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Depicting the Medieval Alchemical Cosmos

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George Ripley’s Wheel of Inferior Astronomy

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Alchemical images take many forms, from descriptive illustrations of apparatus to complex allegorical schemes that link practical operations to larger cosmological structures. I argue that George Ripley’s famous Compound of Alchemy (1471) was intended to be read in light of a circular figure appended to the work: the Wheel. In the concentric circles of his “lower Astronomy,” Ripley provided a terrestrial analogue for the planetary spheres: encoding his alchemical ingredients as planets that orbited the earthly elements at the core of the work. The figure alludes to a variety of late medieval alchemical doctrines. Yet the complexity of Ripley’s scheme sometimes frustrated later readers, whose struggles to decode and transcribe the figure left their mark in print and manuscript.

Affiliations: 1: University of Cambridge


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