Maier and Atalanta
German aristocrat Michael Maier (1568-1622) was a university-trained medical doctor, Rosicrucian, and practicing alchemist who was personal physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague between 1609-1611; that is, right up until Rudolph's removal from power by his brother Matthias. Thereafter, Maier traveled around Germany, Holland and England. He was an active participant in the esoteric circles that were patronized by European rulers at their courts, and he was a prolific author of hermetic treatises, of which the Atalanta fugiens, his allegorical emblem book about the philosophers' stone, is his best-known work.
The Philosophers' Stone
In keeping with the intellectual pursuits of many of his contemporaries, Maier strove to produce the philosophers’ stone. But what exactly did this mean? The early modern alchemist understood himself as being a “philosopher by fire," that is, one dedicated to the love, study and pursuit of wisdom, whereby knowledge of Nature and Creation was attained by reworking elemental matter into a lasting and incorruptible substance - the philosophers' stone - through a series of laboratory procedures that relied on the purifying flames of the alchemical furnace. The term “stone” or “lapis” in the early modern pharmaceutical lexicon signified a potent medicinal substance that had been rendered into a solid rock-like mass through the process of boiling. Thus, the philosophers’ stone was understood to be a powerful medicine for restoring perfect health and longevity to humankind. Its undertaking required deep theoretical knowledge from the alchemical corpus that informed a complex laboratory process of successive stages of purification and recombination of matter.
Maier's Atalanta was probably published early in 1618; while a couple of copies of the first edition are dated the previous year, the 1618 copy is more readily found in special collections, like this one at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.
A slender volume, the book is a 214-page quarto, printed in Oppenheim by the renowned de Bry firm. The engravings were likely executed under Maier’s direction by Matthias Merian, son-in-law of the Atalanta’s publisher, Johann Theodor de Bry. The de Bry firm printed several other emblem books from 1593 to 1611, as well as the English Paracelsian physician Robert Fludd’s exquisitely illustrated treatise of metaphysical cosmology, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-18); see select images from the CHF copy here.
The Title Page
Maier's title page is, in fact, our portal into the work. The title itself basically lays the contents of the book out for us. The opening lines read, Atalanta fugiens, that is, New Chemical Emblems of the Secrets of Nature. The ensuing text declares that the work contains 50 emblems to engage the eyes and intellect, accompanied by 50 musical fugues for three voices to engage the ears and soul – all of which were to be contemplated, sung, and listened to with great pleasure. The name of this work, Atalanta fugiens, translates as “Atalanta Fleeing” ... a very specific reference because “fugiens” derives from the Latin verb “fugere” which means “to flee,” and this action constitutes a leitmotiv throughout this work.
The pictorial elements of the title page communicate units of information; as our eye circuits around this visual frame, we see a specific narrative unfolding. The vignettes that comprise the title’s frame actually depict the legend of Atalanta as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book X (560-707), where Venus narrates the story about the beautiful fleet-footed Greek huntress, Atalanta, whose hand in marriage could only be won if her suitor was able to outrun her in a race (but if you lost the race, you lost your life). Undeterred, handsome Hippomenes was determined to wed Atalanta, so he sought the advice of Venus, the goddess of love, who gave him three golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides - where indeed the scene of this title page is set. Venus instructed him to cast them one by one before Atalanta as they raced in order to distract and slow her. Hippomenes did as he was told, and so won the race and thus Atalanta’s hand. However, the lovers neglected to give proper thanks to Venus. Enraged, she filled them with overpowering lust as they were passing by the temple of Cybele, the Great Mother goddess, which they profaned with their copulation (rendered in the lower right hand corner!), for which act Cybele transformed Hippomenes and Atalanta into lions. The lovers' punishment was to pull her chariot in eternal servitude.
Maier’s introductory Epigram is extremely important because it explains the Ovidian legend’s alchemical correspondence. In its prose, Maier tells us that Atalanta is a metaphor for mercury, and that Hippomenes and the Golden Apple represent sulphur and salt respectively. Significantly, mercury, sulphur and salt are the tria prima, the three principal alchemical elements utilized in producing the philosophers’ stone. These three principal alchemical elements were integrated into European medico-scientific traditions through early sixteenth-century reforms initiated by Paracelsus, the iconoclast German alchemist-physician who rejected and replaced the traditional Galenic four-fold humoral system with a new tripartite chemical paradigm based on minerals and metals for analyzing/treating disease.
While legend of Atalanta and its alchemical interface is told by Maier here in the Author’s Epigram, the facing page announces that the book is dedicated to Christoph Reinhard, town magistrate of Mühlhausen, a hub in the Hanseatic trade route and a renowned musical centre. Reinhard had been Maier’s host in 1611 when Maier left Prague in the wake of Rudolf II’s removal from power by his brother Matthias. The Dedication goes on for a few more pages, and is followed by a five-page Preface (not shown here), where Maier contends that only those of pure intent might divine the secrets of alchemy through contemplation of the visible and the audible.
Past these formalities, the Atalanta begins, a truly extraordinary multimedial work - go to Emblems I and II as presented in Understanding the Philosophers' Stone for Maier's emblematic introduction to alchemy.