Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 9, Vol. 1, Autumnal Equinox 2005
The Imagery of Alchemical Art as a Method of Communication
by Samuel Scarborough
Alchemists, like modern day scientists, would share their findings and works with one another, but there were a couple of problems of the times. One, not all of them spoke or wrote in the same language. An alchemist in Florence may have problems discussing a procedure with a colleague in Prague or Paris, unless they all spoke a language readily available to them. Many did speak and read Latin, which helped with the flow of information between them, but not all the authorities condoned the works of alchemists and writing a procedure in plain language would let the uninitiated into what they were doing. So, how did the alchemical community get around these problems? How could alchemists from various countries and parts of Europe communicate in a safe manner without giving away their secrets? The answers came as allegory and allegorical imagery, which hid, from the uninitiated what was being discussed and shared amongst them.
This form of discussion or conveying information and ideas in allegorical images would later go on to influence several bodies of dramatic initiating orders or lodges. Among these would be the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, particularly the fringe Masonic bodies, and even the magickal orders of the nineteenth century. This idea that images convey a message and power is powerfully illustrated in a line from the Neophyte Initiation Ceremony:
“…for by Names and Images are all Powers awakened and re-awakened.”
The hiding of the various processes of the alchemist in mystery and allegory frequently also confused other alchemists as well as the non-initiated, which made much of the alchemist’s art impenetrable because these processes were mystical as well as chemical. It is here in this paper that we will look at this often misunderstood and nearly forgotten means of communication. The history of alchemy is well documented in various sources, so that will not be discussed here. We will concentrate on some of the terms of alchemy and how these terms are depicted in alchemical art as a means to convey just what the alchemist wanted to reveal of the process of alchemy.Understanding the Images
The art of alchemy reached its pinnacle of achievement during the sixteenth century in Europe. This was mostly from the physical, or applied use of alchemy, and there was a beginning at that time in looking at alchemy as a spiritual aspect, which reached its height in the early seventeenth century with the rise of Rosicrucianism. It was during this period that the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition of the Renaissance received an influx of another hermetic tradition, that of alchemy. As the physical art progressed, so did the need of the diverse alchemists throughout Europe need to be able to communicate with not only each other in the numerous countries and principalities, but also with their students, so that the secrets of the Royal Art would be protected just as the secrets of the goldsmith guilds in those selfsame countries protected its secrets.
The alchemists chose as their means of communication, the use of images and allegory to convey the needed information and ideas associated with their hermetic art. In the numerous collections throughout Europe and in the United States, there is a dizzying array of images conveying the processes and ideas that correspond to the workings of the alchemist’s ultimate goal, the Magnum Opus, or Great Work. This Magnum Opus is the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, which will allow the transmutation of something of a base nature in to something of a divine or higher nature. The most common tale associated with alchemists and their royal patrons at the height of the use of alchemy is the creation of alchemical gold from lead. Other uses of the Philosopher’s Stone, was said to be the creation of the Elixir of Life, thereby granting the drinker immortality or near immortality. In both of these efforts, the alchemist did not have a recipe book in plain language to work by, because each alchemist approached the Magnum Opus from a slightly different point of view, but they each needed to understand the basics of a given operation to achieve their goal.
The works of many noted alchemists, particularly people like Nicholas Flamel (c. 1330-1418), his wife Perenelle, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), Basillius Valentinus (dates unknown), Thomas Norton (circa fifteenth century), Edward Kelly (1555-c. 1597), and the famous scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), all used in their alchemical writings and in some cases their drawings these allegories and allegorical pictures to convey the meaning of what they wanted to get across to the initiated in the art of alchemy. To anyone else though, these allegories and drawings conveyed little meaning.
They used all manner of fanciful pictures, beasts and humans in paintings and drawings to communicate. Lions, phoenixes, crowned kings and queens, trees, eagles, ravens or crows, and serpents of all description and colors are shown in these engravings and paintings, but what do they mean. Since so much of the imagery was drawn from ancient myth and fable, let us look at a few examples of the words or descriptions of the alchemist for the various elements and processes that they wanted to work. What follows is a list of some of the names or terms found in alchemy, and along with the name, the meaning is given:
Aeris: Elemental Air
Aqua: Elemental Water
Aquila Philosophum: “Eagle of the Philosophers”. This is the Mercury of metals, not the actual mercury or quicksilver.
Basilisk: Symbol of the dual nature or conflicting elemental nature.
Bat: Androgyny. Dual natured.
Bee: Soul, purity, or rebirth.
Bennu or Phoenix: Symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Black Dragon: Death, putrification, decay.
Chaos: The Void. The fourfold division of the First Matter (Prima Materia).
Cloud: Gas or vapor.
Dog: Philosophical Mercury.
Double-Headed Eagle: Masculine and feminine Mercury.
Eagle: Sublimation. Mercury in its most exalted state. Can also be an emblem of knowledge, inspiration, and a sign of the completed Magnum Opus.
Egg: The sealed hermetic vessel wherein the work is completed. Symbol of Creation.
Frog: The First Matter (Prima Materia). The origin of physical matter.
Gold: The goal of the Great Work. Perfection and harmony. Complete balance of the masculine and feminine principals.
Great King: The completion of the Magnum Opus. Attainment.
Green Lion: The stem and root of the radical essence of the metals. Raw and unpurified energy of nature. Symbol of the living force sought in the First Matter. The beginning of the work.
Lily: The female principal.
Lion: Heat and sulfurous action.
Luna: The planetary name of Silver. Can also refer to a mixture of antimony and iron. Sometimes the feminine principal.
Orb: The world.
Raven or Crow: Initiation through blackness.
Red Lion: Sulfur (solar energy) combined with Mercury (will). The force of nature under control. It is the same as the Green Lion, but mixed with gold.
The above list is only a partial list of some terms and in many cases the colorful names applied. So from the list above, a picture of a Black Frog would refer to decayed or putrefied First Matter. If there was a symbol or sigil of the planet Jupiter and the alchemical symbol for Elemental Fire , this may indicate that the operation to begin the putrification of the First Matter (Prima Materia) would start on the day and hour of Jupiter (Thursday at sunrise), and that the elemental nature sought is one relating to Elemental Fire. This is just one interpretation of an operation. It is because of these multiple meanings of the symbols used in alchemy that there is such difficulty in understanding them.
One of the most used symbols in alchemical art was the rose. The rose is a symbol of completion, attainment, and perfection. It can also be an emblem of regeneration. Juan Eduardo Cirlot gives the rose the following meanings:
The single rose, is in essence, a symbol of completion, of consummate achievement and perfection. Hence, accruing to it are all those ideas associated with these qualities: the mystic Centre, the heart, the garden of Eros, the paradise of Dante, the beloved, the emblem of Venus and so on. More precise symbolic meanings are derived from the colour and number of its petals. The relationship of the white rose to the red is in accordance with the relationship between the two colours as defined in alchemy. The blue rose is symbolic of the impossible. The golden rose is a symbol of absolute achievement. When the rose is round in shape, it corresponds in significance to the mandala. The seven-petalled rose alludes to the septenary pattern (that is, the seven Directions of Space, the seven days of the week, the seven planets, the seven degrees of perfection). It is in this sense that it appears in emblem DCCXXIII of the Ars Symbolica of Bosch and in the Summum Bonum of Robert Fludd. The eight-petalled rose symbolizes regeneration.
The modern alchemist Johannes Helmond, in discussing the confusing array of emblems and symbols for Mercury had the following to say:
Only the truly informed have the ability to recognize certain marks or signs to indicate which Mercurius is specifically spoken of in the old writings of the adepts. It is therefore not surprising when a famous researcher, such as the well-known Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung could not find his way among the multitude of alchemistical mercury symbols, because he did not possess the key to the old Hermetic symbolic language. Without the key, alchemy remains an obscure puzzle.
A key is needed to break the obscure cipher used by the alchemists of old if there is to be any understanding, and work done using their techniques and methods to achieve the Magnum Opus or Great Work. Like all ciphers or codes, there has to be a key to understanding and decoding the cipher. That is what this paper will do; provide a basic key to unlocking this mystery.
If a person were to want to work with some old alchemical text or group of hieroglyphic emblems and the image of a Red Lion occurred, then the
alchemist would know that this image was a reference to Sulfur combined with Mercury to control the force of nature. Even descriptions written without an image of the red lion could be rather descriptive:
Afterwards take the lion in the pelican which also is found [at] first, when you see its tincture, that is to say, the element of fire which stands above the water, the air, and the earth.
It could also be a reference to the Green Lion mixed with gold. See Figure 1 as an example of what a Red Lion looks like. A Green Lion would really look no different from a Red or a Gold Lion, except in color (see Fig. 2). The imagery of the lion is one of those that are prevalent among alchemical art. You have the various colors of them, red, white, black, gold, and green. The lion’s position in a drawing or paint means something, as does whether the lion is rampant, supine, or standing.
Fig. 2- Green Lion. The beginning of
the Work. The Symbol of the living
force sought in the First Matter.
-Artwork by author.
To further make the Green Lion image a bit more complex, the following figure of a Green Lion in a circle is based on one of the images from The Crowning of Nature, a book of alchemical images from the sixteenth century. This image (Fig. 3) is a bridge of sorts between the artwork for practical alchemy and that for spiritual alchemy. This image can be used to indicate a beginning of the work on a practical or physical level, both doing practical, creating an elixir or tincture, as well as a mandala for meditation to begin the process of cleansing the soul or body of the spiritual alchemist. The description that goes along with the emblem, taken from the book is rather interesting in that it shows how complex the language that often accompanies these emblems can be.
A single image or emblem can be rather easier to figure out, but some of the alchemical drawings become complex. To describe one such drawing: A man and a woman are standing side by side. The man is called Sol, and the woman, Luna. The sun covers the man’s genitals, while a crescent moon covers the woman’s genitals. There is a stream or spray of stars coming from the woman’s right breast. In her left hand she carries a cluster of grapes. Both the man and woman are chained to clouds in the sky. On the chest of each are the emblems for both the sun and moon.Now what exactly does this description represent? According to Dennis William Hauck, who breaks down the above description in the following manner, it means:
Another image that is of importance to any alchemist is that of Azoth, or the perfected man. One of the best-known emblems of this perfect man is from the German alchemist Johnann Basil Valentine’s Azoth of the Philosophers, published in 1659.
This is an interesting image and full of alchemical ideas for an alchemist to meditate and study. If you look at the image in Fig. 4, you will see a man in the center made up of various parts. On the central face is superimposed a downward pointing triangle, representing Water or divine energy flowing into the alchemist and his work. He has a heptagram or seven-pointed star around his face that relates to the seven ancient planets of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol (the Sun), Venus, Mercury, and Luna (the Moon). These are shown in the colors generally associated with them, i.e. black for Saturn, which is for its nature of death; red for Mars, which relates to that planet’s fiery nature or its energizing abilities; and yellow or gold for Sol, as the Sun represented the perfection of matter in most cases for the alchemist. On three of the points of the heptagram are the additional sigils for the three Alchemical Principles of Salt, Sulfur and Mercury. These are the small square for Salt that is on the black point for Saturn, which is the first planet and where to start as the Principle of Salt relates to the physical body of the matter to be worked with. The next principle shown is Sulfur, and it is on the Red point of Mars. This shows the fiery nature of Sulfur as it relates to the force that motivates life and is a transforming energy through heat. The principle of Mercury is shown in the orange point of the heptagram, which is where the planet Mercury is. This represents the idea of Mercury being the universal spirit or life-force that pervades all things.
Between the seven arms of the heptagram are small vignettes or scenes that relate to the seven phases of alchemical work. These are calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, fermentation, distillation, and coagulation. This is the order that the alchemical operation should follow to reach the perfect result. The calcination is the vignette that is the small circle with the black crow on the white skull between the Saturn and Jupiter arms of the heptagram. The word Visita, which is Latin for “to visit” or begin a journey is next to this scene. Black crows or ravens are symbols of the Nigredo or Black Phase of Alchemy. This is the beginning stage in alchemy. The next vignette is a black crow dissolving before its eyes revealing a white or purer component. This refers to the next phase of Dissolution. The Latin in the outer ring next to this vignette is Interiora, indicating that work begins on the interior. The third vignette in this clockwise journey around the circle is the circle that shows the black crow on the ground while two white birds eat or retrieve parts from the crow. This vignette refers to separation, and next to the vignette is the Latin Terrae, meaning “of the earth”. This indicates that real or manifested essences are separated from the remains of matter at this point. The fourth vignette is the one that shows two white birds flying skyward from the ground lifting a golden crown. The Latin in the outer circle is Rectificando, which means “by rectification” or to set things right. The fifth vignette is the two white birds sitting or nesting in a tree. This vignette refers to fermentation. The Latin in the circle next to it is Invenies, which means “you will discover”, referring to the mystical action that takes place in this stage of alchemy. The next vignette is the one showing the white unicorn lying on the ground in front of a rosebush. This refers to distillation, that is the sixth phase. The Latin, Occultum, meaning “secret” or “hidden” is next to this vignette in the outer circle. The seventh and final stage or phase illustrated is the vignette showing an androgynous youth rising from an open grave. The symbol refers to the phase known as coagulation. The Latin next to it is Lapidem, meaning “the stone”, which further refers to the Philosopher’s Stone or the Stone of the Wise, showing that this is the completion of the work.
Behind the man is a downward pointing triangle, in which are the three phases of man, Spiritus (Spirit), Anima (soul), and Corpus (body), which is echoed from the placement of the three Alchemical Principals of Salt, Sulfur, and Mercury on the heptagram. The five smaller stars that surround the Cubic Stone in the Corpus point of the triangle refer to the fifth element or Quintessence. The Stone is a further representation of the Body. While around the heptagram and vignettes is the circle which relates to the completed work that has the words, Visita Interiora Terra Rectificando Inuenies Occultum Lapidem, which is Latin for Visit the interior of the Earth, in rectifying you will discover the hidden stone. Each of the first letters of each word is used to make up the word V.I.T.R.I.O.L. or Vitriol.
The body of the perfected man is perfectly balanced by the four elements of earth, water, fire and air, which the Azoth figure is standing on and has his arms in. One foot is in water, while the other is on firm ground. His right hand holds a torch representing fire, while his left holds a feather for air. On the Earth is the King with a sun behind his head. He holds a scepter and a shield, which represent authority over the rational world. The dragon breathing fire represents the discarded contents of the King’s unconscious mind. The dragon is in a cave waiting to attack the King if he becomes too egotistical. On the other side of Azoth, we have the Queen in the Water riding a great fish. She holds the reigns on the fish to symbolize control over the hidden forces that threaten the King. Behind her is a chaff of wheat symbolizing fertility and growth, while she holds a bow and arrow to indicate pain and suffering. The Queen represents the emotions and the King represents rational thought in this drawing.
Above the triangle there are three animals, a salamander on the left side, an eagle or phoenix in the middle, and a white bird to the left. You will notice that the salamander and the white bird are touching the outstretched wings of the phoenix or eagle. The salamander is above the triangle point with the word Anima (Soul), and is an additional reference to the soul. The sun in the point of the triangle attracts the burning nature of the salamander. On the other side is the white bird standing over the word Spiritus (Spirit). This bird is drawn towards the cooler energies of the moon much like the salamander is drawn towards the sun. Between the two is the phoenix, which symbolizes ascended essence or will and is the balance between the heat of fire and the cool of water. William Dennis Hauck, the noted modern alchemist refers to these two symbols of the salamander and the white bird as:
…This is similar in meaning to the Tai Chi symbol representing the interplay of the feminine yin and masculine yang energies. In this process, one thing takes on the characteristics of the other as it becomes its opposite. This is the relationship between Mercury and Sulfur in alchemy, and explains why Mercury is sometimes associated with soul and other times associated with spirit. The same is true of Sulfur. The alchemists believed that within this interplay could be found the source of the life force.
The image of the eagle or phoenix is an old one for the highest ideals, which are closest to Sol or the Sun, which again is the representative of the goal of the alchemist. Juan Eduardo Cirlot, in his book A Dictionary of Symbols describes the eagle as follows:
A symbol of height, of the spirit as the sun, and of the spiritual principle in general. In the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, the letter A is represented by the figure of an eagle, standing for the warmth of life, the Origin, the day. The eagle is a bird living in the full light of the sun and it is therefore considered to be luminous in its essence, and to share in the Elements of air and fire. Its opposite is the owl, the bird of darkness and death. Since it is identified with the sun and the idea of male activity which fertilizes female nature, the eagle also symbolizes the father.
Further, Cirlot goes on to describe the eagle in terms of how it was used around the world and in different aspects. In some of these aspects the eagle is seen as having a relationship with sun worship from Syria, and being a messenger from heaven, both from the Greco-Roman world to the Christian world. He even says that the eagle does not vary in these significant when used in alchemical art, giving a further alchemical meaning as, “according to alchemical equations: wings=spirit; flight=imagination. Or the victory of spiritualizing and sublimating activity over involutive, materializing tendencies.”
If the bird is seen as the phoenix rather than the eagle, Cirlot gives the following as a means of explanation for the phoenix:
A mythical bird about the size of an eagle, graced with certain features of the pheasant. … In every aspect it symbolizes periodic destruction and recreation. Wirth suggests a psychological interpretation of the fabulous bird as a symbol of the ‘phoenix’ which we keep within ourselves, enabling us to live out every moment and to overcome each and every partial death which we call a ‘dream’ or ‘change’. In China, the phoenix is the emperor of birds and a sun-symbol. In the Christian world, it signifies the triumph of eternal life over death. In alchemy, it corresponds to the colour red, to the regeneration of universal life and to the successful completion of a process.
As can be seen by looking at Figure 4 as it relates to alchemy that the alchemist is given all that he needs to know as to the process needed to complete the Great Work. Now he just has to make the choice as to what his Prima Materia or First Matter is going to be that he will work with to reach the final result. Of course there are the choices of spagyrics, that is using plants and plant matter to create what is called a Vegetable Stone, or sometimes the lesser Stone, or metals, which will produce the Mineral Stone. Normally, the alchemist learned by making the Vegetable Stone first before moving on to the more complex minerals and metals to create the Mineral Stone.
The various images of Figure 4 can be interpreted in a number of ways, which is what makes alchemical art as a means of communication so fascinating. Just looking at the above definitions or descriptions of the eagle and phoenix from Cirlot, we can see that there are lays of meaning in the use of that animal in the drawing. Both have similar meanings and relate to the sun, which in turn relates to gold, which is the goal of the alchemist, both in practical work, as well as in inner alchemy as it relates to spiritual advancement. The particular image in Figure 4 has been suggested as a meditative aid my William Dennis Hauck in two of his books, The Emerald Tablet and Sorcerer’s Stone, in which he advocates not only this figure, but several other classical alchemical drawings and diagrams for this purpose of spiritual or inner alchemy within the alchemist.
Looking at these alchemical images for meditative purposes rather than, as a means of instruction or communication between alchemists and students is something that began to occur in late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries. One of the best examples of this is from the book of images and descriptions known as The Crowning of Nature. The following two figures will be from that book and will show how these later alchemical images can be used for meditation. Of course, they can still impart information that can be used on a practical or laboratory level. Adam McLean, who published this book as part of his Magnum Opus series in 1980, gives some very interesting comments on these two figures and these will be discussed in conjunction with them.
Fig. 5 – Based on the “Ancient Chaos” emblem in
The Crowning of Nature
– art by author.
The first figure or image to look at from The Crowning of Nature is the first image in the book. This is Figure 5, based on the art in that book. Looking at the image you see that there are seven circles around a seven-pointed star. In the center of the seven-pointed star is the gray center representing earth, the green circle for water, and the blue circle of clouds for air, while the yellow or golden seven-pointed star represents fire. There are letters around the seven-pointed star spelling out the word, Prima Materia, the First Matter. This is the thing that you will use to begin your alchemical process. Arranged around the star are the seven circles which each has a seven-pointed star within them. Each of these circles corresponds to one of the seven planets of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Venus, Mercury, and Luna, as is shown by the use of the planetary sigils in the centers. On the outer edge of these circles are the sigils for the seven planets.
This particular image is a good illustration that you must start at the beginning and make the choice of the material to use for your work. In the case of spiritual or inner alchemy, the Prima Materia would be the person. The description and commentary on Figure 5, taken from The Crowning of Nature describes the emblem as follows:
Adam McLean gives a short and simple commentary on the emblem in which he says:
The series opens with the figure named CHAOS, which shows the seven Planetary archetypical forces, which together with the four elements depicted in the centre, are the primal substances and forces out of which the work of the alchemical process proceeds. Thus this illustration indicates the foundation of the Great Work.
The next emblem or drawing that we are going to look at is also from The Crowning of Nature. This particular image shows a crescent moon being heated by fire with steam or smoke coming from the crescent and rising above it. This emblem is titled Distillation in the book. McLean explains the image “…we find the cold, silver-grey, Lunar crescent, being purified through distillation with the Solar fire. This arises out of a direct encounter of the Lunar and Solar forces.”
Figure 6 – Distillation based on The Crowning of Nature
– artwork by author.
Looking at Figure 6, we see that there is a fire lit under a crescent moon from which smoke or steam rises. Alchemically, distillation is the boiling and separation of a solution to increase its purity. This stage in alchemy is also known as the White Stage, referring to that purity. The alchemist writing The Crowning of Nature detailed just what this emblem referred to as:
Though this particular emblem from that book is primarily used as a meditative device, it does give very good instruction on the practical aspect of alchemy. It tells you that you start with a solution and that you apply a gentle heat to begin the process, and once the dross is removed in this process and the alchemist starts to get the purified material in the distillation, the emblem’s instructions tell you to add more heat. After all the liquid is drawn over from the distillation, all that is left is the “dry earth” or the dead plant matter, called the Caput Mortuum, the Dead Head. This is the crystallized salt that will be used in the Stone.
Once the apprentice alchemist understood the images in allegory and how they related to Magnum Opus, the Great Work, and then he or she was able to progress along that path without constant supervision from a ‘superior’ alchemist of greater standing, but could take in hand the drawings and accomplish the work. These images were instructional, both from a practical point, that is that they told what, when, where and how to perform a certain alchemical operation in the laboratory, but also gave the alchemist a kind of mandala to meditate on while performing the operation.
Today, there is resurgence in alchemy. Many of the New Age books use the term for various things from pop psychology to interpersonal relationships. This has to some degree bled over into the “mainstream” esoteric community, in which there are several titles with alchemy in them that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Art itself. Though there is a strong, but small minority within the esoteric community looking to the old ways and thinking of the most noble of the Hermetic Arts, so that both practical laboratory alchemy is practiced in conjunction with inner or spiritual alchemy to reach a more enlightened state. The full concept of “to be more than human.”
Modern alchemy is deeply indebted to those alchemists that paved the way five centuries ago, and to those few that in the modern world saw the art as the pinnacle of the Hermetic Tradition. These include people like Frater Albertus, Manfred Junius, and many others that are or have been quietly doing the Great Work.
With just a little study and through both practical laboratory work, as well as meditation on these various images and emblems, the veil of secrecy as to the meanings in this often-fanciful artwork becomes clearer, and the modern alchemist is allowed through their efforts to be that much closer to the completion of the Great Work. The new century has a lot to offer the modern alchemist.
Labora et Oro. Summum Bonum.
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REGARDIE, I., 1992. The Golden Dawn. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications.
REGARDIE, I., 1998. The Middle Pillar: The Balance Between Mind and Magic. C. CICERO and S.T. CICERO, eds. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications.
REGARDIE, I., 2001. The Tree of Life: An Illustrated Study of Magic. C. CICERO and S.T. CICERO, eds. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications.
TRISMOSIN, S. unknown. Splendor Solis. Chicago: Yogi Publication Society.
VAUGHAN, T., 1983. Aqua Vitæ, Non Vitas: A Note-Book. Bothell, Washington, USA: The Alchemical Press.
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http://www.ambix.org (Website of The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry.)
http://www.alchemylab.com/journal.htm (Alchemy Journal, published online by Dennis William Hauck.)
http://www.levity.com/alchemy/home.html (Adam McLean’s website on alchemy and hermetics.)
http://pwp.netcabo.pt/r.petrinus/alchemy-e.htm (Website of the modern alchemist Rubellus Petrinus.)