Atalanta Fugiens


Alchemy (1969) by the Third Ear Band. Design by Dave Loxley.

For an idea of how these posts often come into being, this one is the result of the following chain of association: an article by Leo Robson about the films of Roman Polanski > A re-viewing of Polanski’s Macbeth > A re-listening to albums by the soundtrack artists for Macbeth, British folk group the Third Ear Band > A tracking down of the famous cover image from the first Third Ear Band album.


Alchemy is the dominant theme of the first two Third Ear Band albums. The engraving used on the cover of their debut album is one of the most frequently reproduced of all images associated with this branch of occultism, one of fifty emblems from Atalanta Fugiens (1618) by the German alchemist Michael Maier (1568–1622).

The plates are by Matthäus Merian, an artist whose career produced a number of notable alchemical illustrations. A detail from one of his other oft-reproduced pieces, Macrocosm and Microcosm from the Basilica Philosophica (1618), appeared on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Saucer Full of Secrets album a year before the Third Ear Band debut. Merian would no doubt be astonished that his work was so visible to future generations even though his name is seldom mentioned at all. The popularity can be accounted for by the way the best of these images seem almost archetypal whilst being resistant to any easy interpretation. Some of Merian’s plates remind me of Magritte’s paintings; they share a tension between carefully rendered yet impossible images that imply a hidden meaning. As Borges considered metaphysics to be a branch of fantastic literature it’s possible to consider this kind of alchemical illustration as a branch of fantastic art.

A 1687 edition of Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (retitled Scrutinium Chymicum) may be browsed here or downloaded here.




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