Fascination of the Day: The Ripley Scrolls

There’s so much here, I don’t even know where to begin.  I won’t be able to write a coherent sort of essay right now about the Ripley Scrolls, as I’m just now wrapping my head around their magnificence.

There are 23 copies of the Ripley Scrolls, which get their name from the 15th-century alchemist George Ripley, as snippets of his verses are included on some of the scrolls. Most are thought to have been copied in the 16th and 17th centuries from a now-lost original.

The scrolls depict–in what to modern eyes are bizarre and obscure symbols–the process of making the Philosopher’s Stone, the substance thought to impart eternal life and to contain the power to turn base metals into gold.

I’m particularly interested in the “pelican flask,” the apparatus the alchemist is holding in the first panel. The pelican was a vessel that allowed the distillation of substances in the alchemical process to occur in a closed system.  The shape of the vessel was reminiscent of the fable of the pelican, which was thought to pierce its own breast in order to feed her young from her own blood (and which, in Christian symbolism, represented Christ’s blood sacrifice). The resemblance can be seen here:

pelican
Alchemical pelican, Wikimedia commons

The pelican the alchemist is holding is cut away to reveal the changes the substances are undergoing–but despite the seeming transparency of the cut-away pelican, the changes are cloaked in the arcane system of symbols and riddles that marks the pursuit of alchemy (as you can see below).

Ripley Scrolls
By George Ripley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a great video made by the  Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University:

My next step is to get a better digital copy of this manuscript (as an aside–the digital availability of archival material is the best thing to happen since the Big Bang). I want to check out what’s going on in the pelican, especially with that weird toad.  I’m thinking this more descriptive video from Adam McLean, who has been writing about alchemy for decades, may also be helpful:
http://youtu.be/VyA2AiGbo5U

Next post: toads, green lions, and menstruating dragons…