Category Archives: Art

Now you see it? No you don’t! Images in Alchemical Manuscripts

By Anke Timmermann

The scene seems almost idyllic: a stone basin in a green landscape, a stylised cloud floating above with the heads of three blond, chubby cherubs. But then we realise that the sweet, angelic faces are spitting a greenish-blue liquid into the tub, from whence it flows through a spout into a glass vessel. This means business!

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

The business at hand is the manufacture of the philosophers’ stone as outlined in the Rosarium Philosophorum, a popular alchemical tractate first printed in 1550. It represents one of the increasing number of illustrated alchemica that emerged from the fifteenth century onwards. Manuscript pages came to life with pictures of alchemical metaphors previously confined to descriptions. Colourful animals or humanoid figures (representing substances) were now shown engaged in activities (chemical processes and reactions), from knowing each other in the Biblical sense to mutual ingestion, in fiery or watery environments alike.

But, as exciting as this development was, alchemical practitioners still needed to translate imagery into practical terms to make sense of these ‘visual recipes’. Like the interpretation of recipe texts, and especially in combination with verbal recipes, this proved to be a difficult task. Today it is historians who try to find a recipe for the meaningful description and analysis of alchemical images.[1] Here the little flask above, gathering the angelic fluids so faithfully, demonstrates how complex the business of alchemical history can be.

Glass vessels feature prominently in alchemical images from the late medieval and early modern period. The image above might indicate the use of an actual glass flask in this step of the manufacturing process, or, more likely, simply be intended to conjure up the mental image of gathering liquids with any appropriate vessel. However, in many visual alchemical scenes such as the Splendor Solis series or the Ripley Scrolls, drawn glass containers were clearly not intended to represent actual equipment, but rather to provide a visual frame for a process depicted in figurative form.

The translucence of glass benefited the artist aiming to reveal alchemical processes within a conceptual, as opposed to actual, space. By contrast, in actual laboratory practice, glass vessels were generally only used for distillation “where they may be used without fear of breaking or melting”.[2] What we see, and what contemporary readers saw, in these ‘visual recipes’ is not an object, but a concept.

Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

A much more pragmatic depiction of a similar flask may be found alongside Albertus Magnus’s appropriately-named Straight Path in the Art of Alchemy in GUL MS Hunter 110. This manuscript is roughly two hundred years older than the copy of the Rosarium Philosophorum above. Instantly recognisable as a receiver for distilled liquid, drawn complete with the entire apparatus, this flask nevertheless surprises in comparison with the previous image: this illustration does not show any liquid either before or after distillation. Such detail would have been realistic, but perhaps unnecessary for contemporary readers to understand the experimental setup.

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Our final image could be mistaken for a regular kitchen if it weren’t for the distilling apparatus shown in the foreground[3]. This piece of equipment was familiar to readers who had an alchemical background from practical manuscripts (like the previous one), but also to those employing distillation for medicinal or other purposes. This image reminds us of the intersection of alchemical recipes with those of other recipe literatures, in word and image.

What is particularly wonderful about this image is a detail that might be overlooked when considered in isolation from the other illustrations: the liquid in the receiving vessel is shown to stand at an even, calm level, while the liquid in the heated vessel is boiling, bubbles clearly visible. The present, nervous reader of this manuscript cannot help but worry about the stability of the glass, which could melt or break at any moment. It is only in comparison with other flask depictions that this detail emerges.

Questions about different purposes of illustration as well as local, temporal and individual preferences in visualising different aspects of the alchemical work come to mind. But is this a detail contemporary readers would have picked up on?

Well, now I see it. But maybe I shouldn’t.

My focus on the flask, just for the purposes of this blog post, was inspired by Tillmann Taape’s excellent recent post on distillation.

[1] Two seminal articles in this area are Barbara Obrist, ‘Visualization in Medieval Alchemy’, HYLE-International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 9 (2003), 131-70; see also Obrist’s earlier oeuvre on alchemical images. And Christoph Lüthy and Alexis Smets, ‘Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,’ Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009 ), 398-439.

[2] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1651), Book I. See also Tillmann Taape’s posts on this blog.

[3] This manuscript is described and analysed in Paul Engle, “Depicting Alchemy: Illustrations from Antonio Neri’s 1599 Manuscript”, in Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, ed., Glass of the Alchemists (New York, NY, 2008), 48-61.

Dyeing Wool in Seventeenth-Century Germany

by Karin Leonhard (Research Scholar, MPIWG) and David Brafman (Curator for Rare Books, Getty Research Institute)

1The Getty Research Institute harbors an artisan’s recipe book for dyeing wool, ca. 1680, with supplementary papers that date from 1653-1762. The book contains 135 leaves, it is illustrated, and it is written in German. What is particularly interesting is its internal structure: this book is arranged alphabetically by the names of colors, and it contains the original samples of dyed wool. “Each section is ornamented by large calligraphic initials and there are other watercolor devices and drawings throughout. The first part of the volume contains recipes for making grey, blue, yellow, orange, red, purple, brown and black, with dyed samples of raw wool affixed by means of red sealing wax. The second and third part of the volume contains recipes for dyeing felt and woven wool cloth, with samples. The manual was probably used in a shop producing and selling heavy woolen cloth for cloaks and overcoats.”[1] Also contained in the volume is a recipe for black ink which will not fade, 1682, and instructions on how to play the lute, with musical scores included (there is a musical scholar interested in exactly this question: when and where are musical scores integrated in recipe books? Please do let us know about other examples). Miscellaneous papers include an example of calligraphy, two bills for herbs used in dyeing, 1677, 1679, and genealogical papers and correspondence of the Brinck and Zillessen families of Gladbach, 1762, who were still in the textile dyeing business in 1908. The torn front page conveys the fragments of the compiler’s name (“Abraham Dederix”) and the date (“Anno 1653”).


From the start of the book, a black raven features in an elaborate, though amateurish illustration. This motif accompanies the reader throughout the book, at some point turning into an allegory of “autumn” (“Der Herbst”) itself, close to an instruction on “How to dye ash color” possibly indicating an alchemical interpretation of color generation and chromatic change that ranges between black and white (fig. 2). This drawing is accompanied by a depiction of two pilgrims wandering through a bleak landscape and an inscription linking to the expectation of death and the day of the last judgment (“Jüngste Tag”). The book itself is compiled “Zur Ehren deßen, der da is […], und der dasein wird das alffa und omega, der anfang und das Ende. Hosianna in excelsis“ („In honour of who is […] the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Hosianna in excelsis”) (fig. 3).


An alphabetical register, cut into the pages, structures the entries throughout, so that several pages remain blank, while others convey not only detailed instructions on how to achieve specific colors in wool dyeing but also contain original samples – many of them have kept their original freshness, as can be seen in the example of “How to achieve orange color” (“Vor Oranien zu farben”, fig. 4).


Most interesting are entries that demonstrate the change of color hue and saturation w6hen textiles are dyed for one, two, three or four hours respectively (fig. 5). Additional papers supply a list of herbs and plants used as colorants, with their names listed both in German and in Latin. A crucial next step in studying the manuscript would be to organize art technological tests of the samples and then compare the results to the information about the ingredients and chemical instructions provided by the recipes themselves.



All images in this post are taken from Getty Research Institute Library Manuscript 910012 ‘Artisan’s recipe book for dyeing wool, ca. 1680, and other papers, 1653-1762’ and are reproduced with kind permission from the Institute.

[1] See the entry in the library’s catalogue.



The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books (1400-1570) Part II: Between written and oral transmission

By Sylvie Neven

The literature of artistic and technological recipes frequently serves as a source for historical study in art technology. However, to date, the nature and the original function of artists’ recipe books have not been clearly determined. The relevance and the reliability of this form of writing continue to be issues debated by scholars, with no conclusions forthcoming. Two different hypotheses have been put forward regarding the aim of this type of literature. On the one hand, these texts have been seen as manuals that may have been used by artists. On the other hand, these recipes often seem to have been transmitted for the purposes of literary preservation, not directly connected with contemporary workshop practices.

During my PhD research, an attempt to answer these questions was made using a delimited corpus of such recipe books written during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries : the ‘Strasbourg tradition’. Focusing on the sources themselves, I have combined historical and codicological analysis on the one hand, and philological and critical textual study on the other. In so doing, I have considered the processes of making, compiling and disseminating of these written sources.

Actually, the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition were compiled from three kinds of sources. Firstly, the largest part of their content comes from the copying and the compilation from other written sources. In this case, it can be either older or quoted authorities or contemporary (and quite often anonymous) works. These processes are perceptible through the very important component of textual similarities found in the manuscripts of this tradition. Obviously, religious institutions – and their libraries – from which I have previously determined that most of the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition originate, appear to be a privileged place, offering scribes the opportunity of copying and compiling such collections. Moreover, several scribes have given information concerning the resources they used for compiling the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition. In fact, they collected data from the libraries of neighbouring cloisters. For example, during his stay at St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s Cloister (Augsburg), Wolfgang Seidel the author of two recipe books of this tradition[1] made use of the cloister’s vast collection of books, as attested in his commentaries:

So vill vom geschenckh hab ich auss der liberej des closters zw sant vlrich zw Augspurg lassen abschreiben durch ain knaben des namen ist Walthasar Gech von Fiessen im 1550 Jahr [2]

Secondly, the scribes also cite the authorities from which they have obtained practical information. These authorities may be either practitioners (artists) or contemporary scholars. The artists whose names are  mentioned in the texts were mostly working near the area in which the recipe books were produced. In the Strasbourg Manuscript, the anonymous scribe states that the data he has recorded came from the teaching of two persons, namely Heinrich von Lubegge and Andres von Colmar as suggested by the opening sentences: ‘Dis ist von varwen die mich lert meister heinrich von Lübegge’ (‘This is about colours as Heinrich von Lübegge taught me’) and ‘Dis lehrt mich meister Andres von Colmar’ (‘Andres von Colmar taught me this’). One person has been identified as Andreas Claman, who was painter and goldsmith, active in Strasbourg during the second half of the fourteenth century.

Exchanges are also known to have taken place between scribes and contemporary scholars. For example, Wolfgang Seidel specifies several times that he is indebted to the Bishop of Freising for some recipes that he subsequently includes in his recipe books. Seidel also cites Bartholomew Schobinger, a jurist from St. Gallen, who is famed for his deep interest in natural sciences and alchemy.

Finally, some recipes could correspond to a personal contribution of the scribe. It is interesting to note that the scribe of the Strasbourg Manuscript uses the first-person singular, which is relatively rare in artists’ recipe books. Moreover, he clearly explains that he is divulging his own training:

Now, I want to teach how one should temper all the colours with glue to apply them on wood, on wall or on textile.

In the first folio of the Cgm 4118, Wolfgang Seidel explains that for the writing of his recipe books he has used both written –and older- sources and information collected from his contemporaries, but he has also refered on his own practical experience:

De arte fusoria Rhapsodia partim ex uetusta quadam Biblioteca, partim uero bonorum amicorum colatione cum sumata, opera autem et labore fratris Wolffgangi Sedelij in vnum collecta in solacium et commodum fusorie artis studiosorum[3]

The diversity of sources and persons from which these collections of recipes derive can be seen in relation to their context of creation and their function. These manuscripts were mostly written in religious centres and circulated outside the artists’ workshop. One might suggest that they played a more important role in the conservation and transmission of artists’ knowledge than in the teaching of artistic practices, reflecting the workshops’ activity. In parallel, some of these recipe books may be used to identify specific, datable practices, especially when their compilers specify the name and/or place of origin of the artists (or the authority) from whom they obtained their information.

For the first post in this series on artists’ recipe books, please see my “Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book“.


[1] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4117 and Cgm 4118.

[2] ‘So many presents I have let copy from the library of the Cloister St Ulrich in Augsbourg, by a young boy who’s name is Walthasar Gech von Fiessen in the year 1550’, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, fol. 128v.

[3] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, f. 1r.

The Recipe Collection of the Last Medici Princess

By Ashley Buchanan

Two summers ago in the state archive of Florence I discovered, filed under the heading of “miscellaneous Medici,” a simple sleeve which held a collection of over 200 recipes that belonged to the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743). Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz (1658-1716), Elector Palatine. She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During her twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone, produced a Medici heir. With the death of her father and both of her brothers, Anna Maria Luisa became the last Medici.

Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Electress Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes covered topics as diverse as rare paint colors, desserts, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine. One rather strange recipe to control infant convulsions or a periodic fever (terzana) detailed how to make a powder from the precipitation of a pulverized skull of a man who died violently but was never buried, oriental pearls, red and white coral, yellow amber, and peony roots and seeds. Another simply prescribed female rhino blood for strokes and general blood flow, and yet another recipe recommended the vaginal insertion of St. Ignatius beans to “lower the monster of women.”[1]

Intrigued at what I had uncovered, I read on. I found that many of the recipes were straightforward directions for combining listed ingredients, like the infant convulsion powder, while others incorporated more complex alchemical techniques such as steeping, pulverizing, fermentation, and distillation. One of the recipes for fever water (acqua da febbre) called for the creation of a poisonous plant tincture and distillation of sulfur. The recipe then instructed to mix one ounce of each with Capraggine water (made from a European shrub) and leave it sealed to ferment in the sun for two days.

Pieces of folded paper and letters of correspondence grouped many of the recipes within the collection, making a few distinct categories apparent—techniques to create rare or secret paint colors and dye marble, the whitening of silks and lace, culinary recipes, and medicinal recipes and therapeutics. The sequential and identical page numbers penciled in at the top of every page indicated that these categories were the product of later archivists.

In addition to recipes for fever water, perfumes, and ointments, directions for applying balsams, and therapeutics for epilepsy and pleurisy (lung pain or inflammation), Anna Maria Luisa’s collection also included a lengthy and detailed Portuguese inventory of raw medicinal materials. This inventory not only listed materia medica, like roots and seeds from the Kingdom of Manica, beans from Manila, and “bread” from Timor, it also detailed the uses and virtues of each. Two pages, one written in Portuguese the other in Italian, were dedicated to the uses and virtues of Pietre Cordiali, or Goa Stones. The unknown author of the inventory explained that these stones, created by the lay Jesuit Gaspar Antonio, were the best heart medicines he had ever found, but could also be used to combat fevers, animal venom, poisons, and even kidney stones.

(, via Wikimedia Commons
Late 17th Century/Early 18th Century Goa Stone and container, Metropolitan Museum of Art (, via Wikimedia Commons

After reading through her collection, it was clear that Anna Maria Luisa collected recipes from her family’s ducal pharmacy (some of the recipes credit the Medici fonderia or are stamped with the Medici crest), received and exchanged recipes via courtly epistolary networks, and gathered exotic raw medicinal materials through Italian and Portuguese trade networks and Jesuit missionaries. As I read through the inventories of raw materials, it became apparent that Anna Maria Luisa’s collection was not only the product of European courtly customs, but was also connected to exploration, colonial expansion, and global exchanges through trade and missionary commerce, all of which facilitated the movement of people, things, and knowledge. 

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes have become the foundation of my dissertation, which I have just begun researching. I look forward to sharing my findings as I search for what motivated Anna Maria Luisa to collect recipes, who (if anyone) she exchanged recipes with, and how she learned of the exotic raw materials she collected. On a larger scale, I hope this project offers the opportunity to study how people or groups outside institutional medicine contributed to the creation, dissemination, and legitimization of emerging scientific and medicinal knowledge. In this case, how did a Medici princess, courtly scientific patronage, Italian and Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and indigenous populations contributed to the discourse of early modern medicine through recipes?

[1] The rhino blood, presumably from Africa–“Dos Sangue d Abbada, Serve este sangue para cursos, e fluxos de sangue.” And the St. Ignatius beans from the Philippines–“Para fave (fazer) abaixar o menstro das molheres”