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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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Here is the Crown of Kazan.  It belonged to Ediger Mahmet, the last ruler of the Tartar state of Kazan.  The Khanate of Kazan encompassed parts of modern Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Chuvashia, and Mordovia—rich forested lands at the extreme eastern edge of Europe which abutted the great Central Asian steppe (indeed Kazan was one of the last pieces of the Mongol Empire which had briefly ruled most of Eurasia). After the death of Genghis Khan, the empire shattered into successor states such as the Khanate of the Golden Horde.  Kazan emerged from the turmoil as a powerful state between the early 15th and mid 16th centuries AD.

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Although it had a strong beginning, Kazan’s later years were a sad story of Russian meddling, interference, and outright assault.  The noble houses of Kazan were more interested in fighting each other for control of the kingdom–which grew more ossified and derelict as the Turkic nobles fought one another and ignored the needs of their oppressed peasantry. Their stupidity, weakness, and ridiculous inability to understand the profound threat from Moscow strikes one as hard to believe. Initially, a Russian puppet, Shahghali, was placed on the throne, but, as civil wars broke out, he proved unable to keep the population subdued under the yoke of Moscow as civil war. In August 1552, forces of Ivan the Terrible invaded and annexed the kingdom outright.

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(The Kazans Genuflect Before the Tsar)

After Ivan the Terrible took over Kazan, Russian forces slaughtered more than 110,000 of the nobles, soldiers, and peasants.  Pro-Russian traitors who had worked insidiously to ensure the defeat of their country were rewarded by being allowed to keep their lands and towers (and, of course, the gold which Ivan had used to buy them off).

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Today the Crown of Kazan is found inside the Kremlin armory with early Russian crowns like the Cap of Monomakh as well as crowns from other kingdoms swallowed whole by the insatiable Russian Empire. Here is a picture of Gerhard Schroeder looking bored/horrified (borified?) as Vladimir Putin explains this history to him and tells how Russia weakened and annexed its competitors during the Middle Ages.

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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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Somehow April is nearly gone.  I can’t believe time is running so swiftly! You have probably been worrying about where the April entry is for The Shephearde’s Calender is (although, I guess if you are truly anxious or really want to read ahead, it was published nearly half a millennium ago, and can now be found online).  The April entry is uncommonly beautiful, but it also highlights a problem with 16th century poetry—namely that poets had to suck up to aristocrats so hard.  Fortunately this is not a problem in the modern world, where the great masters do not care for poetry and sucking up to them does no good.  However ancient poems are filled with long eloquent digressions about the merits of some long dead lord or king…or in this case a queen.

At any rate, the poem starts promisingly, with the aged shepherd Hobbinoll lamenting an amorous misfortune to his friend, Thenot.  It seems that Hobbinoll’s favorite beautiful young shepherd, Colin, has fallen in love with a lovely young woman, Rosalind.  However before we can explore gender issues among 16th century English fops…er, I mean shepherds… the poem abruptly veers off.  Hobbinoll wants to demonstrate Colin’s skill at poetry by reciting a poem which he (Colin) made for Elisa, the Queene of shepheardes (a fairly transparent sobriquet for real-world sovereign Elizabeth, Queen of England).  The remainder of the poem is a beautiful mixture of spring imagery, classical allusions, and panegyric metaphors flattering Elizabeth, who was Spenser’s great patron (he certainly didn’t starve to death while she was alive).   The ramifications of the curious framing device are left unstated and unpursued…at least during April. However we now know that Colin and Rosalind are out there and that Hobinoll has a sharp interest in them.… We also know that daffodils used to be called “daffadowndillies” (and I think we should return to that 5 syllable usage immediately).  I guess that’s enough of an introduction.  Without further preliminaries,  here is

The Shepheardes Calender: April

 

[Woodcut for April]

 Ægloga Quarta.

 A R G V M E N T.

THis Æglogue is purposely intended to the honor and prayse of our most gracious souereigne, Queene Elizabeth. The speakers herein be Hobbinoll and Thenott, two shepheardes: The which Hobinoll being before mentioned, greatly to haue loued Colin, is here set forth more largely, complayning him of that boyes great misaduenture in Loue, whereby his mynd was alienate and with drawen not onely from him, who moste loued him, but also from all former delightes and studies, aswell in pleasaunt pyping, as conning ryming and singing, and other his laudable exercises. Whereby he taketh occasion, for proofe of his more excellencie and skill in poetrie, to recorde a song, which the sayd Colin sometime made in honor of her Maiestie, whom abruptely he termeth Elysa.

Thenot.       Hobbinoll.

TEll me good Hobbinoll, what garres thee greete?
What? hath some Wolfe thy tender Lambes ytorne?
Or is thy Bagpype broke, that soundes so sweete?
Or art thou of thy loued lasse forlorne? Or bene thine eyes attempred to the yeare,
Quenching the gasping furrowes thirst with rayne?
Like April shoure, so stremes the trickling teares
Adowne thy cheeke, to quenche thye thirstye payne.
 
 

Hobbinoll.

Nor thys, not that, so muche doeth make me mourne,
But for the ladde, whom long I lovd so deare,
Nowe loues a lasse, that all his loue doth scorne:
He plonged in payne, his tressed locks dooth teare. Shepheards delights he dooth them all forsweare,
Hys pleasaunt Pipe, whych made vs meriment,
He wylfully hath broke, and doth forbeare
His wonted songs, wherein he all outwent.
 
 

Thenot.

What is he for a Ladde, you so lament?
Ys loue such pinching payne to them, that proue?
And hath he skill to make so excellent,
Yet hath so little skill to brydle loue?
 
 

Hobbinoll.

Colin thou kenst, the Southerne shepheardes boye:
Him Loue hath wounded with a deadly darte.
Whilome on him was all my care and ioye,
Forcing with gyfts to winne his wanton heart. But now from me hys madding mynd is starte,
And woes the Widdowes daughter of the glenne:
So now fayre Rosalind hath bred hys smart,
So now his frend is chaunged for a frenne.
 
 

Thenot.

But if his ditties bene so trimly dight,
I pray thee Hobbinoll, record some one:
The whiles our flockes doe graze about in sight,
And we close shrowded in thys shade alone.
 
 

Hobbinol.

Contented I: then will I singe his laye
Of fayre Elisa, Queene of shepheardes all:
Which once he made, as by a spring he laye,
And tuned it vnto the Waters fall.YE dayntye Nymphs, that in this blessed Brooke
doe bathe your brest,
Forsake your watry bowres, and hether looke,
at my request:
And eke you Virgins, that on Parnasse dwell,
Whence floweth Helicon the learned well,
Helpe me to blaze
Her worthy praise,
Which in her sexe doth all excell.

 Of fayre Elisa be your siluer song,
that blessed wight:
The flowre of Virgins, may shee florish long,
In princely plight.
For she is Syrinx daughter without spotte,
Which Pan the shepheards God of her begot:
So sprong her grace
Of heauenly race,
No mortal blemishe may her blotte.

 See, where she sits vpon the grassie greene,
(O seemly sight)
Yclad in Scarlot like a mayden Queene,
And Ermines white.
Vpon her head a Cremosin coronet,
With Damaske roses and Dafadillies set:
Bayleaues betweene,
And Primroses greene
Embellish the sweete Violet.

 Tell me, haue ye seene her angelick face,
Like Phoebe fayre?
Her heauenly haueour, her princely grace
can you well compare?
The Redde rose medled with the White yfere,
In either cheeke depeincten liuely chere.
Her modest eye,
Her Maiestie,
Where haue you seene the like, but there?

 I sawe Phoebus thrust out his golden hedde,
vpon her to gaze:
But when he sawe, how broade her beames did spredde,
it did him amaze.
He blusht to see another Sunne belowe,
Ne durst againe his fyrye face out showe:
Let him, if he dare,
His brightnesse compare
With hers, to haue the ouerthrowe.

 Shewe thy selfe Cynthia with thy siuer rayes,
and be not abasht:
When shee the beames of her beauty displayes,
O how art thou dasht?
But I will not match her with Latonaes seede,
Such follie great sorow to Niobe did breede.
Now she is a stone,
And makes dayly mone,
Warning all others to take heede.

 Pan may be proud, that euer he begot
such a Bellibone,
And Syrinx reioyse, that euer was her lot
to beare such an one.
Soone as my younglings cryen for the dam,
To her will I offer a milkwhite Lamb:
Shee is my goddesse plaine,
And I her shepherds swayne,
Albee forswonck and forswatt I am.

 I see Calliope speede her to the place,
Where my Goddesse shines:
And after her the other Muses trace,
with their Violines.
Bene they not Bay braunches, which they doe beare,
All for Elisa, in her hand to weare?
So sweetely they play,
And sing all the way,
That it a heauen is to heare.

 Lo how finely the graces can it foote
to the Instrument:
They daucen deffly, and singen soote,
in their merriment.
Wants [not] a fourth grace, to make the daunce euen?
Let that rowme to my Lady be yeuen:
She shalbe a grace,
To fyll the fourth place,
And reigne with the rest in heauen.

 And whither rennes this beuie of Ladies bright,
raunged in a rowe?
They bene all Ladyes of the lake behight,
that vnto her goe.
Chloris, that is the chiefest Nymph of al,
Of Oliue braunches beares a Coronall:
Oliues bene for peace,
When wars doe surcease:
Such for a Princesse bene principall.

 Ye shepheards daughters, that dwell on the greene,
hye you there apace:
Let none come there, but that Virgins bene,
to adorne her grace.
And when you come, whereas shee is in place,
See, that your rudenesse doe not you disgrace:
Binde your fillets faste,
And gird in your waste,
For more finesse with a tawdrie lace.

 Bring hether the Pincke and purple Cullambine,
With Gelliflowres:
Bring Coronations, and Sops in wine,
worne of Paramoures.
Strowe me the ground with Daffadowndillies,
And Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loued Lillies:
The pretie Pawnce,
And the Cheuisaunce,
Shall match with the fayre flowre Delice.

 Now ryse vp Elisa, decked as thou art,
in royall aray:
And now ye daintie Damsells may depart
echeone her way,
I feare, I haue troubled your troupes to longe:
Let dame Eliza thanke you for her song.
And if you come hether,
When Damsines I gether,
I will part them all you among.
 
 

Thenot.

And was thilk same song of Colins owne making?
Ah foolish boy, that is with loue yblent:
Great pittie is, he be in such taking,
For nought caren, that bene so lewdly bent.
 
 

Hobbinol.

Sicker I hold him, for a greater fon,
That loues the thing, he cannot purchase.
But let vs homeward: for night draweth on,
And twincling starres the daylight hence chase.
 

Thenots Embleme. O quam te memorem virgo?

 Hobbinols Embleme.

 O dea certe.

The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492.  Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed.  People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened.  Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.

The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty.  Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people.  The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling.  Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world.  It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus.  Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves.  Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%.   Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe).  The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease.  The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.

In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease.  During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved.   When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization.  Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them.  But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination.  A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”

Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either.  It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?).  In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic.  The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary.  In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China.  Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.

Smallpox among the Aztecs

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

Mathis Grünewald

Temptation of Saint Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Here is another portrayal of Saint Anthony tormented by demons—and what demons!  One is some sort of ambulatory stomach lined with teeth.  Another is a cross between a turkey and a mudpuppy.  A ghastly leprous frogman clutches at Saint Anthony while beings with stumps and fungi for heads lurch up out of the darkness.  High in the sky a glowing entity watches.  Is it God seen through a fog of pain or is it an ancient demon made of diaphanous glowing lunch meat?  The very forces of madness and hell are physically pulling Anthony apart.

Wow! What is this painting and what’s the story behind its hellishly vivid imagery?

This is one frame of a massive polyptych painted by Mathis Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar.  Grünewald painted the altarpiece between 1505 and 1515 and the completed work is difficult to describe because it has two sets of folding wings as well as a folding predella.

Wikipedia describes the altarpiece’s elaborate construction and its sad history:

The first view shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also. When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection. The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490. Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together. Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.

The world is fortunate indeed that the mad iconoclasts of the French Revolution did not destroy the altarpiece because it is one of the foremost works of Gothic religious art.

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

Isenheim Altarpiece (Mathis Grünewald, ca. 1515, oil on panel)

The Monastery at Isenheim was a healing facility: the Antonine monks who lived and worked there specialized in the treatment of skin diseases.  A prevalent malady the brothers saw among their patiets was ergotism—a poisoning caused by fungus growing on wet rye (in fact during the Middle Ages the affliction was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” because the Antonine Monks were so gifted at treating it).  Alkaloid compounds in ergot constricted sufferers’ blood vessels and brought on dry gangrene. In the altarpiece Christ himself is afflicted by the skin condition as he hangs on the cross in the central panel. Various secondary characters throughout the work also seem to be suffering from the skin disease.

Besides suppurating lesions and gangrene, two other effects of ergotism were convulsions and terrible vivid hallucinations.  The ergot alkaloid ergotamine shares many structural similarities with LSD.  It is poignant to imagine the sick and injured patients at Isenheim desperately praying before the altarpiece for relief from an ailment which was unhinging their minds and literally causing them to rot away.  When they looked up at Saint Anthony’s torment, the intended viewers knew exactly how he felt.

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