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Record-Breaker

The Ripley Scroll

A magical mystery manuscript beguiled bidders By Ian McKay Ian McKay's weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than forty years.

Courtesy of Christie's.

Cryptic verses and curious pictures fill an early seventeenth-century illustrated alchemical manuscript in English and Latin that sold for £584,750 ($781,225) at Christie’s in London on December 13. It was billed as—and perhaps still is—the only one of twenty-three recorded copies of what is known as the Ripley Scroll remaining in private hands.

A complex representation of the prime alchemical quest—the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone, the means of converting base material into gold—it takes its name from that of a celebrated English alchemist, George Ripley, who died around 1490.

An Augustinian canon at Bridlington in Yorkshire, Ripley was the author of The Compound of Alchemy, a lengthy poem in Middle English that was written in 1471, though not first printed until 1591. Many other alchemical works came in time to be credited to him, but it is generally accepted that these Ripley Scrolls should be regarded as composite works rather than the creation of a single author.

In the opening section of the twelve-foot-long scroll seen at Christie’s and in seventeen of the other known copies, a large figure holds the Hermetic vessel, or ‘Philosopher’s Egg,’ the handles of which are inscribed “you must make water of earth and earth of the ayr and ayr of the fyre and fyre of the earth.” Within this glass vessel or flask can be seen linked roundels, seven of them containing figures, apparently female as well as male, watching flasks or retorts that are suspended over furnaces and which in turn contain small, naked figures.

An eighth roundel contains the sun and moon, which together pour rays onto Adam and Eve as they stand either side of the Tree of Knowledge, complete with serpent. Two figures wielding tools, two small lions, and a dog complete the design of this eighth roundel. The roundels depicting various stages in the alchemical process are joined by cords to a slightly larger central roundel in which they connect to a book held by two figures: an alchemist and another who wears a bishop’s mitre.

The remainder of the scroll comprises a series of striking emblematic diagrams with inscriptions, labels, and accompanying verses, each diagram leading into the next. They set out in dramatic and intriguing, if ultimately perplexing, form the processes for achieving the two principal goals of alchemical experiments—the production of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.

A colophon after the final text section of the manuscript reads “Leonard Smethley fecit 1624.” A painter of armorials and heraldic documents of that name is known to have worked in Manchester around that time. It may be significant, the cataloguer suggested, that John Dee, the famous Tudor mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and researcher into the occult, as well as a man who promoted Ripley’s reputation both in England and abroad, was warden of the Christ’s College in Manchester during the final years of his life.

A copy of the Ripley Scroll in the British Library collections was the centerpiece of an exhibition there called Harry Potter: A History of Magic, which travels to the New-York Historical Society this autumn.

Ian McKay's weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than forty years.