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What is the Splendor Solis?

By Jörg Völlnagel

The British Library manuscript Harley 3469 – “Splendor Solis or the Sun’s Radiance…” – is the most beautiful and well known illuminated alchemical manuscript in the world. Its illustrations can be found in many different places. Decorating publications on alchemy, esoteric self-help books and fantasy novels, they have also been known to appear on the labels of aphrodisiac party drinks or record covers. Though they may or may not have been aware of it, many readers will no doubt have come across an illustration from this manuscript at one point or another. In view of such decontextualised appearances, one might well ask what these pictures are all about: what is their subject matter, and what are the concerns of the text? When was the famous manuscript produced and who was behind it? Thus the main question we face with the Splendor Solis is: what kind of book do we have in our hands?

The Splendor Solis is by no means a laboratory manual, a kind of recipe book for alchemists. Indeed, it is hardly a list of instructions for whipping up a little alchemical soup in the hope of finding a nugget of artificial gold in the pot at the end. Rather, the 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 processes underlying that creation, all the while supporting its growth with the help of alchemy. Comprised of seven treatises and 22 opulent illustrations, the manuscript revolves around this complex of philosophical concerns, while the business of chemistry itself is accorded a more subordinate role.

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