Splendor Solis

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This is about the alchemical work. For the sound album, see Splendor Solis (album).
Artistamp of alchemical process flask hand drawn and inspired by plate 16 of 'Splendor Solis by Salomon Trismosin

Splendor Solis ("The Splendour of the Sun") is a well-known colorful alchemical manuscript. The earliest version, written in Central German, is dated 1532–1535 and is housed at the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin at State Museums in Berlin. It is illuminated on vellum, with decorative borders like a book of hours, beautifully painted and heightened with gold. The later copies in London, Kassel, Paris and Nuremberg are equally fine. In all twenty copies exist worldwide.

The original of Splendor Solis which contained seven chapters appeared in Augsburg. In miniatures the works of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach were used. The author of the manuscript was considered to be a legendary Salomon Trismosin, allegedly the teacher of Paracelsus. The work itself consists of a sequence of 22 elaborate images, set in ornamental borders and niches. The symbolic process shows the classical alchemical death and rebirth of the king, and incorporates a series of seven flasks, each associated with one of the planets. Within the flasks a process is shown involving the transformation of bird and animal symbols into the Queen and King, the white and the red tincture. Although the style of the Splendor Solis illuminations suggest an earlier date, they are quite clearly of the 16th century.

The Harley 3469 Splendor Solis[edit]

Splendor Solis, Harley Ms. 3469, ff. 17v, 18r.

This illuminated manuscript of Splendor Solis text is considered to be the most magnificent treatise on alchemy ever made. The codex, dated 1582, is housed in the British Library, in London, with shelf mark Harley MS 3469. In the words of the art historian Jörg Völlnagel, “the Splendor Solis is by no means a laboratory manual, a kind of recipe book for alchemists. Rather, Splendor Solis sets forth the philosophy of alchemy, a world view according to which the human being (the alchemist) exists and acts in harmony with nature, respecting divine creation and at the same time intervening in the process underlying that creation, all the while supporting its growth with the help of alchemy”1.

As regards the contents, the alchemy historian Thomas Hofmeier comments that “Splendor Solis is the quintessence of preceding florilegia, which for their part are distillates of earlier works still." The same author also points out that “The magnificent manuscripts of Splendor Solis are the crowning glory of any comprehensive alchemical library, or so the historian of alchemy imagines. Standing and lying in the shelves and cabinets all around are the works of the great alchemists amassed over a lifetime. But in the middle upon a lectern presides Splendor Solis, the pinnacle of alchemical expertise”.2

Whatever the reason, Splendor Solis has become the classic illustrated manuscript on alchemy. Many are those who have pored over it, including scholars such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Umberto Eco. The volume features 22 large paintings, surrounded by floral or animal motifs, belonging to the North-European style of Renaissance miniature. Like the context and the contents of the book itself, all the illustrations are impenetrable and difficult to understand. Particularly noteworthy are the glass flasks depicted in a lavish painting in the centre, surrounded by town and country scenes typical of late medieval Germany beneath a celestial image of a pagan god that endows the whole page with unity and meaning.

As for the history of the codex itself, Baron Böttger, the famous pharmacist and great adept of alchemy who invented the porcelain manufacturing method, was apparently one of its owners in the 17th century. It subsequently entered the private library of the Harleys, a powerful family of aristocrats, whose manuscript collection was subsequently acquired by the British Library for the now derisory sum of 10,000 pounds. Splendor Solis is now considered to be one of the British Museum’s most valuable treasures.

In 2010, the Spanish publishing house M. Moleiro Editor brought out the first and only facsimile edition of Splendor Solis, an edition limited to 987 copies with a companion volume featuring the study in which Jörg Völlnagel demonstrates for the first time that the attribution of the text to Salomon Trismosin, the master of Paracelsus, is incorrect. The study also includes the first reliable translation of the text of the manuscript by Joscelyn Godwin.

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