Image 1. The subject of this image is disorder, both physical and mental. All three work surfaces are strewn with tools and alchemical apparatus, as is the base of the anvil. Crucibles also litter the floor, some of them broken: a mute chronicle of the failure of earlier trials. One alchemist tends a fire which seems scarcely under control: his ragged clothes, mirroring the dilapidated state of the furnace itself, further testimony of the fruitlessness of his efforts.  The physical confusion mirrors the mental state of the two protagonists: the second alchemist stares at the ground while scratching his head, as if to ask how on earth he can achieve his elusive goal with the crude iron tool clutched in his other hand. In this image, unusually, the manual aspect of their art alone is depicted: not one book or manuscript is to be seen, and many of the tools strewn across the workplace would seem equally appropriate to a blacksmith’s shop.

Image 2. This alchemist has turned his back on the sun-lit window and the natural world outside, and the air in his cavernous laboratory has grown damp and stale. But laboratory is no longer the right word: the iron tools, symbols of manual labour, so prominent in Weiditz’s engraving of 1559, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, his oven has been eclipsed by a great mound of tattered books and manuscripts which droop from every surface, from behind which his assistant peers wearily. The white-hot obsession burning in the eyes of many other alchemists is utterly absent here: the central figure’s posture and expression suggest a man whose passion for his subject is all but spent.

The scholar in his study. The moral connotations of this level of chaos are perhaps best perceived by contrasting these images of the alchemist in his laboratory with idealised images of the scholar in his study.  Amongst the most famous are the depictions of the patron saint of scholars, St Jerome, by Antonello da Messina (c. 1475), Vincenzo Catena (c. 1510), Albrecht Dürer (1514), or Hendrick Van Steenwijck II (1630).

Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2019)