How Renaissance Painting Smoldered With a Little Known Hallucinogen
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.