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Post stamps might seem mundane, but they are interesting from different perspectives. For example, the designs and the subjects they are based on, and that the postal services employ artists to create drawings and paintings for post stamps. We don't find many post stamps about alchemy, probably because governments tend to shy away from taking alchemy seriously. They do commemorate historical alchemists who became famous for the scientific discoveries that they made. Most alchemists were also chemists or pharmacists who were knowledgeable about various sciences. This sometimes led to a product that became commercially successful. Thus what we find portrayed in post stamps are those alchemists/chemists who are also a national pride.
Aside from looking to the artistic side in the design of these post stamps, it also gives us the opportunity to learn a little more about these famous alchemists.
Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) was an Flemish alchemist and physician from Brussels, Belgium. He introduction of the word "gas" (from the Greek word chaos) into the vocabulary of science. He was a disciple of the alchemist Paracelsus. Van Helmont viewed medical alchemy as the only key to curing all diseases and poisons. He believed in the existence of a universal solvent, Alkahest, that could extract medical essences out of any being. The Alkahest could then be used to construct an all-powerful universal medicine
Belgium, 1942, after an Engraving from "Icones Virorum" by Friedrich Roth-Scholtz (Nuremberg, 1725)
In his masterpiece Ortus medicinae (1648), Van Helmont recounted his meeting with a mysterious Irish alchemist named Butler. Butler was in the possession of a 'little stone', lapillus, a wondrous alchemical medicine that could cure any disease by touching it with the tip of one’s tongue. Van Helmont was himself given this cure, which, he says, healed him of a slow poison given by an enemy, who had confessed his guilt on his deathbed. As he pondered the lapillus and its contents later on, Van Helmont compared its action with that of viper venom, which also acted instantly and in very small quantity. Thus he envisaged snake poison and Butler’s lapillus as polar opposites.
Van Helmont was a keen reader of Paracelsus, and inherited his framework in regards to poison. Paracelsus argued that all things contained poison within them, but poison also had a medicinal side. It was a question on how to separate the two aspects so that only the medicinal side remained. We don't know how Paracelsus achieved this with his alchemical preparations, but it seems similar to present-day homeopathy where the energy of a physical substance is separated from the substance itself. Being transferred to a liquid, it becomes a potent medicine.
Van Helmont believed that the alchemical process would obtain the medical essence as an 'inversion' of the poison. Van Helmond said that Paracelsus knew how to accomplish the inversion for a medicine called antimonial tincture of lily. Yet, Van Helmont believed that Paracelsus did not know that this could be done for all poisonous plants and animals by using the greater circulated salt solvent, the universal solvent Alkahest. Indeed, all things lose their poison and acquire medical power if they are reduced to their primum ens (primal state of being in which everything is pure and good). Ultimately, the Alkahest can lead to the creation of the supreme universal medicine.
Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) is credited with discovering the secret of manufacturing European porcelain in 1708 in Germany. Böttger was an alchemist who claimed to be able to make gold, but failed when forced to do so. Instead he discovered the secret of making hard porcelain.
In 2010, Germany released a post stamp to commemorate the 300 year anniversary of the establishment of the Meissen factory.
On the stamp we see Johann Friedrich Böttger, the son of a mint master from Schleiz. He first learned the pharmacist's trade at 18 years of age, when he tried to discover and make the philosopher's stone or tincture that could transmute base metals in gold and provide external life. He did this in secret, but soon acquired the reputation of an alchemical "gold maker". In 1701, Augustus the Strong, was Elector of Saxony rescued the young Böttger, who had fled from the court of the king of Prussia, Frederick I, who had expected that he produce the Goldmachertinktur to create gold for him as Böttger had boasted he could. Augustus imprisoned him and tried to force him to reveal the secret of manufacturing gold. Böttger's transition from alchemist to potter was orchestrated as an attempt to avoid his execution. In 1704, impatient with no progress, the monarch ordered scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus to oversee the young gold-maker. At first Böttger had no interest in von Tschirnhaus' own experiments, but with no results of his own and by then fearing for his life, by September 1707, he slowly started cooperating. Thinking the deciphering of porcelain's secrets was his only option left to both satisfy the monarch's greed and save his own neck, he began cooperating in earnest. Instead of making gold he tried to make porcelain. On January 15, 1708, Johann Friedrich Böttger and von Tschirnhaus succeeded in producing the first European hard-paste porcelain in Dresden.
The design of the post stamp is based on a painting by the German artist Paul Kiessling (1836-1919), where Böttger is showing the secret of the production of porcelain to the Elector:
In 1950, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik came out with a post stamp, showing a demonstration of the first Meissen porcelain at the Easter fair in 1710.
Below is the First Day of Issue of 2X 50 Pfennig by the Deutsche Demokratische Republik on January 20, 1982. It commemorates the 300th birthday of Johann Friedrich Böttger:
The stamps show the only known portrait of Böttger, and his seal.
The scene is an engraving of the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen, where the first porcelein factory was established.
The portrait of Böttger is based on the only existent portrait created by François Coudray in 1723. This is on a picture plaque made of Böttger stoneware kept in the Ducal Museum of Gotha. Böttger stoneware was a preliminary stage of true porcelain, being hard-fired, brown stoneware into whose matte or glossy-polished surface decorations could be cut.
In the same year, 1982, the DDR also created four stamps with Meissen porcelain to commemorate the 300th birthday of Johann Friedrich Böttger. They show a coffeepot of 1715, a mug vase of 1715, a figure of Oberon of 1969, and a vase of 1979.
Right is the coffee pot, displayed in the first stamp, produced in the Meissen factory in 1710-1730, now in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin.
The deutsche Bundespost of the German Democratic Republic also printed a stamp in 1982 to commemorates the 300th birthday of Johann Friedrich Böttger, showing a Meissen porcelain piece.
Bernard Palissy (c.1510–c.1589) was a French Huguenot alchemist, potter, hydraulics engineer and craftsman. He struggled for sixteen years to imitate Chinese porcelain, but never succeeded. Instead he created his own type of ceramics, his so-called "rusticware", typically highly decorated large oval platters featuring small animals in relief among vegetation, the animals apparently often being molded from casts taken of dead specimens. As an alchemist he experimented and developed different colored glazes and enamels.
Palissy was not only practical alchemist, he was also metaphysical. As a Paracelsian adept, he subscribed to the Neoplatonic notion of cosmological harmony between man-microcosm and universe-macrocosm, since the divine soul of the creator animated all creation. The adept could anticipate the process of redemption through alchemy, the separation of pure from impure by fire.
Originally, he made a living by painting and designing. One day, a wealthy man in the neighborhood of Saintes showed him an earthen cup from his collection. It was turned and enameled with so much beauty, that, at the sight of it, Palissy artist was struck dumb with admiration. The cup probably was Italian porcelain, because no man in France could make white porcelain or enamels. This spurred Palissy to search for a way to make enamels as this would provide him with a good income.
For Palissy, the white glaze of the cup signified the astral spirit materialized and then merged with the macrocosm in enamel. He began by making a furnace, and having bought a quantity of earthen pots, and broken them into fragments, he covered these with various chemical compounds. He melted them at furnace heat. His hope was, that of all these mixtures, some one or other might run over the pottery in such a way as to afford him at least a hint towards the composition of white enamel, which he had been told was the basis of all others. He labored for several years without any success, and his family was driven into poverty.
He experimented with many different types of colored enamels, but could not produce the white porcelain. He then began to make his own kind of ceramics, typical dishes ornamented with local flora and fauna and glazed with many colors. The colored glazes were the result of his many years of adding different metals to it. Palissy was the first to make casts from life animals, with which he decorated his enameled stoneware, from 1555 on. It teems with flora and fauna that he collected by slogging through the marshes of France. They became popular and were known as rusticware.
France issued a semi-postal (charity for the benefit of the French Red Cross) stamp featuring a portrait of Palissy, designed by French artist Louis-Charles Muller (1902-1957), engraved by Raoul Serres (1881-1971), and issued on June 15, 1957.
The post stamp is based on a self-portrait in faïence by Bernard Palissy himself, held in from the collection of Baron Anthony de Rothschild in London:
Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493–1541), was a Swiss and German alchemist and physician. Paracelsus sought a universal knowledge that was not found in books or faculties. For this purpose he traveled all over Europe. Based on the hermetic idea of Universal Harmony, Paracelsus saw health and disease as a result of harmony or disharmony in the body. Disharmony could be cured by (alchemical, or spagyric) medicines.
Early on, he created innumerable enemies by his bold nature and his innovations, but the value of his mineral medicines was proved by the cures which he performed. These cures only increased the hatred of his persecutors, and Paracelsus with characteristic defiance invited the faculty to a lecture, in which he promised to teach the greatest secret in medicine. He began by uncovering a dish which contained excrement. The doctors, indignant at the insult, departed precipitately, Paracelsus shouting after them: "If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians."
Paracelsus believed that the principles Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases. He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted. Paracelsus theorized that materials which are poisonous in large doses may be curative in small doses, which is reminiscent of the later development of homeopathy by Hahnemann. Overall, Paracelsus' ideas were quite complex, and not always easy to understand. Being a physician, he came up with several medical discoveries and highly specific medicines. Paracelsus came up with many prescriptions and concoctions on his own, especially for infectious diseases, and the then spreading Black Plague.
He also said that "In all things there is a poison, and there is nothing without a poison. It depends only upon the dose whether a poison is poison or not..." He was the first to discover that a poison can be medicinal in very small doses; or a medicine can be poisonous in large doses.
Paracelsus proposed that the state of a person's psyche could cure and cause disease, what we now know as psychosomatic illness.
János Kass (1927- ) made this quincentennial etching of Paracelsus, in 1993. This Hungarian postage stamp commemorates the 500th anniversary of the birth of Paracelsus. In this portrait the Hungarian artist emphasizes three traits of the many-sided Paracelsus: the philosopher, the pioneer of iatrochemistry (chemical medicine), and the alchemist. In fact, these were the main aspects that determined the work and writings of Paracelsus as a physician, a surgeon, and as ethicist as well. This etching is one of the few recent depictions of the Swiss Renaissance polymath: most of the approximately three hundred different variants of Paracelsus portraits were created earlier, in the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Social welfare stamp series 1949
450th Anniversary of Paracelsus, Austria
The two stamps above are after a woodcut by A. Hirschvogel, 1540:
This stamp was issued in Germany on 10 November 1993 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Paracelsus’s birth. The stamp features his likeness, based on a 1538 etching attributed to Augustin Hirschvogel, a German artist and mathematician known primarily for his etchings. In addition, the stamp displays (clockwise, starting from the lower left corner) the alchemical symbols of iron, air, silver, mercury, sulfur, salt, potash, and tin, all essential tools in the alchemists’ armamentarium. Interestingly, some of these symbols were also associated with celestial bodies known at the time, such as Mars (iron), the Moon (silver), and Jupiter (tin).
Switzerland, 1993; also based on the same 1538 woodcut by Hirschvogel, see below:
This stamp was part of a series commemorating the 350th anniversary of Peter Paul Rubens's death.
The image is after a portrait of Paracelsus painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), made in 1678-18, now displayed in Room 52 (Rubens Room) of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels:
The Deutsche Bundespost printed an interesting alchemical post stamp in 1979, showing Johannes Faust with a Homunculus in a glass vessel, and Mephistopheles holding up a mirror in which Faust sees the image of a woman, which awakens within him a strong erotic desire. It is symbolic for the ordinary man who is driven by his primitive, animal desires. At his feet is a magic circle used to conjure up Mephistopheles.
The homunculus first appears by name in alchemical writings attributed to Paracelsus in his De natura rerum (1537). The homunculus continued to appear in alchemical writings after Paracelsus' time. It is a symbol for spiritual regeneration.
Faust is based on a German legend, where the erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a blood contract with Mephistopheles at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The legend is allegedly based on based on Johann Georg Faust (c.1480–1540), a magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg.
The homunculus enters the legend with Goethe's tragic play Faust. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered to be the greatest German literary figure. Faust is considered to be Goethe's greatest work.
Goethe tells us that he began to study alchemy with a Fräulein von Klettenberg in 1768, in Frankfort to recuperate from an illness. His interest may have been awakened by a "Universal Medicine," which was administered by an alchemist friend of von Klettenberg and to which Goethe credited his cure. At that time he read a number of alchemical and Hermetic texts and began practical alchemical experiments in his alchemical laboratory in the attic of his father’s house, directed toward healing rather than transmutation. These experiments left a lifelong impression on him, and we know that he continued his "mystico-religious chemical pursuits" (as he called them). Furthermore, alchemy provided for Goethe a structure of ideas, which we recurs throughout his scientific work as well as Faust.
In Goethe's Faust, the Homunculus was unnaturally synthesized by Faust's assistant, Wagner, in the laboratory. He is a little flame-like man who lives in a glass vial. Ironically, this creature, who represents the highest achievement of Enlightenment science, is more human in his desires than his creator. Rather than sit in a lab all day, Homunculus wants to experience the world, to evolve, and to achieve what he calls a proper existence. To this end, he journeys to Greece with Faust and Mephistopheles for Classical Walpurgis Night, where he rides the shape-shifting Proteus out into the Aegean Sea, the origin of all natural life. In the midst of the waves, the creature learns about nature’s laws and, with fiery passion, he shatters his vial to give his unnatural body to the natural waters, an act of loving sacrifice that makes him one with nature. Homunculus’s reconciliation with nature anticipates Faust’s own reconciliation with the divine order.
There are many post stamps with the head of Goethe. Here are only two of them: one from the Deutsche Reich 1927, and one from the Deutsche Post 1949:
Arabic alchemists were well-versed in laboratory and chemical works, for many centuries, and made several breakthrough discoveries. They also held philosophical or hermetic ideas in regard to the substance of matter. Some upheld the possibility of transmutation of metals, but others did not. There have been many post stamps issued in the Arabic or Islamic world to commemorate these alchemists. Here is a selection. Many of these alchemists were also well versed in other scientific and philosophical areas.
Ibn Sina, also known as Abu Ali Sina, often known in the West as Avicenna (c.980–1037). Avicenna was an alchemist, but disputed the possibility of transmutation. He wrote four works on alchemy. He was also a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, and the father of early modern medicine. Avicenna was the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era.
Republic of Mali, 1980
He was a first century Arabic alchemist who left a vast corpus of writings, covering a wide range of topics ranging from cosmology, astronomy and astrology, over medicine, pharmacology, zoology and botany, to metaphysics, logic, and grammar. He write several books on alchemy.
Syria in 1997
Syria, 1968: shows the World Health Organization WHO Emblem and Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan
Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyāʾ al-Rāzī, also known by his Persian name Rāzī and by his Latinized name Rhazes (864–925) was a Persian alchemist, physician, and philosopher. He was widely considered one of the most important figures in the history of medicine.
Iran, 1964 and 1968
Syria, 1968, with the World Health Organization WHO Emblem