies also circulated in manuscript, of which around thirty illustrated copies are extant. There are six manuscript copies of it in our collection, including translations into French, German, and, in the case of this manuscript (Ms Ferguson 210), into English. This latter is also supplied with 20 vividly coloured miniatures pasted in, which derive – with some alteration – from the original printed version.

Detail from illustration 9:  reflecting the soul’s
reunion with the body in the main picture, the bird
above ground meets with one buried

Detail from illustration 10:
the ‘Moon Tree’

Professor John Ferguson, who acquired this manuscript in the 19th century, gave a concise description of the Rosarium in his work Bibliotheca Chemica:

‘The Rosarium Philosophorum describes the preparation of the ‘stone’ in a series of chapters or sections, each having a symbolic picture, most of them accompanied by explanatory verses … and illustrated by parallel passages from the leading authorities, so that the whole forms a ‘Rosary’ of selected blossoms.’2

Besides being an attractive description in likening the sections to ‘blossoms’, this gives a comprehensive picture of what the Rosarium comprises of ‘with all it’s curious symbolical illustrations’3. The illustrations are, in fact, integral to understanding the work. They lead the alchemist through the ‘spiritual journey’ he must take in order to achieve the enlightened state he seeks -the perfection or ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. The text, as Ferguson points out, relies heavily on other sources; many of the leading figures in alchemical or philosophical thought – such as Geber, Hermes, Aristotle and Plato – are quoted extensively, making the work a compendium of alchemical instruction.

Detail from illustration 15:
close up of the ‘Sun Tree’

Illustration 15: the ‘soul child’ born of the conjunction between Sun and Moon

The combination of substances and the union of opposites is another key element in the alchemical process. This is often represented as a mystical marriage of the lunar element representing the feminine, and the solar element, the male. These two opposing elements meet and are joined in what is known as the ‘chemical wedding’. This union creates something bigger and more powerful than the individual parts – the perfect integration of male and female energies – the hermaphrodite.

In the illustration shown to the left, the chemical wedding (or ‘demonstration of perfection’ as the manuscript caption describes it) is represented by the figures of a King and Queen.

While this English text gives an impression of accessibility, much of the work may seem nonsensical when read with the scientific knowledge of our current times. For example, the explanation that ‘there are four elements in Gold’4 is clearly absurd; this, however, was a belief held well into the 17th Century.

The author is contemptuous of those ‘fools’ who cannot comprehend the ideas of alchemy and who therefore disparage it because they ‘find out no truth’; he explains that ‘they say it is a false science because they have tried it and found nothing, and then they become as men desperate, contemning this science and dispraising the books thereof’.5

The first three illustrations (shown below) in the manuscript represent the preparation and ‘Prima Materia’ – the essential materials needed for the alchemical procedure to work.

Illustration 1: the Fountain, representing the soul of man and alchemy’s Prima Materia

Illustration 2: the King and Queen personify
the solar and lunar forces

Illustration 3: The King and Queen disrobe
and begin to come together

In the first of the sequence, the fountain pours forth the three substances that supposedly flow from the centre of the soul. These are ‘Lac Virginis’ (the Virgin’s milk), ‘Acetum fontis’ (the spring of vinegar) and ‘Aqua Vitae’ (the water of life). The latter represents the force within man, that which originally exists. The other two represent, once again, a contribution from both the feminine, receptive, lunar forces, and those of the penetrating, sharp, solar male. These mingle and mix in the lower part of the soul – the fountain’s basin – and the substance created is known as the water of Mercury. The latter stages of the alchemical process take place in these waters.

Illustrations two and three show the solar and lunar forces represented as a King and Queen: highlighted in gold and silver, they stand upon the sun and moon respectively. They offer flowers to one another, and a further flower is contributed by a bird descending from above. The flowers are a conscious attempt by the forces to court one another and gain acceptance. Birds are important symbols in alchemy, and are used to name the various stages of the alchemical process – for example, crow, peacock, dove. Here the flying dove represents the spiritual force which will unite the opposing forces. By illustration three the pair have disrobed. They are one step closer to unity. A scroll above Sol reads ‘O Luna, let me be thy husband’, and the one above Luna states ‘O Sol, I must submit to thee’. The bird’s scroll reads ‘It is the Spirit which vivifies’. The three elements are in place to begin the process.

Image from the Rosarium text of MS Ferguson 6: here the streams are labelled
spirit, soul and body

The five other manuscript copies of this work found in our Ferguson collection all differ. Comparison with three of the illustrations from a 17th-century German copy of the work (MS Ferguson 6) demonstrates the kind of variations that exist. This manuscript loosely follows the standard illustrative format, but adapts and expands some of the pictures. For instance, compare the first illustration in MS Ferguson 6 (shown on the left): the streams emanate here from the mouths three cherub heads, and are labelled with the early chemical symbols for Mercury (Spiritus or spirit), Sulphur (Anima or soul) and Salt (corpus or body) which, interestingly, correspond to the three principles in Paracelsus’ theory of matter.

Other illustrations in this manuscript introduce further images, not present in the original text. The figure at the stage of ‘Extraction or Impregnation’ has a tree growing from the abdomen of the central figure, while a later illustration depicts the corpse aflame.

Image from the Rosarium text of MS Ferguson 6:
a bird sits atop the sprouting tree and the spirit ascends to the higher spiritual area

Image from the Rosarium text of
MS Ferguson 6:
 corporeal fire

Illustration 5: “Conception or Putrefaction”
Returning to MS Ferguson 210, illustrations 5 (left) and 11 (right) both show the conjunction – or coupling – of the solar and lunar elements. This is the first stage of the process that leads to the joining of the two elements. The first cycle (pictures 5-10) deals with the mastery of the lunar element – the White Stone, or Tincture. The second cycle (illustrations 11-17) depicts the process of mastering the solar element, or Red Stone. In most of the illustrative cycles that depict this Conjunction, the female tends to be shown as passive in the first illustration but active in the second. In these examples, however, there is little difference.

The encounter is demonstrated far more explicitly in the original woodcuts of the printed 1550 edition, where their ‘limbs are entwined; her hand grasps his phallus; his left hand fondles the nipple of her breast; his right is under her neck, supporting her’.6

Illustration 11: “Fermentation”

Original woodcut from De Alchimia Opuscula(Sp Coll Al-y.18)

Could it be that the 18th-century illustrations were toned down deliberately? Certainly they have been regarded as problematical in more recent times. In 1936 John Read suggested that some of the original woodcuts ‘would not commend themselves to modern taste’.7 Meanwhile, when a version of image 11 was used as cover art for Leonard Cohen’s album New Skin for Old Ceremony, it had to be censored. Cunningly, a wing was moved and placed over the abdominal areas of the figures to avoid causing offence. The image was later withdrawn entirely, and a picture of Cohen’s face used in its place.

Another manuscript German copy in the library’s collection (MS Ferguson 149) shows the stages happening within flasks, as seen on the right.

Illustration from the Rosarium
text of MS Ferguson 149:
the Conjunction within a flask

Illustration 9 (shown below) incorporates further bird imagery. Here, the solar element of the soul returns to the cleansed corpse: this is reflected in the actions of two birds in front of the basin, one above ground meeting one coming up from below.

Illustration 9: “Of the rejoicing or springing
or sublimation of the soul”

The tenth picture (to the right) shows a hermaphrodite. This is the embodiment of the Lunar aspect, reinforced by the presence of the moon tree. The figure has also been given wings, emphasising its spiritual progress. The process is repeated with a view to mastering the solar element.

Illustration 10: Mastery of the Lunar element –
the hermaphrodite upon the crescent moon, with moon tree and bird

Illustration 17: “The Demonstration of Perfection” –
a riot of alchemical imagery with Lion, Sun Tree, Pelican and Three-headed Serpent

It is now the turn of the solar element to leave the body and ascend to the heavens. Illustration 12 (below) shows this happening gloriously.The body is cleansed once again, with rain or dew, and the soul returns. The hermaphrodite figure loses its female side and its wings. This represents the sacrifice needed in the process. The book suggests that the alchemist must sacrifice something of himself to attain perfection: he must also surrender to the higher power in order to achieve or realise true mastery of both elements, and unity of body, soul and spirit.

Illustration 12: “Illumination”

In ‘The Demonstration of Perfection’ (shown to the left) the second hermaphrodite is born. To the right of the image we see a Pelican nourishing its young with blood from its own breast, a symbol both of the alchemical stage of ‘cibation’, or the nourishing of the Philospher’s Stone born of the chemical wedding, but also more traditionally of the redeeming self-sacrifice of Christ. Below the hermaphrodite are three serpents all simultaneously devouring each other. These are symbols of the mutual penetration of body, soul and spirit.

Illustration number 18: the Lion devours the Sun

Illustration 18 depicts one of the classic symbols of alchemy – the green lion devouring the sun. As with most of the striking, and to the modern mind, somewhat ‘surreal’ images which populate these works, they have a bewildering range of possible meanings. But essentially the gold/sun is being dissolved/purified in some powerful solvent/green lion in order to release the seed from which pure gold may be grown.

Illustration 19: the crowning of the Virgin

The last two illustrations conflate Christian imagery with alchemical.

Image 19 presents the culmination of the process, the ‘Crowning of Nature’ as the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity, while the last image depicts the Resurrection, but gives Christ a radiant sun head.

Illustration 20:  the Resurrection

The Library’s Ferguson collection is an unrivalled resource for those who would like to discover more about the difficult but fascinating subject of alchemy. As well as containing many important early printed works, it holds some 300 manuscript alchemical texts, dating from the 15th Century onwards. Additions (including secondary literature) are made to the collection wherever possible.