Arts & Tradition

The Gold Mine Within: ‘The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
TIMENovember 28, 2021

Sometimes, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we don’t know our way out. I was talking to a friend about some of my difficulties several weeks ago. She told me to remain positive and said, “Any situation can be turned to gold.” My friend’s words rang in my head and later made me think of a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby called “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone.”

The Traditional Alchemist

Before we can talk about my friend’s words and Wright’s painting, it is first necessary to provide a brief understanding of the traditional alchemist.

In the West, the alchemist is often associated with a mystic-like hermit who attempted to turn base metals into gold by way of complex chemical processes.

Alchemy, however, was much more than just turning base metals into gold. The spiritual alchemist, for instance, generally believed that the way the world and the universe worked revealed the will of the Creator and thus the deeper purpose of human life. All occurrences, even the seemingly difficult ones, could, like base metals, be turned into the supernatural beauty of gold if all events were understood as the will of the Creator.

For the alchemist, understanding the will of the Creator could reveal the philosopher’s stone, a mysterious substance that could reverse aging, lengthen life, and even grant immortality. It could also lead to a passage from the human realm to a supernatural one. 

The philosopher’s stone caused alchemists great difficulties since it was nearly impossible to acquire. It was up to the alchemist to remain positive and keep moving forward despite the impossible task of obtaining the substance.

During the Age of Enlightenment, traditional alchemy was considered superstitious and was ultimately replaced by what we now know as chemistry. 

“The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone” 1771, by Joseph Wright of Derby. Oil on canvas, 500 inches by 417.7 inches. Derby Museum and Art Gallery, England. (PD-US)

‘The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone’

The full title of Wright’s painting is “The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and Prays for the Successful Conclusion of his Operation, as Was the Custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers.” 

Wright depicted the alchemist kneeling at the bottom of the composition in front of a flask of phosphorus. The phosphorus glows and illuminates the alchemist and the items in the immediate environment, which include books with astrological symbols and a celestial globe on a table. The phosphorus also illuminates a clock on a column toward the back of the room.

The alchemist, however, doesn’t look at the phosphorus in front of him. Instead, he looks out toward and beyond the celestial globe and the moon in the sky. His lifted brow seems to push his gaze even further, reaching outside of the composition’s boundary.

The alchemist appears in a nearly rapturous state, a state of prayer according to the full title of the painting. A detail from “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone.” (PD-US)

Behind the alchemist are two apprentices situated in the composition as secondary focal points. One sits at a table, lights a candle, and looks intently at the alchemist, who appears to be in a transported state. Yet the full title of the painting explains that he’s praying. The other apprentice looks at the first apprentice and points to the alchemist as if to reiterate the significance of the event. 

Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_the apprentices
The apprentices are struck by the state of the alchemist. (PD-US)

The vaulted ceiling and window, architectural elements from medieval churches, also tell us that this is a religious event instead of simply a scientific one.

Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_clock, globe and moon
The clock and globe both catch some of the phosphorescent light. (PD-US)

The Gold Mine Within

Painted during the Age of Enlightenment, when science and rationality were becoming extremely popular, Wright’s “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone” reminds scientists of the root of their success: the ancient belief in the divine.

The alchemist kneels in front of the phosphorus, but his gaze extends beyond the confines of the composition. The alchemist communicates with the Creator and hopes for the success of his experiments. The many difficult years of pursuing the philosopher’s stone has finally produced something potentially worthwhile. 

In other words, the alchemist knows that the will of the Creator is responsible for his success. It is only by way of the Creator’s will that the alchemist will be able to conjure gold.  

The two apprentices are illuminated by the candle they light. Their illuminated faces also suggest the acquisition of knowledge. However, is it not simply the candle that suggests this new knowledge but also what they see when they light the candle? 

It’s not clear if the apprentices can see the phosphorus because the alchemist and table with the green cloth might obstruct their view, and this would also explain why the light from the phosphorus does not reach the faces of the two apprentices despite reaching the clock on the column in the back.

If the apprentices cannot see the phosphorus, they must be seeing the alchemist in an ecstatic moment. If this is the case, the apprentice who points at the event is reiterating the significance of the alchemist’s divine beliefs.   

Let’s now return to my friend who reminded me to remain positive and told me, “Any situation can be turned to gold.” Maybe she’s onto something. And maybe, if my thoughts reflect the will of the Creator, every situation, even the ones that seem difficult, can be seen as part of their divine and golden source.

Maybe our difficult circumstances are simply what the Creator wills, and they constitute the necessary process for forging our spirits into gold. Maybe if we stay positive, look for harmony between heaven and earth, and align ourselves with the Creator’s will, we will discover something new about ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, we will find a gold mine within. 

Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.

Eric Bess
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).