Alchemists of Prague

Alchemy is defined in the dictionary as, “a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tries to transform base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life”. In both the East and the West, alchemy is woven into the fabric of mystical traditions. Dating back to ancient Egypt, alchemy had its origins in the early development of chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptian alchemists used their art to make alloys, dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewellery, and to embalm the dead.

Later, in Latin Europe in the 12th century, the term was used to describe an aspect of thought that corresponds to astrology, an apparently older tradition. Both alchemy and astrology were attempts to discover the intrinsic relationship of man to the cosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. However, while astrology was concerned with man’s relationship to the stars and planets, alchemy dealt with more terrestrial connections.

During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, alchemy spread through the Western world, with Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other occultists further developing and exploring its concepts. A cornerstone of alchemical lore was the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone – the legendary stone whose latent power could help transform base metals into gold and give humans immortality.

There were two aspects to alchemy: the ethereal and the mundane. On a mundane level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such as lead into gold. On the spiritual level, they strove to purify themselves through the elimination of the “base” material of the self to achieve the “gold” of enlightenment. By Renaissance times, many alchemists believed this spiritual purification was a prerequisite to achieving the mundane transformation of metals.

Roger Bacon, a 13th-century scholar and one of the earliest advocates of the modern scientific method, wrote: “Theoretical alchemy theorises about all inanimate things and about the whole generation of things from the elements — there is also an operative and practical alchemy, which teaches how to make precious metals and pigments and many other things better and more plentifully than they are made by nature.” Relying heavily on dreams, inspiration and visions to perfect their art, alchemists filled secret diaries with mysterious symbols rather than text. It is said these symbols remain exceptionally potent for changing states of consciousness.

Although in the West the term has been traditionally used to refer to the transmutation of base metals into gold, many of today’s best scholars agree that alchemy defies any strict definition. Research into its enigmas might best begin with an historical inquiry into the identity of the best known “adepts”, or people highly skilled in alchemy. These individuals stood distinctly separate from the fanatical “puffers” who elicited a major wave of ridicule toward the entire field. Puffers were so-called because of their use of the bellows. Study reveals the true adept to be sincerely religious, inclined toward natural science and generally free from the greed and vanity that compelled the puffer.

Recently, a PhD student in archaeological sciences at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology sought to replicate the operative and practical aspect of alchemy. Over the past three years Marcos Martinón-Torres analysed 16th-century alchemical laboratory instruments with 21st-century scientific equipment. After much research, his final analysis suggests the average Renaissance alchemist was a religiously minded researcher working at a time when the scientific revolution was just beginning, with great discoveries in astronomy and physics by scientists like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei leading the way. “Alchemy may look like magic or witchcraft to us, but in the 16th century, it wasn’t,” said Martinón-Torres. “The best we can say about it is that it’s a forerunner of chemistry. Alchemy and chemistry are the same thing. Many of the things we see as magic, they saw as science.”

In search of secrets

In the year 1600, Prague was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia and the geographical, political and intellectual centre of Europe. It was also the greatest centre in Europe for the study of alchemy. Its ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, a connoisseur of the bizarre, was himself deeply involved in esoteric pursuits and encouraged his alchemists to turn base metals into gold.

Rudolf kept a menagerie of exotic animals, vast libraries, botanical gardens and Europe’s most extensive cabinet of curiosities — a collection of objects that had yet to be categorically defined. It was housed at Prague Castle where, between 1587 and 1605, he built the northern wing to contain his growing collection of curiosities. Although Rudolf’s ultimate quest was to find the Philosopher’s Stone, he inadvertently contributed to man’s development in another way by creating the foundation for the scientific revolution. Like the Elizabethan age in England, it was during this “Rudolfian age” that many great minds were allowed to flourish in an atmosphere of freedom and creativity.

History, however, has not been kind to Rudolf. Only in the past 50 years or so has his life been re-examined beyond the lens of his political failures and his contributions to the arts and sciences been given their due credit. Writing in Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City, author John Banville paints a compelling picture of the mysterious city in the days of this melancholy ruler. “Prague is the magic capital of Europe. Since the days of Emperor Rudolph II – … who in the late 1500s summoned alchemists and magicians from all over the world to his castle on Hradcany Hill – it has been a place of mystery and intrigue.”

Born in Vienna in 1552, Rudolph II became Holy Roman emperor from 1576 to 1612. Subject to fits of severe depression, Rudolf soon retired to Prague where he lived in seclusion and dabbled in the arts and sciences. During the first 20 years of his rule, disputes between Roman Catholic and Protestant factions crippled the political institutions of the empire. After 1598 Rudolf’s mental instability grew worse. He became even more eccentric, often neglecting politics in favour of indulging his passions for science and collecting. A jealous, paranoid hypochondriac, terrified at the prospect of death, Rudolf filled room after room of Prague Castle with talismans meant to stave off his final end. He had a particular passion for collecting miniatures, hiring entire schools of craftsmen to carve, emboss and inlay the tiniest objects such as pearls, nuts, shells, flakes of amber, cherry pits, bird’s eggs and gallstones.

Rudolf’s erratic rule led to revolts and an attempt by his brother Matthias to usurp him. Finally, the emperor’s ill health and unpopularity prevented him from restraining the religious dissensions that eventually led to the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).

Postcard from Prague

Today, the magic lives on in this beautiful but mysterious city. Largely untouched through World War II and, until recently, free from modernisation, the capital of the modern day Czech Republic is a snapshot of historical Europe, boasting a stunning mix of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Art Nouveau and Cubist architecture. Prague (Praha in Czech) entices travellers with an incomparable visual smorgasbord — a medieval cityscape dotted with small courtyards, narrow lanes, dark passages, churches and cathedrals.

Once home to the famous writer Franz Kafka, Golden Lane is a picturesque, cobbled alley running along the northern wall of Prague Castle. A special atmosphere still reigns in this tiny street with its quaintly decorated, brightly coloured dwellings that resemble dolls’ houses more than people’s homes.

According to legend, it was in the Mihulka Tower on Golden Lane that Emperor Rudolph II accommodated some of his court alchemists. A permanent exhibition of alchemical equipment in a mock-up lab can be found on the first floor of the tower. It is said that Golden Lane’s ties with alchemical history could lie behind the origin of its name.

Prague Castle is undoubtedly the city’s most popular attraction. Dating back to the 9th century, it is the world’s largest ancient castle. The dominant building of the third courtyard is the fabulous St Vitus Cathedral, which Emperor Charles IV founded in 1344 as a coronation church. A part of it was finished as late as the 20th century. There is a Royal Mausoleum of Czech Kings inside and also the valuable St Wenceslas Chapel, decorated with splendid Gothic murals and semi-precious stones. A door in the chapel leads to the Crown Chamber, where the rarely exhibited Czech crown jewels, including the golden crown of St Wenceslas, are kept.

In Charles Square is a house as mystical as its name. Faust House was named for the legendary Dr Faust, who is fabled to have sold his soul to the devil in return for power and knowledge. Even though the real Dr Faust probably never visited Prague, this house is aptly named given its mystical history and eccentric inhabitants.

In the 14th century Prince Vaclav of Opava, who was very keen on natural sciences and alchemy, owned this baroque mansion. He was the first person to give rise to the house being associated with the Faust legend. Under the rule of Rudolf II, astrologer Jakub Krucinek lived there with his two sons. It is said that the younger son killed the older one for treasure allegedly hidden in the house.

Among the many other dwellers of Faust House was Edward Kelley. A famous English alchemist who first came of note while living in Prague in 1584, Kelley boasted a dubious reputation. His first alchemical experiment in front of the emperor was successful and despite the disapproval of some of the more cynical members of Rudolf’s court, Kelley became an adviser to the emperor. Rudolph proceeded to bestow him with land and titles but after a disastrous and somewhat short professional liaison with magician and alchemist Dr John Dee, Kelley was eventually exposed as a charlatan.

Ferdinand Antonin Mladota of Solopysky was another one-time resident of Faust House. His chemical experiments, sometimes resulting in huge explosions, frightened many of his neighbours. Mladota’s son, Josef Petr, was not only adept at physics and chemistry but also an accomplished mechanic. Mladota’s visitors were often astounded by other-worldly phenomena such as a door that opened on its own accord and a flying staircase. Legend persists that on occasion a blue light can be seen mysteriously shining from the windows of Faust House.

Modern day magic

Today, post-Communist Prague is a vibrant city full of wonderful sights, friendly locals, fine restaurants, bars (try the legendary Czech beer), cafes, museums and shops. Catch some live jazz at U maleho Glena cafe, go shopping for Czech handicrafts at one of the many street markets, see a puppet show (a long tradition in Prague), listen to a concert performed in a church or palace, or treat yourself to an elegant piece of Czech garnet jewellery. Whatever you do, memorable experiences are guaranteed here. Prague is definitely a walking city but remember, its cobbled streets demand comfortable shoes.

Winding through Prague’s heart is the Vltava River. It starts in the country’s southwest and flows north through Prague to meet the Elbe River at Mĕlník. It is the Czech Republic’s longest river at 430 kilometres and is home to several large hydroelectric stations. After the great flood destruction of 1891 tall quaysides were built along the river to prevent further disasters. However, in August 2002 major flooding of the Vltava killed several people and caused massive damage and disruption along its length. Cruising the river is the ideal way see to see the sights of this magical city including historic monuments such as the Rudolfinum, Charles Bridge, majestic Prague Castle, the National Theatre, Vysehrad rock and many more.

Spanned by no less than eight bridges as it passes through central Prague, the Vltava has played an important part in the development of this fairytale city. In the late 18th century and earlier, many inhabitants were rafters who traded in timber and firewood. In winter, they cut and sold ice from the river and extracted sand from the river bottom.

The current Charles Bridge was built in the 14th century after the original bridge was washed away. Legend has it that a water goblin named Josef lives under the bridge, which is ornately decorated with a slew of baroque statues, dramatic blackened sandstone, bronze, marble and some gold trimmings. The Charles is a pedestrian-only bridge and as you walk across, stop to watch the buskers making music on the bridge. To visit fairytale Prague is to live a dream — nowhere else has quite its chaotic, rich mix of history and modernity, of symbolism and imagery, of splendour and enchantment that endlessly draws travellers to its mysterious beauty.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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