The Origins of Alchemy & The Pole Who Played With Oxygen
default, Sędziwój The Alchemist by Jan Matejko, 1867, photo: Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Alchemik_Sedziwoj_Matejko.JPG
The life of Michael Sendivogius (Michał Sędziwój), a famed Polish alchemist of the 16th century, is shrouded in mystery. Much of what we know about his life is debated, but Sendivogius’s influential contributions cannot be disputed: his research led to the later discovery of oxygen.
You can also hear the story of Sendivogius and Mediaeval alchemy on our podcast Stories From The Eastern West:
Sendivogius’s rise to fame
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The Alchemist Michał Sędziwój, a painting from Julian Tuwim’s collection, XIX century, photo: Museum of Literature / East News
In order to raise funds for important research, Sendivogius needed a day job. In 1594, he moved to Prague, where he gained a powerful position in the court of Emperor Rudolf II. Sendivogius rose in the ranks, being named counsellor in 1598, and also becoming an envoy for diplomatic affairs between Rudolf II and Zygmunt III, the King of Poland.
Rudolf II was fascinated with alchemy, hence why he liked Sendivogius so much. In his royal court, Sendivogius publicly performed alchemical experiments, attracting large curious crowds. One such experiment may have happened in 1604 in Prague, though the historic reliability is questionable.
Column of Zygmunt III Waza in Warsaw
Wowing the court of Emperor Rudolf II
The story goes that Sendivogius was standing in front of an awestruck crowd in Emperor Rudolf II’s court. He was attempting to accomplish the impossible – turning a base metal in gold. With the crowd waiting in anticipation, Sendivogius used his alchemical tools on this piece of metal, and then, somehow and suddenly, miraculously presented a newly formed piece of gold. The crowd went wild. Emperor Rudolf II, a Holy Roman Emperor entranced with alchemy, was so impressed, he had an inscribed tablet hung on a wall of his castle, saying in Latin ‘Let another do which Sendivogius of Poland has done.’
This story raises a lot of questions. We know now that this type of experiment is chemically impossible, so what exactly did Sendivogius do? Was he purposely tricking the crowd? Before answering these queries, it’s important to note the roots and main philosophies of alchemy, a mediaeval precursor to modern chemistry.
The basics of alchemy
The spread of alchemy followed a certain pattern: one culture would pick it up, translate existing texts, write new original ones, and then eventually lose interest. This pattern started in Egypt and spread to Greece through Alexander the Great’s military victories. Eventually Arab philosophers revived it, lost interest as well, and passed it on to new proponents in mediaeval Europe. In Europe it persisted, losing momentum with mediaeval scholars but finding a new life with the Renaissance. It is at this point in the 16th century, when Sendivogius reigned as one of Europe’s most respected alchemists.
Metal transmutation, the feat Sendivogius supposedly accomplished in Rudolf II’s court, was a staple of alchemy. It was said to be accomplished using the coveted ‘philosopher’s stone’. Not only was it believed this substance produced gold, but also that it could cure diseases and purify the soul. Ideas of purity and immortality were the main tenets of alchemy, and they were passed along through the centuries from one culture to the next.
Alchemists wrote about these ideas, but these texts were not the easiest to comprehend. Written in vague mysterious ways, one could even say they were written in code. Zbigniew Andrew Szydło, a Royal Society chemist and author of Water Which Does Not Wet Hands, a book about Sendivogius’s alchemy, explains that alchemists used these writing styles to protect themselves.
The alchemists were afraid. There was a certain fear among the alchemists of the right type of information falling into the wrong people's hands.
This fear was valid because alchemy was a risky business – Sendivogius was even kidnapped by a rival alchemist, Johann von Mühlenfels, who wanted to learn his alchemical secrets. Also, it was possible somebody could misinterpret their work and take it as witchcraft or as an insult to the church, putting the alchemist at risk from the authorities. It’s no wonder alchemists wrote in code, but ultimately, it’s perhaps this encryption that has led to alchemy becoming so forgotten today.
All things to all people
But back in the 16th century, as alchemy grew and became more commonplace, it also became more complicated. As Rafał T. Prinke, a historian who has conducted extensive research on Sendivogius, puts it: ‘There was no one alchemy.’
Firstly, there was the practical side of alchemy, which consisted of experimenting in laboratories and investigating different scientific problems. Discoveries on the part of these alchemists shed light on certain chemical processes, such as distillation, glassmaking and the production of nitre, gunpowder and sugar.
But there was also the mystical aspect of alchemy. Through this lens, gold was not just a valuable substance, but held deep spiritual meaning. Gold never tarnishes, and thus was seen as an everlasting and perfect metal – a concept well in line with alchemists’ fascination with eternal life and spiritual perfection.
The philosophical emphasis on gold was the reason many attempted transmutations took place. But these transmutations presented a further complication for alchemy: of the people performing these experiments, who was a true alchemist and who was a charlatan? Szydło says many were indeed tricksters:
Alchemy earned itself such a bad name because there were, in fact, far more of these charlatans than there were of the real philosophers. It was a popular sport among people to try and fool gullible princes and nobles into making money.
Was Sendivogius a charlatan?
But what about Sendivogius? Was he a charlatan, fooling his audiences, and the kings that hired him? Or was he a true alchemist?
The answer isn’t so black and white. After all, he couldn’t have actually been converting base metal into gold, as this isn’t possible. So in that way, he was tricking people. But he himself may have believed he was successful, when actually what he was doing was gilding the metal with a thin coat of gold. He was also said to be in possession of a powder with the essence of the philosopher’s stone, lending him credibility in the eyes of his audience. Or, as Szydło believes, Sendivogius was purposely tricking people in order to fund his legitimate research – research that involved metal transmutations, but also that involved gases... particularly one he called ‘water which does not wet hands’ or ‘the food of life’.
He was clearly a very good actor – what we call in English a piss artist – he was clearly good at making money on stupid people. And, because of that, he could fund genuine research for himself and for the benefits of others.
The food of life
Sendivogius’s research led him to some interesting concepts. One was the importance of a hidden component of air. He writes about it in Treatise on the Philosopher’s Stone:
Man was created of the Earth, and lives by vertue of the Aire; for there is in the Aire a secret food of life, which in the night wee call dew; and in the day rarified water, whose invisible, congealed spirit is better than the whole Earth.
The idea of an essential substance in air which humans require to live sounds an awful lot like oxygen. There is no written evidence of Sendivogius’s experiments, but Szydło theorises that Sendivogius, being the intelligent researcher he was, would have been interested in all kinds of natural phenomena, including fire. At some point he would have discovered potassium nitrate makes objects burn more efficiently. And Sendivogius writes that within potassium nitrate, which he calls nitre, is a substance in air that is essential to life. Szydło notes how this idea is similar to the alchemists’ glorification of gold.
Now what he did in essence, he shifted the focus of attention of alchemists to this air-form substance found in air which made people breathe better and without which nothing can live. This approximates very much to the ideal of gold, because gold was a substance to which the metallurgist tried to aspire.
But Sendivogius didn’t have the theoretical framework to fully figure this ‘food of life’ out. At this point in history, the existence of chemical elements had not been discovered. Without that crucial information, we can’t say that Sendivogius truly discovered oxygen, as Prinke points out:
Because before the 19th century there was no notion of chemical elements. So you cannot discover something that was not defined, so to say.
Regardless, Sendivogius’s findings had a profound impact on future chemists. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley, the scientists later credited with the discovery of oxygen, were familiar with Sendivogius’ works, and were able to build on his research. Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent scientists of all time, was also well-acquainted with Sendivogius’s works and studied them in detail.
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Legacy... and where is alchemy now?
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The Alchemik film still, photo: Zbigniew Jakubowski/Studio Filmowe "Tor", fototeka.fn.org.pl
16th century polish history
Not much is known about Sendivogius’s death, but according to Prinke, he died aged 80 in 1636, leaving his estate to his daughter. But his legacy has survived long after his death, and not just in the scientific realm, but in popular culture. Two paintings of him survive, one by Jan Matejko depicting him holding up a piece of gold, and another from Julian Tuwim’s collection, showing him surrounded by texts and research tools.
In popular literature and films, his life tends to be depicted in a melodramatic way. In the romantic-era novel by Józef Bohden Dziekoński, Sędziwój, Sendivogius goes insane. In the Polish film Alchemik, he is shown flying off in a UFO. These depictions, which are clearly fabricated, show how people’s imaginations focus on the mystical part of alchemy, rather than on the scientific discoveries many alchemists made.
Nowadays, alchemy is only practised by the fringes of society, by so-called esotericists, and is mostly disregarded by modern scientists. But Szydło says he’s willing to listen to what modern alchemists have to say, even if some of these modern-day alchemists are not the most legitimate.
I warmly support and I'm very interested to know what people are doing, although undoubtedly there will be people who are also crackpots who are doing something just for the hell of it, we don't know. But one must always respect human endeavour in whatever form it takes.
Sources: Interviews, ‘Water Which Does Not Wet Hands’ by Zbigniew Szydło
Written by Elizabeth Lawrence, July 2018
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