Depicting the Medieval Alchemical Cosmos: George Ripley’s Wheel of Inferior Astronomy

Picture from a 1550 edition of On the Sphere of the World, the most influential astronomy textbook of 13th-century Europe.Depicting the Medieval Alchemical Cosmos: George Ripley’s Wheel of Inferior Astronomy

Jennifer M. Rampling (University of Cambridge)

Early Science and Medicine: 18-1-12 (2013)45-86


Alchemical images take many forms, from descriptive illustrations of apparatus to com- plex allegorical schemes that link practical operations to larger cosmological structures. I argue that George Ripley’s famous Compound of Alchemy (1471) was intended to be read in light of a circular figure appended to the work: the Wheel. In the concentric circles of his “lower Astronomy,” Ripley provided a terrestrial analogue for the planetary spheres: encoding his alchemical ingredients as planets that orbited the earthly ele- ments at the core of the work. The figure alludes to a variety of late medieval alchemical doctrines. Yet the complexity of Ripley’s scheme sometimes frustrated later readers, whose struggles to decode and transcribe the figure left their mark in print and manuscript.

The heavenly bodies of medieval Aristotelianism moved in circles, incorruptible and immutable. Far below in the terrestrial sphere, European alchemists pursued change. Whether seeking to transmute base metals into silver and gold, or sick bodies into firm and healthy ones, exponents of alchemy sought to achieve remarkable physical transformations, which they sometimes strove to represent in pictorial form. These forms varied, as did the range of alchemical theories and practical procedures that coexisted in late medieval Europe. In this variety, we can witness the efforts of diverse practitioners to represent phenomena inaccessible to the eye alone: the hidden principles and structures of matter, and the means by which these might be manipulated and brought to fruition. Yet one recurring feature of alchemical iconography is its frequent departure from earthly realms, through the evocation of astronomical figures and cosmological schemes.


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