Meet David and Rhiannon. David Brafman is the rare books curator at the Getty Research Institute and the curator of The Art of Alchemy is on view at the Getty Center through February 12.
Last week we asked our Instagram followers if they had any questions about alchemy for these two. The questions ranged from “Why was Isaac Newton so darn secretive?” to “What’s the relationship between mirrors and alchemy?” to “What is your favorite alchemical process?” We’re sharing the Q’s and the A’s here. Enjoy! And thank you for your questions.
The Achievements of Alchemists
Is the transformation of one material to another using alchemy actually possible, at least, to an extent? —@Pumpkinlust
Yes. You do this in your kitchen while cooking every day! The preparation of any synthetic material whether for medicine, art, cooking all grows out of alchemy. From earliest antiquity, people could create enough heat to transform sand into glass. This was one of the inspirations for the creation of the field of alchemy. The thing that is actually really hard is changing one element to another. You can do this with a particle collider. David actually wanted to gut the entire interior of the GRI and build a Getty particle collider (it’s the right shape) but it was nixed. —David & Rhiannon
Is there any proof for the creation of a philosopher stone? —@kickflipedro
Depends on what the philosopher’s stone is, which people have a lot of different ideas about. It was considered the universal solvent that controlled how all physical matter bonded. We have a manuscript that says the philosopher’s stone is red mercury, which is vermillion paint. So if that’s the true philosopher’s stone, then yes! The ceramicist Bernard Palissy thought that fossils were the philosopher’s stone, giving creatures true immortality. —David & Rhiannon
What is the relationship of mirrors to alchemy? Neither Gareth Roberts “Mirror of Alchemy” nor Lyndy Abraham’s “Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery” are forthcoming on this. —@fr_psnell
Mirrors are one of the many things that alchemists made using their discoveries about the properties of metals and glass. Making glass transparant was developed from Roman to Islamic times. Painting the back of transparent glass with an amalgam of mercury and silver or tin to make the glass reflective may as been developed as early as ar-Razi, but we are still searching for proof. The earliest testimony we know of about glass mirrors in history is that Pliny the Elder credits Lebanese glassmakers in Sidon as being the first to use transparent glass backed by a molten lead coating. There is a recent novel about alchemical mirror-makers by Martin Seay called “The Mirror Thief.” —David & Rhiannon
What are some legitimate scientific breakthroughs that occurred as a result of alchemists’ work? —@Library_de_alexandria
Alchemist is what we used to call “chemist” so all chemical breakthroughs in history before the modern era were done by alchemists. They invented distillation, invented proto-morphine (laudanum), developed oil paints and inks, and also invented new mining techniques. There’s a particularly famous example of an alchemist named Hennig Brand who saved up his pee and distilled it and managed to discover the element Phosphorus. —Rhiannon & David
Alchemy’s Relationship to Other Fields of Study
Is it true that alchemy and the tarot began in ancient Egypt? —@Spacebunny3
Alchemy as we know the word, began in Ancient Egypt after Alexander the Great conquers Egypt we find references to the practice of “chemeia,” Greek word for “metal-pouring” ie alloying of metals. The Egyptians own word for Egypt was “kem” which literally mean black and referred to the mineral rich silts that built up on the banks of the Nile.
Tarot originated in Renaissance Europe as a card game and much of its arcane and esoteric symbolism was derived from the same artistic iconography used to symbolize alchemical ideas. Tarot wasn’t even used for divination until the 18th century. —David & Rhiannon
Do you see any parallels between alchemy and religion then and science and religion nowadays? —@Sassmasteralex
The idea that science and religion are opposite to each other is a relatively modern one. At the turn of the 20th century, scientists were still trying to calculate the weight of the soul. Pope Francis studied chemistry in college. 🙂 Our favorite alchemy tagline, which we sadly had to leave out of our exhibition intro, is “Alchemy was a science tinged with spirituality and infused with a spritz of artistic spirit.” —David & Rhiannon
Was Alchemy ever associated with witchcraft? Did any practicing Alchemists ever get accused of being witches/wizards? —@melissa_tatiana
Alchemists might get in trouble for fraud or counterfeiting money, but witchcraft is specifically dealing with pacts with the devil. These two don’t have too much overlap. —Rhiannon & David
Alchemy is “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” Is chemistry alchemy without the belief in magic? Or better yet, do you think science trie to make magic real and explainable? —@Bookfutureslookbullish
One of Arthur C. Clark’s laws of scifi is “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s magical because it inspires wonder, not necessarily supernatural. Also early modern natural philosophers called what they did “natural magic.” Look up “Pharaoh’s Snake” on YouTube. 🙂 —David & Rhiannon
Is alchemy a spiritual or a physical pursuit? Was it understood as magical simply because of the power of physical transformation? —@Aurumrushventure
Both! It’s a spiritual pursuit grounded in a physical one. Our favorite alchemy tagline, which we sadly had to leave out of our exhibition intro, is “Alchemy was a science tinged with spirituality and infused with a spritz of artistic spirit.” —David & Rhiannon
The Song of Solomon is a recurring theme in alchemical texts, especially the Aurora Consurgens. How did the tie between the two evolve? —@Testarossasmom
The Song of Solomon has invited numerous interpretations over the centuries to explain its place in the Bible as a pretty sexy love poem; at the same time, metaphors of sex and reproduction are often used in alchemy to express ideas about chemical bonding, called ‘conjunction’ or ‘coitus.’ Solomon was also famous for his wisdom, making his connection to alchemy an easy one. Alchemists used imagery and references to many different religious traditions, not just Christianity and Judaism but also Islam and the mythology of antiquity. —Rhiannon & David
Who Were the Alchemists?
Who were alchemists? Did they tend to come from the elites or any class? Was practicing alchemy an actual profession or more of a hobby? —@Amelialikespie
Alchemists came from all levels of society. Some were educated physicians and pharmacists. Some were working class artisans making synthetic products for sale. Becoming skilled at alchemy was a way to rise in status and gain the favor of nobles. But if got caught faking it, off with your head! One in fact, Michael Maier (not to be confused with the one with hockey mask) becomes the personal physician and closest political advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. —David & Rhiannon
Why we did some alchemists, like Isaac Newton, operate under much secrecy or silence? —@Daemonsdiscuss
Isaac Newton, in general, was very secretive because he hated criticism. He published about calculus over 30 years after he invented it because he was nervous about what people would say. He did have shelves of alchemy books in grad school. In general, alchemy was secretive, comparable to how Coca Cola would never share the recipe for coke. —David & Rhiannon
Were there any women alchemists? Feminist alchemists? —@Meowius
Yup! The earliest Egyptian Alchemist we know about was Maria Judaea. Her writings are lost, but her colleagues credit her as many of the earliest alchemical apparatuses. The “Bain-Marie” (a kind of double boiler used to make desserts) was named after her. There were also women alchemists for basically all of history. Lady Geng was a favorite of a Chinese Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. A famous Renaissance book of alchemical secrets is attributed to a Venetian woman, Isabella Cortese. Miranda Kay wrote a book called “Daughters of Alchemy” (2015) about some of these women alchemists. Many of the alchemy rare books in our collection were owned by women who were using them in laboratory experimentation. —David & Rhiannon
Is Paulo Coelho a real Alchemist? —@chattahoocheeotter
No 🙂 Please send him our apologies. —David & Rhiannon
How much do we actually know about the historical Nicolas Flamel? —@bilociraptor
All the things about him being an alchemist date from the 17th century and probably a later invention. But you can go visit his house in Paris! —David & Rhiannon
Were many, if any, of the artists, alchemists in their own right? —@Daemonsdomain
Practicing alchemy does not an alchemist make. Not everybody who made a synthetic paint pigment or engaged in metallurgy considered themselves an alchemist. But at the same time, the Renaissance art historian/biographer Vasari does say that some artists were obsessed with alchemy, including Van Eyck and Parmigianino. Vasari says that Parmigianino was one of the most brilliant artists he ever saw, but ruined his career staying up all night playing with chemicals in his lab. —David & Rhiannon
To what extent did Mary Sidney practice alchemy? She is said to have had her own lab and lab assistant, but what is known about what she practiced and/or achieved? —@Apocalipstixnow
Although she’s not really in our show, she was definitely an alchemist. We have some of her recipes that she developed including one for invisible ink. —Rhiannon & David
One of the main centers of Alchemy was Ptolemaic Alexandria, my question is, how advanced do you think they were in their practice? And are there any extant manuscripts which are directly attributable to works from the library of Alexandria? —@Mrjuliantyler
We don’t know of any manuscripts from the Library of Alexandria, but there are papyrus fragments with alchemical recipes from the Nile Delta region of Egypt. —David & Rhiannon
Alchemical Favs & Challenges
What was the most challenging part of curating this exhibit? (I’ve enjoyed my daily doses on various social media outlets + The Getty Iris so thank you!) —@Apocalipstixnow
Whittling down the objects in the show to the ones that provided the clearest narrative of alchemy’s important to the history of art from antiquity to the modern era. And also, distilling down complicated concepts that would fit on a tiny wall label. —David & Rhiannon
Which alchemical process inspires the most fantastical images? —@Daemonsdomain
David likes Swampman (a man emerging from a swamp transforming from black to white to red) representing putrefaction to purification to perfection from the “Spendor solis” Rhiannon likes chemical bonding/amalgam-gilding–represented by a two-headed hermaphrodite. (“Ooh! Me too!” —David)
As above, so below , as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul? —@Steinberg__
Yes!! Are you Hermes Trismegistos’s ghost writer? Tantric Alchemists in Medieval India would say “yatha lohe tatha dehe,” as in metal, so in the body. —David & Rhiannon
Do you have a favorite alchemist? Favorite alchemical process? —@Daemonsdiscuss
Favorite alchemists: Zakariyya ar-Razi (854-925, the ‘pharmaceutical philosopher’ from Rayy, Iran, known in the West as Rhazes. In Iran, August 27—his birthday—is still celebrated as National Pharmacy Day.” —David.
David is my favorite alchemist! —Rhiannon.
Favorite processes? Chemical wedding, chemical rainbow (peacock stage), and anything to do with vitriols (corrosives that create little colored crunchy crystals. —David.
Distillation *insert cocktail emoji*. —Rhiannon (“Ooh that’s why I’m her favorite alchemist…she’s been drinking.”) —David
Because of the potentially hazardous materials that alchemists used when creating colors…What dangers do you face today when examining illuminated manuscripts, How do you deal with such dangers? Have you ever tried to replicate colors using the same processes medieval alchemists used? —@Bookfutureslookbullish
We haven’t dealt with such dangers. We do guess that licking the manuscripts would be hazardous to your health, both because of the chemicals and because our manuscripts conservator would come after you. Our conservator of manuscripts, Nancy Turner, works with these materials more closely. She has an exhibition on view currently as well, “Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts. —David & Rhiannon