600-year-old alchemy tale revisited as Science Museum finds 23rd version of Ripley Scroll

By Culture24 Reporter | 22 March 2012
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An image of an illustration of mythical figures from a scroll
The Science Museum has found a variation of the famous Ripley scroll, believed to have been made in the 18th or 19th century
© Science Museum
A 20-foot hand-painted copy of a 15th century scroll believed to hold “vital clues” about medieval wizadry and alchemy has been chanced upon by librarians at the Science Museum in London.

The copy of the Ripley scroll – originally authored by Sir George Ripley, a 15th century scientist who produced 25 alchemy tomes in between turning base metals into gold – features images illustrating the creation of the legendary Philosophers’ Stone.

The stone was considered the font of western alchemy and a source of immortality. The museum’s discovery, spotted by Library Assistant Cate Watson during research for new show Signs, Symbols, Secrets: An Illustrated Guide to Alchemy, is the latest addition to the 22 versions of the scroll known to exist across the world.

“We are delighted to have made this extraordinary discovery and to be able to showcase the Ripley Scroll to the public for the very first time,” said Stephanie Millard, the Project Leader for the exhibition.

“The Ripley Scrolls are extremely rare and hold vital clues to the development of alchemy – and therefore modern chemistry.”

The scroll was verified by Ripley expert Dr Jennifer Rampling after being taken to Cambridge for official identification, although it is thought to be incomplete due to spaces beneath its elaborate images.

Scholars are still investigating how the scroll copies were used. The original may have been created for a luminary intrigued by alchemy, although numerous subsequent versions became prized art objects. The finest, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is worth at least £250,000, and the last auctioned scroll raised £135,000 at Sotheby’s during the 1980s.

Alchemists believed that supernatural powers could allow elements to be fused into valuable compounds and medicines. They became particularly influential in ancient Greece, Egypt and China during the Middle Ages.

The giant manuscript will become the first Ripley scroll to go on long-term public display when the exhibition opens in April. Other treasures will include a 19th century bronze statue of an practitioner, illustrated manuscripts on European experiments, samples of gold and 20 historical books.

  • Signs, Symbols Secrets: An Illustrated Guide to Alchemy runs April 27 2012 until April 2013.
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