February 26, 2013
The Allegorical Laboratory: Michael Maier’s Alchemical Emblem Book Atalanta fugiens (1617), and the Art of Technology
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Brown Bag Lecture
Location: Chemical Heritage Foundation
CHF holds a 1618 edition of Michael Maier’s extraordinary alchemical emblem book, Atalanta fugiens, best known to historians of science for its 50 exquisite engravings of emblems that visually render the hermetic vocabulary. But Atalanta’s emblems are also paired with scored music for three voices—Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apple, the three alchemical protagonists in Maier’s work who represent the elemental triad of Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. Maier’s work has yet to be studied in its multimedial totality; moreover, scholarship has not advanced beyond considering Atalanta as a fantastical allegorical expression of hermetic philosophy. Drawing from the Othmer Library’s rich collection of rare alchemical treatises, this paper presents evidence demonstrating that Atalanta fugiens is an allegorically enciphered manual whose synthesis of music, image, and text fully articulates the alchemical system and delineates the laboratory procedure (and in certain emblems apparatus as well) used by adepts attempting to produce the philosophers’ stone, the great arcanum that would restore prelapsarian perfect health and longevity to humankind. Maier’s Atalanta fugiens thus exemplifies the intersection of alchemical theory and the technologies that defined early modern alchemical laboratory operations, and this investigation of Maier’s unique alchemical treatise opens up new dimensions to our understanding of premodern scientific practice.
Donna Bilak is a Ph.D. candidate at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City and is in the final writing stage of her dissertation, “The Chymical Cleric: Science, Theology, and the Praxis of John Allin, Puritan Alchemist in England and America (1623–1683).” Bilak’s research areas cover early modern history of science with a particular interest in alchemical laboratory process, as well as 19th- and early 20th-century history of jewelry design and technology. Her interest in Michael Maier’s unique alchemical emblem book, Atalanta fugiens, began at CHF in December 2011 while conducting research for her dissertation at the Othmer Library.