Albertus Magnus, St. (c. 1206–1280) Dominican scholar, theologian, and scientist with interests in Alchemy. Albertus Magnus (“Albert the Great”) is better known for his theological career; St. Thomas Aquinas, who became the preeminent theologian of the Catholic Church, was among his pupils.
Albertus Magnus was born Albert de Groot, Graf von Bollstädt, in Swabia, Germany, in about 1206. In later years, he took the surname “Magnus” (“the Great”), which is the Latin equivalent of his family name. Arthur Edward Waite described him as having a reputation for “excessive stupidity” in his youth, but his devotion to the Virgin Mary led to a vision in which he received a divine favour of intellectual illumination.
He entered the Dominican order in 1223, advancing until he was named bishop of Ratisbon in 1260, but resigned in 1262 in order to teach. He wrote extensively on Aristotle. In his later years, his brilliance faded.
He is credited with a number of firsts in alchemy: the production of arsenic in free form; the discovery of the chemical composition of cinnibar, minium, and whitelead; and the preparation of caustic potassium. He believed in the transmutation of base metals into gold. In Secretum Secretorum, published in 1508, he described his own experiments, including the testing of gold and silver produced by an alchemist. The “transmuted” metals proved to be false. Nonetheless, Albertus Magnus believed in the possibility of transmutation in accordance with the principles of nature.
In On Alchemy, he advised other alchemists to live a life of isolation, patience, and discretion and to have enough money to support themselves in case their experiments to create gold failed. He advised discretion because once word of success leaked out, especially to the royalty and nobility, the alchemist’s work could be destroyed.
Albertus Magnus was not a magician, as he was described by Demonologists later on. In fact, he said that “stories of Demons prowling the air” were “absurdities which can never be admitted by sober reason.” A spurious grimoire attributed to him, Le Admirables Secrets d’Albert le Grand (“The Admirable Secrets of Albertus Magnus”), covers the magical properties of herbs and stones, divination by physiognomy, and the preparations of various medicines.
Stories of incredible magic are attributed to Albertus Magnus. He supposedly had a philosopher’s stone, though there is no such record in his own writings. According to Michael Maier, the disciples of St. Dominic gave him the secret of the stone, and Albertus Magnus in turn gave it to Aquinas. Albertus Magnus also reportedly had a magical stone marked with a serpent, which had the ability to force other serpents out of their hiding places.
According to one tale, he once invited some guests, including William II, the count of Holland, for dinner at his home on New Year’s Day, 1249. The count owned a piece of land which Albertus Magnus wanted to purchase for a monastery; the count did not want to sell. When the guests arrived, they were astonished to see that Albertus Magnus had set up a meal in the garden outdoors. Everything was covered with snow and the temperature was freezing. He assured them that everything would be all right. Despite their misgivings, the guests sat down to eat. As soon as they had done so, the snow melted, the sun came out, flowers burst into bloom and birds fl ew about and sang. When the meal was over, the summery scene vanished, and the shivering guests had to go inside to warm by the fire. The impressed count agreed to sell Albertus Magnus the land he wanted.
In another legend, Albertus Magnus, using natural magic and astrology, created a homunculus which could talk and function as his servant. But its jabbering so disturbed Thomas Aquinas in his studies that Aquinas smashed it to pieces. Albertus Magnus died on November 15, 1280, and was buried in Cologne. He was beatified in 1622, and was canonized in 1932 by Pope Pius XI.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Saints. New York: Facts On File, 2002.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.