Posted on October 15, 2012
Today, the exhibition Alchemy on the Amstel – On Hermetic Medicine in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic has opened its doors. During the last months curator Cis van Heertum in assistance of Jose Bouman collected manuscripts, sources and objects preserved in the library, but also Museum Boerhaave in Leiden and the Royal Library (KB) in The Hague.
Exhibition panel texts, guiding scriptures and references were written and integrated in an artistic frame and a digital presentation has been created providing an introductory overview. Last week all these different elements were brought together in – what might be called – one alchemical ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’.
Until May 17th you are invited to visit the exhibition and become initiated in the mysterious world of Alchemy.
The Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition is subdivided in 5 departments and opens with a brief exploration of traditional Galenic medicine as it was still practised in the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age.
This first part presents an overview of classical medicine largely based on Hippocratic Humorism, which deals with the four humors and corresponding temperaments affecting human (well)-being.
From here, the second part enters the Middle Ages characterized by a scholastic method of an universal and authoritarian approach. In this period a reforming force is represented by Paracelsus and his Spagyrian ‘art of healing’ connecting medicine to the four pillars of Philosophy of Nature, Astronomy, Alchemy and Ethics.
The third part of the exhibition focuses on Dutch medicine and gives an overview of iatrochemistry in the Republic meandering in a fourth part highlighting the toxic chemical element antimony and its characteristics, which was considered the most evocative and controversial of iatrochemical medicines.
The fifth and final part elaborates on Theodor Kerckring, physician and alchemist, who was in favor of the use of antimony in the field of medicine. Kerckring, a friend of Benedictus de Spinoza studied in Leiden and was a follower not only of Paracelsus but also Hermes Trismegistus, whom he extolled as the pater omnium chymicorum, the father of all alchemists.
Although the exhibition here in the Ritman Library mainly focuses on ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ and its presence in the Dutch Republic, it might be worthwhile to put the exhibition in a larger context by meandering on the concept of Alchemy. When diving in the world of alchemy, different theories, practices, meanings and various etymological interpretations reveal themselves. The word Alchemy itself is thought to be rooted in Old French chimie, Medieval Latin chimia and further back in the Arabic al-kimia (الكيمياء), which is derived from the Ancient Greec chemeia (χημεία) or chemia (χημία) being connected to the Egyptian kēme and hieroglyphic Khmi meaning ‘black earth’. Also a Greec relation forms chumeia (χυμεία), which is associated with mixture. With reference to ‘-al‘, Jamīl Shāmi asserts that there is a type of ‘al-‘ that connotes the essence of something. Applied to chymia or chemia, it then would point at the essence of chumeia, chimia or chemia, in short the essence of mixture. Another interpretation of alchemy is ‘The Art or ‘The Sacred Art’ and many, many more ideas exist with reference to its etymological roots.
As with its meaning, Alchemy as a discipline or practice represents different intentions, styles and ways. According to some, it represents a pure spiritual discipline, others integrate a physical element to it or conceive it as rather physical than spiritual. Some alchemists relate it to the quest for a panacea, the so-called Lapis Philosophorum, the Philosopher’s Stone, which even became the theme of the first part of the world famous Harry Potter series.
Others apply alchemy to the work of transforming ‘lower’ metals into ‘gold’ in a literal sense or rather in a symbolical sense as a process of transmutation: the ‘conscious’ change of the ‘status quo’ to another status quo of a higher order.
In this, of course, risks do exist when forthcoming experiments go wrong and instead of a higher order, a lower order is reached. Nevertheless, all these different viewpoints and associations seem to share a place in what might be called the concept of The Art of (conscious) Change. And here a connection can be made with Magic, which deals with attracting forces to oneself, someone or something and implies to intentionally change its status quo.
When speaking of Alchemy as The Art of Change, it reveals a potential, which might be meaningful for the time we live in today. A time, which can be characterized by transition, the breaking-apart of societal structures, which were in service for a long time, though not necessarily seem to provide optimal answers for the rapidly changing world of today. Change forms the adagium of this time of transition, for transition reflects an in-between phase with change as the way to walk from the world of yesterday to the world of tomorrow. Change is development and development can be scary, it can be destabilizing or traumatic for it may leave the old behind without precisely knowing what comes next.
Though change can also be a pleasant experience, even educative and it generally fosters a (re)connecting force, a force of healing. Change is so to speak a ‘practice’ and when change becomes conscious and enflamed with intention it becomes an ‘Art’. It is Alchemy, which deals with this Art of Change in the broadest sense of the word and it is this Art of Change, which is forming the larger context of the Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition.
The Alchemy on the Amstel exhibition is presented in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) in conjunction with Leyden’s Luxuriance, Green discoveries in the Golden Age, on show in Museum Boerhaave from 11 October 2012 through 5 May 2013.
In addition to ‘Alchemy on the Amstel’ and ‘Leyden’s Luxuriance’, the Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden will show an exhibition on the History of Pharmacy from 5 October through 31 December 31 2012. This exhibition includes pharmacopeia, rare books on botany and books on the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541).