The Ripley Scroll
by Professor R I McCallum FRCPE
The Ripley Scroll
The scroll forms an appropriate and relevant part of the alchemical manuscripts which had belonged to Erskine and were presented by his grandson the Earl of Cromartie to the College in 1707. George Mackenzie (1630-1714), first Earl of Cromartie, had been involved in 1685 as Viscount Tarbat in an official capacity in the ratification of the 1681 charter of the College. He was on very friendly terms with founding members of the College including Balfour, Sibbald, Pitcairne and Stevenson, all like him with a Fife background. While it is likely that Cromartie was made a Fellow of the College his name is not amongst those Fellows or honorary Fellows of the period who are listed from 1681 in the Charter and Regulations (1789). However the records almost immediately after the College was established, for the period December 1682 to 1694 are missing and it is likely that he was made a Fellow during that time. The scroll was shown to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries in 1827 by Dr William Moncrieff the College Librarian, and the first account of it, published in 1876, is based on Moncrieff's detailed description. The scroll contains a series of pictures which purport to illustrate the steps necessary for the acquisition of the Philosophers' Stone with text in Latin phrases, and alchemical poems by George Ripley. The sequence of emblems is a version of the pattern most often found in these scrolls and consists of a series of figures which are well and skilfully drawn.
The scroll is about 18 feet 4 inches(5.5m) long and about 23 inches (57.5cms) wide. It consists of seven large sheets of vellum each about 32 inches(80cms) long except for the last section which is 9 inches(22.5cms) long. They are attached to a linen backing and there is a roller at the top and a wooden bar at the bottom. The top shows evidence of wear, and perhaps damp at some time, so that the images are rather faint. It was copied for Moncrieff and Small's paper by a photolithographic process, much used from the early 1860s on, which gives a very clear illustration of the drawings. The text is impossible to read from this but all of it is in Moncrieff's account. Hand written at the top is: Edinburgh 19t Die Junii 1707. Hoc mysticum symbole, in avita Bibliotheca Doni Georgii Areskine, Equitis aurati, supremi senatus et colidgii Justicii in Scotia Senator inter primos Justitia et eruditione clarus philosophij Hermeticae et aluminus et decor, Regumque sui aevi a conciliis secretis almo et spectabile Collegio Medicorum Edinbur Regali DD. Geo Cromartio.
Although the series of images is a continuum and each leads into the next it can be divided arbitrarily for descriptive purposes into sections.
The vase contains a series of eight roundels linked by chains to a larger central roundel. Each small roundel has an hermetic vase containing one or two homunculi, male or female, flanked by monk-like figures. The larger central roundel has two seated figures holding a book; one of the figures appears to be Hermes again. In the top of the vase is a toad, and below it there are the words 'The black sea, the black lune, the black soll'; below this between two sets of verses is a furnace.
More feather-like objects are apparently falling from the sun's rays. Some more verses are set below the orb, after which there is another orb of a different kind containing linked white black and green balls within it, and with rays emanating from it.
While the scrolls embody many conventional alchemical symbols the interpretation of these is obscure and a matter for conjecture. Amongst others the psychiatrist Jung has offered explanations of some of the imagery. As in much alchemical writing and imagery there is an evident Christian symbolism throughout. Some of the symbols are familiar alchemical ones: hermetic vases, a toad, the dragon, the Bird of Hermes and the red and green lions. But what they represent is another matter and can differ from one use to another. The toad often signifies earthly matter, or sophic sulphur in which the grosser physical properties of sulphur are absent. The Bird of Hermes which is shown as eating its wing has been interpreted as a stabilising act in relation to mercury. However, mercury does not always represent the familiar quicksilver but is rather a clue to properties more spiritual than chemical. The red lion may represent sulphur; the green lion mercury, or vitriol, or perhaps antimony. The bleeding dragon is probably a symbolic pelican 'vulning' itself, which is a common motif often with religious significance. There is so much detail in the scrolls' imagery that there is still a long way to go in explaining what lies behind it.
McCallum R I. The Ripley Scroll of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 1996. Vesalius 2:. 39-49.
Moncrieff, W. and Small, J. (1876). Account of an Alchemical Roll on Parchment presented by the Earl of Cromarty in 1707 to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Proc Soc Antiquaries of Scotland. Vol XI. Session 1875-76. Edinburgh. pp 561-575