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Alchemical Frontispieces

A frontispiece in books is a decorative or informative illustration facing a book's title page. When a book is open to the title page, the frontispiece appears on the left and the title page on the right. The illustration can be purely decorative or informative, or a combination of both. When alchemical books contain frontispieces, they are typically engravings that provide at least some basic information about what the book is about, but some of them contain many symbols, figures and scenes, that give an overview of alchemical concepts or the alchemical process. I have selected a few frontispieces that are both artful and interesting. They are not just decoration but meant to give you an idea what alchemy is about.


Le Tableau des riches inventions

La Toyson d'Or

Le Triomphe hermetique


Le Tableau des riches inventions

Le Tableau des riches inventions

Le Tableau des riches inventions, 1600

Le Tableau des riches inventions couvertes du voile des feintes amoureuses, qui sont representees dans le Songe de Poliphile, by Franšois Beroalde de Verville, 1600

Franšois Beroalde de Verville said that he created a new translation of the original text, called Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Dream of Poliphilus), written by Francesco Colonna, first published in 1499 in Venice, Italy. He also gave it a new and longer title. The Dream of Poliphilus presents a mysterious arcane romance allegory in which the main protagonist, Poliphilo, pursues his love, Polia, through a dreamlike landscape. In the end, he is reconciled with her by the "Fountain of Venus".

In actuality de Verville rewrote a 1546 translation by Jean Martin, polishing up the language to make it more readable. In the introductory portions of the text de Verville claims that the text contains secret, alchemical messages, and he added a frontispiece that illustrates his thinking. His introduction is quite elaborate and even more arcane that what the well-known alchemical symbols the frontispiece depicts.

The entire scene has to be read from the right bottom clockwise. We see an old man (the ordinary personality of man) on a throne with a book (knowledge) in his hands, the Moon at his face and the Sun at his feet. Next to him is a large circle that contains the elements of Earth, Water and Fire with the signs for the seven planets/metals. All this represents the Chaos, the original state of creation, at the center of which is the Central Fire, inside the central circle, that will drive the entire process. This continuous Central Fire is the driving force which makes the Seed sprout and grow into a tree, as seen left of the circle. Above the tree we see the two dragons, one winged, the other not; duality intertwined and continuously battling with each other. Above it we have the dismembered lion, the animal nature tamed. This leads to rebirth of the soul, symbolized by the Phoenix at the top of the page, with the Horn of Plenty next to it. To the right we have a cut tree stump (the old self), now sprouting a new green twig, which drops a tear that gives rise to the Fountain of Youth.

La Toyson d'Or 

La toyson d'Or

La Toyson d'Or, 1613

La Toyson d'Or (The Golden Fleece), is the French translation of Aureum Vellus, a Latin collection of treatises on alchemy by Salomon Trismosin (15-16th century).

In the center we see a circle with the inscription Visita Interiora TerrŠ Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem or Visit the interior of the earth and by purifying you will find the hidden stone. Inside the circle Mercury is at the center with the other six signs for the planets/metals around it. Sun and moon are pouring their liquids into a cup. The 3 heraldic shields represent Mercury (double eagle), Sulfur (lion) and Salt (star). Right of the star is a circle with stones representing Earth; left is a celestial globe representing the universe.

This frontispiece is to be read from right bottom anticlockwise.

Right are the White Queen and Red King. The moon tree above the queen and the sun tree above the king symbolizes growth during the alchemical process.

The flasks at the top represents different stages in the Great Work. The White Queen on a moon is Albedo, Whiteness. The 3 birds, black, white and red point to repeated distillation. The Red King is Rubedo, Redness. The peacock is the stages with many colors.

The lion eating the sun is a symbol for Aqua Fortis, a corrosive liquor made of saltpeter, serving as a solvent for dissolving silver and all other metals except gold.

Next to it is the Rebis, the union of opposites, but also the transition from Albedo to Rubedo.

The little child at its feet is the symbol for rebirth that follows.

The White Queen with wings (the matter has been volatilized) is holding a red cloth (transition to Rubedo).

Below her is the pelican picking its own blood to feed its children, what is the continuous nourishing of the Matter. The tree is the end result of the growth of the alchemical process. It now has a crown (the end of the process) at the bottom. At the bottom of the tree issues forth a spring, with the Water of Life flowing forth towards the successful alchemist holding a flask with the Elixir in his hand. At the very bottom is the rising Sun, the purified, perfected and illuminated Soul. The cross with banner is the symbol for resurrection from the grave (death and rebirth).

Le Triomphe hermetique 

Le triomphe hermetique

Le Triomphe hermetique, ou La pierre philosophale victorieuse, by Limojon de Saint Didier, edition published in Amsterdam, 1689

This is a French translation by Limojon de Saint Didier of the original German text, called Uhr-alter RitterľKrieg, (The Ancient War of the Knights) composed in German by an unknown author in 1604. The Ancient War of the Knights is a debate between Gold, Mercury and the Philosopher's Stone.

The Four Elements are present: earth, Water flowing two hills, Fire in the center, Air above. At the top the Firmament with the first Three zodiacal signs, symbolizing when the Great Work needs to start. Sun and Moon are radiating their energies onto the glass vessel, heated by the fire below, and we see the vapors rising up inside the vessel. There are three crowns, symbolizing completion of the three phases: Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo. The two serpents around the central staff are a symbol for Mercury, also for the intertwining and union of opposites. Above it is the symbol for Sulfur, here taken for the final accomplishment of the Great Work, with the Phoenix inside its triangle, symbol for rebirth. The triple crown above it also signifies final completion.