Virtual Alchemy Laboratory
This is how you navigate in the Faust Museum‘s virtual alchemy laboratory:
By clicking on the rings, you can move around the room and zoom in on exhibits, images and texts.
The enlarged illustrations on the walls (16th century woodcuts) depict work in a Renaissance alchemy laboratory and the copperplate engravings show allegorical representations of chemical processes (artist: Matthäus Merian the Elder, 1593-1650).
The illustrations are taken from the alchemical work Atalanta Fugiens, written by Michael Maier (1569-1622), physician and alchemist.
The exhibits correspond to the materials and instruments commonly used in an alchemy laboratory in Faust‘s time. They were made available by Dr. Rainer Werthmann (Kassel), the co-curator of the alchemy exhibition, and Mr. Gerhard Zück (Faust Pharmacy Knittlingen).
In the large display case at the front of the laboratory you can see original flasks with distilling helmets (alembics) and laboratory vessels from the 16th century, which are part of the Wittenberg alchemy find.
The digital view allows a close-up inspection, which would not be possible if the display case was closed on site (these exhibits are now back in the Landesmuseum Halle).
„We have found Faust‘s laboratory!“
In 2014, the Faust Museum/Faust Archive team was visited by a delegation from the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle. Archaeologists, historians and chemists had announced themselves with a sensation: „We have found Faust‘s alchemy laboratory!“ Thanks to this initial contact, a wonderful cooperation with one of Germany‘s most renowned museums was born. And: through this cooperation, unique archaeological finds came to Knittlingen!
In fact, during excavations on the grounds of the Franciscan monastery in Wittenberg in 2012, the waste pit of an alchemy laboratory was discovered. It was located on the north wall of the church under a staircase and near the former monastery kitchen. Among other things, the stylistic classification of the existing utility glass suggests that it dates from around 1570 (late 16th to first half of the 17th century). At this time, the monastery had already been dissolved and the rooms were given away by the sovereign for other uses. It is possible that a laboratory technician produced pharmaceutical raw materials on behalf of the electors.
Since the historical Faust, Johann Georg Faust, is also said to have lived in Wittenberg, the Knittlingen alchemist and magician could indeed have worked in this laboratory.
Eine große Tagung zum Thema Alchemie in der Renaissance In 2015, a major conference followed on the subject of alchemy in the Renaissance in general and the Wittenberg find in particular. The director of the Faust Museum, Dr Denise Roth, was invited to speak on the legend-making of the Faust myth and its path to modernity, and was able to use this opportunity to make many contacts with colleagues and possible cooperation partners – not least with the curators and management team of the museum in Halle.
Thus, an exhibit from the large alchemy exhibition in Halle, which opened in 2016, is at least temporarily a guest in the reconstructed alchemy laboratory at the Faust Museum in Knittlingen.
From New York to Knittlingen
Die Kollegen in Halle hielten Wort: Ohne großen bürokratischen Aufwand, aber mit aller Hilfestellung, die benötigt wurde, gelangten iThe colleagues in Halle kept their word: without much bureaucratic effort, but with all the help that was needed, unique exhibits arrived in Knittlingen in autumn 2020, accompanied by restorer Vera Keil, who had painstakingly assembled the entire alchemy laboratory. The exhibits had previously been on display in New York, and are now making a guest appearance in Faust‘s birthplace.
The find in Wittenberg:
On the one hand, there were laboratory tools made of forest glass, such as cucurbites (distillation flasks) in various sizes up to about 6 litres and the corresponding distillation helmets, also called alembics, as well as crucibles made of fired clay. Retorts were made of forest glass and stoneware. An examination of the fractured surfaces of the glasses came to the conclusion that the devices had cracked during operation and had already migrated into the pit as laboratory waste. Furthermore, the pit contained household utensils that suggest a misuse in the laboratory: a salad bowl that could be used as a sand bath, a cut-through roaster made of ceramic as a muffle, jugs, drinking glasses and a preserving jar („sugar jar“) for storing substances.
From the residues in the flasks, retorts and crucibles, it was possible to reconstruct which substances were processed or produced in them. Apart from sulphuric and nitric acid, these were mainly antimony compounds, which had been fashionable medicines since Paracelsus. This makes the Wittenberg alchemy collection one of the most scientifically significant of its kind in Central Europe.
The display case in the Faust Museum contains a large distillation flask (so-called cucurbit) from the Wittenberg find, which holds about 5 litres, a distillation helmet with a long broken beak that roughly matches it, a retort fragment deformed by heat and a triangular crucible. Next to the flask is the tip, which had been blown off the freshly produced cucurbite to best fit the opening to that of the helmet. To blast it off, one usually used a wire that was heated and then wrapped around the neck of the flask at the designated point.
Form and function of the exhibits The cucurbit and helmet together form a distillation apparatus whose flask was heated to temperatures of no more than a few 100 degrees. The cucurbit was heated from below and the vapours of the substances it contained rose up inside it until they reached the helmet. There they cooled down and the distilled liquid condensed on the dome of the helmet. It flowed downwards into an internal channel and from there outwards via the beak, usually into a container called a template: a flask, a bottle or even a jug. The residues in some of the flasks suggest that nitric acid was produced with it. However, such apparatus was also used to distil wine or produce medicines.
Retorts were used to distil high-boiling substances such as concentrated sulphuric acid. It is produced by heating roasted iron vitriol to 700 – 800 °C and boils at over 300 °C. The high temperature in the area of the heating tube is the reason for the high boiling point. Due to the high temperature in the range of the softening temperature of the forest glass, the retort was visibly melted.