“Alchemy and Faith”

3 min read
Walking into the Wadsworth Atheneum theater, the audience was excited to experience “Alchemy and Faith.” Though there were no overwhelming preconceived notions, attendees’ reaction is best described as surprise throughout the night of Nov. 3. The two-part lecture started with Tara Nummedal of Brown University, who explained what alchemy is and what it meant to Europeans during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation

Two key components to alchemy at the time were lion’s blood, a powerful golden oil, and the philosopher’s stone, the alchemical substance that can transform base metals into gold and silver.
The lecturer’s theatricality started once Nummedal discussed an interesting aspect of 16th century German Alchemist, Anna Maria Zieglerin’s career: her obsession with fertility, holiness, and purity. Due to her seemingly immaculate birth —her mother fell into an ice-covered pond and died, while Anna was then taken out of her dead mother’s womb— Anna believed she would give birth to entirely pure children, with the help of the lion’s blood. When the crowd laughed in unison, it was for the sheer obscureness of Zieglerin’s thinking. Nummedal pointed out that there are no records that indicate Zieglerin had children with the help of lion’s blood.
Zieglerin also had a fascinating theory about birds and their relation to Christianity. She believed that one way to obtain the philosopher’s stone was feeding a small bird only lion’s blood for approximately six weeks, roast it, and finally pulverize it, creating a powder of sorts. The nurtured bird will have, in Zieglerin’s mind, sacrificed and resurrected itself in the philosopher’s stone for the greater good, drawing a parallel to Jesus’ resurrection.
The next speaker, Donna Bilak of Columbia University, whose demeanor and mannerism was eccentric and entirely entertaining, discussed the 1618 alchemical and emblem book by Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens. Within each emblem contained a motto, image, and epigram. The layered meanings within each page was astounding and became only more overwhelming once the sheet music was introduced, in which the choral group Les Canards Chantants would perform select pages of later on in the evening. The book itself is one huge puzzle, as Bilak iterated throughout her lecture, and draws parallels between nature, alchemy, religion, and antiquity.
After a quick intermission of havarti cheese and hummus, the event recommenced, beginning the most interactive aspect of the evening. Les Canards Chantants sang compositions from the 16th and 17th centuries, aligned with the lectures that had preceded.
Throughout their hour-long performance, the group introduced to the audience various forms of musical canons, some that start at different intervals and others that have no time signature, from the likes of French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez among others. Additional types included retrograde and inversion cannons and madrigal compositions.
One of the pieces performed was the finale, a composition titled “Missa la sol fa re mi,” an intended jab at Josquin’s patron during this time, who had scolded him for missing a deadline of a commissioned composition. Josquin assigned musical notes to verbal syllables, the first composer to do such a thing and argued by Bilak to be the best. In this case the phrase was the Italian “Lascia fare mi” or “leave me alone” in English. The composition is an elegant-sounding piece of music that has a humorous and snarky hidden message.

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