For the past week I’ve been downloading more of the books at the Internet Archive illustrated by Matthäus Merian. Among the hoard there’s a two-volume set of Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia (1617–1626), a remarkable work which attempts to cover all the metaphysical, scientific and artistic knowledge of the time, opening modestly with a detailed description of the creation of the universe. The illustrations for these volumes by Merian and Johann de Bry are so good they’ve been plundered endlessly, not only in later books but in the general culture; I’ve swiped details myself on more than one occasion so—once again—it’s good to see an original printing with all the accompanying text, and also all the less familiar treatises and pictures.
One area of Fludd’s study concerns music, a subject which Merian and De Bry illustrate using a variety of graphic devices, the most fanciful of which are the “Temples of Music” displaying the notes and divisions of the Pythagorean scale. The largest of the drawings was printed onto a fold-out sheet which explains the unfortunate tear in this copy. I love all the details on this one, some of which are rather unusual: who are the people underneath the temple in the room with the furnace? What are they doing, and why are they naked?
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More from the storehouse of wonders that is the Getty Alchemy Collection at the Internet Archive. The illustrations here are from the 1678 edition of the Musaeum Hermeticum, a lengthy collection of alchemical texts with engraved illustrations by Matthäus Merian (1593–1650). Merian’s illustrations are some of the most frequently reprinted of all those you’ll find in alchemical books of this period, and justifiably so, he had a knack for presenting the allegories of the alchemical process in an elegant and detailed manner that’s also gloriously strange. The same quality of strangeness can be found in his other major alchemical work, Atalanta Fugiens (aka Scrutinium Chymicum). Browse Musaeum Hermeticum here or download it here.
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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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