Ramble On: Only the Changed Changes
you've been to Kutnö hora, chances are good that you went
for the ossuary, aka the bone church, located in the neighboring
town of Sedlec. It's listed in whatever guidebook brought
you to the Czech Republic, be that eight years or eight
hours ago. If you haven't yet visited this picturesque town
70 km to the east, start making plans. If you have been
there, plan to go again. Kutnö hora is now home to the world's
first museum dedicated to alchemy, opened by Michal Pober,
a long-time alchemical enthusiast and twenty-year shiatsu
instructor and practitioner. While there have been various
alchemical exhibits staged over the years - most notably
a recreated lab at the Deutsche Museum in Munich - Pober
says that his is the first dedicated space.
When presented with the word "alchemist," most people think
of two things: the Coelho book and the quest for the Philosopher's
Stone, a fabled material that transforms lead into gold.
This is only part of the story. While it's true that the
European alchemists were tinkering with metals for financial
gain, there was a deeper spiritual aspect that can't be
separated from the more scientific endeavors. But first,
let's get to Kutnö hora.
Take the 62/0080 bus from Florenc; it leaves throughout
the day, takes one hour and 20 minutes, and costs 60 K?.
(The train from Hlavn nödra? is more convenient to the
ossuary, which is a 45-minute walk from the town center
where the museum is located. I recommend starting in town
and later walking out to the ossuary, then maybe taking
the train back to Prague.) Off the bus, the town centr um
is a ten-minute walk and easily found by looking around
and taking your best guess. Signs will soon pick you up
and carry you along, and you will eventually wander into
the town center where the Sankturinovsk? d?m building sits
majestically on Palackïho nöm?st.
It's no accident that the Muzeum alchymie opened where it
did. Kutnö hora has a rich history of alchemical practice,
due in large part to the abundant silver mines in the nearby
hills. Alchemists went to the mines "to communicate with
the metals," according to Pober, and so in short time metallurgy
came to owe much of its knowledge to these alchemists. According
to a museum placard, Smil Flapka of Pardubice brought the
first information about alchemy to the area in 1394. There
are records of lost works by Prague Archbishops dated to
the end of the 14th century and, by the middle of the 15th
century, many of the region's royalty, including Barbora,
the widow of emperor Zikmund and Vöclav, Prince of Opava,
had become keenly interested.
The end of the 16th and beginning of 17th centuries are
considered to be the golden age of Czech alchemy. Emperor
Rudolf II had several alchemists under his employ, and a
number of local aristocrats were patrons of the discipline,
most famously Vilïm of Ro?mberk, Zbyn?k Zajc of Hazmburk
and Jakub Kr?n of Jel?any. Most of the big names practiced
in the area: Paracelsus (who, it is said, got his vitriol
from Kutnö hora), Michael Sendivogius, Edward Kelley, John
Dee, Leonard Thurneisser, Heinrich Khunrath... All the alchemical
rock stars did tours of the region.
Of greater relevance to the museum, a recent discovery of
two alchemical recipes connects the second son of Czech
King Ji? of Pod?brady, Hynek Minsterbersk?, with Johann,
the Margrave of Brandenburg, also known as The Alchemist.
Some believe that Prince Hynek had an alchemy laboratory
in the very building which houses the museum - the Sankturinovsk?
d?m. This theory is supported by the building itself, which
has an oratory on the second floor, as well as a pit in
the basement which was likely used by a "black metallurgist"
- a renegade smith - at some time during Kutnö hora's mining
The placement of these rooms is significant, as it follows
the Benedictine motto "Ora et Labora" - "Pray and Work"
- which guided the serious alchemist's hand. The Magnum
Opus was divided into Ergon, (the main work) and Parergon
(the secondary work): Ergon was done in the oratory, Parergon
in the laboratory. True alchemists were not solely concerned
with the search for the Philosopher's Stone, but also in
seeking the Elixir of Life, which could not be achieved
without a concentrated effort toward "personal salvation
by transcending human condition through perfect contact
with the highest entity."
So: work downstairs, pray upstairs. The museum is divided
accordingly into the basement laboratory and the tower oratory.
Down in the lab, Pober has collected a great many alchemical
instruments and equipment. While he notes that much of the
glass and pottery are modern recreations, he's done his
best to secure locally made pieces that reflect the original
designs. There's a mock laboratory complete with a giant
bellows, a number of display cases featuring ingredients,
solvents and instruments, and even a dank, dark basement
chamber where a "puffer" - a false or discredited alchemist
- might be confined after offending his patron.
On the second floor, a room referred to as "the chapel"
may be the actual oratory space where Prince Hynek conducted
his spiritual and esoteric work. The serious alchemist understood
that "only the changed changes," and thus in order to effect
transmutational changes in the physical world, the alchemist
developed and cultivated the inner spirit. Without inner
purity, outer purity is impossible. When one stands in this
modest corner room, with pure light pouring in from all
sides, one easily imagines an alchemist entering into "profound
contemplation of the symbolic meanings contained in hermetic
tracts," as described by Pober.
For those who know alchemy only as the pursuit of cheap
gold, a visit to the Muzeum alchymie will prove an eye-opening
experience. The similarities between this supposedly discredited
discipline and the recent popular surge of homeopathic medicines
and remedies are striking and significant. Both suggest
that mental health leads to physical health, and that the
body is a complex system of environmental interactions which
can be fully appreciated only in the pursuit of spiritual
And then there's the alchemists' view of palingenesis, which
maintains that "a primary essence or salt from ash or juice
from a plant or from some other form retains within itself
an irresistible tendency to recreate the original shape
of the substance from which it was derived." Sound familiar?
How about the human genome project? How about cloning? Discredited
The Muzeum alchymie is located at Palackïho nöm?st 377
(Sankturinovsk? d?m, Kutnö hora 284 01, Czech Republic).
Admission is 30 K? for adults, 20 K? for students and children.
It is open every day 10:00-17:00 April through October,
10:00-15:00 November through March. For more information,
call (420-327) 511 259 or visit the website at www.alchemy.cz.