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Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy

Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy

Our past exhibition, Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy, featured highlights from our collections of rare alchemical manuscripts and paintings. In this video Amanda Shields and James Voelkel, the exhibition’s curators, describe the connections between these two collections. 


On view from December 5, 2014, to September 4, 2015.

Alongside the flasks and fires in the alchemist’s laboratory lay another tool no less vital to alchemical practice: the written word. For centuries books and manuscripts were the central instrument alchemists used to disseminate their ideas, trials, techniques, and secrets, and these texts reveal both the scientific rigor and the strange beauty of alchemical practice.

Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy illuminated the important role of the written word in alchemical pursuits by placing the actual books used by alchemists alongside historical artworks portraying their use.

This was the first time in a single exhibition at our museum that rare alchemical manuscripts could be viewed next to centuries-old alchemical art. Books of Secrets included the public debut of works from our newly acquired trove of medieval alchemy manuscripts. The paintings, from our Fisher and Eddleman Collections, span the 17th to the 19th century and depict the use of manuscripts by alchemists in the workshop.

Although alchemists are often portrayed as at best fools and at worst charlatans, the writings, notes, charts, burn marks, and even doodles in the collections’ manuscripts often tell a different story: a story of humanity’s desire to understand and shape the world around us.


We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Fisher Family fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation in building this exhibition.