Hieronymus Bosch’s Endless Fire and the discovery of LSD


Antonius_der_GrosseHieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (central panel), ca. 1513, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon.

If the “T” were not visible on his shoulder – which as the first letter of theos indicates divine affinity – and without his right hand raised in blessing, Anthony would perish in the tumult of bizarre creatures and beasts of dubious provenance around him. Leaning against a wall on bended knees, in the exact center of the painting, the weakened St. Anthony’s tired gaze wanders out of the picture. The scene is from the central panel of the altarpiece that today carries the title, The Temptation of St. Anthony. It is one of the few surviving works of Hieronymus Bosch. A fleeting glance is enough to apprehend the mystification of this artist’s oeuvre – its complex symbolism and imagery still baffle today. There has hardly been more speculation around an artist than Bosch, who from a Dutch province, left behind neither a definitive catalogue of works nor a single portrait made during his lifetime. His visual language does not follow rational logic. In an almost hopeless fight he summons inner and outer phantoms of the dying Middle Ages for a last dance, conjuring Satanic apparitions and banning them for eternity in his renderings. It is futile to write that textual description can hardly live up to this density of odd beasts. Bosch’s mishmash of uncanny creatures, whose worldly bearing is questionable at best, seems to transcend the threshold of real experience. Or as the Italian art historian Mario Praz aptly puts it, “… all these masked beings through which the medieval person materialized his inner world, as if in a daydream; Hieronymus Bosch painted them with a hallucinatory intensity as yet unrivalled by any of our cheery painters.” [1] Beneath the cloak of Christian narrative Bosch gave diabolic demons and lowlife beasts presence without fuelling suspicion about his own heresy.

hieronymus-bosch-die-versuchung-des-heiligen-antoniusHieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail, left panel), ca. 1513, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon.

But back to Anthony. Following Western iconography, the devout saint wears a long cowl-like robe, and his staff is leaning on the wall about an arm’s length away. On a small golden chain hanging from his belt is a tau cross, still today the symbol of the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony. As legend has it, Anthony was born around 250, the son of well-off Christians in Egypt. After the death of his parents he gave his inheritance to the poor and moved to the desert to lead an ascetic life. He was soon thereafter haunted by various demons and devils who did everything in their power to lead him astray from his virtuous celibate lifestyle. His steadfastness brought him fame during his lifetime, and the weak and the sick, hopeful of recovery, sought him out. After miraculously healing a man with ergot poisoning in La Motte aux Bois (later named Saint Antoine and also the site of his bodily remains) Anthony became the patron saint of those suffering from the disease.

1770038b KopieHieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail, central panel), ca. 1513, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon.

Despite his role as the leading man, Bosch granted him but a tiny portion of the overall image – to this effect, his central position is almost a mockery. Literally in the middle of evil he is nonetheless mentally absent. Directly behind him evil seems to be taking its course: a moor proffers a plate with a toad holding up an egg like the Eucharist. Someone else gives a pig-snouted black-clad lute player with an owl on his head a potion as he approaches. On the leash is a dog wearing a red juggler’s hat. A blind cripple with a barrel organ tries to join in on the diabolical doings to no avail. Leaning in to the left of Anthony, Satan approaches disguised as a beautiful lady-in-waiting. Her reptilian train reveals her true diabolic nature. Symbols of the immoral and Satanic turn up again and again in almost all of these characters, here only briefly described. In this vein, the toad symbolizes depravity; the owl, a nocturnal animal, embodies evil, and the dog with the juggler’s hat is yet another devil in disguise.

hieronymus-bosch-antoniusaltar-triptychon-mitteltafel-versuchung-des-hl.-antonius-detailHieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail, central panel), ca. 1513, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon.

Observing all of this is a man wearing a top hat and a red cape. As a solitary figure, he stands out among what are primarily group formations. If his feet were not claws he could easily pass as a voyeur in a Manet painting a few centuries later. In front of him a severed human foot with a protruding bone lies on a white towel on the ground. As the medical historian Veit Harold Bauer has established, this is a direct reference to ergot poisoning, which in Bosch’s time was an epidemic, necessitating countless limb amputations and costing human lives. The cause of the disease is ergot, a parasitic fungus found primarily on the seed heads of rye grass. Insufficient rinsing of the grain led to traces of the fungus in bread, causing ergot poisoning. Depending on the specific composition of the ergot alkaloids involved, this disease, also called ergotism, had two different forms: gangrenous ergotism, “hellfire” or “St. Anthony’s Fire” in the vernacular, was characterized by vascoconstriction and tissue death with the limbs ultimately turning black and falling off. The term hellfire refers to the unbelievable burning pain patients experienced. With the less common convulsive ergotism, symptoms included: seizures, mania and hallucinations.

MutterkornRye with ergot, Copperplate from Carl Nicolaus Lang (Luzern 1717).

In all likelihood the severed foot on the ground in Bosch’s central panel is a foot that has fallen off or been amputated as the result of gangrenous ergotism. Art historians have interpreted the man in various ways, from a wizard directing a witches’ sabbath with his staff to the devil himself. [2] Rather fittingly, across from the foot to the right a rat-headed being whose rotting innards peer through a slit in his cape is reading Satanic verses from a black book.

In the background a building is going up in flames. Fanned by flying demons, the fire spreads to the neighbouring houses, lending a reddish yellow glow to the sky. The collapsing spirelet with tau cross is an Antonite hospital, a haven for those afflicted by ergotism. Only later in the 17th century was one of King Ludwig XIV’s private physicians able to prove the connection between the mass infection and ergot. Yet another century would pass before this knowledge led to a more careful rinsing process, which caused the epidemic almost entirely to disappear. The last epidemic broke out among farmers in southern Russia in 1927. Today the reference value for permitted levels of ergot in grains intended for human consumption is 0.05% by weight. The German Mutterkorn (mother grain) comes from the Middle Ages, when because of its muscle-stimulating and vascoconstrictive properties the fungus was used on pregnant women to stimulate contractions and stop bleeding.

In 1935 the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann started experimenting with ergot in his search for a circulatory stimulant. By 1943 he had succeeded in synthesizing various amide derivatives, among them lysergic acid diethylamide. An experiment on himself that led to an intensely hallucinatory bike ride led to the discovery of LSD and has since gone down as Bicycle Day in LSD cultural history.

bosch_antonius Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptation of St. Anthony (detail, right panel), ca. 1513, Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon.

1. Praz, Mario. pp. 13, Die Garten der Sinne: Ansichten des Manierismus und des Barock. Frankfurt am Main. 1988.

2. The art historian, Charles de Tolnay, has interpreted this man as a wizard. cf. Veit Harold. pp. 81 & 85f, Das Antonius-Feuer in Kunst und Medizin, Berlin Heidelberg. 1973.


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