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Basil Valentine

File:Chymische Schrifften 1717 Basilius Valentinus Frontispiece.jpg
"Frater Basilius Valentinus, monk of the Benedictine order and Hermetic philosopher": imaginary portrait in the frontispiece from Chymische Schrifften, 1717[1]
File:Peterskirche Erfurt 1.jpg
The Peterskirche, Erfurt, today.

Basil Valentine is the Anglicised version of the name Basilius Valentinus. Basilius Valentinus was alleged to be a 15th-century alchemist, possibly Canon of the Benedictine Priory of Saint Peter in Erfurt, Germany. According to John Maxson Stillman, who wrote on the history of chemistry, there is no evidence of such a name on the rolls in Germany or Rome and no mention of this name before 1600.[2] His putative history, like his imaginary portrait, appears to be of later creation than the writings themselves.

During the 18th century it was suggested that the author of the works attributed to Basil Valentine was Johann Thölde, a salt manufacturer in Germany who lived roughly 1565–1624,.[2][3] Modern scholarship now suggests that one author was Thölde, but that others were involved. Thölde published the first five books under Valentine's name.[4]

Whoever he was, Basil Valentine had considerable chemical knowledge. He showed that ammonia could be obtained by the action of alkali on sal-ammoniac (ammonium chloride), described the production of hydrochloric acid by acidifying brine of common salt (sodium chloride), and created oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid), among other achievements.[5]

The twelve keys of Basil Valentine

The Basil Valentine writings provide twelve “keys”, a widely reproduced sequence of alchemical operations encoded allegorically, in words to which images have been added. The first Basil Valentine book to discuss the keys is Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten ("A Short Summary Tract: Of the great stone of the ancients"), 1599. The first part of the book is a discussion of general alchemical principles and advice about the philosopher's stone. The second half of Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, under the subtitle "The Twelve Keys", contains twelve short chapters. Each chapter, or "key", is an allegorical description of one step in the process by which the philosopher's stone may be created. With each step, the symbolic names (Deckname, or code name) used to indicate the critical ingredients are changed, just as the ingredients themselves are transformed. The keys are written in such a fashion as to conceal as well as to illuminate: only a knowledgeable reader or alchemical adept was expected to correctly interpret the veiled language of the allegorical text and its related images.[4]

The 1599 edition does not include illustrations. Woodcuts appear in the 1602 edition. Engravings for all twelve steps first appear in Tripus Aureus ("Golden Trilogy") of 1618, a Latin translation by Michael Maier which includes three works, the first of which is Basil Valentine.[4][6] Since the texts predate the images, the texts should be considered primary.[4]

Describing the keys

The illustrations for the twelve keys of Basil Valentine are essentially tied to the communication: the illustration of a key must depict the same scene and its essential elements, regardless of the artistry. The keys shown above can be described as follows:

First key

A finely dressed King stands on the left and Queen on the right, in a landscape with a city or castle in the background left. The king holds a sceptre in his right hand, the Queen holds a three blossomed flower in her right and a peacock feather fan in her left. In front of the King a wolf or dog jumps over a crucible placed on a basin of fire. In front of the Queen, an old man with a scythe and a crippled leg steps across a fire on which a vessel is being heated.[7]

Second key

A winged Mercury stands holding a caduceus in each hand. To the left is a Sun and to the right a Moon. Under his feet are a set of wings. On his left is a man with a sword; a snake or serpent coils around the blade. On his right is a man with a sword, on which a bird perches.[7]

Third key

A winged dragon with coiled tail and pointed tongue stands in the foreground. The background is a landscape with high mountains and a city or castle. On the left behind the dragon is a running wolf or fox with a bird in its mouth. The fox, in turn, is being attacked by a cockerel on its back: the rooster is eating a fox eating a rooster.[7]

Fourth key

A skeleton stands on a draped box or coffin. On the left a candle is burning, while on the right is a tree stump. Behind the tree stump is a church.[7]

Fifth key

On the right a woman stands beside a rectangular plinth (possibly a furnace, though no flames are visible). A flask on the plinth contains liquid from which fumes are rising. The women holds a heart from which grows a seven-blossomed rose. The top of the flask either goes behind or connects to the woman's head. Beside the woman stands an alchemist with bellows. Flames emerge from his mouth and the top of his head. In front of the plinth or furnace a blindfolded cupid aims an arrow with his bow at the woman. On the left stands a lion with a crown above his head. His left paw, claws extended, reaches out towards the cupid. Above the lion shines a brilliant sun.[7]

Sixth key

At the center of the picture is a bishop, right hand raised to bless the wedding of a King (left) and Queen (right). They stand under a dark cloud from which heavy rain is falling. Above the cloud forms a rainbow. To the left of the King is the Sun and on the right of the Queen is a crescent Moon. Below the sun is a swan or goose. On the left near the King is a cylindrical vessel which is being heated on a fire. The top of the vessel is a double-faced head, from whose mouths come collecting flasks. The top of the head has flames for hair. To the right of the Queen stands an alchemist with a trident, pouring liquid from a flask into a water bath in which an alembic or retort is being heated atop a furnace. The fumes which are emitted condense and are collected in a flask below, which already contains a layer of liquid.[7]

Seventh key

A woman holds scales in her right hand and a sword in her left, and stands behind a large flask, the neck of which reads "Sigilum Hermelis" (the Seal of Hermes). The vessel is labelled "CHAOS". Within it is a circle labelled with the four seasons (Hiems, Ver, Æstas, Autumno), around a square marked "Sal philosophorum" (Salt of the Philosophers), inside of which a triangle is inscribed with AQVA (water).[7]

Eighth key

In a walled enclosure, two seated men with crossbows aim at a square target with a circular bulls-eye, and a key atop it. Seven arrows have hit the target. Between these two men are four small roofed crosses and an open grave in which a man or resurrected corpse is standing with his hands uplifted. On the left of the grave, corn is sprouting. In the foreground a corpse lies on a ploughed field, grain beneath its head. On the left, a man is scattering grain. Behind the man four birds are eating the grain. Below the corpse is a cross. To the right stands a winged angel holding a scepter in its left hand, and blowing a trumpet held in its right hand.[7]

Ninth key

In a circle at the bottom are three hearts out of which three serpents or snakes emerge, each one's head curving around towards the base of the next one's tail. On top of the circle are a man and woman: their bodies are bent at approximately ninety degrees so that together their heads and feet point in the four directions. At each of the four directions is a bird: at the woman's feet (South) is a peacock, at her head (West) a swan, on the man's feet (North) is a crow or black bird, and at his head (East) is an eagle with wings outspread.[7]

Tenth key

Around a downward pointing radiant triangle are the words "NATVS SVM EX HERMOGENE." (top: I am born from Hermogenes), "HYPERION ELEGIT ME." (right side descending: Hyperion elected me.), and "ABSQ IAMSVPH COGOR INTERIRE." (left side, ascending: Without Iamsoph I am destined to perish.) Inside the vertices of the triangle are the symbols of the Sun on the left, the Moon on the right and Mercury at the bottom, with Hebrew lettering. Within the triangle is a double radiant circle inside of which are written Hebrew letters. (The Hebrew lettering does not appear to correspond to identifiable Hebrew words.)[7]

Eleventh key

In a landscape, two lions approach and attack each other from left and right. The head of the lion on the left is within the muzzle of the lion on the right. The lion on the right holds its left forepaw out, claws extended, to the lion on the left, as if clawing it. On the back of each lion rides a woman holding in her hand a heart from which sprouts a plant with a Sun flower (left) and a Moon flower (right). The woman on the left holds this heart in her right hand, the woman on the right in her left hand. Behind the woman on the left a knight stands with his sword raised. The lion on the right is followed by four cubs. Gas appears to be coming out of the right-hand lion's anus.[7]

Twelfth key

Inside a laboratory an alchemist stands, holding tongs in his left hand. With his right hand he points to a triangular crucible set on a bench, with the symbol of Mercury above it, from which grow two rose-like flowers. Through an open window behind the crucible, the Sun and Moon can be seen. To the alchemist's left is a large barrel-shaped furnace from the top of which come flames and smoke. To his right are shelves with instruments and books. Below the shelves, a lion holds the head of a snake in its jaws.[7]

Physicochemical interpretation

The allegorical text and fantastic visual imagery of alchemical writings make them difficult to interpret. A physicochemical reading was proposed in the twenty-first century. Chemist and historian Lawrence M. Principe has drawn on knowledge of chrysopoetic symbolism and experimentally tested possible chemical processes and practices which may correspond to several of Basil Valentine's twelve steps. The following summary describes his recreation of the first three keys. Visually he refers to the 1602 woodcuts.[4]

First key

In the first key, "the king's crown should be pure gold, and a chaste bride should be married to him. Take the ravenous grey wolf that on account of his name is subjected to bellicose Mars, but by birth is a child of old Saturn, and that lives in the valleys and mountains of the world and is possessed of great hunger. Throw the king's body before him... And when he has devoured the king, then make a great fire and throw the wolf into it ... thus will the king be redeemed." This is to be done three times, after which "our body [is] completed at the start of our work." The woodcut shows the king, his bride, and the wolf jumping over a fire, with Saturn standing nearby.[4]

Translated into chemical terms, gold (the king of metals) is dissolved in melted antimony ore or stibnite (the ravenous wolf, child of Saturn and subject to Mars). An alloy of antimony and gold (the wolf that has devoured the king) sinks to the bottom of the crucible, and can be "roasted" to evaporate the antimony. This transformation leaves the purified gold behind (renewing the king).[4]

Second key

In the second key, the bridegroom Apollo must be purified before his marriage to the bride Diana. "The precious water in which the bridegroom needs to have his bath must be made cleverly and carefully from two fighters... when you introduce to the eagle the old dragon who has dwelt long among the rocks... and set the two upon the hellish seat, then Pluto will blow strongly and drive out from the cold dragon a flying, fiery spirit whose great heat will burn up the feathers of the eagle and prepare a steam-bath so that the snow on the highest mountains must melt entirely and turn into water..." [4]

Salmiac, Sal ammoniac, or ammonium chloride (the eagle) sublimes easily under mild heating, vaporizing and flying to the top of the vessel, where it recondenses in cooler air into a white salt. Saltpeter or potassium nitrate (the dragon) is found as a crystalline deposit in caves, and is cold, but when heated creates nitric acid (the "flying fiery spirit"). Mixing ammonium chloride and potassium nitrate and heating them in a retort in a furnace (the "hellish seat") causes a vigorous reaction (a "fight") and creates a highly corrosive acid, aqua regia, which is capable of dissolving gold (the god Mercury, standing between the two fighters).[4]

Third key

The third key directs that "our fiery Sulphur must be prepared for this art and conquered with water... so that the king ... is utterly shattered and made invisible. But his visible form must this time appear again... He who would prepare our unburnable Sulfur of all the Sages must take care to seek out our Sulfur in something where it is unburnable, which cannot be done unless the salty sea has swallowed the corpse, and then entirely spit it out again... Then raise him up... this is the rose of our masters, scarlet in color, and the red dragon's blood... Endow him with the flying power of a bird as much as he needs, thus the rooster will eat the fox, be drowned in water, be made living by fire, and be eaten in return by the fox..." [4]

The purified gold created in the first key (the "corpse" of the "king") must be dissolved in acid (the "water bath" created in the second key, now the "salty sea") to dissolve the gold. This forms gold chloride. After distilling off the acid, the gold chloride is decomposed by heat into gold and chlorine gas. The resultant gold is redissolved in acid, and the process repeated (the cycle of the rooster eating the fox, then drowning, living, and being eaten in turn). When this seemingly pointless process of cohobation occurs, chlorine gas is released, filling the distillation apparatus. The presence of the gas prevents the otherwise unstable gold chloride from decomposing, allowing it to sublime as beautiful ruby-red crystals ("the red dragon's blood"), a complex and difficult process known as the volatilization of gold chloride.[4]

There is evidence that the "father of chemistry", Robert Boyle, also volatilized gold by following the steps in Basil Valentine's keys.[8][9] Sir Isaac Newton also seriously studied the writings attributed to 'Basil Valentine'.[10]

Principe speculates that the twelve keys may involve descriptions of varying types. Some of the early keys may encode descriptions of actual laboratory techniques and observed results. Other keys may be theoretical extrapolations of what could be accomplished: ideas for experiments that had not yet been successfully carried out. The final keys may be descriptions of methods based on other writers' textual precedents.[4]

Selected publications

Numerous publications on alchemy in Latin and German were published under the name Basil Valentine. They have been translated into many European languages, including English, French, Russian and others. The following list is roughly organized in order of translation or publication date.

  • Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten..., (Of the great stone of the ancients), by Basilius Valentinus. Eisleben: 1599 (without illustrations) (German)
  • Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat, von dem grossen Stein der Uralten..., Leipzig: 1602 (with woodcuts) (German)
  • Triumph Wagen Antimonii, (The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony) by Basil Valentine; Johannes Isaaci Hollandus; Joachim Tank; Georg Phaedro; Roger Bacon. Leipzig : In Verlegung Jacob Apels, 1604. (German)
  • De microcosmo deque magno mundi mysterio, et medicina hominis, (Of the microcosm, of the great secrecy of the world, and the human medicine), by Basilius Valentinus; Wolfgang Ketzel; Raphael Eglinus. Marpurgi : typis Guolgangi Kezelii, 1609. (Latin)
  • A Latin translation of the text of Ein kurtz summarischer Tractat as Tripus Aureus, hoc est, Tres Tractatus Chymici Selectissimi, nempe I. Basilii Valentini...Practica una cum 12 clavibus & appendice, ex Germanico, Michael Maier (editor), Frankfurt: Paul Jacob for Lucas Jennis, 1618. (with engravings of the 12 keys) (Latin)
  • Azoth, ou le moyen de faire l'or caché des philosophes, de frère Basile Valentin by Basilius Valentinus; Christofle Perier; Jeremie Perier. (French) Paris: Chez Ieremie & Christofle Perier, au Palais, MDCXXIV 1624. (French)
  • Les dovze clefs de philosophie de Frere Basile Valentin ... Traictant de la vraye medecine matalique. Plus l'Azoth, ou Le moyen de faire l'or chaché des philosophes. Tradvction francoise. by Basilius Valentinus. Paris, Chez Ieremie et Christophle Perier, 1624. (French)
  • Fratris Basilii Valentini,... letztes Testament und Offenbahrung der himmlischen und virdischen Geheimnüss, so in einem Altar gefunden, in fünff Bücher abgetheilet... zuvor nie in Druck aussgangen, jetzt aber... publiciret durch Georgium Claromontanum,... by Basile Valentin; Georg Hellberger dit Georgius Claromontanus. Iena : H. Eyrings und J. Perferts Erben, 1626. (German)
  • Revelation des mysteres des teintures essentieles des sept metaux et de leurs vertus médicinales... by Basile Valentin; translated by Jean Israël. Paris : J. De Senlecque et J. Hénault, 1645. (French)
  • Currus triumphalis antimonii : opus antiquioris medicinae et philosophiae hermeticae studiosis dicat, by Basilius Valentinus. Tolosae : Apud Petrum Bosc, 1646. (The triumphal chariot of antimony) [11] (Latin)
  • Le char triomphal de l'antimoine, translation by Sauvin, François, 17th century (1646), introduction by Sylvain Matton ; préface by Joachim Tancky. Editions Retz, 1977, 254 p. [1] (French)
  • Les livres secrets et le dernier testament de frere Basile Valentin Benedictin, de la grande pierre des anciens philosophes et autres mysteres cachés de la nature. Le tout tiré et transcrit de l'original trouvé dans le haut autel sous une petite table de marbre a Erfurt et mis en lumiere ou imprimé a línstante priere des enfans de la science ... by Basilius Valentinus. (French) Strasbourg: 1651. (French)
  • Les douze clefs de philosophie de frere Basile Valentin ... : traictant de la vraye medecine metalique : plus l'Azoth, ou, Le moyen de faire l'or caché des philosophes : traduction francoise. Basilius Valentinus.; Jean Gobille; Clovis Hesteau Nuisement, sieur de. Paris : Chez Pierre Moët ..., 1660. (French)
  • Of natural and supernatural things : also, of the first tincture, root, and spirit of metals and minerals by Basilius Valentinus. London : Printed, and are to be sold by Moses Pitt, 1670.[12] (English)
  • The last vvill and testament of Basil Valentine, monke of the Order of St. Bennet, by Basilius Valentinus. London : Printed by S. G. and B. G. for Edward Brewster ..., 1671.[13] (English)
  • Chymische Schrifften by Basilius Valentinus. Hamburg: 1677. (German)
  • Compendium veritatis philosophicum fratis Basilii Valentini Manuscript (Ms.180), 1780. (German)
  • Les douze clefs de la philosophie. Eugène Canseliet, translator. Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1956, 264 p. [2] (French)
  • Révélations des mystères des teintures des sept métaux, Pierre Savoret, editor. Omnium littéraire, 1976. (French) [3]
  • Le dernier testament de Basile Valentin : livres I, II, III, IV et V, dans lequel sont montrées les mines, l'origine d'icelles, leurs natures et propriétés... by Basile Valentin; edited by Joseph Castelli. Montélimar : Castelli, 2008. (French)
  • Las doce llaves de la filosofía by Basilius Valentinus. Barcelona: Muñoz Moya y Montraveta, 1986. (Spanish)

See also


  1. ^ Valentinus, Basilius (1717). Chymische Schrifften. Hamburg: Samuel Heyle. 
  2. ^ a b Stillman, John Maxson (December 1912). "Basil Valentine, a Seventeenth Century Hoax". Popular Science Monthly. Retrieved 19 February 2011. 
  3. ^ Mellor, Joseph William (1922). A Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry. London, New York: Longmans, Green and Co. p. 53. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Principe, Lawrence M. (2013). The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 
  5. ^ Datta, N. C. (2005). The Story of Chemistry. Hyderabad: Universities Press. p. 56. 
  6. ^ McLean, Adam. "12 Keys of Basil Valentine". Retrieved 25 November 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Musaeum hermeticum, reformatum et amplificatum. Francofurti: Apud Hermannum a Sande. 1678. 
  8. ^ Keiger, Dale (February 1999). "All that glitters". John Hopkins Magazine. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  9. ^ Principe, Lawrence M. (1998). The aspiring adept : Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest : including Boyle' s "lost" Dialogue on the Transmutation of Metals. Princeton: Princeton university press. ISBN 0691050821. 
  10. ^ Brewster, David (1855). Memoirs of the life, writings, and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. Edinburgh: T. Constable and Co. 
  11. ^ "Othmer Library Catalog". 
  12. ^ "Othmer Library Catalog". 
  13. ^ "Othmer Library Catalog". 

External links

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