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A Review of The Alchemy of the Philosophers, by Salvador Dali 

In 1976, Salvator Dalí (1904-1989) published 275 numbered and signed copies of a portfolio  called Alchimie des Philosophes. Textes et manuscrits alchimiques anciens repris en facsimilé. Traductions originales inédits en français et anglais, by the publisher Editions Art et Valeur. The Alchemy of the Philosophers required four years of production to complete. Some of the copies are in French and English, and some in French and Italian.

The Alchemy of the Philosophers was created during a time when Dalí's health was declining and he wasn't painting anymore. His wife, living in a separate mansion, urged him to produce prints, in order to continue their financial income. The probably is why Dalí decided to make a unique alchemical creation, without actually understanding what alchemy was about, as we will show below.

The Alchemy of the Philosophers was in the form of an elephant folio (Elephant folios are large folios up to 23 inches in height) edition. It contained 10 large prints of etchings, measuring 22 ½" by 30 ¼" (57 x 77 cm), loose and issued in protective sleeves. It was housed together with two text volumes: the original alchemical texts in facsimile and accompanying translations. They were held together in a leather-covered hinged box with decorative wheel measuring 25 by 32-1/2 by 8 inches. The ten mixed-media original etchings each incorporate semi-precious and precious stones into the design. Each of the six chapters of text is preceded by an original drawing by Dalí reproduced by screen print.

The center of the front cover of the portfolio has a movable wheel containing mercury, a feature conceived of by Dalí after the theme of Raymond Lulle’s Roues Combinatoires (Combinative Wheels).

Dali made the ten prints by three different works, combined and superimposed through the processes of lithography, serigraphy and copperplate engraving.

The plates depict classic alchemical symbols. An accompanying booklet provides a brief description of each plate.

Dali with a copy of The Alchemy of Philosphers

Dali with a copy of The Alchemy of Philosophers, to show the large size of the folio.



The Box

The Prints

The Serigraphs

The Texts


The Box

Salvator Dali, the box 

Salvator Dali, the wheel 

Monogram of Dalí on top of a 'wheel'. The wheel is made of resin injected with mercury. This resin wheel depicts a circle containing a triangle containing a square containing a circle. This mathematical concept is taken from Philosophia reformata by Johan Daniel Mylius, 1622:

Philosophia reformata

The only difference is that Dali put the triangle upside down. 

The cover of the box are reproductions of a 17th century work:

Ars magna sciendi: one of the pages that contains the wheels

Ars magna sciendi: one of the pages that contains the wheels

The design of the box is reproduced from Ars magna sciendi, in XII libros digesta, a book by Athanasius Kircher (1669). Kircher made an attempt to use logic to categorize all knowledge under the nine attributes of God, an expansion of the Combinatoric Art of Ramon Lull, by displaying them graphically in the form of tables and wheels. Dalí made another mistake by adopting the wheels from this book. Raymon Lull (c.1232–c1315/16) was widely thought of as an alchemist because of certain legends of transmutation he allegedly performed. These legends took hold well after his death. Lull, in fact, was a Christian theologian and was not engaged in any alchemical practices.  Ars magna sciendi is a book about theology, medicine, and logic, not alchemy. It only contained Christian doctrines with logical principles in order to teach the truths of Christian faith to other cultures.

The Prints

The ten prints, created on special hand-finished vellum. The various plates combine the three distinct printing processes of lithography, serigraphy, and dry point engraving. These prints are colored and decorated with precious and semi-precious stones. As artwork, the prints are surrealistic, but they seem to be hotchpotch of unrelated elements. 

The prints are labeled as:

La Table d'emeraude (The Emerald Table)

Le Roi et la reine (The King and Queen)

Le Phénix (The Phoenix)

Le Songe d'un alchimiste ou l'arbre de vie (The Philosopher's Dream or the Tree of Life)

Le Yin et le Yang (Yin and Yang)

L'Ouroboros (The Ouroboros)

Le reuset philosophal (The Philosopher's Crucible)

L'Ange de l'alchimie (The Angel of Alchemy)

Le Labyrinthe (The Labyrinth)  

L'Immortalité (Immortality)


The Emerald Tablet

The emerald tablet    The emerald tablet detail

An jewel cut black-and-white emerald contains a nude female with snails emerging from her armpits and morphing into her breasts. Instead of a human head, a tree sprouts from the woman's shoulders. The drops of water around the jewel are supposed to be a reference to the gathering of the dew from Mutus Liber. The stick figures are pilgrims. What all this has to do with the Emerald Tablet is beyond me. The Emerald tablet is a collection of hermetic teachings that made its way to the Western alchemists in the 16th century. The emerald by itself is not featured in alchemical symbolism.


The King and Queen

The King and Queen     The King and Queen, detail

The White Queen and the Red King are often portrayed in alchemical iconography. The White Queen stands for the second phase of Albedo or Whiteness, and the Red King for the third phase of Rubedo, Redness. They need to be joined as Rubedo is the permanence of Albedo. In this painting the color scheme is off, with blue on the Queen's dress and a green crown, while the King has a red crown, but  a grey dress.

 In a square-cut b/w jewel, we have geological structures, the head of crowned giraffe, and a swan-woman emerging from the mouth of a fish. What this has to do with The King and Queen, I have no idea.


The Phoenix

The Phoenix     The Phoenix, detail

The phoenix is the symbol of rebirth. A female body with the head of a bird, engulfed in flames. Below is a nude man, and behind him a figure riding a horse. What has this to do with the phoenix?


The Philosopher's Dream or the Tree of Life

The Philosopher's Dream or the Tree of Life

The Philosopher's Dream or the Tree of Life, details

The tree of Life here is not a tree but two vines intertwined, resembling the caduceus. left and right is a woman and a man both holding a flower. The face in the upper right corner seems to be that of Mercury, because of the wing on his head.


Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang, detail

Yin and Yang was not known in Western alchemy, but can be found as a philosophical concept in Chinese alchemy. The center of the painting has the typical Chinese Yin/Yang symbol. At the top left is a green woman, underneath the b/w jewel is a red horse rider; in the jewel itself another horse rider.




A quite different painting. Ouroboros is the serpent that bites its tail, always depicted in the form of a circle as it symbolizes the unity of all. Dalí went the opposite way, and cut Ouroboros in many pieces. It also looks more like an eel, not like a serpent. In the middle is yin/yang but the halves are separating. In the jewel are a lot of ants crawling, with two figures walking, and a man riding a horse (again).


The Philosopher's Crucible

The Philosopher's Crucible

A crucible is a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. I don't see a crucible in this painting. There is a fiery red geological formation, resembling a cave, with a stick figure in it. At the most it might a representation of an oven.  Below is a pilgrim, men fighting and as always a man riding a horse. Did Dalí not understand the different between a crucible and an oven? The grey circle at the top of the painting is a crown.


The Angel of Alchemy

The Angel of Alchemy

When an angel in alchemy is depicted it is shown as a beautiful being, as it represent the purified soul. Dalí's angel is an aggressive, chaotic looking being, out of proportion with a small head and red eyes. A depiction of his own soul?


The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth     The Labyrinth, detail

I only know of one alchemical emblem that depicts a labyrinth, and that is in the Dutch alchemical book De Groene Leeuw  by Goossen van Vreeswijk, from 1674. In only two other alchemical books, the labyrinth is briefly mentioned as a symbol for the often confusing alchemical texts. It certainly was not a common alchemical symbol, nor did it symbolize any alchemical concepts or processes. The labyrinth was well-known for its religious significance, as at the center resided the Minotaur, half man-half bull, the symbol for animal passions that needed to be killed (by Theseus). Theseus also needed the thread of Ariadne, the daughter of the king, to find his way out of the labyrinth. None of this is depicted in this painting. The nude man and woman in the center of this labyrinth, joining hands and thus pointing to their (alchemical) union, is totally misplaced as it has nothing to do with the labyrinth. Again, Dalí does not understand alchemical language.



Immortality     Immortality, detail

Some alchemists did not seek the transmutation of base metals into gold, but wanted the Elixir of Life to obtain immortality. The face of the figure is replaced by a pear-cut jewel. The center of the jewel contains another face, this time replaced by 4 concentric circles. In the largest circle is a pilgrim. In the very center is a egg with cracks on its shell; this could mean a rebirth. There is angel at the top of the jewel, while on both sides we find two a female and male figure, and underneath them are two faces of demons. Does it make any sense to you?

Dalí was known to create confusion, and to create bizarre and surrealistic depictions. The prints of Alchimie des Philosophes have symbols and themes from alchemy, but it seems that Dalí himself didn't understand what alchemy is about. Considering this artwork was made at the end of his life, when he was depressed (because his wife was living elsewhere),  falling ill, and being short on money, it seems more like an attempt to create renewed interest, and not a sincere study in alchemy. Overall, the prints are a jumbling together of different alchemical concepts, often unrelated to each other, while at other times, he totally misrepresented the alchemical meaning of the symbols. The men riding horses and other figures have no meaning at all in regards to alchemy.

What is even more important, namely what is NOT present in the paintings, but are essential alchemical symbols: Nigredo or blackness, the skull, the black raven, the god Mercury, the seven planets or planetary metals, the Sun and the Moon, the vessel, cucurbit or distillation apparatus, the athanor, etc.

Nevertheless, a copy of Alchimie des Philosophes goes for around 16,000 USD!

The Serigraphs

Serigraphy is traditionally called silkscreen printing, because silk was used in the process but now synthetic threads are commonly used. It is a printing technique where a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate.

Dalí made six drawings that illustrate the title pages that refer to six cultural locations where alchemy was practiced. They are not alchemical images, but more typical cultural images.

Chinese alchemy

Alchemy in China

with text from Pao Pou Tseu

Alchemy in India

Alchemy in India

with text from Sarvadarcanasamgraha


Alchemy in Greece

Alchemy in Greece

with text from The Visions of Zosimos


Alchemy in Arabia

Alchemy in Arabia

with text from Lawh Az-Zummurrud

Alchemy in the West

Alchemy in the West

with text from Turba Philosophorum

Alchemy of the Hebrews

Alchemy of the Hebrews

with text from Sefer Ha-Zohar


The Texts

From the description included in the box, the second part of the collection includes the facsimiles of alchemical manuscripts. The documents were taken from works found in the Bibliotheca Marciana in Venice, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, at the King’s College Library in Cambridge, in the Indian Office Library in London, at the Library of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in the Bibliothèque Nationale et l'Arsenal in Paris and in the Bibliothèques du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Each text in the folio contains one sample page from the original manuscript, and a two column translation of the text in two languages.

Two of the texts are not alchemical:

The Emerald Tablet is not an alchemical text. It is a spiritual text attributed to the legendary Hellenistic figure Hermes Trismegistus. The text first appears in a number of early medieval Arabic sources, the oldest of which dates to the late 8th or early 9th century. It arrived in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin several times in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Western alchemist then added these teachings into their philosophies.

The Romance of the Rose is a medieval poem written in Old French and presented as an allegorical dream vision. As poetry, The Romance of the Rose is a notable instance of courtly literature, purporting to provide a "mirror of love" in which the whole art of romantic love is disclosed. It has absolutely no connection to alchemy.

The Visions of Zosimos is about a sequence of dreams that contains a story of death and resurrection that is basically gnostic in origin, although Zosimus of Panopolis (350-420) was a Greek alchemist.

He could have made a much better choice from the thousands of truly alchemical texts available. I wonder if he ever read any of the text he included in his Alchimie des Philosophes.