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The Alchemist Emperor of Prague

As the Holy Roman Empire descended into religious conflicts, its Habsburg ruler surrounded himself with magicians, astrologers, and scryers.

· 7 min read
The Alchemist Emperor of Prague
Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636), painted in 1867 by Jan Matejko. Sendivogius was one of many alchemists who practiced in Prague with the encouragement and support of Rudolf II.

From the 15th to the 17th centuries, most European rulers dabbled in alchemy and magic. These were not seen, however, as diversions from rulership. They were central to it, for the realms of magic and of hidden truth were thought to hold the solution to how the world might be brought into conformity with the cosmic order.

The content of the occult world, as it was imagined in early modern Europe, is best broached through The Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina), a cryptic text believed to have been originally carved on a slab of jade that Alexander the Great found in the crypt of the magician Hermes Trismegistus (the Thrice Great). In fact, it was probably first composed in the Syriac language in the eighth century before being translated into Arabic and then into Latin.

Depiction of The Emerald Tablet by 17th-c. German hermetic philosopher Heinrich Khunrath.

In the 1460s, a bundle of 14 letters written in Greek arrived in Italy from Istanbul, which purported to be of similar origin to The Emerald Tablet and to have been composed by the same Hermes Trismegistus. By now, scholars were convinced that Hermes was a real person, and that he either was a contemporary of Moses or had even lived before the Flood. These letters, and a further three that subsequently came to light, were in fact composed in Egypt in the second century CE and combined Egyptian mythology and magic with a reworking of Plato’s philosophy. The letters were rapidly translated from Greek to Latin, and they created a sensation, for they amplified The Emerald Tablet, coming from much the same intellectual milieu.

The Hermetic Corpus, as these letters are known, contains spells and invocations as well as discussions of amulets and charms and their magic powers, while the lengthy dialogues into which the text is divided presume the existence of angels and demons and that matter may be transmuted into gold in the way alchemists imagined. A constant theme in the letters is the idea that heaven, the macrocosm, is united with the microcosm of this earth and, indeed, with all smaller microcosmic units, down to individual rocks and plants.

The teachings of Hermes presented a universe that was in harmony because everything, both in the heavens and upon earth, was infused and directed by one spirit. They also stressed the singleness of all phenomena and the idea that behind outward differences lay a single substance or essence, which may be called “prime matter.” Understanding the universe and its hidden harmonies required dedication and, as The Emerald Tablet hints, some type of process before glory may be won and obscurity banished.

Hermetic thought underpinned alchemical practice. It also drove scholars to seek out symbols or “monads” which might mystically convey the universe’s unity and to find ways by which studying the stars gave new insights into the world below. Artists and musicians endeavoured to have their works convey or conform to the teachings of Hermes, while physicians strove to find the universal “quintessence” that would heal all afflictions. All branches of knowledge thus began to converge on The Emerald Tablet and Hermetic Corpus.

A section of Maximilian II and His Family, painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593), depicting Maximilian II, his wife Maria of Spain, and three of their children—including Rudolf, later Emperor Rudolf II, looking toward his father.

So too did the politics of religion. Difference of belief was antithetical to the teachings of Hermes, which presupposed a harmonious ordering of the universe. Hermetic teaching thus reinforced the humanist position that Christians should set aside their quarrels and search for a middle way between contending faiths. It was surely to this philosophical principle that the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564–1576) came through his reading of Jacopo Aconcio (1520–1566), an Italian jurist and theologian who preached tolerance. When challenged as to whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant, the emperor answered simply that he was a Christian. For the Habsburg ruler, the differences between the two confessions mattered less than the truth embedded in the Christian message.

Many were convinced that Maximilian’s slipperiness in matters of religion hid a secret adherence to Protestantism. And the beliefs of Maximilian’s eldest son and imperial successor, Rudolf II (r. 1576–1612), proved equally mysterious. Although he experienced bouts of Catholic fervour, there were long periods when he too refused to take Mass. Nobody accused the emperor, however, of Protestantism. Instead, many imagined something far worse. As his nephews reported in 1606, “His Majesty has now reached the stage of abandoning God entirely.”

Rudolf had spent his teenage years in Spain. Following his return to Vienna in 1571, he preferred to speak Spanish and to dress in the fashion of the Spanish court, wearing a broad white ruff around the neck, set off by a doublet and hose of intense black. Aping Spanish etiquette, he became stiff and formal. Elizabeth of England’s envoy, Sir Philip Sidney, who met Rudolf in 1577, reported that he was “extremely Spaniolated.”

It was, however, Rudolf’s depressive moods that alarmed observers. For long periods, Rudolf would withdraw from the rituals of court and the affairs of state, secluding himself in the royal castle in Prague. Towards the end of Rudolf’s reign, some were diagnosing madness and even diabolic possession.

Rudolf’s depressive demeanour may have been a pose. Depression is in many respects the invention of the late 15th century, for it had previously been an affliction that was thought to be mostly confined to monastic communities. Beginning around 1500, depression was also cast as a sign not only of intellectual endeavour but, following the classical tradition, even of genius. Philosophers were considered the most inclined to fall into the condition, since it was regarded as a stage in the ascent to knowledge.

Like the philosopher, the alchemist would, so it was believed, encounter depression and despair as a necessary first step in his spiritual ascent. Like the substances with which he worked, the alchemist also had to be purged of impurity and to be spiritually reconstituted, since in one contemporary description, “gold is not procured except by melancholy and the contemplation of Saturn.”

Now it may well be that Rudolf genuinely had depression, or as one of his courtiers suspected, feigned it simply to avoid making hard political choices. What is incontestable is that Rudolf’s Prague became Europe’s leading centre of alchemical practice and Hermetic magic, accommodating as many as 200 alchemists. They were so numerous that they spilled out of the palace walls into the gardens, setting up their forges among the flowerbeds. Rudolf himself practised alchemy, on one occasion singeing his beard when an experiment went wrong.

Edward Kelly depicted as a magician raising the ghost of a dead person in a Lancaster cemetery. 

The alchemists and magicians who thronged Rudolf’s court constituted a broad spectrum. At one end were charlatans looking to win patronage. Among these we may count the drunken medium Edward Kelley, who by the time he arrived in Prague had already had his ears cropped for the crime of counterfeiting. At the other end were genuine practitioners whose rigour in observation and experimental method provided the foundation of modern science. These included Tycho Brahe, who during his short stay in Prague (1599–1601) built an observatory to plot the movement of the stars, and Johannes Kepler, who worked as Rudolf’s principal astrologer between 1600 and 1612.

The English wizard John Dee, who had previously dedicated his treatise on the celestial symbol of the monad to Maximilian II, sought Rudolf’s favour in the 1580s, but Rudolf confessed that he did not understand Dee’s work. Dee then tried to stimulate Rudolf’s interest with his angel summoning, whereby he caught angels in a mirror or crystal ball and convinced them to foretell the future. He even composed a special language, called Enochian, in which to communicate with them. But the angels could only be seen and heard by Edward Kelley, which cast doubts on Dee’s credibility. (The angels became troublesome, demanding that Dee give over his wife to Kelley’s pleasure, which he did, and prophesying the imminent destruction of the Catholic priesthood, which the two men incautiously reported to the pope’s envoy. Accused of conjuring up the dead, Dee fled Prague in 1586. Kelley stayed on, eventually dying in gaol.)

An excerpt from John Dee’s diary entry for May 6 1583, in which he wrote the 21 letters of the Enochian script, a language that he said could be used to communicate with angels.

Rudolf also collected objects, which he installed in galleries built along a wing of the castle in Prague. Here were displayed works by some of the greatest artists of the 16th century, including Dürer, Brueghel, Raphael, Titian, and Correggio, sculptures and busts, clockwork automata powered by the recent invention of the tempered steel coil, and perpetual-motion machines (they worked by harnessing changes in atmospheric pressure). This “Wonder Chamber” (known in German as a Wunderkammer or Kunstkammer) was designed to impress, and it was here that he received visiting envoys. Yet the chamber functioned also as a microcosm of the universe, bringing together nature and art in what was known at the time as a “theatre of the world.”

Musei Wormiani Historia, an image depicting the Wunderkammer of Danish physician and historian Ole Worm (1588-1654).

In his final years, Rudolf was, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, so “transported and rapt in secret studies” as seldom to leave his castle in Prague. But notwithstanding his reclusiveness, Rudolf was in one way also the most universal of Habsburg rulers, for he aimed at nothing less than complete knowledge of the cosmos. In his Wonder Chamber and through Hermetic magic and alchemical symbolism, the emperor sought the philosopher’s “Triple Crown of Enlightenment: Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Joy of Eternal Love.”

Excerpted, with permission, from The Habsburgs: To Rule the World, by Martyn Rady, Copyright © 2020 by Martyn Rady. Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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