Twenty-two exquisitely coloured illustrations make Splendor Solis (1582), one of the most beautiful alchemical manuscripts in existence. There are seven accompanying treatises, purporting to provide all the necessary information for the creation of the Philosophers' Stone, but this is not a lab handbook, nor is it intended as such. The entire manuscript can be viewed on the British Library website, and translations of the text are readily available on the internet, so what I've done here is to consider each picture in considerable detail, bringing out some of the many layers of possible interpretation.
Excerpt from the introduction:
It is no exaggeration to say that Splendor Solis represents the acme of alchemical illustration. There are twenty copies extant, of which the 1582 British Museum (Harley 3469) manuscript is the crowning glory. .... it is not overtly a chemical guide, despite it’s claim to describe ‘the hidden mystery of the old philosophers, as well, as all that nature requires to clearly accomplish the whole work’. Its place is in the library rather than the laboratory. The minutely detailed pictures give immediate delight, but closer inspection reveals layer after layer of suggestion, veiled references, associations, parallels and hints. There are mythological and biblical scenes, so subtly presented they are easy to miss; vibrant depictions of human affairs with an eerily immediate snapshot quality; and the depictions of birds, beasts, insects and flowers are masterfully observed from the life. Botanists, ornithologists and entomologists could have a field day with this work; and I wish they would.
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