Copied to clipboard

Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens proposes at least two ways of reading its contents. First and foremost, Maier’s title page offers up a story (fig. 1). The etchings tell the tale of Atalanta, Hippomenes, and a trio of apples, while the title itself, “Atalanta fleeing,” puts Atalanta in motion, thereby inviting the reader to follow her flight to the final pages of the book. Even as the title page (literally) frames Maier’s masterpiece with a straightforward visual narrative, however, it immediately suggests a very different mode of reading as well. “Accommodated partly to the eyes and understanding [intellectus], . . . partly to the ears and recreation of the mind,” Maier’s title continues, the “New Chymical Emblems relating to the secrets of nature” within were “to be seen, read, meditated [upon], Understood, distinguished, Sung and Heard.”1 With this subtitle, then, Maier underscores the fact that Atalanta fugiens is also a collection of emblems, a genre that demands of its reader not flight and forward motion but pause, lingering, and stillness. Moreover, the emblematic mode of reading demands multiple senses: not just the intellect or eyes but also (in this case) the voice and ears. In his preface to the reader, Maier points to the potential rewards of reading in these complicated ways, expressing his wish that “the learned have these figures in good estimation which are so useful and serviceable both to the understanding and many of the senses, that great utility besides delight and recreation may be expected from them.”2

The frontispiece, or first illustrated page, from Atalanta fugiens that contains a short introductory text surrounded by multiple scenes from the myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. These include the Garden of the Hesperides, which includes Aegle, Arethusa, a many-headed dragon, understood as Ladon, and Hespertusa; Hercules stealing apples; Venus giving apples to Hippomenes; the race between Hippomenes and Atalanta; the consummation of their love; and their transformation into lions.
Figure 1 add add Add to Collection

We might think of these two modes of reading as horizontal and vertical. The horizontal mode encourages the reader to turn the page, reading sequentially in search of a narrative thread across multiple emblems, while the vertical mode asks the reader to linger on a single emblem in order to explore connections up and down and among its parts. This essay will explore these two approaches to reading Atalanta fugiens, arguing that their juxtaposition transforms the work into a flexible instrument for generating new knowledge about chymistry.3 It is significant, however, that both modes of reading require the reader to activate multiple senses — not only the intellect but also the eye and ear. This, I argue, makes Atalanta fugiens into a commentary on the place of reading and writing — and their relationship to other bodily ways of knowing — in the production of chymical knowledge.4 Atalanta fugiens cultivated particular habits of mind and body, making a serious point that chymical truths were divine truths and that the chymist must deploy the intellect and the senses to uncover chymical secrets. In showing his readers how to read Atalanta fugiens, in other words, Maier taught them how to practice chymistry and ultimately how to feed both the intellect and the soul with new truths about nature’s chymical arcana.

Horizontal reading
An illustration of a horizontal reading experience: an arrow moves left to right across a spread of pages.
Vertical reading
An illustration of a vertical reading experience: an arrow moves from the top to the bottom of a page.
A four page spread as an interactive, guided-looking feature highlighting various details of the frontispiece: the many-headed guard dragon, Ladon; Atalanta and Hippomenes; the temple of Cybele; and a pair of lions.

How to Read Atalanta fugiens

Maier was in fact quite explicit about how he thought aspiring chymists should read his book. His title page and author’s epigram point toward the most straightforward horizontal way of approaching the book, which is to follow the story of the race, the consummation of Atalanta and Hippomenes’ love, and, finally, their ultimate transformation into lions.5 The book first sets out this theme in the images on the title page. We see the Garden of the Hesperides (guarded by a many-headed dragon, Ladon), Venus, Cybele’s temple, and Atalanta and Hippomenes (both during their race and after their transformation into lions), all of which outline the tale to follow.

A two-page spread of the author’s epigram and dedication pages from the front matter of Atalanta fugiens.

Turning the page, however, the reader finds not images but words: Maier’s verse epigram, which expands the visual cues on the title page to alert the reader to his basic chymical interpretation. Atalanta represents philosophical mercury and Hippomenes's philosophical sulfur, Maier explains, the two elemental qualities of matter that the alchemist must combine in order to produce the philosophers’ stone. By linking Atalanta and Hippomenes’s union and transformation into lions to the alchemist’s production of the philosophers’ stone, Maier suggests that a skillful chymical interpretation of the lovers’ tale might reveal how to make this most precious of alchemical desiderata.

A two page spread of the first and second pages of emblem 11 from Atalanta fugiens, which show a motto and epigram in German along with a fugue, and a motto and epigram in Latin along with an image, respectively.

Proceeding to the emblems themselves, the reader finally comes to the third element of the book: the music. It, too, initially seems to reinforce Maier’s suggestion that the emblems will divulge alchemical secrets via the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes. As the reader turns the page to Emblem 1, scanning left to right, her eye first falls upon the music and the marginal labels for the three voices: “Atalanta, or voice fleeing,” “Hippomenes, or voice following,” and “the apple thrown, or voice delaying.” By now, these characters would be familiar, and by placing his melodies in their mouths, Maier seems to suggest that the interplay of the three voices, together with image and text, will drive Atalanta fugiens forward and fulfill the promise of Maier’s title page to unfold the alchemical meaning of the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes.

Atalanta fugiens immediately complicates this proposal, however, for it turns out that the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes does not, in fact, carry through the emblems. It is tempting to imagine, for example, that the order of voices in the canons would mirror Ovid’s plot, so that Atalanta’s voice would begin the canon when she is in the lead, the Apple’s part would begin when Hippomenes tosses the apples in front of Atalanta, and, eventually, Hippomenes would begin the canons as he surges ahead to take the lead. This is not the structure of the canons, however. Rather, the Apple is nearly always the lead voice, followed by Atalanta, then Hippomenes, foiling any neat correlation between the order of the voices and the shifting lead in the race. Nor do Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Apple sing about their contest and its fallout; rather, their lyrics, which come from the related epigrams, are about chymical epistemology, processes, and materials. Finally, while the images in the emblems are full of classicized figures and landscapes, Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the goddesses who shape their narrative never appear in the images after the title page. In short, the conceit of Atalanta fugiens and Maier’s initial frame for his chymical treatise fall away almost immediately, leaving the reader without the promised narrative thread to follow through the fifty emblems.

Maier’s bait and switch is productive, however, causing the reader to stumble for a moment, to pause and consider how to proceed without Atalanta as the promised guide. Fortunately, the experienced reader could recover her footing quickly by drawing on familiarity with the two genres that informed the structure of Atalanta fugiens: emblems and illustrated alchemical texts. The emblem book was the most obvious model for reading Atalanta fugiens given that Maier refers to his book as “New Chymical Emblems relating to the secrets of nature.” The fashionable print genre of the emblem book emerged out of older traditions such as the Greek epigram, hieroglyphics, imprese, florilegia, medals, and heraldry and exploded in the wake of Andrea Alciato’s 1531 Emblematum liber (Book of emblems) (fig. 2).

A manuscript page from Emblematum liber (Book of emblems) that consists of an emblem depicting an early modern instrument known as a lute alongside an accompanying Latin text.
Figure 2

In general, collections of emblems were meant to be read vertically, that is, one at a time and top to bottom, rather than sequentially, one emblem after the next. Typically, emblems used the motto-pictura-epigram format to convey truths about anything from love to politics and then to impress those insights upon the reader’s memory. The relationships among the three parts were often enigmatic, spurring the reader to reflection, creativity, and play and making even a single emblem a perfect game in learned circles by providing fodder for erudite displays of virtuosity.6 Maier’s readers may also have been accustomed to thinking about alchemy, in particular, with both words and images, especially in the German-speaking lands where the alchemical illustrated poem, or Bildgedicht, emerged. This late medieval tradition is epitomized by the Rosarium philosophorum (Rose garden of the philosophers), which wove together quotes from older alchemical texts with a series of twenty images (themselves “quotes” from earlier manuscript images), and which found its way into print as part 2 of De alchimia opuscula complura veterum philosophorum [. . .] (Little works on alchemy from many ancient philosophers; Frankfurt, 1550) (fig. 3). The sequence of images in the Rosarium philosophorum suggested a horizontal reading, as they followed the union, death and resurrection, and transformation of Sol and Luna into the philosophers’ stone. Atalanta fugiens was hardly sui generis, in other words, but rather rested on two well-established traditions: the humanist emblem and the illustrated alchemical text, both of which would have prepared readers for the kinds of vertical and horizontal reading that Maier’s emblems demanded.7

A manuscript page from Rosarium philosophorum (Rose Garden of the Philosophers) frames an emblem of Sol and Luna mid-coitus, with Latin text above and below.
Figure 3

Readers of Atalanta fugiens who were new to chymistry and mostly familiar with emblem books (rather than alchemical Bildgedichte) likely would have approached any given emblem vertically. That is to say, they would have begun by reading the motto at the top, probably in Latin but perhaps also (or instead) with a glance to the left to read it in German. Next, their eyes would have fallen on the image or pictura, which reinforced the message of the motto, and then, finally, on the epigram and discourses below, which expanded on the motto’s meaning. Emblem 11 offers a good example of how this works (fig. 4). The Latin motto, “Whiten Latona and tear your books,” is repeated in the pictura, where we see a woman seated in the center, being washed on the left by another classical figure. At her feet she has two children, one of whom has the sun as his head and the other a moon on her head. On the right, a third classical figure is ripping up books. The pictura divides neatly into two halves, right under the ampersand of the motto, closely linking the bifurcated image to the motto above.

A two-page spread of emblem 11 from Atalanta fugiens that consists of musical notation and a German translation of the epigram on the left-hand page and a Latin motto, etching, and Latin version of the epigram on the right-hand side. In the emblem, a woman, seated in the center, is being washed by a figure on the left, who wears classical attire. At her feet she has two children, one of whom has the head of a sun, and the other the head of a moon. On the right, a third classical figure is ripping up books.
Figure 4 add add Add to Collection

The Latin epigram below the pictura gives more detail, but the learned reader would have immediately understood Maier’s classical reference. In Greek mythology, Latona is the mother of Apollo and Diana (gods of the sun and moon), represented as the twins at her feet. The beginning of the epigram confirms this: “Ancestors (of truth no doubt) to us relate / Latona’s twins produced from Jove the great.”8 A reader familiar with the alchemical corpus, moreover, would have recognized Maier’s clever wordplay as well. The motto, “Whiten Latona and tear your books,” cites a well-known alchemical injunction warning against confusing or misleading books: “Make Laton white and tear your books, that your hearts may not be destroyed.”9 Laton (or latten) is a yellow alloy of gold and silver that some alchemists believed must be purified further to produce the philosophers’ stone.10 Maier makes a slight adjustment, however, changing “Laton” into “Latona,” which gives him the opportunity to put a classicizing spin on chymical materials. “Some say She’s Sol with fair Diana mixed, / Having a face most white, some black betwixt,” he continues; in other words, Latona can produce sun and moon, or gold and silver, but she is impure, flecked with dark spots on her face.11 “Study my dear!” Maier concludes, “to wash these spots away, / Then burn those books which led your thoughts astray.”12 The text and image on the right side of Emblem 11, then, may be read as a proposal for action, an injunction to set books aside and manipulate matter in the laboratory (in this case, whitening and purifying an impure alloy as a step toward producing the philosophers’ stone and, ultimately, gold and silver).

This kind of emblematic vertical reading guided readers down through the parts of any given emblem in Atalanta fugiens, leading them deeper into its chymical secrets. Maier’s inclusion of music, however, made even this type of vertical reading more complex. What if a European reader, accustomed to reading left to right, began with the German motto on the upper left, his eye then scrolling down through the music to the German epigram before moving across to the Latin version on the right that replaced the music with an image? What made Atalanta fugiens unique among emblem books and alchemical Bildgedichte, after all, was Maier’s inclusion of music, so it seems fitting that the fugue might have drawn a reader’s attention first, rather than the more familiar motto, image, and epigram on the right. Starting on the left, the reader would find the familiar canon format, with the Apple leading, then Atalanta, followed by Hippomenes. Their voices and melodies are framed above and below with German verse, but they sing in Latin, and this encourages the reader’s eye to wander down and to the right to the Latin epigram that provides the lyrics. Moreover, Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Apple sing about chymistry, namely Laton(a) and the value of laboratory praxis over confusing books. If we remember that Maier’s readers would have encountered fifty emblems in Atalanta fugiens, then this repeated slippage in the music from Ovid’s tale into the laboratory becomes something of its own cantus firmus, a steady and recurrent reminder that Maier’s book is really about chymistry, despite its literary trappings.

Let us imagine a different kind of reader, however: someone familiar with alchemical texts or Bildgedichte such as the Rosarium philosophorum, and thus expecting the emblems in Atalanta fugiens to outline a series of steps, perhaps for producing the philosophers’ stone. By Maier’s day, moreover, even the emblem book genre had begun to move in this direction, evolving from its original form as a collection of self-contained individual emblems into more coherent thematic collections. A reader well versed in alchemical texts, therefore, may have been inclined to dwell less on text and image in a single emblem and to move horizontally instead, locating connections across multiple emblems. This possibility is in fact what made Atalanta fugiens especially promising. By framing his collection of emblems with the narrative of Atalanta and Hippomenes, telling his readers that the lovers’ tale should be understood as a method for making the philosophers’ stone, and then reminding them of this connection again and again at the outset of each of the fifty fugues, Maier suggested that there was a narrative linking his emblems after all. Certainly, Atalanta and Hippomenes disappeared after the opening pages, but perhaps the emblems told a tale of chymical processes instead, a step-by-step series of instructions for making the philosophers’ stone.

Maier’s readers, in short, may have approached Atalanta fugiens with different kinds of expertise and expectations, and this would have produced different kinds of readings and lessons. If we envision that our reader has just finished reading and pondering Emblem 11, for example, where might he go from there? Perhaps he simply would have flipped the page to follow Atalanta and Hippomenes into Emblem 12, reading the emblems “in order.” He also might have decided to obey Maier’s exhortation to set aside confusing books entirely for the laboratory, putting down Atalanta fugiens and stoking a fire instead. On the other hand, this reader may well have chosen to remain within Atalanta fugiens, at least for the moment; that is, instead of proceeding from Emblem 11 to Emblem 12, he might have jumped from Emblem 11 into other parts of the book.

The second page of emblem 25 from Atalanta fugiens shows a motto and epigram in Latin and an image. In the foreground of the image, a man with a sun on his head, identified as Sol, and a woman with a crescent moon on her head, identified as Luna, are holding clubs and attacking a dragon with wings. Behind them Sol and Luna, are holding bows and arrows and running toward a dragon with wings.
Figure 5 add add Add to Collection

He might have returned to the title page, for example, where the many-headed dragon Ladon sits in the Garden of the Hesperides guarding the golden apples, to ponder yet another dimension of Maier’s play on Laton/Latona (fig. 1). Or, this same reader might instead have flipped ahead in the book from Emblem 11 to Emblem 25, “The Dragon dies not, except he be killed by his brother and Sister, which are Sol and Luna” (fig. 5). In this emblem, we see Latona’s twins Sol and Luna again, now all grown up and attempting to bludgeon a dragon who, we are told, can only be killed by them. This dragon’s tail recalls Ladon’s on the title page, but Maier’s epigram tells us that the dragon here represents philosophical mercury, which can only be coagulated with Sol and Luna. Maier is again pointing to the laboratory, but one wonders: how is this step related to the one in Emblem 11 before, or, for that matter, to any of the others in between? Is there, perhaps, a chymical narrative threaded through the book after all, if one only knew how to find it?

Compare emblems

  • Emblem 11 image thumbnail
  • Emblem 25 image thumbnail
Sol and Luna collection addAdd to emblem collections

My point here is not to answer these questions, to “figure out” the secrets that Maier embedded in his complex book. Clearly, there was no single way to read Atalanta fugiens, which drew on both the genre of the emblem book and the alchemical Bildgedicht (not to mention the feint that it was about Atalanta and Hippomenes) to shape readers’ expectations. In fact, the open-ended nature of Atalanta fugiens and the infinite number of links, layers, and hidden meanings embedded in it deliberately resist any possibility of “solving” the puzzle (although the fact that it is fun to try goes a long way towards explaining the book’s longevity). Rather, my point is that, despite its claim to be the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, the structure and content of Atalanta fugiens encourage its readers to read both vertically and horizontally — that is, not only to linger within a single emblem to consider internal connections among its visual, textual, and musical parts, but also to read across multiple emblems. Moreover, even this kind of horizontal reading offered numerous possibilities. One need not read sequentially (although one could) but could also skip around, flip back and forth, and construct groupings out of emblems otherwise dispersed throughout the book. Reading Atalanta fugiens this way, searching for connections and juxtapositions across and within emblems, is what turns the book into a tool, an instrument for multiplying meanings and endlessly generating new insights into nature, and possibly even producing valuable chymical materials in the laboratory.

Nonlinear reading
A visualization of an example of a non-linear reading experience: an arrow skips across a spread of pages representing the various emblems of Atalanta fugiens.

Embodied Reading

The multiple parts of Atalanta fugiens and the complicated relationships among them were not the only elements of Maier’s book that made reading difficult. Readers had to engage multiple parts of their own bodies and minds as well. After all, as Maier admonished, the book was to be “seen, read, meditated [upon], Understood, distinguished, Sung and Heard.13 One needed eyes for the first two activities in this list, although Maier differentiated between seeing (pictures) and reading (words). He lists three different kinds of mental activity as well: meditating (upon), understanding, and distinguishing. These were different facets of intellectual work: taking in information, determining its meaning, and then weighing its significance with respect to other texts, images, or ideas.

Finally, in order to grapple with Atalanta fugiens, one must use the mouth (or a musical instrument) to produce sound and the ear to consume it. As Maier put it:
That therefore we might have these three objects of the more spiritual senses, namely seeing and hearing, as also the understanding itself, as it were in one view and embrace, and insinuate all at once into mens minds for the better understanding thereof, behold we have joined the Optic together with Music, and sense with the understanding [sensum cum intellectu], that is, things rare to be seen and heard of with Chymical emblems, which are peculiar to this Science.14

Maier’s book deliberately engaged the intellect and the senses, in other words, and he challenged his readers to attempt to grasp chymical arcana with all of them at once. (The three lower perceptual faculties of touch, smell, and taste are notably and deliberately absent from Maier’s sensorium, although, as we know, plenty of people who examined and experimented with nature in early modern Europe used these senses as well.)15

So why choose emblems to convey chymical knowledge? In part, this choice reflected Maier’s deep investment in chymistry as a privileged and difficult endeavor. In invoking the “Chymical emblems, which are peculiar to this Science,” Maier endorses a particular mode of communication as fitting for chymistry. Other “arts,” he notes, might communicate more directly, “they being willing and requisite to be understood by all men; Chemia not so, which as a chaste virgin ought to be seen through a veil, and as Diana, not without a garment of various colors.”16 Readers who were well read in alchemical literature would have nodded in agreement, given many (although by no means all) alchemical authors’ propensity towards allegory, poetry, and rhetorical techniques of “dispersion” (spreading dicta over a text) and Decknamen (code names for alchemical materials).17 For Maier, this was as it should be. Chymistry was not simply an artisanal practice, he explains, but was meant to challenge the intellect, and this is why he chose to present it in Atalanta fugiens as a collection of images, allegories, secrets, and musical rarities. The reader, listener, or viewer of Atalanta fugiens would not easily discover the secrets within — he or she must ponder them and perhaps discuss them with others — but the intellectual exercise would bring rewards in the end.

Moreover, Maier confesses, representing chymistry as multimedia emblem might have an additional benefit. It made chymistry more appealing, more likely to catch and hold readers’ attention and thus eventually to penetrate the intellect. One must approach the intellect gently, he explains, and with the proper protocol: “[T]he senses being inquisitors and messengers must first convey, and as warders the instruments of a city watching at the gates thereof inform and impart everything that is to be known, to the understanding, as the dictator and arbiter.”18 Then, if chymical knowledge “be first in bondage to the sense, there is no doubt but there will be a passage from the sense to the understanding as by a door.”19 The sensory pleasures of Atalanta fugiens, in other words, could draw readers in and then open the intellect to the book’s deeper truths. As the author’s epigram concludes, “Your eyes with ease these Emblems may behold, / But reason must the mysteries unfold [At ratio arcanas expetat inde notas]: / These things I’ve made familiar, that the mind / The treasures here enclosed may seek and find.”20 For all of these reasons, in Maier’s view, emblems were the perfect format for promoting and containing chymical knowledge. As a fashionable genre, emblems set the social context that Maier aspired to for chymistry, making it a learned and entertaining subject. Emblems also allowed for a suitably enigmatic presentation of chymical arcana, thus allowing Maier to print chymical secrets without divulging them to all. Furthermore, enhanced with sound and image, emblems could draw people to a subject that they otherwise might have avoided. The multiple advantages of emblems, therefore, addressed some of Maier’s concerns about chymistry’s public image, social status, intellectual cachet, and presence in European print culture.21

I would like to suggest that the emblem format did something else as well, however. It focused Maier’s audience on an issue that was central not only to reading Atalanta fugiens but also to the search for knowledge more generally: namely, how to strike the right balance between intellectual and sensory engagements with nature. In other words, learning to read about chymical arcana in emblems was also a way to calibrate the mind and body and, ultimately, to cultivate the skills required to practice chymistry.

Chymical Practice

In order to press his case about the proper balance between intellectual and sensory engagements with chymical arcana, Maier drew on late Renaissance understandings of philosophical psychology and cognition.22 Done properly, in his view, seeking “chymicall secrets” was one of the most dignified undertakings, second only to the pursuit of the divine. Drawing on a conventional Aristotelian hierarchy of the vegetative, sensitive, and intellective souls, Maier begins the preface to Atalanta fugiens by explaining, “Candid Reader! It is a truth denied by none that man in his composition represents a compendium of the universe, and is destinated to live three kinds of life” — “vegetable,” “sensible,” and “intelligible.” In the “mothers womb,” he lives a “vegetable” life; “he grows and is increased like a plant.” In “this world,” he lives a “sensible” life, mostly guided by his senses, distinguished from animals only “in beginning to exercise the understanding, though imperfectly.” Finally, “in the other world with God,” he lives the “intelligible” life alongside the angels. Atalanta fugiens addressed the middle field, that is, the “sensible life,” where humans can make use of both the intellect and the “corporeal sense[s].” Using the intellect, he says, “more lofty wits, generously educated, and born to greater things” may approach the divine and pursue “things subtle wonderful and rare.” On the other hand, those “very many addicted to . . . the pleasures of the body, lust, gluttony, external pomp, and the like” limit themselves to the use of the senses, and thus to the “bestial kind.”23

Naturally, Maier envisioned himself and his readers to be among those “more lofty wits, generously educated, and born to greater things,” and he offered Atalanta fugiens as an instrument with which to pursue these aims. “Now to instruct and perfect the understanding,” he explains, “God has hidden infinite secrets in nature, which are forced out by innumerable arts and Sciences, as fire out of a flint, and transferred to use.”24 The interest in “secrets” was widespread among scholars and publishers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Maier wanted to make it clear that chymistry, too, had secrets to offer.25 In his view, however, true chymical arcana were not mere recipes or techniques, the arcana peddled by what he called “circumforaneous impostors, and pseudochymical drones (who in these things are asini ad Lyram [asses to the lyre], because altogether strangers to all good learning and intention).”26 True chymical arcana, in Maier’s view, were not for sale, but were rather a divine gift to help humans develop their higher faculties. In fact, chymical arcana were the best secrets for this task. “Amongst these [gifts] Chymical secrets are not the meanest,” he proclaims, “but next to the indagation of divine things, the principal and most precious of all.”27

In Maier’s hierarchy of cognitive engagements with the world, he clearly privileged the intellect. As Maier explained in his preface to Atalanta fugiens, true chymical secrets are “to be comprehended by the understanding [intellectu] sooner than by sense, rather by profound contemplation upon the reading of authors, and comparing them together, and with the works of nature, than sensitive operation, or manual experimentation, which is blind without previous theory.”28 Maier certainly does not call for a purely “intellectual” practice of alchemy, even as he does call for a methodical reading practice that includes “profound contemplation” of books. His claim, rather, is that the search for chymical secrets cannot succeed with the senses alone. Maier juxtaposed two different approaches to chymical knowledge. One method is to combine textual and laboratory practices, reading, reflecting upon, and comparing texts within the alchemical corpus and placing insights from books into conversation with “the works of nature.” For Maier, this careful reading and toggling between books and direct sensory engagement with nature was preferable to the other method, namely eschewing books in favor of “sensitive operation, or manual experimentation” alone, which he saw as “blind” because it lacked a theoretical framework.

Maier expanded on this idea in the emblem we have already examined, Emblem 11, “Whiten Latona and tear your books” (fig. 4). There he acknowledged some of the limitations of approaching chymistry through books alone. By 1600 or so, the corpus of chymical texts was overwhelming and confusing. Not only was there a growing number of ancient, medieval, and now early modern texts, but reading them was difficult because of inconsistent terminology and sometimes riddling prose style. “So great is the diversity of Authors in writing, that the explorators of truth do almost despair of finding the end of art,” Maier notes in the discourse to Emblem 11. “[F]or Allegorical speeches being of themselves difficult to be understood, and the causes of many errors,” he continues, “especially then, if the same words be applied to different things, and different words to the same things.” All of this made it difficult to “perceive the truth involved in so great darkness, or of endless pains and charge in proving what is true, what not.” And so, Maier advises, quoting an injunction that appeared in other alchemical texts as well, “those books [must be] torn, lest their hearts be broken.” In other words, as the motto and epigram to Emblem 11 proclaim, the aspiring alchemist should tear his books, and dispense with misleading or confusing (ambiguous) books that only cause anguish.29

Maier’s advice in this emblem is a bit dramatic, to be sure (and certainly he did not intend for his readers to tear Atalanta fugiens apart!). His point is not that alchemical texts will always mislead and thus should be set aside entirely but rather that they can be difficult and, more importantly, that the laboratory can help the chymist navigate the library. “One is not sufficient without the other, an acute genius [ingenium acutum] without hand-labor,” he states directly, “as neither the theory without the practice, and contrarywise.”30

The key to chymical clarity is balance, following nature and gaining “experientia” on the one hand, and careful, deliberative reading (studio et lectio authorum) on the other. Each frame questions and clarifies the findings of the other, whether in books or in nature itself. And, as I have already suggested, the other elements of Emblem 11 underscore the importance of the laboratory by pointing the reader to practice.

A two-page spread of emblem 42 from Atalanta fugiens consists of musical notation and a German translation of the epigram on the left-hand page and a Latin motto, etching, and Latin version of the epigram on the right-hand side. In the emblem, a bearded man wearing spectacles and holding a lantern and staff is following in the footprints of a woman in classical clothing holding a cornucopia and bouquet during an eclipse.
Figure 6 add add Add to Collection

Maier returns to these themes again in Emblem 42, echoing and developing his argument that the true chymist must be guided by the interplay of theory and practice (fig. 6). Emblem 42 is one of Maier’s more repetitive emblems, with image, text, and music all reiterating the point first made in the motto: “Nature, Reason, Experience and reading must be the guide, staff, Spectacles, and Lamp to him that is employed in Chymical affairs.”31 The image reinforces the motto by depicting the chymist, a bearded man equipped with staff, spectacles, and lamp, following in the footsteps of nature personified. As the accompanying discourse elaborates, the chymist is like a traveler. He needs:
[i]n the first place, a companion or guide not ignorant of the ways, through which he must pass . . . Secondly, a Staff, by which the slipperiness and peril of the way, lest it be detrimental to a man, may be avoided: Thirdly, sound eyes, for such journeys are most dangerous to the blind or dim-sighted: Fourthly, a lamp or lighted torch, that the diversities and differences of the ways may be discerned . . . to wit, Nature, Reason, experience, and reading.32

Natura, in other words, provides not only the raw materials necessary for the chymist’s art but also exemplars of how these materials behave. Ratio, the staff, prevents the chymist from stumbling, helping him sort out true from untrue; and Experientia, the spectacles, assists him in observing and thus building up a store of knowledge.33 Finally, Lectio, reading, is the lamp, “without which there will be every where darkness and thick clouds.”34 Maier not only underscores the importance of choosing good books but takes the opportunity to address proper reading practices. One must read books repeatedly and patiently, he argues, for quick, superficial reading will only lead to failure and confusion. Likening these four elements of the chymist’s practice to a vehicle that allows the chymist to travel the path of philosophical medicine, Maier emphasizes that all must be present in order to make progress; “one of the wheels cannot be wanting, if it be left, it avails nothing.”

The music in this emblem reinforces this message as well. Emblem 42 is one of the few emblems that departs from the standard order: Apple, then Atalanta, then Hippomenes. Rather, in this fugue, for the first time, two of the voices (Atalanta and the Apple) sing in unison, momentarily suspending the canon format of the book. Moreover, all three voices sing in even quarter notes, suggesting that they are now proceeding in lockstep. Hippomenes, in other words, is apace with Atalanta and her apple, just as the chymist steps right in the footsteps of nature.35

Fuga 42
All three voices sing in unison.

Armed with both spectacles and a lamp, the chymist in Emblem 42 draws particular attention to the sense of sight. Historians are not accustomed to thinking of alchemists as individuals with particular visual expertise. We associate the trained eye much more closely with the naturalist combing the landscape for specimens of plants, for example, or with the physician, whose ability to differentiate among numerous shades of yellow was central to the practice of uroscopy.36 Yet alchemists, too, relied heavily on sight in their practice, scrutinizing color changes, the rise and fall of vapors, and the qualities and location of solid matter in their retorts as purveyors of crucial information about the progress of the transformations they hoped to effect, as well as signs of how and when to intervene in those processes.

David Teniers the Younger’s painting The Alchemist in His Laboratory depicts an alchemist billowing the flames of his stove; the floor of his workspace is littered with empty vessels.
Figure 7

Some of the iconography around alchemy acknowledged the importance of visual acuity for practitioners, in both a positive and a negative way. As seen in David Teniers the Younger’s seventeenth-century painting, alembics, retorts, and flasks appear prominently in early modern representations of the alchemist in his laboratory, where he often is depicted peering into these glass vessels — or, more pointedly, decidedly ignoring that glassware, as if neglecting to carefully monitor the contents within or simply not seeing what was important about them, is itself a sign of faulty practice (fig. 7). Even in the more straightforward satires of the alchemist as the “pseudo-chymical drone” whom Maier despised, vision plays a prominent role in highlighting failure and folly. Von der Artzney bayder Glück, for example, the 1532 German edition of Petrarch’s De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul), concludes a denunciation of the folly of alchemy by noting that “[i]n the end many [alchemists] lose first intellectual vision [augen des gemuts] and then the use of their physical eyes [ubung die leyplichen augen] to boot.”37 The image accompanying this passage shows the alchemist in spectacles, his failing eyes an external, bodily manifestation of failing intellect, destroyed by the foolish pursuit of alchemy (fig. 8).

A manuscript page from Petrarch’s Remedies for Fortunes Fair and Foul includes an image of a bespectacled alchemist in singed garments working at a stove; his laboratory is crowded with vessels and instruments.
Figure 8

Maier attempts to flip this critique on its head, however. In Emblem 42, he places spectacles on his chymist to represent not weak, failing eyes but rather the power of “art” to bolster the chymist’s insights into nature. “Experience will be as Spectacles, by which things may be seen at a distance,” Maier explains; “[t]hese are optic instruments, invented and made by art, to help and amend the weakness of mens eyes.” Just as spectacles or telescopes extend the limited sense of sight, he proposes, so too must chymists turn to “art” — “experiments [experimenta] about the mineral matter of every kind” — to build up their “experiences” of nature (in the conventional Aristotelian sense of a store of memories that allow one eventually to build up understanding), “which the more they are in memory, the more will a man of reason draw from thence, and compare them among and with other things, that he may perceive, what is true, what not.”38 In short, Maier’s spectacles represent the chymist’s laboratory practice that allows him to better grasp the chymical arcana concealed in nature. The chymical eye that Atalanta fugiens invokes, in other words, is not simply the sense of sight but rather intellectual insight. The book equips readers with spectacles of their own, as it were, by pointing practitioners to the laboratory to carry out their own experimenta.39

But what about the music? Did Maier hope to cultivate a chymical ear as well as a chymical eye? Maier is less explicit about how singing and hearing the music in Atalanta fugiens might translate into chymical practice, but he does address music generally in his preface to the reader, underscoring the importance of music, “both vocal and instrumental,” in antiquity. Greek philosophers, he notes, regarded as ignorant anyone “who refused the Harp in festivals,”40 highlighting the sociability of music performance and perhaps hinting at how his own fugues should be sung in social settings. Maier also points out how essential music was to education for Socrates, Plato (who, Maier commented, “concluded him not harmoniously compounded, that delighted not in Musical harmony”), and, of course, Pythagoras, “who is said to have used the symphony of music morning, and evening to compose the minds of his disciples.”41 Music, then, could promote sociability and exemplify harmony, but it could also set the appropriate mood for study. It was the power of music to influence the hearer’s disposition (affectus) that especially interested Maier and that offers a clue to how he might have imagined the sense of hearing to be related to the practice of chymistry. “[T]his is a peculiar virtue of Music,” he writes, “to quicken or refresh the affections by the different musical measures.”42 The Phrygian mode, for example, akin to the modern minor scale, is “warlike, because it was sung in war, and upon engagement, and had a singular virtue in stirring up the Spirits of the Soldiers,” whereas the Ionian mode, or the modern major scale, has the opposite effect, producing amity and calm. Maier’s implication here is that, just as music could set the appropriate mood for students, warriors, and diplomats to carry out their work, so too could it prepare the chymist’s body and mind to explore nature’s secrets.

In making this claim, Maier draws on a long tradition, from Orpheus to the Renaissance magus Cornelius Agrippa, that positioned music as an important part of prayer, healing, natural magic, and the dispelling of evil spirits.43 This particular use of music was rare in an alchemical context, although it was quite prominent in the work of the Paracelsian physician and author Heinrich Khunrath, who invitingly placed a pile of musical instruments smack in the middle of one of the most elaborate images associated with alchemy, his Lab-Oratorium, which appeared in his Amphitheatrum sapientae aeternae (Amphitheater of eternal wisdom, 1595/1609) shortly before the publication of Atalanta fugiens. Peter Forshaw has explored at length the role of music in this image, arguing that Khunrath’s instruments allude to numerical concepts of weight, number, and proportion (in this case, of chymical materials), as well as to the harmonious balance between theory and practice, heaven and earth, and spirit and matter.44 Khunrath was also interested in the musical modes in the context of sacred music and theurgic ritual, however, a subject that the “oratory” half of his image explores.

Maier borrowed liberally from Khunrath in his writings, so Atalanta fugiens may well have been responding in some way to Khunrath’s complex imagery.45 Just as significant, however, is the fact that Maier’s melodies are not, as they may appear, his own original compositions, but are, rather, quotes of existing liturgical melodies. For the Apple’s cantus firmus that is present in all fifty fugues, Maier used a liturgical melody, the Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor Deus (All-powerful Creator), a Gregorian chant setting for the Mass ordinary. Helen Joy Sleeper first identified this as the Apple part in 1938, describing the Cunctipotens genitor deus as “one of the most familiar of church melodies, and one, moreover, employed by composers from an anonymous eleventh- or twelfth-century writer to Frescobaldi in the seventeenth century.”46 But Maier had a more specific source for using the Kyrie in this way, overlaid with a two-voice canon. As Loren Ludwig argues, Maier took forty of the fifty fugues in Atalanta fugiens from a collection of short, three-part vocal pieces, or “waies,” published by the English composer John Farmer in 1591.47 If the canonic interaction of the three voices purports to tell the story of the contest between Atalanta and Hippomenes, therefore, the actual melodies they sing point to liturgical music and suggest a Christian rather than classical context for Maier’s book. On one level, Maier’s choice of melodies underscores the notion of chymical arcana as a way to approach the divine. But if music was important to Maier because it prepared the chymist’s affectus, then we must also understand his fugues not as a narrative technique or part of his elaborate game in Atalanta fugiens but also as part of the deliberate, careful training of senses and intellect, body and mind, that he viewed as necessary to practice chymistry properly.


I have suggested that the multimedia emblems in Maier’s original edition of Atalanta fugiens were, among other things, an epistemological tool and a meditation on the relationship between the intellect and the senses of sight and hearing in the practice of chymistry. In focusing his readers on this issue by using the format of the musical emblem book, Maier asked them to prepare their minds and their bodies to grapple with chymistry. Whether reading books or carrying out laboratory practices, Maier’s chymist engaged his entire body, including the intellect. Only then could he hope to grasp the chymical arcana that God had placed in nature to develop his intellect and lift him above the beasts.

Seventy years after Maier published Atalanta fugiens, however, it was possible to imagine chymistry without this entire corporal edifice. When Georg Heinrich Oehrling republished Maier’s masterpiece in 1687, he did so without the music at all, keeping only the images with their associated Latin mottos and epigrams and even editing out the references to music from Maier’s preface (fig. 9).48 In eliminating the music, the 1687 edition jettisoned the most complicated and demanding element in Atalanta fugiens, namely the interplay of myth and chymistry, returning Maier’s book to a more conventional emblem format and reducing it to an illustrated collection of alchemical dicta. In silencing the music, the 1687 edition also stripped Maier’s chymistry of its sacred context; the chymist might still need his eyes and intellect, but he no longer needed sacred music to prepare his disposition to understand nature’s secrets properly. It is tempting to say that “chymistry” was on its way to becoming “chemistry,” increasingly focused on the material engagement with nature in the laboratory rather than on an outmoded resonance between nature and the divine or the remote classical past. Perhaps. But in discarding Maier’s vision of a fully embodied chymical practice, the 1687 edition of Atalanta fugiens may also have unmoored chymistry (or at least the project of the philosophers’ stone) from the senses, turning it into a primarily intellectual and literary practice and thus also paving the way for its abstraction in the nineteenth century and its absorption into “the occult.”49

The unillustrated title page from the 1687 edition of Atalanta fugiens, written in Latin.
Figure 9


  • Figure 1
    Title page, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 2
    Andrea Alciato, Emblematum liber, 1531.
  • Figure 3
    Rosarium philosophorum, 1550.
  • Figure 4
    Emblem 11, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 5
    Emblem 25, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 6
    Emblem 42, Atalanta fugiens.
  • Figure 7
    David Teniers the Younger, The Alchemist in His Laboratory, seventeenth century. (© Chemical Heritage Foundation)
  • Figure 8
    Petrarch, Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, 1532.
  • Figure 9
    Georg Heinrich Oehrling’s title page, Atalanta fugiens, 1687.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Alciato, Andrea. Emblematum liber. Augsburg: Heinrich Steyner, 1531.​/alciato/books.php?id=A31a
Auriferae artis, quam chemiam vocant. Basel: Petrus Perna, 1572.
Farmer, John. Divers & Sundry Waies of Two Parts in One, to the Number of Fortie upon one Playnsong. London, 1591.
Khunrath, Heinrich. “Treuhertzige Warnungs-Vermahnung.” In Von hylealischen das ist pri-materialischen Catholischen oder allgemeinen natürlichen Chaos. Magdeburg, 1597.
Maier, Michael. Atalanta fugiens: hoc est, emblemata nova de secretis naturæ chymica. Oppenheim, 1618.
“Atalanta running, that is, new chymicall emblems relating to the secrets of nature.” 1618 or after. Mellon Alchemical Collection 48. Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum. Frankfurt, 1687.
Ovid. Metamorphoses, Volume II: Books 9–15. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 43. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916.
Petrarch. Petrarch’s Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul: A Modern English Translation of “De remediis utriusque fortune,” with a Commentary. Translated and edited by Conrad H. Rawski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Rosarium philosophorum. Secunda pars alchimiae de lapide philosophico vero modo praeparando. Frankfurt, 1550. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Rar 8230.
Secondary Sources
Daly, Peter M. “Emblems: An Introduction.” In Companion to Emblem Studies, edited by Peter M. Daly, 1–24. New York: AMS Press, 2008.
de Jong, H. M. E. Michael Maier’s “Atalanta fugiens”: Sources of an Alchemical Book of Emblems. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969.
Eamon, William S. Science and the Secrets of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Findlen, Paula. “Between Carnival and Lent: The Scientific Revolution at the Margins of Culture.” Configurations 6, no. 2 (1998): 243–67.
Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Forshaw, Peter. “Oratorium — Auditorium — Laboratorium: Early Modern Improvisations on Cabala, Music, and Alchemy.” Aries 10, no. 2 (2010): 169–95.
Gouk, Penelope. Music, Science, and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Kahn, Didier. “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis. Part I — Preliminary Survey.” Ambix 57, no. 3 (2010): 261–63.​/174582310X12849808295788.
Lawrence, Christopher, and Steven Shapin. Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Leong, Elaine Yuen Tien, and Alisha Michelle Rankin. Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.
Levy, Allison, ed. Playthings in Early Modernity: Party Games, Word Games, Mind Games. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2017.
Manning, John. The Emblem. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.
Moran, Bruce T. Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy: Separating Chemical Cultures with Polemical Fire. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2007.
Newman, William R. “‘Decknamen or Pseudochemical Language?’ Eirenaeus Philalethes and Carl Jung.” Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications 49, no. 2/3 (1996): 159–88.
Newman, William R., and Lawrence M. Principe. “Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake.” Early Science and Medicine 3, no. 1 (1998): 32–65.
“Alchemical Symbolism and Concealment: The Chemical House of Libavius.” In The Architecture of Science, edited by Peter Galison and Emily Thompson, 59–78. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Nummedal, Tara. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Obrist, Barbara. Les débuts de l’imagerie alchimique (14e–15e siècles). Paris: Le Sycomore, 1982.
Park, Katharine. “The Organic Soul.” In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by C. B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner, Eckhard Kessler, and Jill Kraye, 464–84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Raasveld, Paul P. “Michael Maiers Atalanta fugiens (1617) und das Kompositionsmodell in Johannes Lippius’ Synopsis musicae novae (1612).” In From Ciconia to Sweelinck: donum natalicium Willem Elders, edited by Albert Clement and Eric Jas, 355–68. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
Schiltz, Katelijne, and Bonnie J. Blackburn. Music and Riddle Culture in the Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Sleeper, Helen Joy. “The Alchemical Fugues in Count Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens.” Journal of Chemical Education 15, no. 9 (1938): 410–15.
Smith, Pamela H. The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Stolberg, Michael. Uroscopy in Early Modern Europe. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016.
Streich, Hildemarie. “Introduction: Music, Alchemy and Psychology in Atalanta Fugiens of Michael Maier.” In Atalanta Fugiens: An Edition of the Fugues, Emblems and Epigrams, by Michael Maier, translated by Jocelyn Godwin, 19–89. Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1989.
Telle, Joachim. Sol und Luna: Literar- und Alchemiegeschichtliche Studien zu einem altdeutschen Bildgedicht. Hürtgenwald: Pressler, 1980.
Tomlinson, Gary. Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Walker, D. P. “Musical Humanism in the 16th and Early 17th Centuries.” The Music Review 2–3 (Feb. 1941): 1–13; (May 1941): 111–21; (Aug. 1941): 220–27; (Nov. 1941) 288–308; (Feb. 1942): 55–71.


Nummedal, Tara. “Sound and Vision: The Alchemical Epistemology of Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens.” Furnace and Fugue: A Digital Edition of Michael Maier's “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) with Scholarly Commentary. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

Author Biography

Tara Nummedal is Professor of History at Brown University, where she teaches courses in early modern European history and the history of science. She is the author of Anna Zieglerin and the Lion's Blood: Alchemy and End Times in Reformation Germany (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) and Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2007). She is the coauthor, with Janice Neri and John V. Calhoun, of John Abbot and William Swainson: Art, Science, and Commerce in Nineteenth-Century Natural History (University of Alabama Press, 2019).

Interplay by Tara Nummedal and Donna Bilak
The Emblem in the Landscape by Michael Gaudio
Emblem collections

This website use cookies, which are necessary to its functioning. Please enable Cookies in your browser and try again.