Autumn 2000

The designer as alchemist

This seventeenth-century book is a layered fugue for chemistry, music, words and pictures: rich inspiration for anybody wanting their multimedia creations to deliver genuine, all-round entertainment

Like a Renaissance version of Milton Glaser’s Dylan, the figure of Boreas, the North Wind, looms over a landscape of lakes and romantic ruins. His hair and hands dissolve into profuse whorls of smoke, while in his stomach the outline of a curled foetus can just be seen. Such is the first ‘emblem’ of an extraordinary book: the Atalanta Fugiens of Count Michael Maier, physician and alchemist.

It is difficult to imagine a more consciously designed and erudite work: it was published in the German town of Oppenheim in 1618 by Johann Theodor de Bry, whose hand shaped its 50 exquisite engravings. It can be seen as the first work of multimedia, combining images and words with music for eye and ear, employing the qualitatively different languages of poetry, imagery and music to indicate meanings that do not lend themselves to any simpler form of communication.

Atalanta Fugiens encompasses everything from the sublime to the ridiculous: the spiritual geometrician tracing out the squared circle; the man holding a ‘chilly toad’ to a woman’s breast. Many of its emblems are familiar from extensive borrowings: Blake, for instance, reinterprets Maier’s final emblem of a dead woman in the grave, encircled by a serpent, in his Jerusalem.

The basis of the book is the Greek myth of Atalanta, a maiden who has been told that she can marry only a man who is able to beat her at some activity, the penalty for failure being an arrow from her bow. Determined to succeed, Hippomenes acquires three enchanted golden apples, with which he distracts Atalanta during their race, thereby winning. They then go to a local temple for a foretaste of marital bliss. Unfortunately, it is a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, who, outraged by such sacrilege, turns them both into lions.

For Maier the story is allegorical of the processes of ‘chemistry’. Atalanta stands for the elusive, philosophical mercury, Hippomenes the spiritual sulphur. The apples represent salt, the third part of the Hermetic trinity. The myth is echoed in the haunting fugues (a pun on Atalanta’s fugitive status) for three voices that accompany each emblem. These consist of a lead soprano voice (Atalanta) and a tenor voice (Hippomenes), sung over a cantus firmus that represents the apples. Musically, this is an extremely demanding and mathematically precise form of composition.

Born in 1568 in Kiel, Maier studied philosophy and liberal arts at the University of Rostock, was awarded the title of poet laureate in Padua, and doctorates in philosophy from the University of Frankfurt and in medicine from the University of Basel. For several years he practised as a physician in Rostock, and wrote treatises on various conditions. But it was witnessing a remarkable cure by the use of spagyric – alchemical – medicines that apparently changed the direction of his life.

In 1608 he went to Prague to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. The emperor was fascinated by both science and occultism, and to his court had come the esotericists John Dee and Giordano Bruno, the painter Arcimboldo and the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Rudolf appointed Maier as his personal physician (simultaneously ennobling him with the title ‘Count Palatine’).

When in 1611 Rudolf was forced to abdicate, Maier headed for London and the court of James I. His ‘visiting card’ (preserved in the Scottish Record Office) consisted of a large parchment, and contains the first indication of themes to which he would return in Atalanta. Maier’s visit to England may have had a covert diplomatic dimension. He appears to have been involved in a scheme to have James I’s son-in-law, Frederick V, elected to the throne of Bohemia. In 1616 Maier returned with Frederick and his bride, Elizabeth Stuart, to Heidelberg.

Atalanta Fugiens was one of eleven books Maier published in the three years from 1616 to 1618. After the coronation of Frederick and Elizabeth in Prague, and their subsequent defeat by the new Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II at the battle of the White Mountain, Maier sought new patronage in Magdeburg. Here he remained until his untimely death in the siege of 1622.

Recent research has revealed how much Maier and his circle were involved in the birth of the scientfic revolution. [1] We know that the Royal Society, now synonymous with orthodox scientific enquiry, was originally founded as an ‘invisible college’ by Hermeticists such as Samuel Hartlib and Elias Ashmole. Scientists Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, whose names are closely associated with its illustrious beginnings, were both practising alchemists: the latter left 88 pages of notes, in his tiny crabbed hand, to Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, which he considered a work of the utmost importance.

Although Maier wrote on alchemy, and undoubtedly practised a form of laboratory chemistry, he explicitly condemns those who claimed to make gold, and exposes some of their tricks and deceptions. Maier’s is a spiritual alchemy, where the substance to be transformed is the being of the alchemist. However to the Hermeticist, the world of spirit and the world of matter are not differentiated – in the Hermetic text The Emerald Tablet Hermes asserts that ‘that which is above is like that which is below’, that there is a correspondence between psychic and physical matters. This is a notoriously tricky point for a contemporary sensibility to grasp, conditioned as we are by dismissive attitudes towards alchemy engendered by two or three years of school science. Of the modern commentators who have grasped it, few have expressed it better than Carl Jung, who noted that in that age there existed ‘an intermediate realm between mind and matter, i.e., a psychic realm of subtle bodies whose characteristic it is to manifest themselves in a mental as well as a material form. This is the only view that makes sense of alchemical ways of thought, which must otherwise appear nonsensical.’ [2]

For many of us, the only way to appreciate Atalanta Fugiens is as a work of conceptual art, and as such it is no less remarkable. As a piece of graphic communication, Atalanta exists at the very margins of comprehensibility, deliberately (or perhaps inescapably) concealing its secrets under layers of allusion and symbolism.

It is fashionable to believe that communications must wear their meanings on their sleeves, and that even then, we exist in a universe of multiple readings. Atalanta Fugiens asserts, on the other hand, that communication can be just as effective when it hides its meaning. (It is interesting to compare it with the examples of ‘information design’ that Edward Tufte showcases in his books.) Diligent students of Atalanta claim to have come, eventually, to the common understanding that its author intended – but to which he could only point through the use of the different media from which it is composed.

In his preface, Maier declares: ‘Four things, I say, are contained once and for all in a single book, destined and dedicated to your usage.’ 3 He lists these as the poetic and allegorical; the fictive, pictorial and emblematic; what he calls the ‘most secret things’ of chemistry; and musical rarities. He claimed that Atalanta Fugiens was intended to be ‘… looked at, read, meditated, understood, weighed, sung and listened to, not without a certain pleasure,’ a view today’s multimedia authors might do well to consider.

Atalanta Fugiens gives us a glimpse of a brief but extraordinary period in European history when images and music were valued as highly as words for their communicative potential, and handled with a degree of subtlety and sophistication at which we can only marvel. There is food for thought here for everyone who seeks to design in today’s ‘media-rich environments’.

James Soutter, designer, consultant, Louth and London
Maziar Raein, lecturer, Central Saint Martins, London

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.