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The Whole of Nature and the Mirror of Art

The Whole of Nature - Alchemical master and disciple

This 17th-century engraving is from Thomas Norton’s The Ordinall of Alchimy and was made after a 15th-century illuminated manuscript (now preserved in the British Library). Norton, a practicing alchemist, depicts the secrecy with which alchemical knowledge was to be treated.

Science History Institute

The images in this exhibition are photo-reproductions, mounted on glass panels, of engravings from alchemical books published in the 17th century. These beautiful, fantastically detailed engravings depict a wide range of topics, including the secrets of the philosophers’ stone and fanciful images of the search for knowledge and attempts to understand the natural world.

Alchemy’s most familiar pursuits—transmuting lead into gold and producing an elixir to prolong life—seemed reasonable in their day, though even then they were the subject of learned study and debate. Although alchemy had ceased to be considered a serious scientific endeavor by the mid-18th century, its ideas and symbols remain embedded in our culture. Current scholarship is still rediscovering what alchemy was to past practitioners and thinkers. Alchemy was intriguing, inspiring, and mystifying to early modern society, and it continues to fascinate today.

About the Books

The engravings represented in this exhibition are from books that are part of our Neville Collection. We acquired the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library in early 2004. The collection spans six centuries of print and contains over 6,000 titles dealing with all aspects of chemistry and closely related subjects.

Alchemy, in all its aspects, is extremely well represented in the collection. There are, for example, many of the famous emblem-books, numerous works on chrysopoeia (metallic transmutation), and scores of titles from little-known authors.

The books these images come from were luxury items in their day. Both scarce and precious, books represented the power and prestige of those who had access to knowledge.

Ongoing in the DuPont Gallery. Admission is free.