“Bosch’s ‘St. Anthony Triptych’ – An Apothecary’s Apotheosis” (Laurinda S. Dixon) 1984
[in: Art Journal, 44 (Summer 1984), pp. 119-131]
In this article, focusing on the Lisbon Temptations of St Anthony triptych, Dixon tries to synthesize the alchemical approach of Bergman and the medical explanations of Bauer and Van Lennep by relating Bosch’s triptych to the medieval craft of pharmacy, which employed alchemical apparatus to distill medicines. Medieval pharmacy and alchemy were inseparable and this practical aspect of alchemy is ignored by modern, romanticized alchemical readings of Bosch’s paintings.
St Anthony’s Fire, also known as ignis sacer, was a dreaded disease that was already recorded in Antiquity but in the fifteenth century it broke out with renewed force. St Anthony’s Fire was probably ergotism, a disease caused by the contamination of grain by the mold claviceps purpurea. The mold ergot, when baked in an oven with dough, transforms into a form of lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, which is why the victims experienced hallucinations.
Many images of St Anthony date from the fifteenth century. Bosch’s triptych, representing the saint’s life in abbreviated form, is one of them. The history and traditions of the medieval Antonine monasteries, where the victims of St Anthony’s Fire were housed and treated, supply the strongest clues to the lost context of the triptych. One of the major healing potions produced by these monasteries was the holy vintage: once a year, on the Feast of the Ascension, it was distributed among the worst victims of St Anthony’s Fire. This wine contained potable gold, myrrh and sugar and was poured out on the bones of St Anthony on the Feast of the Ascension. As has already been pointed out by Van Lennep, the figures around St Anthony in the central panel are part of the ritual of the holy vintage. Most likely Bosch’s triptych is meant to be a devotional image that could be contemplated by victims of St Anthony’s Fire, as was definitely the case with Grünewalds Isenheim Altarpiece.
Another cure for the hot, burning St Anthony’s Fire were fish, which were rated cold in the highest degree. Fish frequently appear in Bosch’s triptych. Another (cold) cure was the mandrake or mandragora. The lower body of the woman with a baby on a rat (central panel) looks like the root of a mandrake and her upper torso resembles mandrake dolls, which were often bent into the shapes of nursing mothers and used as aphrodisiacs. To the left of this figure we see a rider whose head takes the form of a thistle: medically, the thistle was prized for its coldness. The giant red fruit in the lower left foreground of the central panel resembles the fruit of a mandrake, which looks like a small apple. The juice of these mandrake apples, containing large quantities of belladonna, was effective as an anesthetic and was used by Antonine doctors as an aid to amputation. Belladonna also causes hallucinations. In this way, Bosch’s fantastic scenes not only represent the saint’s temptations, but also his wards’ hallucinations, caused by their disease ànd by the medicines they took for relief.
Bosch’s triptych was also inspired by laboratory machinery that was used for the preparation of medicines curing St Anthony’s Fire. One example is the metallic egg-shaped building in the central panel (right midground), which closely resembles a type of furnace illustrated in distillation texts. The burning tower in the background of the right interior panel looks like a type of long-necked beaker that was meant to hold ingredients. The pyramid-shaped tower to its right resembles a type of furnace fitted with an alembic to trap escaping steam. Seen as a pair, these structures resemble typical furnace combinations that could be used to heat vapours by steam as well as to cool them through water. Bosch disguised the furnaces and flasks as buildings: the medieval distillers themselves called their furnaces ‘houses’.
Dixon concludes that Bosch’s triptych is directed to a singular audience: the victims of St Anthony’s Fire seeking deliverance through the intercession of the saint and the healing powers of cooling medicines. Hence, the medieval apothecary’s trade, together with the Christian context of Antonine monasteries, the mystical-medical rite of the holy vintage and alchemy, leads to a better understanding of Bosch’s Lisbon triptych.