Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy

Alongside the flasks and fires in the alchemist’s laboratory lay another tool no less vital to alchemical practice: the written word. For centuries books and manuscripts were the central instrument alchemists used to disseminate their ideas, trials, techniques, and secrets, and these texts reveal both the scientific rigor and the strange beauty of alchemical practice.

Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy illuminates the important role of the written word in alchemical pursuits by placing the actual books used by alchemists alongside historical artworks portraying their use.

This is the first time in a single Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) exhibit that rare alchemical manuscripts can be viewed next to centuries-old alchemical art. Books of Secrets includes the public debut of works from CHF’s newly acquired trove of medieval alchemy manuscripts. The paintings, from CHF’s Fisher and Eddleman Collections, span the 17th to 19th century and depict the use of manuscripts by alchemists in the workshop.

Although alchemists are often portrayed as at best fools and at worst charlatans, the writings, notes, charts, burn marks, and even doodles in the collections’ manuscripts often tell a different story: a story of humanity’s desire to understand and shape the world around us.

The Museum at CHF

Books of Secrets was on display from December 5, 2014, to September 4, 2015. The Museum at CHF is free and open to the public Monday through Friday and most weekends during the spring and summer months. Get hours, directions, and other essential information for planning your visit

Detail of Ramon Llull, 'Ars brevis, and Ars abbreviata praedicanda, versio latinus II'

View a selection of the alchemical manuscripts and fine art on display.