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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Hieronymus Bosch and the puzzle of red fruit 
28th-Jan-2008 11:00 pm

In Bosch’s best known and least understood painting, the central part of the Garden of Earthly Delights, there is abundance of a mysterious red fruit that looks like a small ping-pong ball. The queer fruit is carried on the Adamites’ backs and it is held in their arms, it is fed to birds by humans and to humans by birds, it hovers up in the air, its giant forms house the Adamites, and it is part of more involved architectural forms in the foreground. The latter include strange looking, serrated protuberances that remind of arthropod limbs or roots and shoots of exotic plants. The same fruit appears again in the central panel of The Temptation of St Anthony. What is this fruit?

St Anthony was popular in the middle ages because he was the only help in battling a terrible yet common epidemic disease - ergotism. This devastating illness is induced by a fungus growing on rye, ergot blight (cockspur). The cause was not realized until the end of the 17th century; medieval doctors believed that ergotism was pestilence. The epidemics of ergotism started in 1090 and continued well into the modern times; Bosch lived through one of the worst such epidemics in Europe on record. The ergoline alkaloids are potent hallucinogens. For those who do not know, LSD (aka “acid”) has been derived from lysergic acid extracted from ergot. These alkaloids cause convulsive ergotism: seizures, spasms, hallucinations, and psychosis known as St Vitus’ dance.

If these were not bad enough, ergotamine and ergocristine alkaloids in the subspecies of ergot that occurred to the west of the Rhine River had even more sinister effect, as these particular alkaloids are powerful vasoconstrictors. What this means is that the regular intake of ergot caused systemic suppression of oxygen supply to the extremities, causing burning sensation and gangrene – St Anthony’s fire (ignis sacer). Often the extremities turn black, dry, and become mummified, causing the infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints. The association of the disease with St Anthony was twofold: it was the allusion to this saint’s horrific visions in the desert (paralleled in the hallucination of the victims) and the fact that hospitaller friars of St Anthony order organized the network of monastery hospices for pilgrims suffering from the disease. The only treatment for advanced cases was amputation (hence the appearance of the severed foot and the many cripples in the triptych and in other Bosch paintings and drawings). Keeping the severed limb (in order to make sure that it will be united with the owner at the Resurrection) was common in Bosch's time. There was also therapeutic relief:

...The order of St. Anthony founded about 200 monastic hospitals on the four roads to Santiago. In these hagiotherapeutic centres representing the first huge, highly specialized European medical welfare system, the friars separated the ill pilgrims after a careful diagnosis of “St. Anthony's fire”, gave them ergot-free nourishment, herbal wines (with vasodilating and analgesic herbals) and applied Antonites-balsam, the first transdermal therapeutic system in the history of medicine. In a very practical manner of charity they were taking care for the mental and somatic restitution of the victims of ergotism. Unfortunately, their secret recipes were lost at the end of medieval times. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0531-5131(02)01096-8

What we do know about the common medication used to cure St Anthony’s fire is that it included 2/3 lethal dose (50-200 mg) of mandrake, a potent herbal narcotic and anaesthetic that also has vasodilating properties. The alkaloids are contained both in the fruit and the root of the mandrake. It can be steamed out, extracted by alcohol, or fermented out of the plant. The mandrake wine was used to alleviate the symptoms of the holy fire and also to prepare the patients for the operation. Actually, it worked rather well. The only problem with the mandrake is that it is a hallucinogen nearly as potent as ergot. The already hallucinating patients were given even more hallucinogen.

What it has to do with the odd fruit? The gigantic red berry in St Anthony triptych is certainly the ripe fruit of the mandrake. The root of the mandrake (which sometimes resembles a person) is shown next to it. By association, the red fruit in the Garden is also likely to be the mandrake berry. The “arthropod limbs” might be the depictions of the mandrake root. The mandrake is called “love plant” in Hebrew because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac since Biblical times (the story of Rachel and Leah, etc). The peculiar couplings of the Adamites in the Garden are facilitated by the magic of the mandrake. The Garden can be read as a reflective hallucination induced by the mandrake narcotic given to a victim of holy fire. Other connections are possible. One of the interpretations of the Garden triptych is that it is the allegory of alchemical and/or pharmaceutical transformation, including the alchemical marriage (the strange couplings of elements) followed by putrefaction (in the right panel). Indeed, there are possible allusions to chemical equipment (furnaces, glass pipes, flasks) and alchemical symbols. One can imagine that the mandrake is en route from the chemical world of delirium and uninhibited combination into the earthly world of fixity and suffering brought by the disease. The latter interpretation would also rationalize the toads (as the symbols of plague suffering).

I wonder how much of these speculations are true. Is the red fruit a mandrake? What is it doing in the painting? Was the fantastic vision of the central panel induced by a hallucination fired by the mandrake medicine? Why are there so many ergotics in Bosch’s paintings and drawings? Did Hieronymus Bosch himself suffered from the mild form of ergotism? Was he cured by the Antonine balsam based on the mandrake wine? Is the Garden the commemoration of this miraculous cure? I wish I’d know...

PS. Dixon, L.S., Bosch's 'St. Anthony Triptych' -- An Apothecary's Apotheosis. Art Journal 44 (1984) 119
30th-Jan-2008 04:40 am (UTC)
Well, one of them looks more like an acorn, but where the fruit is painted in detail it sure looks like mandrake, especially considering that there were no tomatoes and no potatoes (fruit of some potato varieties looks similar). But I've never seen Mediterranean mandrake, only the recently discovered Turkmenian variety.
31st-Jan-2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
looks like an appelsien to me...
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