Michael Maier: Atalanta Fugiens [...] (1617); publisher Johann Theodor de Bry

In my last article I explained how with the gardens of Heidelberg Castle there had been created a perfect example of a gesamtkunstwerk, a place where science merged with philosophy as well as pleasure and beauty; where sounds, smells and sights were all applied and combined to create an overwhelming, confounding, yet harmonious sensation. At exactly the same time – the second decade of the 17th century – in the town of Oppenheim, which belonged to the same tiny Palatine state as Heidelberg, a similar attempt to accommodate the senses on several levels was published in book form: the Atalanta Fugiens.
Besides illuminated manuscripts, books are not often considered art forms in themselves. Atalanta Fugiens is much more than a book though and merges several art forms. It contains fifty emblems, copper engravings by the renowned engraver Matthäus Merian, each of which is accompanied by a motto, an epigram in German and Latin, an explanatory discourse and a fugue – a piece of music for instruments and three voices.
The book was assembled by the German philosopher, physician and alchemist Michael Maier. Just as in the case of the Heidelberg gardens, the references, imagery and multi-layered metaphors applied are so complex that these days no one is quite sure what the true meaning of it all is. And for whom was it created? Who could decipher riddles that required knowledge of all known fields of early 17th century science and philosophy?
A few things are clear about Michael Maier's enigmatic masterpiece: the emblems and accompanying texts are a guide to alchemical processes. In fact some of the riddles, when deciphered in a scientific way will lead to actual results in laboratory chemistry. Yet the book was published in a time when spiritual and mythological alchemy were a rage, and these elements can also be found abundantly in the Atalanta Fugiens. The mysterious Rosicrucian Manifesto had just appeared, a text that advocated a philosophical approach to life based on spiritual alchemy. It strongly condemned practical alchemy. One of its fiercest supporters (and perhaps authors) was Michael Maier. So perhaps Atalanta Fugiens contains an entire philosophical system, maybe even the foundations of a new religion. We'll probably never know.

(Edgar Foley)


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