Donum Dei

Donum Dei

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This image is the first engraving in a series prepared by Robert Vaughan under Ashmole's supervision. It purports to show the transmission of alchemical knowledge through the ages, and occurs before chapter 1 of Thomas Norton's Ordinall of Alchemy (1477). In the poem, Norton claims: man coulde yet this Science reach,
But if God send a Master him to teach:
For it is soe wonderfull and so selcouth,
That it must needes be tought from mouth to mouth...
Soe that noe man shall leave this Arte behinde,
But he an able and approved Man can finde;
When Age shall greeve him to ride or goe,
One he may teach, but then never no moe.[1]

Norton further states that this 'science' of alchemy was not ordinary, but a 'holy' form of knowledge, since it ultimately originated from God. This claim is reflected in the engraving's description of the philosophers' stone as donum Dei ('the gift of God') and in the religious atmosphere of the ceremony, placed under the aegis of the Holy Spirit (in the traditional form of the dove). 

Ashmole concurred with Norton's teaching, commenting that: 

There has ever beene a continued Succession of Philosophers in all Ages, although the heedlesse world hath seldome taken notice of them; For the Auncients usually (before they dyed) Adopted one or other for their Sonns, whom they knew well fitted with such like qualities, as are sett downe in the letter that Norton's Master wrote to him when he sent to make him his Heire unto this Science. And otherwise then for pure vertues sake, let no man expect to attaine it….[2]

Ashmole believed himself to be part of this philosophical lineage, due to his relationship with William Backhouse (1593-1662), a landed gentleman from Berkshire who doubled as a highly elusive alchemist. In April 1651, Backhouse made Ashmole his 'son' in a private ceremony, and the latter saw this as a life-altering event: 

Your Son! 'Tis soe! for I begin to finde,
Your Auncestors large Thoughts grow in my Minde:
I feele that noble Blood spring in my Heart,
Which does intytle me to some small parte
Of grand sire Hermes wealth; & hope to haue
Interest in all the Legacies he gave,
To his Successiue children; from whome too,
I must derive what is confer'd by you (MS Ashmole 36-37, 241v)

It is tempting to think of this ceremony as having something of the solemnity of the Vaughan engraving. Yet this is an idealised image, that takes place in the sacred space of Solomon's Temple and portrays the Master giving away the complete secret of the philosophers' stone to his Disciple. 

By comparison, Backhouse's ceremonial 'adoption' should not be read as him having passed the secret of the elixir to Ashmole. Instead, the 'adoption' seems to have marked the beginning of an alchemical apprenticeship (indeed, the model of this 'initiation' may have been the medieval guild system). Backhouse introduced him to other alchemists and shared different alchemical secrets with him, such as the manner of making a furnace or some preparations of saltpetre. Josten (1949, 20) believes that the Theatrum chemicum Britannicum itself was the product of Backhouse's supervision and instruction. 

In 1653 Backhouse fell very sick, and thinking that he would die, called Ashmole to his house. As Ashmole claimed, 

My father Backhouse lying sick in Fleetestreete over against St: Dunstans Church, & not knowing whether he should live or dye, about eleven a clock, told me in Silables the true Matter of the Philosophers Stone: which he bequeathed to me as a Legacy (MS. Ashmole 1136, f. 29). 

It is not exactly clear what Backhouse told Ashmole, but it may have been some form of cypher or symbol. There is no evidence that Ashmole even attempted to make the philosophers' stone with the information he received; certainly he would have needed the process as well as this 'true matter' (the philosophical mercury).  


C. H. Josten, 'William Backhouse of Swallowfield', Ambix 9:1 & 2 (1949), pp. 5–14.

Vladimir Karpenko, Alchemy as 'Donum Dei', Hyle 4:1 (1998): 63-80, freely available here

Credit: Georgiana Hedesan (June 2018)

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