Heinrich Khunrath

Heinrich Khunrath or Dr Henricus Khunrath as he was also called, was a famous physician, Hermetic philosopher, and alchemist. His most famous work is the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom), a work on the mystical aspects of alchemy, which contains the oft-seen engraving entitled "The First Stage of the Great Work," better-known as the "Alchemist's Laboratory." Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae was first published at Hamburg in 1595, but then made more widely available in an expanded edition published in Hanau in 1609. Frances Yates considered him to be a link between the philosophy of John Dee and Rosicrucianism.

Heinrich Khunrath's biography is as uncertain as his work is enigmatic. He was born in Germany, probably in Dresden or Leipzig, around the year 1560. He might be related to another physician from Leipzig named Conrad Khunrath. In the winter of 1570, he may have enrolled at the University of Leipzig under the name of Henricus Conrad Lips. The uncertanties surrounding his life stem from his supposed use of multiple names. It is certain that in May 1588, he matriculated at the University of Basel, Switzerland, earning his Medicinž Doctor degree on September 3, 1588 after a defense of twenty-eight doctoral theses.

Khunrath, a disciple of Paracelsus, practiced medicine in Dresden, Magdeburg, and Hamburg and may have held a professorial position in Leipzig. He followed Paracelsian beliefs of divine initation into wisdom. He worked to develop Christianized natural magic; he sought to find the secret primary matter that would lead humankind into eternal wisdom. Yet he held experience and observation, to be the basis of his work, as would a natural philosopher.

This is not to say that Khunrath's vision was shared by most natural philosophers of his time. He believed himself to be an adept of spiritual alchemy; as such, he expected the path to spiritual perfection to be a many-staged and intricate process. Certainly the language he used to describe the process sounds odd to modern ears.

He travelled widely after 1588, including a stay at the Imperial court in Prague, home to the mystically inclined Rudolf II von Habsburg.

During this court stay Khunrath met noted magician John Dee in 1589 while the latter was confined in prison. Dee probably became Khunrath's mentor in hermetic philosophy and he praised Dee in many of his later works.

In September 1591, Khunrath was appointed court physician to Count Rosemberk in Trebona. He probably met Johann Tholde while at Trebona, one of the suggested authors of the "Basilius Valentinus" treatises on alchemy.

A 17th century depiction of the Tablet by Heinrich Khunrath, 1606

Hermetic Alchemist

Khunrath's brushes with Dee and Thšlde and Paracelsian beliefs led him to develop a Christianized natural magic, seeking to find the secret prima materia that would lead man into eternal wisdom. He also held that experience and observation were essential to practical alchemical research, as would a natural philosopher.

His first known work on alchemy, Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom), was first published at Hamburg in 1595. Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae is an alchemical classic, combining both Christianity and magic and illustrated with elaborate, hand-colored, engraved plates heightened with gold and silver. In it, Khunrath showed himself to be an adept of spiritual alchemy and illustrated the many-staged and intricate path to spiritual perfection. Some of the ideas in his works are Kabbalistic in nature and foreshadow Rosicrucianism.

Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae was condemned by the Sorbonne on February 1, 1625. However, it remained popular throughout the seventeenth century and has been republished in numerous editions even in the twentieth century.

Khunrath's motto, used in many of his works, was "Was helffn Fackeln, Liecht oder Brilln, Wann die Leute nicht sehen wšlln?" (What good are torches, light, or spectacles, to those who will not see?) He viewed his work as a path to illumination.

Khunrath may have encountered some opposition to his alchemical work because most of his publications on alchemy were published widely after his death. He died in poverty in either Dresden or Leipzig on September 9, 1605. The tension between spirituality and experiment in Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae brought about it's condemnation by the Sorbonne in 1625.

Located in the Duveen Collection in the Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison, this is a rare copy of the first edition of this work. There are several other editions, some with additional plates, though lacking in general the generous margins and hand-coloring of the copy in Madison. Only two other copies of this first edition, described by Denis Duveen as "one of the most important books in the whole literature of theosophical alchemy and the occult sciences," are known to exist.

With funding generously provided by the Brittingham Fund, the Department of Special Collections has undertaken the construction of this Web-based introduction to Heinrich Khunrath's Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (1595). Because the engraved illustrations are packed with symbolic as well as textual information arrayed either on radii or concentric circles, we have provided for close-up examination of important iconographic features, and also transcribed the engraved text surrounding the circular images. Read more