A man named Hermes Trismegistos (Hermes the Thrice Great) is usually considered to be the founder of the science of alchemy. He may have been an actual Egyptian priest many millennia ago or perhaps was the human incarnation of the Egyptian God Thoth. Legend has it that he wrote over 36,000 books (which makes me feel a bit inadequate) and in the process, he set the foundation for human knowledge. He is also given credit for the legendary Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet), part of his Hermetica which laid down the basics of astrology, magic and theology. The tablet allegedly described how to transmute matter; however, the later copies of the inscription date to the early middle ages.
Probably my favorite object of the entire exhibit is a Byzantine plate with a depiction (6th c. CE) of Trismegistus lecturing the famed Egyptian geographer Ptolemy. It is worth noting that the globe in the middle of the relief is round. Let it be known that the ancient and medieval world knew that the earth was not flat, contrary to popular myths about the middle ages.
Going into the medieval period, alchemy began to focus on the creation of new alloys, pigments, and colors to be used, particularly in manuscript illumination. The obsession with gold can be seen in the prevalent application of chryosography–gold writing–a word derived from the Greek term for gold, χρυσός, and the verb for “to write”: γράφω. Gold powder was often mixed with glair, that is to say an egg white for binding, or perhaps gum, and then buffed with either a tooth or a stone to give it that stunning gilded sheen.
The ever-ascetic Saint Jerome had earlier spoken out against the practice of using expensive purple dyes and gold lettering on parchment in order to transmit Christian texts, saying: “Skins are dyed with the color purple, gold melts into letters, the books are clothed with gems–and Christ is left standing naked and dying at the door.” Jerome truly hated a great many things, and purple and gold were just two of them. Lately, I wonder what he would think of gold elevators and gilded penthouse apartments.
Even if medieval scientists had not yet figured out a way to turn mercury (often called quicksilver for its fascinating ability to change states) or any other metal into gold, new pigments began to populate the medieval palette as a result of intensive experimentation with metals. For instance, cinnabar had long been used in painting and on frescoes (e.g. at Pompeii) in order to produce a rich red. You can also make mercury from cinnabar, and thus alchemists worked extensively with it. When alchemists brought together sulphur and mercury, they made a new shade we call vermilion. Sulphur became a highly in-demand chemical and thus mines like the ones near Puteoli in Italy were heavily stripped in order to procure the substance.
Although more chemically produced colors came into use, there were still many other natural pigments being utilized for painting or manuscript production at the time. Yellow ocher, red ocher, brazilwood and even saffron were all naturally occurring substances used for pigments, and insects such as cochineal (which produces the red dye carmine) could be ground up to produce eye-catching colors.
One of the most fascinating written artifacts of medieval and early modern alchemy are the recipes and diagrammed instrument manuals it produced. The Getty has a number of manuscripts on display in the Research Center that give you just a taste of the ink and parchment spilled in order to transmit the rules, tools and ideas of the field.
All of the Getty’s alchemy materials are available online through the Getty Research Institute and the Internet Archive. Many of the images from the exhibit are also open access materials. What these texts and objects communicate to us is that alchemy was not just a few crazy magicians in pointy hats working in a medieval dungeon to create gold. These were learned men–and sometimes women–who developed the predecessor to modern chemistry. They also created many new colors and pigments still in use today. I try and bring up this fact whenever anyone wishes to refer to the period as the “Dark Ages.” Wrong, sir! The Middle Ages could actually be quite colorful.