The modern Alchemy Guild was formed by a confederation of practicing alchemists from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia who trace their lineage back to a unique association of freethinking alchemists who welcomed both spiritual and practical alchemists, as well as any of their fellow craftsmen who had been outcast or persecuted by political or Church authorities. This enlightened association was founded by a Renaissance nobleman and practicing alchemist named Wilhelm von Rosenberg. Today, the International Alchemy Guild (IAG) carries on von Rosenberg’s work on an international scale with members in 23 countries.
Wilhelm von Rosenberg was born on March 10, 1535, in Schützendorf Castle in Austria. His parents ranked among the most powerful and influential people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and held castles and properties throughout the north central section the realm. Wilhelm, their oldest son, was educated at a private school in Bohemia and spent the years from 1544 to 1550 at a bishopric college in Passau. After finishing his studies, he went to Vienna and was welcomed into the court of emperor Ferdinand I von Habsburg. Later, when Rudolf II took power, Wilhelm became a diplomat in his court. He would also become the highest royal officer in Prague in the service of emperor Maxmilian II.
But his aristocratic background and diplomatic service were not what distinguished Wilhelm from his fellow noblemen. What made this man remarkable was his relentless passion for deeper truths and the rebirth of knowledge that was taking place in Europe at the time. At the age of sixteen (1551), Wilhelm took control of the Rosenberg estate and moved into one of the family’s castles in the small town of Cesky Krumlov. He immediately ordered the castle (shown at left) renovated into the Renaissance style with many hermetic symbols included in the design. Before construction even began, however, he set out on a pilgrimage to Italy, seat of the new Renaissance culture. When he returned to his home the following year, he was seething with new ideas from the artists, alchemists, philosophers, and politicians he met there.
One of Wilhelm’s lifelong goals was to have a large family, and when he was secure in his power and settled into a magnificent home, he sought a bride. At the age of 22 (1557), he married Katherine of Brunschwig. She became pregnant two years later but died giving birth to a premature child, who also died in a few days. Afterwards, Wilhelm set out on another one of his spiritual journeys, this time visiting leaders of Renaissance thought in Germany. Then, in Berlin in 1561, he met and married Sophie von Branibor, who returned to Cesky Krumlov with him. Unfortunately, she became sick and died three years later before having any children. It would seem that Wilhelm’s efforts to start a family were doomed from the beginning. Yet for some reason, even as a child, he felt it extremely important to have a large family. As it turned out, his premonition would prove correct and have deeper repercussions than even he could have foreseen.
In 1566, Wilhelm decided to leave his home and accepted a commission to lead Czech troops against Turkish armies, which had been invading Hungary for nearly a hundred years. Wilhelm was gaining considerable respect for his bravery and honesty in the Hapsburg court, and in 1572, was appointed to lead negotiations over the Polish throne. He was so admired by Polish noblemen that he was himself nominated as a candidate for the throne. His lifelong diplomatic work was recognized in 1585, when Wilhelm was awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece (the highest imperial honor for noblemen) by King Philip II of Spain.
In 1578, Wilhelm married once again, but this time he was deeply in love and was sure his new bride would provide him with a child. In a lavish ceremony that lasted for several days, he wed Anna Marie von Baden at his castle in Cesky Krumlov. According to records found in the castle, his guests consumed 40 stags, 150 oxen, 546 calves, 654 pigs, 450 rams, 20 other large game, 30 large grouses, 2,050 partridges, 5,135 geese, 3,166 chickens, 18,000 carps, 10,209 pikes, 312,000 crabs, and 30,000 eggs.
But once again, Wilhelm’s bride died (1585) before she could present him with an heir. Wilhelm interred her corpse in St. Vitus Church in Cesky Krumlov in a crypt next to where he would himself be buried. Finally in 1587, a desperate Wilhelm married Polyxena von Pernstein. Tragically, she was unable to bear him any children. Despite his lifelong desire for a family, all four of his marriages were childless, and he had no direct descendents. When Wilhelm von Rosenberg died on August 31,1592, the family’s dominion passed over to his brother, Peter Wok von Rosenberg. The effects on the Alchemy Guild would be devastating.
As part of his passion for the Renaissance, Wilhelm von Rosenberg invited alchemists from throughout Europe to his castles in Cesky Krumlov, Trebon, Prachatice, and his palace in Prague. Hundreds of alchemists ended up working in Prague under the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II, and the city would remain the center of European alchemy for another two hundred years.
Wilhelm wanted to make his city of Cesky Krumlov a center for alchemical research, not only a home to practical alchemists who focused primarily on making metals and elixirs. He encouraged free thought and accepted alchemists who had been shunned by Rudolf II. Before long, Cesky Krumlov became known as an alternative hermetic haven, the "the Bohemian Mecca of alchemists."
When Wilhelm was just 18 years old, he had met an outspoken physician and alchemist by the name of Tadeas Hajek (1525-1600). Hajek prepared a one-year astrological forecast for Wilhelm that proved astonishingly accurate, and they became good friends. Hajek accompanied Wilhelm during his campaign against the Turks and returned with him to Cesky Krumlov. Hajek planted new species of flowers and herbs and supervised the layout of Wilhelm’s gardens. He also continued his astrological research and, in 1580, published an influential book called A Treatise of Comets and Celestial Signs. Because of his honesty and extensive knowledge of the natural sciences, Hajek helped evaluate the work and results of the many alchemists who came to Cesky Krumlov .
The alchemist who practiced the longest in Cesky Krumlov was Anton Michael von Ebbersbach. A sample from his writings is shown at right. He joined Wilhelm in 1565. Anton is said to have been successful at producing gold and lived a lavish lifestyle in his mansion out of town near Kajovska. He claimed to have discovered a Water of Multiplication, which when used to water seeds of gold coins planted in the ground would cause them to multiply and grow. He also produced a variety of wonderful tinctures and elixirs. In 1587, he created his famous elixir “Conservationem Senectutis,” which was said to significantly slow down the aging process.
In recognition of his work, Wilhelm appointed Anton Michael director of the gardens in which the alchemists’ spagyric herbs and plants were grown. He was also made administrator of mines, from which metal ores were supplied to the alchemists. Finally, Anton was asked to help direct and organize the activities and research of the diverse alchemists in Cesky Krumlov. In 1576, he began holding meetings of alchemists that evolved into the first guild, known as the “Alchymie Cech” (or “Alchimie Gilde”). These early meetings were probably held at the castle in what is now known as Renaissance Room 3, which adjoins Wilhelm’s private chambers.
In 1588, as the discussions became more informal and lab oriented, it is thought they were moved to a large building bought by Anton for that purpose. The imposing red structure still stands at 77 Siroka Street in Cesky Krumlov (shown at left). Today, it houses a café and a few small shops. The structure dates from the fourteenth century, but when Anton bought it, he made extensive renovations. He constructed a large meeting hall with a dramatic vaulted ceiling on the first floor and added an elaborate granite entrance portal in the middle of the building with many hermetic and alchemical symbols. The significance of the symbols is presented in detail in the following section “Symbolism of the Guild Portal.”
As word spread of the alchemist conclave in Cesky Krumlov, many alchemists – both obscure and famous – moved to the city and set up laboratories or work on manuscripts.
Besides Tadeus Hajek, there was another physician-alchemist in Wilhelm’s court by the name of Vaclav Lavin. Lavin took his alchemical apprenticeship in France and was known for a remarkable “tincture of transformation” he developed, although his original formula has never been discovered. It is believed, however, that he never worked with the metals.
One of the most influential alchemists in Cesky Krumlov was Bavor Rodovsky. His grandfather, Bavor the Senior, was a wizard who had transmuted metals into gold on several occasions. He passed his alchemical knowledge on to his grandson, who never attended a university but demonstrated extensive knowledge of alchemy, astronomy, and mathematics, as well as history and philosophy.
Bavor had set up a laboratory in Nechanic, but his alchemical work proved so expensive that he was imprisoned for debts in the Black Tower of Prague. Bavor appealed to Wilhelm to imprison him in Cesky Krumlov and allow him to pursue theoretical alchemy in his cell. In exchange, Bavor offered Wilhelm a translation of the rare manuscript Secreta Aristotelis (“Secrets of Aristotle”). In 1575, Wilhelm bought the book, which helped pay off some of Bavor’s debts and freed him from prison. Wilhelm then paid Bavor to work as an alchemist in Cesky Krumlov.
Even before Bavor had set up his lab, he had tried to persuade the great alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus to join them in Cesky Krumlov or at least share some of his ideas with them. Although Bavor’s efforts to sign up the fiercely independent alchemist were unsuccessful, Paracelsus did visit the city on several occasions and probably attended a few Guild meetings.
However, other famous alchemists actually lived at Cesky Krumlov year round. The renowned Italian alchemist Claudius Syrrus came to work in the city under a formal contract with Wilhelm. The actual document reads in part: “The alchemist reserves the right to be spiritually and physically free and independent, and makes it a condition not to be disturbed by anybody, with the personal exception of Wilhelm von Rosenberg. Should the occasion arise that the Philosophical Stone is actually produced, it is arranged that Claudius Syrrus receives a half share of it.”
English alchemist and mathematician Dr. John Dee (shown at right) and alchemist-conjurer Edward Kelley spent several years in the Guild environs. They came to Bohemia in 1584, and Wilhelm made arrangements for them to stay with Tadeus Hajek in Prague. He gave them access to his laboratories and also introduced them to Rudolf II. John Dee carried out a transmutation of mercury into gold in front of Rudolf II, then offered Rudolf his crystal ball and a magical scrying mirror made of anthracite. However in June of 1586, there were accusations that the men were spying for England. Out of fear of being arrested by Rudolf II, both men left the country. When Wilhelm von Rosenberg heard of their plight, he offered them asylum in his south Bohemian dominion. John Dee and his family found a house in Trebon in September 1586. Dee loved the city and visited Cesky Krumlov frequently. He enjoyed his refuge so much that he named his son, born there in February 1586, Theodorus Trebonianus (Theodorus of Trebon). Edward Kelly also settled in Trebon and spent considerable time working in Cesky Krumlov.
John Dee left Trebon to return to England in March 1589, and Edward Kelley returned to Prague to work in the laboratories of Emperor Rudolf II. Eventually, Rudolf had him imprisoned, but the artful Kelley tried to escape twice. On the first attempt, he killed a guard. On the second attempt, he fell from a wall and died of his injuries. Dee returned to England to find his house and library ransacked by Christian mobs. He lost many precious manuscripts, which he insisted contained the secret of his transformations. That must have been true, for he and his family lived in abject poverty afterwards. Finally, he sought and received a small stipend from Queen Elizabeth on which to survive. Undoubtedly, both men would have been much better off staying in Cesky Krumlov.
Linhart Wichperger von Erbach was another famous alchemist who joined Wilhelm's group of alchemists in 1566. There was also Jaros Griemiller, who practiced alchemy in the service of Wilhelm in the 1570s. Jaros had studied hermetic philosophy and was an adept at both practical and spiritual alchemy. In 1578, while working in Cesky Krumlov, he completed his most important book. Dedicated to Wilhelm von Rosenberg, Jaros’ illuminated manuscript became one of the fundamental Renaissance texts on alchemy. He called it the Rosarium Philosophorum (Rosary of the Philosophers), and it contains a description of the preparation of the Stone of Sages.
Another important alchemist at Cesky Krumlov was Jakub Horcicky Tepence, who was known by his Latin name Sinapius. He was born in 1575 in Cesky Krumlov and attended the Jesuit College founded there by Wilhelm von Rosenberg. Horcicky learned alchemical laboratory procedures from local pharmacist Martin Schafner and went on to study logic and physics at Prague University from 1598 to 1600. Influenced greatly by Paracelsus, Horcicky focused his work on making medicines from plants and took on a number of jobs in botanical gardens to learn more about herbs. During his work in the Jesuit garden in Prague, he grew medicinal plants from which he distilled different therapeutic tinctures, ointments, and so-called “theriacs” or tonic remedies. These medicaments were very popular and were known as "Horcicky Waters”. His tonics even cured Emperor Rudolf II of a disorder that other doctors were unable to remedy. Horcicky was then named the Emperor's personal physician and the Chief Distillator of the Emperor's Castle Laboratories. In 1608, Horcicky was granted knighthood with the right to use a coat-of-arms, which he designed containing many alchemical symbols. After the death of Rudolf II., Horcicky spent the last years of his life in seclusion in Prague's Klementinum, where he died in 1622.
Another alchemist who practiced in Wilhelm’s enlightened circle was engineer-alchemist Jakub Krcin von Jelcany, who designed the pond and lake system in south Bohemia. He kept a separate laboratory near the town of Krepenice. Wilhelm’s brother, Peter Wok von Rosenberg (shown at right), was also an alchemist and wrote an important text on the art of distillation. There are no surviving records of the Guild or of how many members it enlisted, but it has been estimated that over a hundred alchemists were at one time or another associated with Wilhelm’s south Bohemian group.
In July 1592, Wilhelm von Rosenberg became deathly ill. His lead alchemist, Anton Michael, locked himself in his laboratory to try to make the fabled “Aurum Potabile” (an elixir of life force that restored youth and vitality) to save his dear friend. Within a fortnight, he wrote to Wilhelm announcing, “I already possesses the remedy and have it in my hands, and his Lordship may have it at any time." But it was too late, and Wilhelm died a few weeks later on August 31.
Because Wilhelm had no children, his brother (Peter Wok von Rosenberg, shown at right) immediately took over control of the family’s lands. Peter was a reckless and unwise ruler who lost the family possessions and was forced to sell Krumlov Castle to Rudolf II just eight years after he took over. Always suspicious of other alchemists and jealous of the Guild’s power, Peter immediately set out to break apart what Wilhelm had so lovingly created. Within days of Wilhelm’s death, he confiscated Anton Michael’s lab, manuscripts, and other possessions and gave the Guild meeting hall at 77 Siroka Street to his personal secretary. Anton was imprisoned in a cell near the first gate of Cesky Krulov Castle and died there less than a year later on May 15, 1593.
Anton Michael von Ebbersbach, first “president” of the Alchemy Guild, was buried with all the honors of a nobleman in the Minorite Monastery in Cesky Krumlov, and his tombstone can be seen in the wall of the Cross Gallery there. However, it is said that Anton Michael’s spirit can still be felt in Cesky Krumlov. Yet his ghost does not haunt the castle cell where he died nor the fabulous manor house he loved so dearly. Anton Michael has returned to the old Guild hall at 77 Siroka Street. Many stories have been told of hearing his footsteps on the stairway or hearing his sighs and mumbled words echoing through the deserted hall. A few have even seen his apparition standing in front of the wooden doors on the Guild portal, gazing out into the street, as if waiting for a meeting to begin.
The granite portal (shown at left) Anton Michael designed for the entrance to the Guild was full of meaning to alchemists of the time. Basically, it is an encoding of hermetic philosophy that originated in Egypt and became the basis for alchemical transformations. These secrets are “concealed in plain sight” in many Egyptian and Renaissance structures from obelisks to cathedrals. Even the address of the Guild hall (77 Siroka Street) carries significance, since seven is the “number of transformation” – the number of steps or operations performed through which the subject at hand must pass to be perfected.
To understand the symbols, it is important to note the significance of their arrangement and numerology. In hermetic philosophy, three is the number of forces of creation (the Tria Prima, Three Essentials, or Three Supernals), and the signatures of these three forces are present in every created thing. In alchemy, the Three Essentials are called Sulfur, Mercury, and Salt. These archetypal substance correspond respectively to our ideas of Energy, Light, and Matter; Future, Present, Past; Soul, Spirit, Body; and Above, Between, Below. On the upper arch above the doorway appears a central circle representing the sun. At the extremes of the heavenly arch are two lunar half-circles representing the phases of the moon or the splitting of the solar light. The solar circle is flanked by two five-petaled roses representing powerful alchemical processes that are explained to some extent in the following section on the Symbology of the Rose. The glass transom below the arch is a rising sun configuration whose three-paneled rays represent the primordial Three Principles in their purest form at the beginning of creation in the First Matter.
The two stone pillars below the arch flow downward from the lunar crescents into 8-segment sea shells representing the manifested yet still mercurial First Matter. The downward flow into manifestation continues through two recessed niches (negative spaces) that terminate in two very solid yet highly symbolic seats that are themselves halves of a single cosmic egg or sphere. In hermetic terms, this section represents the descent from the unity of the One (the circle above in the center of the heavenly arch) into the lunar duality below (pillars of creation that form the cubic of space of manifestation). In other words, these two stone pillars symbolize the polarization into the masculine (yang or right-handed) path and the feminine (yin or left-handed) path that is part of the fabric of reality.
The only entry (into the mysteries as well as the lodge) is through the two wooden doors between the pillars (shown below). The doors are carved into four recessed square panels, which represent the Four Elements. Hermetically, the two prime elements of Fire and Water are the larger upper panels with Fire on the right and Water on the left. These two primal panels are adorned with carved roses to indicate they originate directly from the divine heart. The lower panels represent the derived elements of Air on the right and Earth on the left. Wood itself is symbolic of the Fifth Element, the Quintessence of matter, which is the life force.
This balanced and rectified arrangement of the elements comprises and reveals and a central column that represents the hidden middle pillar of androgynous transformation. The “path between” (the Path of Mercury or Middle Pillar) is obvious in the carved pillar in the center of the two doors. This is the magic staff of transformation, the Caduceus of Hermes, in which two opposing serpents entwine as one. There are 33 carved prominences on the staff. The number 33 is another hermetic code that denotes the steps to perfection of the life force or evolution of essence. The number corresponds to the 33 vertebrae of the human spinal cord and the 33 degrees of freemasonry. At the bottom of the staff are four carved circles in a rectangular block representing the grounded base or negative pole of the staff of transformation. The top of the staff is adorned with a folded feather crown representing the perfection of spirit or positive pole of energy. In body symbolism, the block at the bottom of the staff is the sacrum or “sacred bone” that supports the spinal column. The staff rises upward from here and terminates in the feathery palm- shaped crown that represents the sphenoid bone in the head. This bone supports the brain, within which are encased the two glands of bodily transformation: the masculine pineal gland and the feminine pituitary gland.
The greatest secret in Hermetic science is also encoded into the portal. Above the solar circle (the Sun) in the arch of the doorway is a great upward-pointing triangle that represents the “essence of the sun” or Fire. This triangle glyph is the alchemical cipher for Fire. The sacredness of this symbol in this position is often indicated by a holy symbol such as a wreath, pinecone, cross, or as on Egyptian temples, by the winged disc. This essence of divine Fire is also known as the “Sun Behind the Sun” or the “Hidden Sun.”
As we have already noted, the sun in the arch of the doorway is the solar presence in heaven or what we refer to as God. In balance, the lunar presence below is sometimes thought of in theological terms as the Devil. However, neither of these is the god of the alchemists. They represent only the dualistic interpretation of the divine from the human viewpoint. Hermeticists believe that the solar and lunar gods are just another expression of the duality on our level of reality. This is why we anthropomorphize these symbols, which represent only the archetypal aspects of the divine – not its true source.
The true divine source does not have a face. This source god is the One Mind, the Sun Behind the Sun. This source is unity, what the Western alchemists call the Monad and the Eastern alchemists call the Tao. The alchemistic pharaoh Akhenaten referred to it as the Solar Disk or Aten. In hermetic philosophy, the Sun Behind the Sun is beyond all human attempts at describing it or knowing it. The true divine Source is not present in the created world and is outside of human experience.
However, the Sun Behind the Sun is the source of the visible Sun, which the hermeticists called Mind the Maker. In a great instant in time, the Sun Behind the Sun gave purpose and direction to the visible Sun. What we experience is Mind the Maker, the mechanistic force behind the physics of creation and evolution, which has also been called the Architect or Mind of Nature.
While it is possible to tap into the archetypal energies of the divine aspects (“neters” in Egyptian magic), power from the Sun Behind the Sun is the only true source of lasting transformation outside nature. However, connection with this hidden source can only come synchronistically, by acting in innocence and purity, in accord with its telesmatic movements.