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Comparing the alchemical “Ripley Scroll” to the Voynich Manuscript in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Project (2018-)

The Dark Glass: Alchemy in Image, Text, and Practice

This project investigates how early modern alchemists used images to explain unseen processes. Dynamic chemical processes, involving change at a level inapprehensible to the senses, eluded direct observation even as they produced dramatic (and potentially lucrative) macroscopic effects. The ability of fixed matter to become volatile—even to “disappear” from sight, and then reappear—also evoked wider theological and medical debates about the relationship between body and soul, corporeal and incorporeal substances, and the generation of new entities from earlier states of being. From diagrammatic wheels and alphabets inspired by the philosophy of Ramon Llull to allegorical representations of the philosophers’ stone as a suffering and resurrected Christ, alchemical images point to practitioners’ attempts to accommodate their own interpretations and experiences within familiar, authoritative schemes. By studying changes in alchemical image-making over two centuries, I seek evidence that alchemy offers a new, rich source for studying changes in English religious and medical culture, both before and after the Reformation.

The resulting book, The Dark Glass, will draw not only on historical texts and images, but also my own attempts to reconstruct alchemical experiments in a modern laboratory. Through attempting to decipher these procedures, I aim to recover some of the interpretative and technical strategies employed by early modern alchemists who also sought to “replicate” the instructions of earlier authorities.