Exploring the role of the apothecary within paintings

You had your Greeks and Romans writing about health and concocting new medicines, but I confess until Krakow’s Museum of Pharmacy I had not heard of Christ, the Heavenly Apothecary.  It was quite a thing:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Yet also a rather rare and not-much-discussed thing, as I discovered to my cost trying to puzzle out the not-very-crisp photographs of these paintings which I blithely assumed I could easily find on the internet. Here it states this idea of Christ as Apothecary was first introduced into Western Art in 1610 by, I believe, Michael Herr of Wurttemberg, and 140(ish) examples are known to exist in the form of stained glass, frescoes, paintings in shrines and monasteries and more. I also found a rather lovely early article on the subject by E. Kremers from 1910, called appropriately ‘Christ the Apothecary’, at that time there were only about ten known about.

Not until reviewing my pictures did I realise quite how awesome the paintings were in the museum, and how rich in meaning and how hard it would be to find more information on the web. I was a bit overwhelmed, I think, by stoppered bottles and beautiful wood and stuffed bats and dried mummies. So I have a few shots, too few, and the descriptions are sadly hit and miss. What I wouldn’t have given for a book in English! These were two of my favourites:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

These are Saints Cosmas and Damian, twin brothers who trained as physicians in Arabia, worked in Turkey and were martyred in Syria. Here (unlike elsewhere) they are portrayed as Black.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

I failed signally to document the artist or title of the picture above. Below, however, are two graphite retorts for dry distillation (high temperature, no air). This were contemporary with Michał Sędziwój (Michael Sendivogius), famed Polish alchemist who published treatises on alchemy distributed across Europe. Such experiments provided the basis for many new medicines. This is a painting by Jan Matejko showing Sędziwój  carrying out experiments for King Segismund III — pulling out a nugget of gold from the fire no less — he had his own room in Wawel Castle, which momentarily made me more inclined to go see it (later, the line for tickets disinclined me).

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Below is a picture from a memoir (Memoir! Amazing! but I can find nothing about this) of apothecary Eglinger (1608-1675) of Basel, using a heavy mortar and pestle, it’s use made easier through the rigging up of a bow string. That woman is possibly the goddess of fortune pouring things through the horn of plenty into his concoctions. It could maybe also be his wife I’m thinking, but I’ve no basis for that.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

This next one is awesome, from a series of illustrations by Jan Van der Straet called Nova Reperta, or New Inventions, which I believe I will come back to one day because it is quite extraordinary. He published this in about 1580, and it shows in action many of the things visible throughout the museum — alembics, the pestle and mortar, presses and forges and all sorts.

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

This is one of my other favourites as its title is ‘The Death of Credit’. The character on the far right is an apothecary, sadly I would only be inventing things if I told you quite what this picture meant or who painted it or when.

Museum of Pharmacy

Again, for the picture below I have neither title nor artist, but this is a good painting of the days when apothecaries pulled out teeth. I would not wish those days back again.

Museum of Pharmacy

Yet another picture in which I have failed to capture the title or artist, but look, it is a very old apothecary with people in hats I associate with the Renaissance behind the counter and shelves full of bottles…

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Apothecaries are also found sitting sedately on embossed metal:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

Their craft immortalised in stained glass:

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

And in statues

Museum of Pharmacy, Krakow

I have signally failed to educate myself or you about the precise nature of these paintings or what precisely can be learned from them, however.

For more on apothecaries:

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