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.










Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Splendor Solis revisited
Laurie Lipton’s Splendor Solis
The Arms of the Art
Splendor Solis
Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae
Cabala, Speculum Artis Et Naturae In Alchymia
Digital alchemy

5 thoughts on “Atalanta Fugiens”

  1. I remember first encountering Merian’s images in Frances Yates’ “The Art of Memory”. Then I acquired a copy of Mircea Eliade’s “The Forge and the Crucible” and there they were again.
    After that it was all downhill and it was inevitable that I would end up with a copy of Klossowski’s compendium of alchemy emblems, “The Golden Game”.

    These days kids have them all at their fingertips through the interlattice and they don’t know how lucky they are…

    Sometimes Merian’s imagery reminds me of an alternative-universe etiquette guide:
    Sometimes it’s Baroque spam.

  2. Merian was the father of the fabulous entomologist and nature painter Sybilla Merian.

    Atalanta Fugiens also includes a fugue composed by Maier for each emblem, although I do not see them reproduced here. You can hear some of Mayer’s fugues from Atalanta Fugiens on a CD by the ensemble Voxnova: “Scelsi, Byzantium, The Alchemists” (Hat Art 1994).

  3. A Happy New Year to you. Always curious how you manage to generate such a great read day after day and year after year and now we have a peek behind the curtain. First read in the morning and usually a couple of return trips to absorb it all. Thanks for making the trip so interesting. Looking forward to a new year of discoveries.Cheers!

  4. herr doktor bimler: It’s all out there but you still need to know what to look for and where to look. Some library collections can be frustrating to navigate.

    Michelangelo: I nearly mentioned the fugues but ran out of energy as I often do with these posts. Quite apt given the musical connections noted above.

    John Collier: Thanks! Another impetus is the selfish one of using these posts as an online bookmarking of things I may need to refer to later. That certainly applies to this kind of imagery.

  5. It’s all out there but you still need to know what to look for and where to look. Some library collections can be frustrating to navigate.

    True that. I only wrote three or four posts using alchemical imagery, but those posts provide a regular stream of visitors searching for the term “Atalanta Fugiens” (along with “spiderwebs on drugs”, “double nosed dog” and “pokemon hentai”).

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