“Chemical Craft and spiritual Science in Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych” (Laurinda Dixon) 2010
[in: Eric De Bruyn and Jos Koldeweij (eds.), Jheronimus Bosch. His Sources. 2nd International Jheronimus Bosch Conference, May 22-25, 2007, Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010, pp. 128-143]
Art historians have noted alchemical elements in Bosch’s paintings but have interpreted them, for the most part, as evidence of evil, heretical ideas in his works. But alchemy was not illegal or heretical in Bosch’s day: it was supported openly by princes and popes and its laboratory procedures were used by physicians, metallurgists, painters and pharmacists. At the same time alchemy was also a sacred science, a means of attaining spiritual salvation: alchemists hoped to create an elixir of life, capable of healing the sick and renovating the world and its inhabitants into an earthly paradise. The numerous alchemical books and manuscripts held today in the major museums and libraries of the world attest to the fact that alchemy was widely accessible in Bosch’s time, when the literature was compiled and edited for printing.
Of special interest to art historians are the illustrations in alchemical treatises, which are cloaked in an enigmatic visual language, because philosopher-alchemists were concerned that their discoveries be hidden from ignorant, unworthy, hostile or competitive eyes. Despite the strangeness of alchemical iconography, references to apparatus and motifs are easily identified in Bosch’s works, given the basic furnishings of a chemical laboratory and familiarity with some of the metaphors applied to transmutation. In this paper Dixon focuses on Bosch’s St. Anthony triptych (Lisbon), because according to her it best demonstrates Bosch’s understanding of alchemy as an essential adjunct to medicine and pharmacy.
St. Anthony was the saintly intercessor for the victims of a dreaded disease of plague-like dimensions, the so-called holy fire (ignis sacer) or St. Anthony’s fire. These victims suffered burning pain in the extremities, which became gangrenous, blackened (as if charred by fire) and eventually detached. The disease also attacked the nervous system, causing hallucinations and convulsions. We now know this disease by the name of ‘ergotism’. It was caused by the contamination of grain by the mold claviceps purpurea (ergot) which constricts the flow of blood to the extremities. In addition, ergot mold, when heated in the bread-baking process, transforms into a form of lysergic acid diethylamide, which we know as LSD. In Bosch’s time this was not known yet: the only hope for sufferers was St. Anthony’s miraculous intercession, in combination with the primitive expertise of doctors, surgeons and apothecaries. In the fifteenth century the sufferers were treated in Antonite monasteries which were primarily charity hospitals which cared for the victims of holy fire until their deaths and which employed renowned physicians and surgeons, who were well paid for their skills. Large distilleries for the making of cooling elixirs and surgical anesthetics were indispensable to the healing mission of the Antonites.
The history and traditions of the Antonite hospital order supply many clues to the lost context of Bosch’s triptych. One of these traditions was the rite of the so-called ‘holy vintage’, offered once a year on the Feast of the Ascension to a select few whose disease was too advanced for ordinary measures. The holy vintage was strained over the bones of St. Anthony after which the recipients of the elixir took a few drops in a pseudo-Eucharistic ritual, while gazing at an image of St. Anthony and reciting a prayer, requesting his intercession. According to Dixon we can see such a ritual in the center of Bosch’s triptych, opposite St. Anthony. If we consider Bosch’s triptych in a healing context, it emerges as a devotional image, intended to be viewed by victims of the holy fire during their mystical identification with St. Anthony.
In addition to the holy vintage Antonite apothecaries distilled many other cures for St. Anthony’s fire. Some ingredients occur more often than others in medicinal recipes that induce sleep, cause numbness and have cooling properties. Bosch’s central panel contains many such substances, such as fish or the fruit of the mandrake (or mandragora). The giant red fruit in the left foreground of Bosch’s center panel resembles a mandrake ‘apple’, cousin of the modern tomato. Bosch alludes to the process of amputation, for which Antonite surgeons were renowned, by placing a severed foot close to the kneeling figure of St. Anthony. Though mandrake relieved the physical symptoms of ergotism, it actually aggravated the mental suffering of victims. Its chemical content, an alkoloid similar to belladonna, produces the sensation of flying. Numerous airborne creatures inhabit the skies of all three panels of Bosch’s triptych. Interestingly, the disease of ergotism itself also produces the illusion of flight.
Bosch also includes the apparatus used by Antonite apothecaries. In the St. Anthony triptych furnaces and flasks are disguised as architectural constructions. The alchemists themselves referred to their furnace as a ‘house’ (domus). An example is the grey egg-shaped object in the right mid-ground of the center panel. Typical of most furnaces the structure has an opening in its bottom for the introduction of fuel and belches flames and vapor from a chimney on top. The bathers in its neighbourhood remind us of the fact that cold baths were essential therapy for hot illnesses and would have been part of the healing regimen prescribed for victims of St. Anthony’s fire. Distillation apparatus appear in the upper background of the right panel.
Bosch also employed spiritual metaphors taken from alchemy. On the right panel a tiny figure is brandishing a sword against a fire-breathing dragon. In the symbolic language of alchemy the dragon represents the spiritual obstacles which the alchemist (the warrior brandishing a sword) must overcome to reach his goal. In the background of the central panel a woman is washing clothes, seemingly oblivious to the hellish pandemonium that surrounds her. Unclean substances, destined for transmutation, were referred to as the ‘dirty sheets’ which must be washed and cleansed of impurities and the actual process of transmutation could be called ‘women’s work’, because it was so easy that even women and children could do it. The detail with the laundering woman not only refers to the alchemical transmutation, but also to the transformation, via healing, intercession and the chemical art, that was hoped for by the victims of St. Anthony’s fire, for whom the painting played a pivotal role in their curative therapy.
Four works by Bosch (the Garden of Delights, the Prado Epiphany, the Stone of Folly and the St. Anthony triptych) contain similar alchemical imagery. The former three and what was probably a close copy of the St. Anthony triptych were all appropriated by Philip II of Spain who not only collected Bosch’s works but was also a patron and student of alchemy. These paintings complemented the dedication of the Escorial hospital to St. Anthony. The hospital included elaborate state-of-the-art alchemical laboratories. This strongly suggests that Philip was neither shocked nor offended by the alchemical imagery in Bosch’s works. As for the St. Anthony triptych: alchemical metaphors of cleansing and struggle reinforce the overall message of Christian triumph over sin and adversity, which the triptych, in both its exterior and interior panels, affirms.
Bosch’s cogent use of alchemical imagery came from a deep understanding of the spiritual aims and practical procedures of this important discipline. Like the able illustrators of alchemical texts, Bosch was an interpreter of alchemy’s moral and Christian messages, enhanced by his fertile imagination and great technical skill.
[explicit 2nd February 2012]