A fungal infection known as ergotism influenced Northern Renaissance painting to an extent that a majority of art institutions have yet to grapple with. During the Renaissance ergotism was colloquially known as St. Anthony’s Fire, named for the third-century desert Father who had hallucinatory bouts with the devil.
In 1938 the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally synthesized the psychedelic drug LSD-25 for the first time from ergot fungi — the same fungus that causes the disease ergotism — while researching pharmaceuticals for postpartum bleeding. Some of the symptoms of ergotism closely resemble the effects of LSD, which makes sense given that the same or similar alkaloids are present in both the fungus that causes illness and the drug. Looking at depictions of St. Anthony in the paintings of Renaissance masters, the influence of the disease on the history of art starts to become clear.
During the time of the Renaissance, ergotism was a phantasmagoric event with an onset that was difficult to distinguish from the bubonic plague: it came on first as nausea and insomnia, then developed into sensations of being engulfed in flames while hallucinating over several days, and often ended with the amputation of one or more limbs due to gangrene, or ended in death. In some locations, the symptoms associated with ergotism were considered to be the first step towards hell.
The illness is contracted by ingesting ergot fungus, which appears on cereal grains when the growing conditions are right — most commonly on rye. The last known severe outbreak occurred in the French village of Pont-Saint-Espirit in 1951. The outbreak was documented in the British Medical Journal, which describes symptoms such as nausea, depression, agitation, insomnia, a delirium that includes feelings of self-accusation or mysticism, and hallucinations that commonly include animals and fire. A non-fiction book about the 1951 outbreak, written by American author John G. Fuller, titled, The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire, describes specific ergot-related psychotic episodes. For example, there is the afflicted man who thought he was an airplane and jumped out the asylum’s second floor window with outstretched arms expecting to fly, telescoped both his legs upon landing, and then ran 50 meters at full speed on shattered bones before being wrestled to the ground by eight other men. All in all, the accounts of symptoms from the 1951 outbreak resemble both acid causality tales hyperbolized as anti-drug propaganda, and descriptions from the LSD how-to manual coauthored by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, titled The Psychedelic Experience.
Some art historians, such as Bosch scholar Laurinda S. Dixon, have proffered for decades that the symptoms of ergotism influenced painters like Jheronimus (aka Hieronymus) Bosch and Matthias Grünewald. In looking further at depictions of Saint Anthony — from medieval folk art, a plethora of Renaissance work, to a series of paintings by surrealist artists, such as Max Ernst’s 1945, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” — a pattern begins to develop in which a mimesis of visual hallucinations associated with ergotism is clearly present. For instance, Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, contains not only hallucinatory imagery congruent with the effects of ergot alkaloids, but also contains in the opening passage of the novel a clear symbol of a known cause of ergot poisoning: a description of a loaf of black bread inside the hermit saint’s cabin.
So why is St. Anthony associated with ergot? The devout will often look towards the legend of Anthony’s temptations when faced with mental or emotional anguish. This is because the devil is said to have tempted Anthony with mirages of jewels, and dressed up as seductive women to deter the hermit from his asceticism. As the devil was tormenting Anthony, the saint was said to be wandering through the Egyptian wilderness. The events of Anthony’s story as recounted by his original hagiographer, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also read as hallucinatory, with a blend of imagery, ecstasy and madness. From Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius:
For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand.
The notion that the harmful hallucinations will cease if the subject is fortified beforehand, is a reoccurring theme not only in Life of Saint Anthony, but also in the instructions for tripping on LSD given in The Psychedelic Experience:
At this time you may see visions of mating couples. You are convinced that an orgy is about to take place. Desire and anticipation seize you, You wonder what sexual performance is expected of you. When these visions occur, Remember to withhold yourself from action or attachment. Humbly exercise your faith. Float with the stream. Trust the process with great fervency. Meditation and trust in the unity of life are the keys.
This simple comparison between the texts of a third-century hermit and the megalomaniacal ‘60s drop-out prototype, Timothy Leary, is not enough to clearly demonstrate a correlation between Anthony and psychedelia. What this investigation does make clear is why the hagiography became important to those in the 17th century suffering from symptoms similar to LSD effects in the time before modern medicine first discovered the cause of ergotism.
Aside from the instructions for how to cope with hallucinations, Athanasius’s text also uses imagery that appeared in Renaissance painting, and finds a kinship with symptoms of ergot as described in the British Medical Journal and The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire. According to John G. Fuller, Zoopsie — from the French word meaning hallucinatory visions of animals — was rampant among the afflicted in Pont-Saint-Espirit, who experienced tormenting visions of serpents, tigers, giant spiders, etc. Anthony was tormented by similar visions over and over again, according to St. Athanasius:
the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves…”
Bosch provides the most fertile ground for art lovers wanting to believe that hallucinogenic fungi may have a significant place in art history. This is partially because the painter has a special connection to Anthony, depicting the saint over twenty times throughout his life — one of his most famous paintings being the Anthony triptych. In the town where Bosch grew up, there was a church dedicated to the saint, which the artist almost certainly attended with his family when he was young. The painter lived at a time when knowledge of ergotism would have been near its peak before the cause of the disease was discovered. By the early 16th century (he died in 1516), there would have been at least forty major outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire across Northern Europe since the 9th century, with one 1418 outbreak in Paris killing as many as 50,000 by some estimates.
Laurinda S. Dixon presents some of the most convincing evidence to date that Bosch’s imagery was directly influenced by Saint Anthony’s Fire. In a (1984) essay titled “Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych — An Apothecary’s Apotheosis,” the author finds a common ingredient in medieval medicine used to treat ergot — mandrake root — and the distillation furnaces used to make that medicine. Examining the Bosch painting with the use of high resolution photos available on boschproject.org, Dixon argues that the bulbous buildings, often depicted with a stream of smoke coming out of the top, are nearly identical to the shapes found in contemporaneous schematics of apothecary furnaces.
Other notable imagery in the Anthony Triptych includes the fire raging in the background — fire is found in many Bosch paintings, and is common in other painters’ depictions of Saint Anthony as well. A pair of magi in the center panel are serving musicians a concoction made from berries and herbs — one of the magi with wide-eyes and perhaps intentionally dilated pupils. Anthony is depicted in all three panels, recognized in Bosch paintings by his blue robe and a tau cross either painted on the robe or dangling as jewelry. It’s amusing that in the center panel, Anthony has the look of a strung-out Dead Head at the end of two-day acid trip, with his raised index and middle finger looking simultaneously like a Christian hand gesture and a hippie peace sign. Just below the Grateful Dead Anthony in the center panel, there is another symbol of ergotism — an amputated foot clearly laid on a rag.
Moving on from Bosch, there are scores of paintings that contain depictions of Anthony with many of the same symbols that imply ergotism. A painting attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows Anthony in his hermit cabin, as well as flying through the sky on winged beasts. There is a common rumor that ergot alkaloids cause those under their influence to believe they can fly, both in accounts of the disease and in anti-drug propaganda. Again, as in Bosch’s triptych, we see the apothecary furnace on the left side of the painting, this time with a scared looking face peaking out the top — and of course the two fires raging in the distance.
Flemish Painter Jan Mandijn’s vision of Anthony contains a similar set of ergot indicia: apothecary tools, fire, the saint flying through the air, gangrene. Add to this an odd grass bursting through the roof of the hermit’s cabin, with dark tips that look similar to images of the fungus growing on rye.
Moving from the Flemish region to what was then Western Germany, sculpture and woodworker Nikolaus Hagenauer (aka Nikolaus von Hagenau) is surrounded by perhaps the most solid historical evidence that Anthony was a symbol of ergot poisoning for Northern Renaissance artists. Hagenauer’s sculpture of Anthony, carved with virtuosic dexterity in the round from a walnut log, displays subject matter that is congruent with the earliest legends of Anthony — the saint struggling with a single demon underfoot. However, when the artist’s masterwork is taken into consideration — the Isenheim altarpiece which Hagenauer was commissioned to create with painter Mathias Grünewald — the ergot narrative takes flight.
Around the year 1070 C.E., Saint Anthony’s purported remains were moved to La-Motte-Saint-Didier, a commune in southeastern France. The relics of the saint were said to have healing properties that could cure Saint Anthony’s Fire, and in 1095 the Hospital of the Brothers of Anthony was founded with the primary objective of treating those afflicted with ergot poisoning. Four centuries later, Grünewald and Hagenauer were commissioned to paint an altarpiece in nearby Isenheim for a monastery run by the Brothers of Anthony.
The Isenheim altarpiece is in an unusual position for a work of art, in that it was made with the direct intention of soothing physical ailments, as well as symptoms of psychosis. Each of the altarpiece’s nine paintings and its woodcarvings relate to an element of recovery from the symptoms of ergotism. Art historian Horst Ziermann wrote that “it is conceivable that miraculous cures or the relief of symptoms did, in fact, occur at the alter.” Critic David Levi Strauss labeled the work “therapeutic realism.” According to Ziermann, the afflicted would recite prayers in front of the altarpiece that would have been similar to the following: “Anthony, venerable Shepherd, who renders holy those who undergo horrible torments, who suffer the greatest maladies, who burn with hellfire: oh merciful Father, pray to God for us.”
In its original setting the altarpiece would have been illuminated by candles or sunlight through stained glass windows. Unfolding theatrically in three distinct sets of paintings, the wooden frame connected with hinges, each of the three views like an act in a play — or like the three bardos of Timothy Leary’s manual. The monastery where the altarpiece was kept was a place of concentrated prayer for the suffering. The monks would have had little means to treat patients, aside maybe from offering a place to lie that was more comfortable than the street, some warm food, and ointments to sooth the burning of open wounds. The primary tool for healing from ergot related ailments would have been prayer, and relief from the worries of facing hell in the afterlife was redemption through Christ — all which are reflected in the altarpiece.
The alternating horror and mystical ecstasy found between the second and third views of the altarpiece align with accounts of ergot-related mania and psychic anguish, as they do with descriptions found in The Psychedelic
Experience. The vivacious colors in the second panel recall descriptions of the most ecstatic of those poisoned in Pont-Saint-Espirit, while also sharing elements of the brighter elements of Bosch. The third view returns to Anthony, who is as tormented as ever in the right wing. Most telling is the gangrenous person looking up at the besieged saint from below — his green skin covered in boils that ooze puss and blood, and his belly bloated due to starvation.
The counterculture use of ergot alkaloids proved to be a threat to the dominant mainstream US culture of the 1950s, causing their prohibition. Could the same have happened during the first half of the second millennium, in respect to Christian culture and ergot? Albert Hofmann contributed to an essay titled “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” which proposes that ergot alkaloids may have been present during the ancient Greek religious festival known as the Eleusinian mysteries.
Whether appearing as a drug or disease, the visual language of the Northern Renaissance was clearly influenced by the ergot fungus. Further research into this historical intersection will offer a better understanding of the way artists have responded to forces of temptation and torment with visual representation and might do so in the present day.