Albertus Magnus

Albertus Magnus bigraphy, stories - Dominican friar

Albertus Magnus : biography

c. 1193/c. 1206 – November 15, 1280

Albertus Magnus, O.P. (1193/1206 – November 15, 1280), also known as Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, is a Catholic saint. He was a German Dominican friar and a bishop. Those such as James A. Weisheipl and Joachim R. Söder have referred to him as the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages, an opinion supported by contemporaries such as Roger Bacon.Joachim R. Söder, “Albert der Grosse – ein staunen- erregendes Wunder,” Wort und Antwort 41 (2000): 145; J.A. Weisheipl, “Albertus Magnus,” Joseph Strayer ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages 1 (New York: Scribner, 1982) 129. The Catholic Church honours him as a Doctor of the Church, one of only 35 persons with that honor.


Albertus is known for his enlightening commentary on the musical practice of his times. Most of his written musical observations are found in his commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. He rejected the idea of "music of the spheres" as ridiculous: movement of astronomical bodies, he supposed, is incapable of generating sound. He wrote extensively on proportions in music, and on the three different subjective levels on which plainchant could work on the human soul: purging of the impure; illumination leading to contemplation; and nourishing perfection through contemplation. Of particular interest to 20th-century music theorists is the attention he paid to silence as an integral part of music.

Alchemy and Astrology

In the centuries since his death, many stories arose about Albertus as an alchemist and magician. On the subject of alchemy and chemistry, many treatises relating to Alchemy have been attributed to him, though in his authentic writings he had little to say on the subject, and then mostly through commentary on Aristotle. For example, in his commentary, De mineralibus, he refers to the power of stones, but does not elaborate on what these powers might be.Georg Wieland, “Albert der Grosse. Der Entwurf einer eigenständigen Philosophie,” Philosophen des Mittelalters (Darmstadt: Primus, 2000) 124-39. A wide range of Pseudo-Albertine works dealing with alchemy exist, though, showing the belief developed in the generations following Albert’s death that he had mastered alchemy, one of the fundamental sciences of the Middle Ages. These include Metals and Materials; the Secrets of Chemistry; the Origin of Metals; the Origins of Compounds, and a Concordance which is a collection of Observations on the philosopher’s stone; and other alchemy-chemistry topics, collected under the name of Theatrum Chemicum.Walsh, John, The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries. 1907:46. He is credited with the discovery of the element arsenic and experimented with photosensitive chemicals, including silver nitrate. He did believe that stones had occult properties, as he related in his work De mineralibus. However, there is scant evidence that he personally performed alchemical experiments.

According to legend, Albertus Magnus is said to have discovered the philosopher’s stone and passed it to his pupil Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death. Albertus does not confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, but he did record that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation."Julian Franklyn and Frederick E. Budd. A Survey of the Occult. Electric Book Company. 2001. p. 28-30. ISBN 1-84327-087-0. Given that Thomas Aquinas died six years before Albertus Magnus’ death, this legend as stated is unlikely.

However, it is true that Albertus was deeply interested in astrology, as has been articulated by scholars such as Paola Zambelli.Paola Zambelli, "The Speculum Astronomiae and its Enigma" Dordrecht. In the high Middle Ages — and well into the early modern period — few intellectuals, if any, questioned the basic assumptions of astrology: humans live within a web of celestial influences that affect our bodies, and thereby motivate us to behave in certain ways. Within this worldview, it was reasonable to believe that astrology could be used to predict the probable future of a human being. Albertus made this a central component of his philosophical system, arguing that an understanding of the celestial influences affecting us could help us to live our lives more in accord with Christian precepts. The most comprehensive statement of his astrological beliefs is to be found in a work he authored around 1260, now known as the Speculum astronomiae. However, details of these beliefs can be found in almost everything he wrote, from his early Summa de bono to his last work, the Summa theologiae.