Inside the Milberg Gallery: Angelic Authority and Alchemical Credibility
The following is the fourth in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library, “Through a Glass Darkly: Alchemy and the Ripley Scrolls 1400-1700.”
Curated by Jennifer M. Rampling, Associate Professor of History at Princeton University, the exhibition shows how European alchemists built on Greco-Egyptian, Islamic, and late medieval foundations to create a golden age of alchemy from the 15th century to the time of Sir Isaac Newton.
Angelic Authority and Alchemical Credibility
In this Latin Bible from thirteenth-century England, St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians opens with an illuminated capital that depicts Paul holding a scroll containing the epistle to the Corinthians in his hand. Descending from above, an angel offers instruction (or perhaps even dictation) to the apostle. Similar images appear at the outset of three other books in this Bible. The presence of this angelic messenger, of course, testifies to the authority and reliability of the biblical text. Interestingly, alchemists sometimes made similar appeals to angelic authority for their own ends.
Late medieval and early modern alchemists faced a crisis of legitimacy. Unlike natural philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and other fields of natural inquiry, alchemy was not a universally accepted and respected field. It had no formal place in the universities, and its credibility was regularly questioned by skeptics and naysayers. As a result, alchemists were forced to defend the legitimacy of their enterprise at every turn. This battle for legitimacy took several forms, but one of the most peculiar was the incorporation of angelic authority into alchemical activities.
The famous English alchemist John Dee (1527–1609) frequently held séances to communicate with angels. With his assistant Edward Kelley (1555–1598) as his medium, Dee used various crystals, glass, and rocks to plead for visitations from these angelic messengers. Dee sought to recover the lost (and perfect) knowledge of the natural world that Adam once possessed, and these angelic conversations were the key. For Dee, just as divine revelation was the means by which spiritual truths might be known (in the Bible), so also divine revelation was the means by which the esoteric truths of nature might be known (through conversations with angels). Dee’s interests extended far beyond alchemy, encompassing various aspects of natural philosophy, astronomy, astrology, and natural magic as well. At one point, Dee’s angels even revealed the lost language of Adam. Nevertheless, the legitimization offered by these divine messengers was most critical for the “suspect” areas of Dee’s interest, such as natural magic and alchemy. For any alchemist or magician, whose claims and craft were often doubted by those around them, angelic authority held an obvious appeal.
Not all alchemists attempted to converse with angels the way Dee and Kelley did. Nevertheless, alchemical knowledge was often attributed to divine revelation, and alchemical texts and imagery regularly incorporated biblical themes and ideas, including angels. Although not as direct as Dee’s claims, the pervasive presence of supernatural imagery within late medieval and early modern alchemy might reasonably be viewed as a subtle form of legitimization via association with the divine.
Discover more about "Through a Glass Darkly" exhibition through PUL's online exhibition.
Read more about other objects in the exhibit through the Inside the Milberg Gallery series.
The exhibition will run from April 6 through July 17, 2022. It is open daily from noon to 6 p.m. All visitors must sign-in and attest to being fully up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccinations.
Through a Glass Darkly: The Visual Culture of Alchemy conference will be held May 26-28, 2022 at Princeton University. This conference will explore the visual language of alchemy within the broader cultural and intellectual context of pre-modern Europe. Visit ripleyscrolls.princeton.edu for more information.
Published May 26, 2022
Written by: Wesley Viner. Wesley Viner is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science Program at Princeton University, where he is completing a dissertation on biblical interpretation and natural philosophy in the early modern period.
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications