The age of alchemy

Don’t think only confirmed fools believed in the wonders of alchemy! On the contrary. The smartest men of the early modern period kept themselves busy with the queen of the sciences, the doctrines of separating and combining, of cleaning and mixing, of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of eternal life.

Silver medal, no year (ca. 1700), die cut by Philipp Heinrich Müller, from the Friedrich Kleinert medal mint. Luna-Diana over Mercury, lying on the burning stake. Rev. Winged Saturn chains fleeing Mercury with vine, between them Jupiter, sitting on an eagle and holding a torch. From Künker Auction 282 (September 28, 2016), Lot 4792.

When this medal was produced, many alchemistic theories were part of the intellectual common knowledge of the educated upper class. It was known, that the sun was connected to gold, the moon to silver, Mars to iron and the movable Mercury to the ever changing quicksilver. Jupiter represented pewter, Venus copper and Saturn lead. Earth wasn’t assigned a metal, because the general thinking (still) thought of it as the center of the universe, not a planet.

Alchemy was a complicated science, which many important scholars had devoted their time to already in the Middle Ages: Albertus Magnus, Thomas of Aquinas, Roger Bacon. They were fascinated by the possibility to explore and describe the world through scientific methods. Since this art meant high commitment and spending a lot of money, many alchemists were looking for a patron, who would finance their studies.

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, painting by Joseph Wright, 1771.

Among these patrons were the most important rulers of their time. Even today, Emperor Rudolf II is still famous for his interest in alchemy, or should we say infamous. But wrongfully so, because the leading heads among the German princes also recruited alchemists to work at their courts. As an example, just take Julius, Duke of Brunswick and Lueneburg (1568-1589), August of Saxony (1553-1586), the Prince-Bishop of Wuerzburg, Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn (1573-1617), and Maurice “the Learned” of Hesse-Kassel (1592-1627). The most famous alchemist was probably the great Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7), who wrote considerably more pages about theories of alchemy than on the topic of optics or physics.

Also some commoners lapsed into this secret art, among them a man, who we actually know from a different context. Before coming to Nuremberg in 1664, Friedrich Kleinert (*1633 in Bartenstein / East Prussia) had learned the wood turner craft. In Nuremberg he received citizenship and the permission to establish himself as a master craftsman. Around 1680 he bought a French spindle press, which let him produce beautiful medals. A special feature was, that these medals even received an edge lettering – by no means self-evident at this time. On November 26, 1686, the Nuremberg Council granted him official permission, “to produce his dies in Augsburg, so that the local die cutters, which are outperformed by the Augsburg die cutters, would be obliged to more diligence.”

The person who created such beautiful dies was the Augsburg engraver Philipp Heinrich Müller (+1719). And at one point he was to fulfill his clients wish for an alchemistic medal. Surely, this probably wasn’t an enterprise to create profit, rather it was a heartfelt desire. Kleinert occupied himself with making gold. He invested all of his assets in this dream and in 1692 he was already so impoverished, that he had to sell his imposing town house for 4,200 guldens. In 1710, his minting workshop came into the possession of Caspar Gottlieb Lauffer (1674-1745).

Testimony to his passion is a medal, which will be auctioned off at Künker Auction 282. The medal’s theme is the transformation of one metal to another. NON FVI, QVOD ERAM; NVNC SVM, DVM MORIOR (= I wasn’t what I was, now I am, by dying). This is what Luna says as the goddess of the moon, symbol of the element of silver, which, through heat, can be extracted from quicksilver, for which the god Mercury stands at the stake.

The reverse displays the combination of lead (Saturn), pewter (Jupiter) and quicksilver (Mercury). Saturn chains the fleeing Mercury with vines, whom Jupiter warms with his fire. And alchemy wouldn’t be a secret science, if outsiders wouldn’t be puzzled by the meaning of motif and legend: Thus my blood relations chain me because I fled the arts. 

In fact, this medal is not only a testimony for a way of thinking, which ultimately led to one of the most important sciences: Chemistry. Furthermore, the medal also shows the human weakness of a master of his craft, who ruined himself with his passion for alchemy and left behind this rare medal as a reference to his passion.

Please find more information on Künker Auction 282 here. 

And the relevant CoinsWeekly auction preview can be read here.