The quest for the philosophers’ stone was a major preoccupation of the early modern world. This precious substance was said to transform base metals into silver and gold, heal sickness, and unlock the mysteries of God and nature. Its recipe was a closely guarded secret and a bewildering array of signs and symbols were used, both figuratively and allegorically, to convey key processes and ideas in the search for the fabled stone. This exhibition follows the theme of a recipe using the same sources devised and decoded by the alchemists themselves.
The exhibition displays 22 of the most striking images from the rich collection of the Science Museum’s Library & Archives. Dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, these works reveal the power and intricacy of alchemical art, whilst allowing us to attempt an interpretation of the hidden meanings behind the symbols.
At the heart of the exhibition is a newly discovered manuscript: a Ripley scroll. These rare scrolls include some of the most complex and fascinating alchemical imagery in existence. For the first time, this object can be viewed alongside selected texts and images from the Museum’s collections.Its rich symbolism offers clues – both practical and theoretical – for the creation of the philosophers’ stone.
Only 23 Ripley scrolls are known to exist. This one dates from the 18th century and is the most recently discovered. Scholars believe that all the surviving examples are copies and variations upon a lost 15th-century original. They are named after the famous English alchemist George Ripley, although there is no evidence that Ripley designed the scrolls himself. The scrolls range in size, but are all too long to be viewed and understood in a single glance. Scholars are still investigating how they are meant to be read and used. It is possible that the original scroll was created for a wealthy patron interested in alchemy. Over time, the scrolls have become prized for the quality of their imagery.