A core class at Hogwarts for years 1-5, Transfiguration teaches young wizards the art of changing the appearance and characteristics of an object. This course has historical roots in the practice of alchemy, embraced by a diverse group of scientific investigators interested since the Fall of Rome in changing base metals into gold and achieving the philosopher’s stone, rumored to secure eternal life. The practice of alchemy continued through the eighteenth century.
Disclaimer: This exhibition is not licensed or endorsed by Warner Bros. or J.K. Rowling.
This plate comes from an alchemical text called the Mutus Liber, or silent book, which was included in Jean-Jacques Manget's compilation, the 1702 Bibliotheca Curiosa (First-years, it's a far cry from the shrieking book in the school library's restricted section.) The image illustrates a sequence of laboratory operations to transmute baser metals into gold. Alchemical texts from the early eighteenth century and onward often show women working alongside men. The last panel of the image shows the alchemists shushing the reader, but they leave us with powerful wizarding wisdom: "Pray, read, read, read, reread, work and discover."
Never trust a Chocolate Frog card: Nicolas Flamel, magician, is introduced via that medium to Harry and Ron on their inaugural ride to Hogwarts. Despite the interference of a less than helpful librarian—Madame Pince, for shame!-- Harry unearths Flamel's backstory as the maker of the philosopher's stone and beneficiary of the elixir of life, a mixture that keeps him 690 years young. The historical Nicolas Flamel had a similarly outsized reputation. The scribe and manuscript-seller married a wealthy widow and owned many properties, but probably never wrote alchemical texts, such as the one attributed to him on hieroglyphics.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry learns that the alchemist Nicolas Flamel successfully created the philosopher's stone; in reality, reports of Flamel's reputation as an alchemist and immortal were greatly exaggerated. Jean-Jacques Manget's Bibliotheca Curiosa, published in 1702, compiled many alchemical texts and included Basil Valentine's The Twelve Keys. Valentine's work offered twelve plates that symbolically depicted methods to achieve the philosopher's stone. In this last operation, the final step in realizing the stone, a sun and moon illuminate a laboratory where an alchemist stands in front of a blazing furnace and tends to two roses, as a lion devours a snake.