Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ripley Scroll

Of my blood and water I wish
Plenty in all the World there is
It runneth in every place
Who it findeth he hath grace

In the World it runneth over all
And goeth round as a ball
But thou understand well this
Of the worke thou shalt miss

Therefore know ere thou begin
What he is and all his kin
Many a name he hath full sure
And all is but one Nature

Thou must part him in three
And then knit him as the Trinity
And make them all but one
Lo here is the Philosophers Stone

Ripley Scroll - 15th century emblematic alchemy manuscript

George Ripley (?1415-1490) did not let his Augustinian monk role in Yorkshire prevent him from furthering his education in alchemy by travelling in Europe. After spending time in France and Germany, Ripley settled in Rome for about twenty years with Papal support.

At the time of his return to England in 1477, it is alleged that Ripley was already in possession of the secret of transmutation. Some believed that the sizeable donations given by Ripley to help the Knights of Malta* in their war against the Turks came from his having produced gold out of base metals. This can only have enhanced his reputation and emerging fame.

Ripley was one of the first to publish works by the renowned 13th century alchemist, Raymond Lull (Lully). Of his own writings, in two hundred or more manuscripts:
"Ripley adopted an allegorical approach to alchemy, and his most important writings are his 'Compound of Alchemy' in verse which describes the alchemical process as undergoing twelve stages or 'Gates', and his emblematic 'Ripley Scrowle' ".
The remarkable Ripley Scroll is, in simple terms, an alchemical manuscript that shows in pictorial cryptograms the production of the philosopher's stone (the elusive ingredient that produces incorruptible gold out of lesser metals; and/or the elixir of life).

There are in fact twenty-one extant Ripley Scrolls, held in major institutions in the UK (most) and the States. Most of these - including the Yale version above - share similar graphical and layout features and are regarded as a single type. Four scrolls are so dissimilar to these that they are grouped together as a second type. They were all copied from (an) earlier, original work(s) which might date to the end of the 15th century. Although of varying size, most of the scrolls are about twenty feet long and a foot and a half or so wide.

Ripley's name is associated with the scrolls because his allegorical poetry is included in many of the later versions. (There is a suggestion that the horse's hoof on the staff held by the figure at the bottom of the page constitutes his 'signature'). The twenty one scrolls were produced after Ripley's death; in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The version above dates to about 1570. Some others are uncoloured or crudely drawn, so the Yale scroll is definitely one of the best quality manuscripts in existence.

I'm reluctant to delve very far into the complex symbolism presented in the scroll both because those who are most interested will find better resources than anything I might adduce by way of summary and because it is an esoteric language unto itself and is generally resistant to simplistic reduction. Interpretation requires contemplating all the visual components and the way they interact with each other in combination with the textual elements.

It may well be easy, for instance, to identify the figure at the top as an alchemist (perhaps Hermes Trismegistus) and a bunch of alchemical symbols in roundels chained to a sacred book and a variation on the iconic Adam & Eve fall from grace scene and the bird of Hermes gnawing its own wing to make itself tame, or any number of other visual emblems that have possible referential meaning outside of the scroll, but it's the role they play in the cryptic totality of the work in which they are found that overrides any drive-by partial deductions. It's not so much "the feathers signify the spirit", as it's: feathers are often associated with depicting the spiritual and here they are of two colours and seemingly link the vertical scenes and their significance may well be modulated by other visual tropes and the text. Like that.


PIGNOUF said...

Exeptionnel ! merci

Karla said...

Et merveilleux! I wonder whether I can find some way of sneaking off to Yale and seeing the exhibition... unfortunately not very likely.

Jess Haskins said...

Breathtaking, as always. Thank you.

Galderich said...

Excelente y muy generoso. Si encuentras otros materiales semejantes te continuaremos estando muy agradecidos.

Bearded Lady said...

Gorgeous. Your posts are always so timely. I was JUST researching Philosopher’s Stones. oh btw, I gave you an award over at my site -

And I also just got your book recently. It's amazing! I was expecting just a conversational/coffee table type of book but it is packed full of fascinating tidbits. great work.

Anonymous said...

Spectacular! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a devoted fan of Patricia Highsmith's 'Ripley' series, I was immediately drawn in by the name. And, of course, anything with "scroll" prompts curiosity and fascination. The Ripley Scroll does not disappoint. It has everything for a story plot: an Augustinian monk, alchemy, provocative imagery, mysteriously unexplained symbolism and wonderfully melodious verse.


peacay said...

Oui, c'est vrai!

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