Kay Sutton, director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, decodes the Ripley Scroll, a truly magical 17th-century alchemical treatise with a ‘rich and detailed mix of cryptic verse, legend and image’. It is offered in London on 13 December
‘Up to the 18th century, alchemy was viewed as a proper scientific discipline, regarded perfectly seriously,’ explains Kay Sutton, Director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Christie’s in London.
‘Alchemists had two objectives,’ she continues. ‘One was to manufacture the Philosopher’s Stone, a sort of mythical entity — magical, wonderful, and capable of transmuting a base metal into gold. The other aim was to manufacture the elixir that would give you eternal life and cure all ills.’
For those looking to try this at home, instructions — albeit ‘couched in rather obscure and arcane terminology’ — could be found in the Ripley Scroll, a manuscript named after George Ripley (circa 1415-1490), the most renowned of the 15th-century alchemists. In 1471, Ripley wrote The Compound of Alchemy […] divided into Twelve Gates, a long poem in Middle English. Such was his reputation that by 1700 a large body of alchemical works had been credited to him, including the eponymous scroll.
John Dee, the renowned Tudor mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, promoted Ripley’s reputation in England and abroad. ‘Sir Isaac Isaac Newton himself undertook lots of alchemical investigations,’ Sutton points out. ‘One of his notebooks appears to show a copy of the beginning of the Ripley Scroll, with the diagram of the Philosopher’s Flask’ — the glass vessel used for experiments.
On 13 December, one of 23 known copies of the Ripley Scroll will be offered in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale at Christie’s in London. Dating from 1624, this is the only copy of the scroll in private hands. A copy belonging to the British Library is currently a centrepiece in its exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
The Ripley Scroll opens with a picture of the alchemist, ‘the creator figure’. He holds the Philosopher’s Egg — ‘the glass flask in which you make all your experiments’, Sutton explains. Its handles are inscribed, ’You must make water of earth and earth of the ayr and ayr of the fyre and fyre of the earth’.
‘In the most dramatic and fantastic section of the whole manuscript,’ says Sutton, ‘a moon unites the red stone, the white stone and the elixir of life.’ The moon is balanced on the figure of the ‘Serpent of Arabia’ — a dragon biting its tail; blood from the dragon’s belly spills down onto a globe below.
The scroll was made by a heraldic painter called Leonard Smethley in Manchester. ‘It gives a wonderful insight into medieval and early modern ideas of science,’ says Sutton, adding that the opportunity to work with one of these manuscripts was a rare treat. ‘The manuscripts we see are usually much more conventional,’ she explains. ‘This is wonderfully, colourfully, exotically, wacky.’