Only the Changed Changes

The world's first alchemy museum opens in Kutná hora.

If you've been to Kutná 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. Kutná 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 Kutná hora.

Take the 62/0080 bus from Florenc; it leaves throughout the day, takes one hour and 20 minutes, and costs 60 Kč. (The train from Hlavní nádra?í 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? dům building sits majestically on Palackého náměstí.

It's no accident that the Muzeum alchymie opened where it did. Kutná 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 Václav, 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 Vilém of Ro?mberk, Zbyněk Zajíc of Hazmburk and Jakub Krčín of Jelčany. Most of the big names practiced in the area: Paracelsus (who, it is said, got his vitriol from Kutná 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 Jiří of Poděbrady, 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? dům. 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 Kutná hora's mining heyday.

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 purity.

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 discipline, indeed.

The Muzeum alchymie is located at Palackého náměstí 377 (Sankturinovsk? dům, Kutná hora 284 01, Czech Republic). Admission is 30 Kč for adults, 20 Kč 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

-Jeff Koyen, whose primary essence is reaching critical level, can be reached at [email protected]

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