"While these Discontents continued, severall Letters past between Queene Elizabeth and Doctor Dee, whereby perhaps he might promise to returne; At length it so fell out, that he left Trebona and took his Iourney for England. The ninth of Aprill he came to Breame… Here that famous Hermetique Philosopher, Dr Henricus Khunrath of Hamburgh came to visit him." - Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, (London, 1652), cited in Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
I'M a bit obsessed with the Elizabethan occult author John Dee (even wrote a good chunk of his Wikipedia page), but I know very little about the man who the famed historian Frances Yates considered to be the critical link between Dee and the Continental tradition of European alchemy, Heinrich Khunrath. Last year I came across some of the book plates from Khunrath's occult work Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg, 1595), or "The Amphitheater of Eternal Knowledge," and was floored by their complexity and beauty. Remarkably, only three copies of the first edition of this work are known to exist. The University of Wisconsin Library has been good enough to scan the images of its copy and make them available online along with an excellent critical history of the book (here). The same site also offers a good overview of the little that is known about Khunrath's biography.
|"The Cosmic Rose"|
|"The Alchemist's Laboratory." Each object bears a Latin motto offering advice|
for the alchemical adept. For instance, the still reads FESTINA LENTE
("hasten slowly"), the personal motto of Emperor Augustus.
|"The Four, the Three, the Two, the One."|
|Click image for a much larger version. Transcription of the text here.|
|Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica|
(London, 1564), frotispiece.
So what are we to make of all this? Quite a few scholars have examined Khunrath's Ampitheatre. In her book The Alchemy of Light, Urszula Szulakowska, for instance, argues that the engravings in Khunrath's texts
are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystic alchemy can take place through the act of visual contemplation… Khunrath's theatre of images, like a mirror, catoptrically reflects the celestial spheres to the human mind, awakening the empathetic faculty of the human spirit which unites, through the imagination, with the heavenly realms. Thus, the visual imagery of Khunrath's treatises has become the alchemical quintessence, the spiritualized matter of the philosopher's stone (9).
|A 17th century portrait engraving of|
On the other hand, the visual interest of these magnificent images is arguably all the greater owing to the unknowable mysteries that now surround their creation and meaning.