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Alchemy and Colour

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Alchemical scroll, England, first half of the 16th century

Alchemy, a discipline that prepared the ground for early modern chemistry and experimental science, focused on the transmutation of ‘base’ metals (lead, tin) into ‘noble ones’ (silver, gold).  Since metals were commonly associated with celestial bodies, some artists’ recipes used the names of planets and metals interchangeably: for instance, the Sun for gold, the Moon for silver and Venus for copper. The transformation of artists’ materials was often understood in alchemical terms. Cennino Cennini’s 14th-century treatise on painting described six colours on his palette as ‘made by alchemy.’ 

This is the largest and finest of some twenty scrolls associated with the English alchemist George Ripley (died c.1490). The images and allegorical poems summarise the stages in the creation of the philosopher’s stone and the transformation of ‘base’ metals into ‘noble’ ones. Most of the pigments were applied later, but the original materials – white paper, black iron-gall ink and red vermilion ink – represent the colours of the alchemical path. They signal the stages of transformation: from a base metal like lead (black) through silver (white) to gold (red).

Cat. 25 - Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 276 Given by James W.L. Glaisher in 1914

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