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.
Continental authors and editors often sought to ground alchemical writing within a long-established, coherent and pan-European tradition, appealing to the authority of adepts from different times and places. Greek, Latin and Islamic alchemists met both in person and between the covers of books, in actual, fictional or coincidental encounters: a trope utilised in Michael Maier’s Symbola aureae mensae duodecim nationum (1617). This essay examines how works attributed to an English authority, George Ripley (d. c. 1490), were received in central Europe and incorporated into continental compendia. Placed alongside works by the philosophers of other nations, Ripley’s writings helped affirm the unity and truth of alchemy in defiance of its critics. His continental editors were therefore concerned not only with the provenance of manuscripts and high-quality exemplars, but by a range of other factors, including the desire to suppress controversial material, intervene in contemporary polemics, and defend their art. In the resulting compilations, the vertical axis of alchemy’s long, diachronic tradition may be compared to the horizontal plane of pan-European alchemy.