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Chemistry


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A ‘GOLDEN TRIPLET’ OF ALCHEMICAL TEXTS,
INCLUDING THE ‘TWELVE KEYS’, EMBLEMATIZED

MAIER, Michael. Tripus Aureus, hoc est, Tres Tractatus Chymici Selectissimi, nempe I. Basilii Valentini...Practica una cum 12 clavibus & appendice, ex Germanico; II. . Frankfurt, Paul Jacob for Lucas Jennis, 1618.

4to., 1-182 pp.; 1 divisional blank; 183-196 pp., 1 terminal blank, engraved vignette showing a distillation apparatus in operation in an alchemist’s laboratory, portrait of Maier at the age of 49 on p. 7, and including 2 full-page engravings, 15 half-page engravings, and 2 a little larger than ¼ page. Bound in vellum-backed patterned paper over boards; title-page toned with tear to lower-right corner (not affecting text), some toning and light spotting throughout. Generally good.

$15,000

Scarce edition of three alchemical texts—comprising the first illustrated appearance of the ‘Twelve Keys’ of Basil Valentine, and the first printed editions of Thomas Norton’ The Ordinall of Alchemy, and John Cremer’s ‘Testament’—collected by the pre-eminent Rosicrucian apologist Maier. The first work shows the intimate dependency of 17th C alchemy and hermeticism upon contemporary German emblem books and is accordingly found in Praz, as well as the standard bibliographies on alchemy or early chemistry. Similar in subject and execution to the exquisite suite of 50 emblems that appeared in Maier’s most important work, Atalanta Fugiens (1617), it seems possible that these twelve emblems were also the work of Matthias Merian. Several of the images are even more enigmatic than those found in the earlier work or, for that matter, in any 17th C emblem we have seen.

Basil Valentine’s Twelve Keys was first published in Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten... (Eisleben, 1599). Maier’s illustrated edition of the work is by far the most influential; at least three of the dozen plates were reused in Johann Daniel Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum, published by Lucas Jennis in Frankfurt the same year, and the emblematic engravings continue to be studied in alchemical circles today. The illustrations include figures familiar from Atalanta and other alchemical texts: lions, dragons, eagles, and mythological human figures such as Orpheus and Eurydice. Craven describes some of the mystical symbolism: “That of the sixth key represents the marriage ceremony—the alchemistic union of Sol et Luna. Fire burns in a furnace at the masculine side; water is being poured into a retort at the feminine side” (Craven).

Valentine is reputed to have been a Benedictine monk, born at Mayence 1394 and made prior of St. Peter’s, at Erfurt, about the year 1414. While his very existence has been questioned—some scholars have suggested that the writings attributed to him were the product of the last decade of the 16th C—the chemical preparations and practical experiments described in his works are undoubtedly valuable for the procedures of contemporary alchemy.

Ostensibly written in 1477, this is the first published appearance of Thomas Norton’s The Ordinall of Alchemy. In his 1617 Symbola Aureae Mensae Maier mentioned Norton’s poem as being still ‘uneditus’ but ‘to be published shortly by us’. Republished in 1625, the Ordinal also appeared as the first text in Elias Ashmole’s monumental compendium of English alchemy, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652). Norton earns a mention for having been influenced by Chaucer; the Ordinal itself is written in exceedingly irregular heroic couplets, often shortening themselves to octosyllables. The third text of the Golden Triplet is John Cremer’s ‘Testament’, the source of several legends about Ramon Llull.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the illicit nature of alchemy, these three texts are written in conversational, confiding tones, and include personal anecdotes to convince the readers of the authors’ sincerity. They are also uniformly devout, imbuing the quest for gold with a godly purpose. The works are introduced by three epigrammatic poems, the third of which warns of the subject’s duplicity: “Either the meaning of the Author or the letter of his writings is deceitful. / Be on your guard, therefore. Everywhere a serpent lurks among the flowers. / Yet scorn not a friend who spoke as plainly as he might. / Beneath the shadowy foliage of words is concealed the golden fruit of Truth” (p. 184).

Michael Maier (1566-1622) was a physician to the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. A close friend of Robert Fludd, he published extensively on the mysteries of the Rosy Cross. Between 1614 and his death in 1622, Maier turned his attention to alchemy, publishing a number of alchemical titles in rapid succession. The Tripus Aurea was reprinted in 1677 and again in 1749.

OCLC: Huntington (2 copies), NLM, Georgetown, LC, Delaware, Newberry, Yale, UT Austin, Getty, Penn, Wellcome. No copies on ADDALL.



* Ferguson II.65; Praz 410 (mentioned as having plates similar to the Atalanta Fugiens); J.B. Craven, Count Michael Maier (Kirkwall, 1910), p. 94; A.E. Waite, The Hermetic Museum, pp. 306-357; Hogart, Alchemy, 108; Duveen 382.

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