Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Dr. Browne's 'readie way to read the characters of Morpheus'.

Thomas Browne's On Dreams is exemplary of the seventeenth century physician-philosopher's deep learning and dedication to his medical profession. Furthermore, Browne's short tract reveals him to be a pioneering psychologist, not least for anticipating concepts associated with the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung.

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of the nature of dreams and the historical antecedents of their interpretation. Dreams can have a wide variety of moods and feelings, frightening or anxious, exciting and adventurous, sometimes with a magical content or empowering, sometimes with a sexual element and most often simply puzzling. Dreams can give a creative or inspiring thought, and in the past they've been viewed  as a conduit of God-given prophecy and revelation. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia left evidence of dream interpretation dating back to at least 2100 BCE. In one of the world's oldest literary works The Epic of Gilgamesh the hero Gilgamesh escapes the vengeance of the gods by paying attention to dreams which warn and show him how to overcome his enemy.  The Greek physician Hippocrates (469–399 BCE) had a simple dream theory: during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images, similarly, the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories, wrote, "The visions that occur to us in dreams are, more often than not, the things we have been concerned about during the day".

Thomas Browne (1605-82) demonstrates his familiarity with Hippocrates' theory to the causes of dreams stating in accordance to the ancient Greek physician, 'the thoughts or actions or the day are acted over and echoed in the night'. Browne himself had an intimate relationship to the world of dreams. Living in an age of grim living conditions and little entertainment, dreaming was a welcome diversion in seventeenth century England.  Browne confesses of his enjoyment of dreaming in  Religio Medici (1643) thus-

'There is surely a nearer apprehension of any thing that delights us in our dreams, than in our waked senses........I thank God for my happy dreams, as I do for my good rest, for there is a satisfaction in them unto reasonable desires, and such as can be content with a fit of happiness; and surely it is not a melancholy conceit to think we are all asleep in this world, and that the conceits of this life are as mere dreams to those of the next, as the Phantasms of the night, to the conceit of the day'. [1]

Dreams were rich nourishment for Browne's imagination, not least because he was able to lucid dream, that is, to be conscious of oneself actually dreaming, and thus able to take an active instead of a passive role in the events occurring in a dream, effectively controlling the action of a dream. Browne  elucidates on  his rare gift in Religio Medici thus -

'yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests, and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof; were my memory as faithful as my reason is then fruitful, I would never study but in my dreams, and this time also would I choose for my devotions, but our grosser memories have then so little hold of our abstracted understandings, that they forget the story, and can only relate to our awaked souls, a confused and broken tale of that that hath passed'. [2]

On Dreams opens with fleeting allusion to night and sleep, themes which, together with dreams inspired some of the greatest passages of Browne's literary art. Citing the Old Testament book of Genesis and its story of Jacob's dream, Joseph's interpretation of the Egyptian pharaoh's dreams and Nebuchadnezzar's demand not only for the interpretation of his dream but of his dream itself, Browne in common with other Renaissance thinkers viewed dreams as God-given communications and their interpretation sanctioned in the Bible. 

Even as late as the seventeenth century the little-understood psychic phenomena of the dream was believed to be of either divine or diabolical origin. Browne's remark that, 'We have little doubt there be demoniacal dreams' seems  to be an observation based upon personal, first-hand experience. If there are demonic dreams Browne argues -

'Why may there not be Angelical ? If there be Guardian spirits, they may not be unactively about us in sleep, but may sometimes order our dreams, and many strange hints, instigations, or discoveries which are so amazing unto us, may arise from such foundations'.

And in fact a belief in Guardian angels as well as witches was integral to Thomas Browne's spiritual hierarchy. Its unsurprising therefore that the Christian in Browne is concerned  in On Dreams about the possibility of sinning in one's dreams. In his short tract he also condemns those who have paid too close attention to their dreams at the expense of common sense, stating, 'Yet he that should order his affairs by dreams, or make the night a rule unto the day, might be ridiculously deluded'.

On Dreams includes examples of Browne's 'dimensional imagery' in which the very large and very small are juxtaposed, noting that in dreams -

'the phantastical objects seem greater than they are, and being beheld in the vaporous state of sleep, enlarge their dimensions unto us; whereby it may prove easier to dream of Giants than pygmies'.

The very same juxtaposition of giant and pygmies, Browne's 'dimensional imagery' is featured in his late work Christian morals, in moralizing highly relevant to our own day.

'without which, though Giants in Wealth and Dignity, we are but Dwarfs and Pygmies in Humanity, and may hold a pitiful rank in that triple division of mankind into Heroes, Men and Beasts'.  (C.M. 3:14)

In the painting The Gentleman's Dream or Disillusion with the World (1655) by the Spanish Baroque-era artist Antonio de Peruda (c.1611-1678) a courtier sleeps and dreams beside a table displaying various vanitas objects. A guardian angel unfurls a scroll with the words, "Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and it kills", inscribed upon it, a waspish allusion to the sting of Time.

Browne references both ancient and modern philosophers in On Dreams including the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who was a big influence upon his philosophy, as declared in Religio Medici - 'I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras' and a creative influence of the discourse The Garden of Cyrus. [3]

In addition to Pythagoras, the Italian physician, mathematician and general polymath Jerome Cardan  is also mentioned twice in the tract. Jerome Cardan (1501-76) was highly influential in various disciplines, writing over 200 works on science. His interests included medicine, biology, engineering, chemistry, astrology and astronomy and he's credited with inventing several mechanical devices including the combination lock and the Cardan shaft with its universal joints which allow for the transmission of rotary motion at various angles and used in car-motors to the present day.  He was often short of money and kept himself solvent by being an accomplished gambler and chess player. Cardan had a reoccurring dream which ordered him to write De subtilitate rerum (1550) a book which Thomas Browne was critical of when assessing Cardan in his encyclopedic endeavour  Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) -

'We had almost forgot Jeronymus Cardanus that famous Physician of Milan, a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it. He hath left many excellent Discourses, Medical, Natural, and Astrological; the most suspicious are those two he wrote by admonition in a dream, that is De Subtilitate & Varietate Rerum. Assuredly this learned man hath taken many things on trust, and although examined some, hath let slip many others. He is of singular use unto a prudent reader but to him that desireth hoties, or to replenish his head with varieties, like many others before related, either in the original or confirmation, he may become no small occasion of error'. [4]

Browne's judgement of Jerome Cardan didn't prevent him from acquiring sometime in 1663 or shortly after (he often purchased book upon notification of their publication by book-dealers) an edition of Jerome Cardan's complete works which included Somniorum Synesiorum, omnis generis insomnia explicantes, libri IIII (Synesian dreams, dreams of all kinds set forth, in four books). [5]

Jerome Cardan's work on the interpretation of dreams is partly inspired by Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413 CE) a Greek bishop of ancient Libya and author of  De insomniis (On dreams). Cardan divided dreams into four categories based on their causes: digestive dreams caused by food and drink; humoural caused by imbalances in the four humours; anamnestic caused by passions or changes in emotion; and finally prophetic dreams of a supernatural or divine origin. Jerome Cardan viewed the first three categories as natural and ordinary bodily processes. Most of this work however, is devoted to a discussion of prophetic dreams which he views from a philosophical perspective.

Jerome Cardan is one of several radical, independent-minded figures from Renaissance intellectual history whom Browne was highly critical of yet read closely. Other notable candidates of similar critical influence upon Browne include Cardan's countryman, the polymath Giambattista della Porta (1538-1615) the Belgian scientist Van Helmont (1577-1644) the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1494-1541) and the German scholar of comparative religion Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). 

Browne sometimes wrote with his most recent reading in mind. From his mention of the Italian polymath and physician Jerome Cardan twice in On Dreams its possible for his short tract to be tentatively dated as written circa 1663, a date deduced from two facts. According to the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue an edition of Jerome Cardan's Opera (Complete works) is listed as once in Browne's library, dated 1663 [5]. Coincidentally, almost half of Thomas Browne's eldest son Edward Browne's dissertation for his bachelor of medicine degree, on the use of dreams to the physician, was written in 1663.[6] Its therefore possible to speculate that Browne may have composed On Dreams for the assistance of his son. In any event the short tract On Dreams isn't dissimilar in either its literary style or subject-matter to Browne's  A Letter to a Friend  (circa 1656) in which dreams as experienced by the dying are commented upon. As such On Dreams may be read as an appendage to A Letter to a Friend, Browne's major medical writing.

There's a fascinating relationship between Thomas Browne to the Swiss psychologist  Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). For example, both men were physicians who took their psychiatric responsibilities seriously, both studied comparative religion and alchemical literature in depth and both had a big  interest in their own and others' dreams. I've written at length about this fascinating relationship  elsewhere on this blog. [7] 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) like Browne's Religio Medici (1643) is an autobiographical account and spiritual testament which includes many philosophical digressions. The biggest difference between the two autobiographies being whilst Religio Medici was penned before its author embarked upon a medical career, C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections was written after a long medical career, shortly before the author's death. It includes recollections of some of the many dreams Jung had, of digging up the bones of prehistoric animals, of kneeling to hand a girl an umbrella, of a tree transformed by frost, of his father reading a fish-skin bound Bible and many equally bizarre others. According to Jung-

'The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness....All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of the more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. [8]

In On Dreams Browne declares- 'We owe unto dreams that Galen was a physician, Dion an historian, and that the world hath seen some notable pieces of Cardan' to which one might add we owe unto dreams that the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung embarked upon a long study of alchemy.

Jung's dream which heralded his encounter with alchemy occurred in 1926 when he dreamt he was travelling through the Lombardy plain in Northern Italy. Upon viewing a large manor house located near Verona he entered its courtyard. Suddenly its gates slammed shut and he thought to himself, 'Now, we are caught in the seventeenth century'. Only much later did Jung come to realize that his dream alluded to his many years of studying alchemy, the golden age of alchemy being the seventeenth century.

Amazingly, Memories, Dreams, Reflections includes an enthusiastic endorsement of Browne as a psychologist. Jung's autobiography is prefaced by a verse chosen by his secretary Anelia Jaffe to describe the psychologist, but the author of the verse, the English romantic poet Samuel Coleridge is eulogizing upon Thomas Browne, not C.G. Jung. This verse is notable for its early usage of the word 'consciousness' which the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to the poet William Wordsworth, Coleridge's sometime mentor as the first to use and in all probability was 'borrowed' from him. Coleridge's enthusiastic response to Browne focuses upon the self-analytical and mind-expanding qualities of the physician-philosopher.

He looked at his own Soul
With a Telescope. What seemed
all irregular he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.

Thomas Browne's anticipation of a Jungian interpretation of dreams is boldly declared in On Dreams -

Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense & mysterie of similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional depends, may by symbolical adaptation hold a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus.

Browne's proposal of 'symbolical adaptation' as 'a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus' (the god of sleep is known as 'Fashioner' in Ancient Greek: μορφή meaning 'form, shape') requires elaboration.

Its worth remembering first that the word 'symbol'  derives from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, meaning "token, watchword" from σύν syn "together" and βάλλω bállō " "I throw, put". The meaning of symbol as "something which stands for something else" was first recorded  in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1596)

According to C.G Jung - 'Symbols are never simple - only signs and allegories are simple. The symbol always covers a complicated situation which is so far beyond the grasp of language that it cannot be expressed at all in any unambiguous manner. [ 9]

'If symbols mean anything at all, they are tendencies which pursue a definite but not yet recognisable goal and consequently can express themselves only in analogies.' [10]

The Renaissance study of nature included the study of human nature. It was the radical 'Luther of Medicine' the Swiss physician-alchemist Paracelsus who first encouraged and urged the physician to take dreams and seriously, declaring-

"The interpretation of dreams is a great art. Dreams are not without meaning wherever they may come from - from fantasy, from the elements, or from another inspiration". [11]

Orthodox Christian theology did not however always possess a clear-cut view or answer to the new spiritual and psychological concerns experienced by many during the Renaissance, an age of great change. The effects of urbanization for example increased interaction between widely differing social, cultural, moral and religious perspectives and increased awareness of sexuality. From their close understanding of the human condition and dissatisfied with Christian dogma alchemist-physicians  as diverse as Paracelsus, John Dee, Van Helmont, Jerome Cardan and Thomas Browne augmented concepts originating from the western esoteric traditions or coined home-grown neologisms and their own symbols in order to describe their understanding of the psyche.  Each of these aforenamed alchemist-physicians took their own dreams far more seriously than any in contemporary society today, recognizing their dream-lives to be of great importance to their self-development or the individuation process in Jungian terms. From alchemist-physicians immersion and analysis of their dreams there emerged the beginnings of the modern science of psychology. These rudimentary and tentative understanding of the self and the unconscious psyche by alchemist-physicians, several of whom C.G. Jung  studied and closely based his psychology upon, were, as the Swiss psychologist recognized, the fruits of the Renaissance spirit of enquiry into nature, which includes human nature. As C.G.Jung explains-

'the language of the alchemists is at first sight very different from our psychological terminology and way of thinking. But if we treat their symbols in the same way as we treat modern fantasies, they yield a meaning - even in the Middle Ages confessed alchemists interpreted their symbols in a moral and philosophical sense, their "philosophy" was, indeed, nothing but projected psychology'. [12]

Thomas Browne's fascination with symbols is writ large throughout his oeuvre. Allusion to symbolism involving the alphabets of various languages, numbers, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mercurial characters, kabbalistic signs and geometric symbols as well as metaphors, allegories, anagrams and  riddles can be found in his writings, not least in his highly hermetic discourse  The Garden of  Cyrus (1658) a literary work densely packed with symbolism. Not only is the ubiquity of the number five in art and nature prominent in The Garden of Cyrus but also its many closely-associated extensions including the V shape and the Latin numeral for 5, which by mirror doubling becomes the figure X, significant  to Christians as the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek, the ten commandments as well as the Pythagorean tetraktys, which by multiplication (X) becomes the reticulated network, as seen illustrated on the discourse's frontispiece. (Below)

The literary critic Peter Green recognized- 'there is nothing vague or woolly about Browne's mysticism...Every symbol is interrelated with the over-all pattern'. [13]

Crucially, in relation to Jungian psychology, Browne not only employs one of the earliest usages of the very word 'archetype' in The Garden of Cyrus  but even attempts to delineate the archetype of the 'wise ruler' through utilizing highly-original proper name symbolism, alluding to Solomon, Moses, Alexander the Great, Augustus and of course the titular hero of the discourse, Cyrus. Browne's proper-name symbolism also alludes to the archetypal figure of the ‘Great Mother' as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness with mention of Sarah, Isis, Juno, Cleopatra and Venus. But if ever there were a sly, Royalist supporter's opposition to Cromwell's rule of England (1650-1658), its surely in Browne's repeated citing of examples of the 'Wise ruler' from history in  The Garden of Cyrus.

The religious mystic and symbol go together hand in glove. For most Christian mystics the inexhaustible symbolism of the Cross was sufficient for expression of their spiritual thought. The Elizabethan mathematician and hermetic philosopher John Dee (1527-1608) however devised his very own mystical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica a complex, metaphysical 'explanation' of the cosmos. Dee's Monas symbol became a printer's colophon which was avidly reproduced by various alchemystical philosophers in their publications. John Dee's eldest son Arthur Dee became a friend of Browne's upon his return from Russia and retirement to what was at the time, England's second city in terms of prosperity and population, Norwich.

Peter French  speculates- 'Little is known of this son of Dee's; one cannot help but wonder however, how much he may have influenced Browne, who was one of the seventeenth century's greatest literary exponents of the type of occult philosophy in which both the Dee's were immersed'.[14]

On Dreams is not Browne's only literary work in which the psychological is prominent. His two closely-related discourses of 1658 Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are a portrait of the human condition and psyche, depicting humanity as simultaneously irrational and rational, fearful of death, yet forever with the future in mind, serious and merry, enduring pain and illness as well as enjoying health and pleasure. Imagery involving Light and Darkness permeates the diptych discourses, as does the dominant themes of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) the basic framework of  the Mandala. Most often a circular visual image, but conceivable as a literary structure, in Jungian psychology the meditative image of the mandala symbolically represents the dreamer's search for completeness and self-unity; its function is to assist with healing and to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. Plexiformed in their polarity, themes and imagery, Browne's diptych discourses are capable of achieving such a transformation to the receptive mind.  By focusing his reader's attention to the discourses primary symbols of Urn and Quincunx, Thomas  Browne  -

'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, paradoxically releases the reader's mind into an infinite number of associative levels of awareness, without preconception to give shape and substance to quite literally cosmic generalizations...............Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact. [15]

C.G.Jung, recognizing the enduring continuity of symbolism in the collective unconscious psyche throughout long stretches of time perceptively observes-

'The symbolic statements of the old alchemists issue from the same unconscious as modern dreams and are just as much the voice of nature'. [16] 

Browne concludes his short tract On Dreams refuting that children don't dream under six months old, that men don't dream in some countries by supplying a footnote upon the difference between false and true dreams in the form of the Ivory gate and the polished horn gate as mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, in which Penelope the hero's wife says of dreams-

"Ah my friend," seasoned Penelope dissented
"dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
not all we glimpse in them will come to pass...
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
one is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
are will-o'-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them. [17]


In addition to being a superb introduction to his literary style, Browne's  proposal for 'symbolical adaptation' when interpreting dreams easily identifies the Norwich doctor as an early, pioneering psychologist.  Like a large percentage of Browne's writings, On Dreams includes spiritual-psychological observations which assist the perennial task of the human condition, namely, self-understanding in the individuation process, 'the Theatre of Ourselves', as the physician-philosopher defines the psyche.

Link to full text of  On Dreams

Books consulted

* Patrides C. A. ed. and with an introduction The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne pub. Penguin  1977 includes On Dreams
* Finch J. S - A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction, Notes and Index.  E. J .Brill    1986
* Jung C. G.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections trans. R & C Winston London 1979
* Jung C.G. Psychology and Religion Vol. 11 Collected works pub. RKP 1958
* Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108).
* The Odyssey Homer translated by Robert Fagles 1996 Viking Penguin


[1] Religio Medici Part 2  Section 11
[2] Ibid.
[3] R.M. Part 1:12
[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Bk 1:18 no.13
[5] Sales Catalogue p.19 no 96  Opera Omnia 10 vol. Lyon 1663
[6] I am indebted to Ms. A. Wyatt for information about Edward Browne's bachelor of medicine dissertation and indeed on all matters relating to Thomas Browne's eldest son, Edward Browne (1644-1708).
[7]  Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne
[8]  Glossary  of  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
[9] Carl Jung Complete Works  Vol:11 paragraph 385
[10] CW 14: paragraph 667
[11] Paracelsus: Selected Writings edited by Jolande Jacobi pub. Princeton University Press 1951
[12] CW 14: paragraph 737
[13] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[14] John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, by Peter J. French Pub. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1972
[15] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[16] Collected Works vol. 11: paragraph 105
[17] Book 19 lines 560-565 The Odyssey Homer by Robert Fagles pub. 1996 Viking Penguin


'Before Waking'  40 x 50 cm. (2015) by Peter Rodulfo.

The Knight's Dream by Antonio de Peruda. (1655)

Henri Rousseau Le Rêve (The Dream) 1909. Rousseau's last painting.

'Dreaming Fisherman' by Peter Rodulfo

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Helmont might dream himself a bubble extending unto the eighth sphere.

Its only in recent times that a clearer assessment of the Belgian chemist and scientist, physician and alchemystical philosopher Jan Baptist van Helmont (1579-1644) in science and medicine has been made. Likewise, its only recently that the influence of J.B.van Helmont on the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) has been recognised. 

Just as historians only slowly acknowledged the seminal influence which the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) exerted upon the development of medicine during the Renaissance, so too, J. B. van Helmont has long occupied an ambiguous place in intellectual history.

J.B. van Helmont's writings are couched in the language of Renaissance mysticism and his belief in alchemy and magic is in tandem to his rational, scientific enquiries. This has resulted in an unsympathetic attitude towards him by historians of science and his writings labelled as an 'un-scientific' miscellany of medicine, philosophy and alchemy. One leading historian of medicine somewhat resignedly calling him an enigmatic figure.[1]

Quite simply the enigma of J.B. van Helmont rests in the paradox to modern sensibilities of his being defined in near equal measure as much a scientist and physician as a religious mystic and 'alchemystical' philosopher. All these compartmentalized definitions did not of course exist in J.B.Helmont's time; himself possessing an entirely holistic and unified view of science, religion, medicine and philosophy.

Throughout his life J.B. van Helmont endured much misfortune. In his youth he courteously picked up a glove a lady had dropped only to be infected by scabies from it. He consulted the writings of the famous physician Galen for a remedy but found it ineffective and a sulphur ointment prescription by Paracelsus  successful. He subsequently vowed to reject Galenic medicine and follow Paracelsus instead. J.B.van Helmont toured Europe, including London and worked in Antwerp during a plague epidemic in 1605. He graduated as Doctor of Medicine of the University of Louvain in 1599 but he was later denounced by his Alma Mater in 1623 as a heretic through the Spanish authorities occupying Flanders. His unorthodox views resulted in his arrest, trial and imprisonment in 1634 followed by house-arrest for the rest of his life. He almost died from Carbon monoxide poisoning in 1643 and contracted pleurisy in 1644. His good fortune however was to marry an heiress whose wealth enabled him to abandon his onerous medical duties and engage in scientific research for several years.

In essence, J.B. van Helmont is a transitional figure in the history of science. Like many other early scientists he regarded all science and wisdom to be a gift from God.  J.B. Helmont was also highly influenced by the so-called 'Luther of Medicine' in his scientific thought and experiments. It was the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus who proposed that the true purpose of alchemy was to investigate the properties of nature, advocating the 'art of fire' to distil 'quintessences' of mineral and vegetable-life in order to discover new medicines. J.B. Helmont has been defined as the foremost follower of Paracelsus, who, whilst highly critical of Paracelsian mysticism nevertheless subscribed to what the Swiss physician termed his 'Spagyric' medicine, the rudimentary beginnings of  iatrochemistry or medical chemistry no less, and as such J.B. van Helmont is credited, alongside the English scientist Robert Boyle (1627-91) as a 'Father of modern chemistry'.

Upon J.B. van Helmont's death in 1644 his son Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-98/99) randomly collated and edited his father's writings for the publication of Ortus Medicinae, or the 'Dawn of Medicine' in Amsterdam in 1648. An English translation by John Chandler entitled Oriatrike was published in London in 1662. 

In his brilliant and scholarly biographical study of Thomas Browne, the American academic Reid Barbour notes Browne is especially keen to include J.B.van Helmont's research on magnetism in the forthcoming second edition of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica in 1650. [2]  Other recent publications on Browne singularly fail to even mention J.B. van Helmont yet alone elaborate on his influence on Browne. However, scattered throughout his writings are several references to J.B. van Helmont which strongly suggest that the Norwich-based scientist and physician Thomas Browne held the Belgian scientist and physician  in high regard. It shouldn't be too surprising to discover that Browne took the medical ideas of J.B. van Helmont seriously. Circa 1629 he had completed his continental studies at Leiden University in Holland, an educational institute whose reputation for chemical medicine was centred upon J.B. van Helmont's Paracelsian science.

Although none of J.B. van Helmont's writings are listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne's library (there's a lapse of almost 30 years from Browne's death until his library contents are auctioned. Not a single one of the books advertised on the Auction Catalogue title-page as 'Books of Sculpture and Painting' ever arrived at the auction-house) Thomas Browne surely had access to Van Helmont's writings. For example, when speculating on the formation of kidney-stones, a disease long prevalent in East Anglia due to its many chalky water-courses, Browne  praises Van Helmont, albeit in parenthesis - '(as Helmont excellently declareth)'.[3] However, like J.B. van Helmont, Browne was also prone to read the 'Book of Nature' through the prism of esoteric schemata, the most elaborate being the microcosm-macrocosm correspondence, or from long-held folk-lore, as here-

'and Helmont affirmeth he could never find the spider and the fly upon the same trees, that is the signs of war and pestilence which often go together' [4]

Because early scientists such as Paracelsus, J.B. van Helmont and Thomas Browne encountered undefinable properties and phenomena in their scientific investigations they each had a propensity for coining and introducing new words, some of which remain in modern language. The word 'alcohol' is credited as originating from Paracelsus and that of 'electricity', amongst hundreds of others, to Browne. J.B.van Helmont's most famous neologism is undoubtedly the word 'gas' derived from the ancient Greek word for chaos. In fact, Van Helmont investigated and categorized a number of gases, including gas from belching, poisonous red gas (NO2) which is formed when aqua fortis (HNO3) acts on silver and sulfurous gas that “flies off” burning sulfur, amongst others. J.B. van Helmont proposed that gas is composed of invisible atoms which can come together by intense cold and condense to minute liquid drops; and that gases can be contained in bodies in fixed form, and set free again by heat, fermentation, or chemical reaction. In relation to combustion, he concluded there were two classes of gas which he named as Gas sylvestre – one that would not burn or support combustion (Carbon Monoxide) and Gas pingue – one that would burn (a combustible gas).

The most well-known of J.B. van Helmont's experiments involved his demonstration that water is the foremost element sustaining life.  He wrote of his famous experiment with a willow tree circa 1620, thus-

"That all plants immediately and substantially stem from the element water alone I have learned from the following experiment. I took an earthen vessel in which I placed two hundred pounds of earth dried in an oven, and watered with rain water. I planted in it a willow tree weighing five pounds. Five years later it had developed a tree weighing one hundred and sixty-nine pounds and about three ounces. Nothing but rain (or distilled water) had been added. The large vessel was placed in earth and covered by an iron lid with a tin-surface that was pierced with many holes. I have not weighed the leaves that came off in the four autumn seasons. Finally I dried the earth in the vessel again and found the same two hundred pounds of it diminished by about two ounces. Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark and roots had come up from water alone".

Helmont's famous experiment was known to Thomas Browne. He alludes to it when speculating on water's ability to generate growth in The Garden of Cyrus-

'How water it self is able to maintain the growth of Vegetables, and without extinction of their generative or medical vertues; Beside the experiment of Helmont's tree, we have found in some which have lived six years in glasses'.

J.B van Helmont is only one of three 'moderns' who make the cut as worthy of mention in The Garden of Cyrus, the other two 'moderns' who held in equal measure a rational and mystical view of science named in the discourse are the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) and the Italian esoteric scholar and polymath Giambattista Della Porta (1535-1615).

It was from Paracelsus that J.B. van Helmont evolved his own idea of an 'Archeus' or 'Master Workman' responsible for giving life and form to the human body. In Ortus Medicinae he situated the “archeus” in the upper opening of the stomach. All diseases according to J.B. van Helmont have their seat in the Archeus and every disease, he believed, had a vital principle of it own (archeus) which could be treated by a specific medical-spiritual response. Disease, J.B. van Helmont believed, could be overcome by  pacifying the disturbed Archeus. Medicines, in particular, minerals, targeted the disease and helped the host overcome its archeus. According to J.B. van Helmont-

'A Disease therefore is a certain Being, bred, after that a certain hurtful strange power hath violated the vital Beginning...and by piercing hath stirred up the Archeus unto Indignation, Fury and Fear'.[5]

'Fever is the effort of the chief Archeus to get rid of some irritant, just as local inflammation is the reaction of the local Archeus to some injury'.[6]

J.B.Helmont's contemporary, the Paracelsian physician and alchemist Martin Ruland the Younger (1569-1611) attempts to define the nebulous  term 'Archeus' in his Lexicon alchemiae (1612) thus-

ARCHEUS - is a most high, exalted, and invisible spirit, which is separated from bodies, is exalted, and ascends; it is the occult virtue of Nature, universal in all things, the artificer, the healer. Also Archiatros - supreme physician of Nature, who to every substance and member dispenses in an occult manner, by means of the air, its own individual Archeus. Also the primal Archeus in Nature is a most secret virtue producing all things out of Master, doubtless certainly supported by divine virtue. Or, Archeos is an errant, invisible species, the power and virtue of Nature's healing, the artist and healer of Nature, separating itself from bodies, and ascending from them. Archeus signifies, in addition, the power which reduces the One Substance from Iliaster, and is the dispenser and composer of all things. It individualizes in all things, including human nature.[7]

The medical ideas of J.B.van Helmont are linked to those of Thomas Browne in an astounding observation by the psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961).  Writing on the Belgian alchemist Gerard Dorn, Jung unites the Paracelsian/ Helmontian concept of the Archeus with Thomas Browne's medical image of an 'invisible sun'  which blazes at the apotheosis of  Urn-Burial  ('Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible sun within us'.) C.G.Jung links Gerard Dorn, the foremost promoter of Paracelsian/Helmontian medicine to Thomas Browne's 'invisible sun' (an image Browne 'borrowed from his reading of Dorn) when stating-

In Dorn's view there is in man an 'invisible sun', which he identifies with the Archeus. This sun is identical with the 'sun in the earth'. The invisible sun enkindles an elemental fire which consumes man's substance and reduces his body to the prima materia.  [8]

As a child J.B. Helmont experienced apocalyptic visions in the cloisters of the Capuchins at Louvain. Devout and pious throughout his life, he was deeply  inspired by Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) and his Imitation of Christ which urges the penitent to self-knowledge and a denial of the self for Christ.

The psychological element is ever-present in spiritual affairs, and in conjunction with his physiological studies J.B. van Helmont took the workings of the human psyche seriously. Indeed, J.B. Helmont may be credited as an Ur-psychologist, that is, any one of a number of well-educated and isolated individuals, often from the professions of physician or priest, scattered throughout Europe circa 1500-1700 who recognised a correct understanding and interpretation of one's personal dreams to be no small contributing factor towards self-awareness and individuation. To the present-day this spiritual-psychological dimension  remains of paramount importance, in particular,  not only for individual understanding of the self but equally, for the very future of humanity's existence. 'Alchemystical' physician-philosophers such as Paracelsus, J.B. van Helmont and Thomas Browne each engaged in the arduous yet rewarding task of self-realization, J.B. van Helmont declaring-

'Our soul's understanding  of itself, does after a sort, understand all other things, because all other things are in an intellectual manner in the Soul, as in the image of God. Wherefore indeed, the understanding of ourselves, is most exceedingly difficult, ultimate or remote, excellent, profitable, beyond all other things'.[9]

J.B. Helmont was aware of the numinous nature of dreams. In the Judaic Pentateuch, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, dreams are sanctioned as conduits of revelation from God. The story in the book of Genesis of Joseph and his ability to interpret Pharaoh's dreams was seen as endorsement of divine dreams and the art of interpretation. Using theological symbolism J.B. van Helmont seems to anticipate, along with other Renaissance-era alchemystical philosophers and Ur-psychologists, the existence of the unconscious psyche and its relationship to God when stating-

'In sleep, the whole knowledge of the Apple (i.e. that which obscures the magical powers of pristine man ) doth sometimes sleep: Hence also it is, that our dreams are sometimes Prophetical, and God himself is therefore the nearer unto Man in Dreams, through that effect'. [10]

In his writings J.B.van Helmont recollects a dream which determined his choice to become a physician.  In this dream he saw himself as an empty bubble whose diameter reached from the earth to the heavens. Above the bubble hung a tomb, while below it was the dark abyss, a vision that horrified the young van Helmont. Upon waking he interpreted his dream and of being transformed into a giant bubble as representing his own boastful, vacuous self and a god-given sign that he must pursue the vocation of physician.

Thomas Browne was fascinated by the dreams and was able to lucid dream, that is, able to orchestrate the events and action of a dream whilst in a state of dreaming, as he confesses in Religio Medici-

Yet in one dream I can compose a whole comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof. Were my memory as faithful as my reason is fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams. [11]

Browne even wrote a short tract On Dreams in which he speculates upon 'symbolical adaptation' in dream interpretation thus-

'Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition and from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense and mystery of  similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional dependeth, may by symbolical adaption hold a ready way to read the characters of Morpheus'.

In his tract On Dreams Browne supplies his reader with examples of how dimensions can be greatly exaggerated in dreams,  humorously exclaiming-

'Helmont might dream himself a bubble extending unto the eighth sphere'.

A statement which indicates Browne was familiar with J.B. Helmont's accounts of his mystical experiences as well as his medical and scientific thoughts. Browne himself took an interest in bubbles as seen in his short writing On Bubbles  in which he proposes-

'Even man is a bubble if we take his consideration in his rudiments, and consider the vesicular or bulla pulsans wherein begins the rudiment of life.

Ever the subtle thinker, perhaps the strongest evidence of Thomas Browne's interest in J.B. Helmont's science occurs in correspondence to his travel-loving eldest son Edward Browne (1644-1708). Discreetly fishing for an answer Thomas Browne enquires-

'What esteem they have of Van Helmont, in Brabant, his home country ? [12]

In the same letter Thomas Browne also remarks-

'When you were at Amsterdam, I wished you had enquired after Dr.Helvetius who writ Vitulus aureus, and saw projection made, and had pieces of gold to show of it.' [13]

J.B. van Helmont himself believed in the existence of  Philosopher's Stone and  claimed he was once given it by a stranger writing- 'It was of a colour such as is saffron in it powder yet weighty and shining like unto powdered glass. ....He who first gave the the gold-making powder had likewise also at least as much of it as might be sufficient to change two hundred thousand pounds of gold. For he gave me perhaps half a grain of that powder, and nine ounces and three quarters of quicksilver were thereby transchanged. [14]

Late in his life Browne articulated his critical opinion and estimate of J.B. van Helmont and Paracelsus in his advisory and moralistic Christian Morals  -

'many would be content that some would write like Helmont or Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations'. [15]

In other words, in Thomas Browne's view, the many original ideas which authors such as Helmont and Paracelsus express excuse them from 'monstrous opinions'  which can be found elsewhere in their writings.

There remains one last remarkable connection between J.B. van Helmont and Thomas Browne, seldom, if ever noted before now. It exists in the form of the German translator, scholar of Hebrew and the kabbalah, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689). At the request of the kabbalist and wandering hermit Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-98/99) who had, together with Henry More of the Cambridge Platonists annotated Knorr von Rosenroth's translations of kabbalistic texts, Knorr von Rosenroth, in return for Franciscus van Helmont's favour, helped him translate, edit and publish into Latin his father J.B. van Helmont's writings.

Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-89)
In his relatively short life Christian Knorr von Rosenroth somehow found time to also translate Thomas Browne's vast-ranging work of scientific journalism, Pseudodoxia Epidemica  totalling over 200,000 words into German, completing this task in 1680 for publication in Frankfurt and Leipzig. Its therefore quite possible that discussion of Thomas Browne's scientific writings could have occurred between Knorr von Rosenroth and J.B. Helmont's eldest son, Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont. A large field is yet to be explored in this matter.

In any event Christian Knorr von Rosenroth surely recognised  J.B. van Helmont and Thomas Browne  as sharing values in Paracelsian medicine and scientific thought. Indeed, the Belgian scientist, physician and Christian mystic J.B. Helmont may even lay claim to being  one of the foremost scientific influences upon the physician-philosopher Thomas Browne. 


[1] Roy Porter 'The Greatest benefit to Mankind': A medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present. pub. Harper Collins 1999 describes Helmont as enigmatic.
[2] Reid Barbour - Sir Thomas Browne A Life
pub. Oxford University Press 2013
[3] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 2 chapter 4
[4] P.E. Bk. 2 chapter 7
[5] Johannes Baptista van Helmont- Alchemist, physician and philosopher by H. Stanley Redgrove  pub. William Rider and son London 1922
[6] Ibid.
[7] Martin Ruland's Dictionary of alchemy is listed in the 1711 sales auction catalogue as once in Browne's library page 22. no 119
[8] Collected Works of C.G.Jung Volume 14:49
[9] Redgrove 1922
[10] Ibid.
[11] Religio Medici Part 2 Section 11
[12] Correspondence dated September 22nd 1668 to Edward Browne
[13] Ibid.
[14] The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science pub. Heinemann 2006 by Philip Ball
[15]Christian Morals Part 2 Section 5

Not consulted

The standard, comprehensive of J.B.Helmont, prohibitively priced is-
* Joan Baptista Van Helmont: Reformer of Science and Medicine (Cambridge Studies in the History of Medicine) Walter Pagel pib.Cambridge University Press 1982

But possibly the most modern interpretation of  J.B. van Helmont yet is-
* An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The 'Christian Philosophy' of Jan Baptist Van Helmont  (Studies in Intellectual History, 1550-1700)  Routledge 2016 by Georgiana D. Hedesan
See also -

*    Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne
*   Paracelsus and the interpretation of dreams
*   Thomas Browne and the Kabbalah

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Matthew Bourne's 'The Red Shoes'

Its always exciting when New Adventures Dance Company are booked to perform at the Theatre Royal, Norwich; the return of leading British choreographer Matthew Bourne's ballet The Red Shoes was no exception.

First performed at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London on December 6th, 2016 with a set and costume designs by Bourne's long-time collaborator, Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne's ballet The Red Shoes is based broadly on the 1948 film The Red Shoes directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, itself being loosely based upon Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale 

The generous programme notes for the New Adventures production includes background information to the cult-status British ballet film The Red  Shoes and  the film-score music of Bernard Hermann (1911-75) composer of highly atmospheric music for Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic masterpieces Vertigo (1958) North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Bourne has carefully selected several pieces of Hermann's music notably from Fahrenheit 451 which, accompanying innovative dance, gesture and mime, greatly enhance the 'story-telling without words'  narrative of  his ballet.

In interview Matthew Bourne stated, - "the image of the red shoes that, once put on, will not allow the wearer to stop dancing has long been a potent one for creative minds, from Powell and Pressburger to Kate Bush to Emma Rice. I have loved the film since I was a teenager with its depiction of a group of people all passionate abut creating something magical and beautiful. The film's genius was to take a highly theatrical world and turn it into a highly cinematic and at times, surreal piece of film-making. My challenge has been to capture some of that surreal, sensuous quality within the more natural theatre setting" [1].

According to Bourne - "The main message of The Red Shoes is that nothing matters but art. As Michael Powell said: "The Red Shoes  told us to go and die for art." Whilst acknowledging the exaggeration here, I believe it was a piece that asked us to take art seriously as a life-changing force; something that gives intense joy but also asks for and requires sacrifices. It is the love story of two young artists: one a dancer, Victoria Page; and one, a composer, Julian Craster, and the fight between that love and the lure of the highest artistic achievement. [2]

"I'm also exploring how the fairy-tale world of ballet and the stories it tells can actually blend into the real-life tale of love, ambition, artistic and personal fulfillment, until the two are barely distinguishable". [3]

Its as a tight-working ensemble more than featuring any particular star that the New Adventures dance company operate best, though on the evening principal dancer Ashley Shaw in the role of rising star Victoria Page was confident as a star in her own right.  As ever the lighting and special effects were spectacular too, especially the sudden arrival of the  locomotion train.  

The extraordinary choreographic talents of Matthew Bourne (b. 1960) and his latest ballet The Red Shoes (2016) expands the New Adventures repertoire to no less than 12 full-length productions. In  2016 Bourne was awarded an OBE and in 2017 he won the award of Best Theatre Choreographer and the show itself won Best Entertainment at the 2017 Olivier Awards.  The New Adventures  dance company  collectively have garnered over 50 International and National awards.

I've now had the pleasure of seeing several Matthew Bourne's ballets performed at Theatre Royal, Norwich, including- Edward Scissorhands (1995), Highland Fling (2005) and Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance (2012). I could not help but notice that according to the evening's programme notes there has been some kind of major reshuffle in the company; of the 24 dancers, almost half (11) are listed as joining the company as recently as 2017. However, judging by the ecstatic response and standing ovation on the night from the discerning Norwich audience that The Red Shoes seems guaranteed to be a popular, long-lasting addition to New Adventures already highly original repertoire.

[1-3] Programme notes Theatre Royal Norwich Tuesday 18 -Saturday 22 February 2020
See also -
Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Pythagorical Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan, and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell.

The influence of western esoteric concepts upon the science and creative imagination of Thomas Browne is evident throughout his 1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus, not least in the preamble of its central, third chapter.

Its while adjusting the focus of his quincuncial quest from the artificial world of art and design to nature and botanical 'ocular observation' that the physician-philosopher  names three sources of western esotericism of special interest to him, namely, Pythagoras, comparative religion and the kabbalah.  It would however, be misleading to claim that this third chapter is preoccupied exclusively with esoteric topics. The 'Natural' chapter of the discourse predominately features Browne's sharp-eyed botanical observations, naming over 140 species of plant in total. Nevertheless its also in the opening paragraphs of this third and central chapter that Browne asserts his belief in esoteric concepts involving, 'the Pythagorical music of the spheres', 'the seven-fold Pipe of Pan', and 'the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell', declaring-

Could we satisfy ourselves in the position of the lights above, or discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed Stars of heaven; Could we have any light, why the stellary part of the first mass, separated into this order, that the Girdle of Orion should ever maintain its line, and the two Stars in Charles’s Wain never leave pointing at the Pole-Star, we might abate the Pythagoricall Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie Booke of Heaven.

Immediately following this light-hearted challenge, there is a fine example of the Hermetic doctrine of correspondences. Descending in subject-mater from astronomy to 'bodies in the earth', Browne draws his reader's attention to similarities between patterns formed by star-constellations to those seen in mineral stones.

The belief that all in the heavens above, the macrocosm is mirrored in life on earth below, including man as microcosm, is encapsulated in the maxim 'As above, so below' which is expounded in the so-called Emerald Tablet. Also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, the Emerald Tablet is a text  which was held by Hermetic philosophers and alchemists alike as the corner-stone of their art. Attributed to the mythic sage Hermes Trismegistus, the Emerald Tablet was thought to originate from the antediluvian cradle of civilization, ancient Egypt and to predate the Christian era; but in fact was written in the 2/3rd CE. The opening verse of the Emerald Tablet announces -

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that which is below......
It ascends from the earth to the heaven
and again it descends to the earth 

As ever Browne couches a simple proposition, in this case the maxim 'As above so below' in ornate, processional and labyrinthine prose.

But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx of the Hyades upon the head of Taurus, the Triangle, and remarkable Crusero about the foot of the Centaur; observable rudiments there are hereof in subterraneous concretions, and bodies in the Earth; in the Gypsum or Talcum Rhomboides, in the Favaginites or honey-comb-stone, in the Asteria and Astroites, and in the crucigerous stone of S. Iago of Gallicia.

In what is a highly-compressed text, replete with proper-name symbolism and  'astral imagery', various astronomical constellations are named, including the Southern Triangle and Cross, the Centaur, Orion the hunter, Ursa Major or the Great Bear and the star-cluster of the Hyades in Taurus. The discourse as a whole is framed by cosmic imagery, opening with the Creation and concluding with the Apocalypse.

The three esoteric concepts named in the opening of the third chapter of the Discourse, 'the Pythagoricall Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell' are each rewarding to elaborate upon, not least for identifying Browne's considerable understanding and appreciation of  such esoteric concepts.

The Music of the Spheres

Revered as a god for almost one thousand years until the suppression of his School and teachings, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580 - c. 500 BCE) is credited with origin of  the concept known as 'the Music of the Spheres'.

In his half-mystical, half mathematical and numerological concept of the proportional movement of the sun, moon and planets Pythagoras proposed the planetary spheres were related to each other by  whole-number ratios of pure musical intervals, creating musical harmony. Legend records the ancient Greek guru  could even hear 'the music of the spheres' whilst in a self-induced trance. An early commentator on Pythagoras, Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 250 CE - c.325 CE) informs in his Life of Pythagoras that-

'Pythagoras....extending his ears, fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds'. [1]

The Music of the Spheres is alluded to in Plato's Myth of Er and by the Roman author Cicero in The ‭ Dream of Scipio an account elaborated upon later in the highly influential cosmology of Macrobius who lived circa 400 CE. The grandson of Scipio whilst travelling through the cosmos with his military grandfather remarks-

And, as I gazed on these things with amazement, when I recovered myself: "What," I asked, "what is this sound that fills my ears, so loud and sweet?" "This," he replied, "is that sound, which divided in intervals, unequal, indeed, yet still exactly measured in their fixed proportion, is produced by the impetus and movement of the spheres themselves, and blending sharp tones with grave, therewith makes changing symphonies in unvarying harmony.....Now the revolutions of those eight spheres, of which two have the same power, produce seven sounds with well-marked intervals; and this number, generally speaking, is the mystic bond of all things in the universe. And learned men by imitating this with stringed instruments and melodies have opened for themselves the way back to this place, even as other men of noble nature, who have followed god-like aims in their life as men. [2]

A belief in the music of the spheres features in Browne's psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643) in which he poetically declares-

'For there is a music where-ever there is a harmony,‭ ‬order or proportion‭; ‬and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres‭; ‬for those well ordered motions,‭ ‬and regular paces,‭ ‬though they give no sound unto the ear,‭ ‬yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony. [3]

The music of the spheres is sometimes heard whilst the adept or alchemystical philosopher is engaged upon a 'soul-journey' and several ancient world soul-journeys are mentioned in Urn-Burial, the diptych companion to The Garden of Cyrus including The Dream of Scipio. That Browne was familiar with the relationship between cosmic soul-journeying and harmonical music is evident from a passage from Urn-Burial

They made use of Musick to excite or quiet the affections of their friends,‭ ‬according to different harmonies.‭ ‬But the secret and symbolical hint was the harmonical nature of the soul‭; ‬which delivered from the body,‭ ‬went again to enjoy the primitive harmony of heaven,‭ ‬from whence it first descended‭; ‬which according to its progresse traced by antiquity,‭ ‬came down by Cancer,‭ ‬and ascended by Capricornus.‭ [4]

Thomas Browne did not need to rely exclusively on ancient world sources for accounts of a 'Soul-journey'. Edited by Kircher's devoted pupil and secretary, Gaspar Schott's‭ Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭ (‬1660‭) ‬is one of the strangest of books in Browne's library.‭ ‭Schott's ‬Iter Ecstaticum  describes how,‭ ‬Kircher, after listening to three lute-players is led by the spirit Cosmiel through a cosmic ascent and is transported in an ecstatic journey through the planetary spheres. [5]

Browne's diptych discourses are themselves thematically structured upon a soul-journey. Together they progress from the dark, earthbound Grave meditations of Urn-Burial to the heavenly delights and discernment of eternal design in The Garden of Cyrus, a discourse which is saturated with imagery of Light and Stars.   

Confident in his Christian belief in the Resurrection Browne hints of the Discourses relationship to each other in its Dedicatory Epistle  thus-

'Since the delightful World comes after death, and Paradise succeeds the Grave'.

The seven-fold pipe of Pan

It's quite possible when mentioning 'the seven-fold Pipe of Pan', that Browne had a specific illustration in mind. Throughout his life he kept abreast of the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher's latest publications, including, as previously mentioned, an account of his 'Soul-journey' Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭  (1660)‭. Kircher's greatest publication, the vast three volume work known as Oedipus Egypticus (Rome 1652-54) is also listed as once in Browne's library. Kircher's often erroneous, yet ground-breaking work of comparative religion, includes a copper-plate engraving of the Bembine Tablet of Isis. The Rosetta stone of its age, and believed to be a source of Egyptian wisdom, its mentioned twice in The Garden of Cyrus.

Kircher's Oedipus Egypticus also includes a folio-sized illustration of Pan which itemizes the attributes of the god of Universal Nature. The  Pythagorean relationship between music and the cosmos is highlighted in Pan's 'seven-fold Pipe' which is equated with the seven planetary spheres (Above). [6]

In the artist Rinat Baibekov's painting Pan (top of post) the Nature god is seen about to play upon his Pipes in order to evoke Universal and Cosmic Harmony. A multitude of creatures playfully gnaw at the invulnerable god's protective armour. Baibekov supplies poetry penned by himself to accompany his painting -

Shepherds, hunters, peasants,
who live far from vain cities
are the hidden talismans of magic
whose name is All, is PAN god of nature,
Inventor of spell-working Pipes
whose sound enchants nymphs.

Nature's powers are infinite.
For millennia she dreams,
With Panpipe sounds awakens,
Ten times more powerful
returns the Spring.

In a painting of meticulous detail and rich tonality, Baibekov's Pan features a theme which is encountered in several of his paintings, that of polyoptics or many eyes. With a number of eyes peering through shadows in Baibekov's Pan the viewer becomes conscious of being viewed. According to the psychologist C.G. Jung multiple or 'all-seeing eyes'  is associated with ‘multiple consciousness’ that is, the various quasi-conscious states which exist within the unconscious psyche. [7]

The mystery and awe often associated with an encounter with Pan is vividly expressed by the Greek panpipe player Gheorghe Zamfir in his evocative soundtrack for film director Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).  Weir's film is an atmospheric and fictitious narration of the unexplained disappearance of several schoolgirls whilst picnicking at Hanging Rock at Victoria, Australia. 

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen's large-scale symphonic poem Pan and Syrinx (1917) has exciting rhythms and orchestral colourations which narrate the Greek myth of the nymph Syrinx and her tragic encounter with Pan. 

Yet another example of the hermetic maxim 'As above, so below'  occurs in the third chapter of The Garden of Cyrus. Browne had a great interest in books by the polymath Giambattista Della Porta (1535-1615) including Villa (1592) in which Della Porta endows the quincunx pattern with archetypal potency. In a quite literal example of 'As above, so below' Browne mentions the fact that the Roman Emperor Augustus is recorded as having moles on this body which corresponded to those in the constellation Ursa Major, also known as The Plough or Charles' wayne.  Citing this correspondence as an example of Della Porta's 'Celestial physiognomy' Browne informs his reader -

That Augustus had native notes on his body and belly, after the order and number in the Starre of Charles wayne, will not seem strange unto astral Physiognomy, which accordingly considereth moles in the body of man, or Physicall Observators, who from the position of moles in the face, reduce them to rule and correspondency in other parts. [8]

The strange cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie booke of Heaven.

Given Browne's lifelong fascination with  the symbolism of numbers, letters, hieroglyphs, along with anagrams, acrostics, riddles and all manner of unusual, hidden or 'occult' knowledge, its fairly unsurprising that a copy of Jacque Gafferell's Unheard-of Curiosities and its  'strange cryptography' is listed as once in his library. It was from his reading of Gaffarell's book that Browne is credited with introducing the word 'cryptography' into the English language.

In his phenomenally popular Unheard-of Curiosities Jacques Gafferell (1601-1681) a French scholar of Hebrew, the kabbalah and astrology, proposed an alternative to the Babylonian-Greek Zodiac. Gaffarell proposed that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be traced in the night-sky stars.

First published in Paris in 1629, Unheard-of Curiosities when translated into English in 1650 was in the vanguard of a flood of esoteric literature which poured forth from the printing-presses of England throughout the 1650's decade. The demand for esoteric literature during this decade, a demand which has never since been paralleled, was due to several factors including a relaxation of licensing of printing-presses and censorship regulations under the Protectorate of Cromwell. Many major esoteric works were either translated or first published during the 1650's decade including Agrippa's 3 books of Occult Philosophy, Elias Ashmole's vast compendium of British alchemical authors, Theatrum Brittanicum (1652) and Della Porta's Natural Magic (1658). These books catered for the general Endzeitpsychosis and mood of Millenarian expectation engendered by the execution of King Charles I and widespread social apprehension towards the Cromwellian Proto-Republic. The very conclusion of Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus however, reassures the English reader experiencing social and political instability that -

'All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again',

Browne's Garden of Cyrus (1658) is neither immune nor isolated from the enthusiastic trend of interest, printing and publication of esoteric literature which thrived  during the 1650's in England.  'Though overlooked by all', that is, until modern-day understanding of the vital influence which Hermetic philosophy wielded upon science and art throughout the Renaissance, Browne's 1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus is the supreme example of Hermetic philosophy in seventeenth century English literature.

Jacques Gaffarell's 'kabbalah of the stars' is one of a number of Renaissance era esoteric schemata which imaginatively blends ancient world wisdom with a personal, mystical vision. Not unlike Gafferell's 'strange cryptography' or Della Porta's celestial physiognomy or even John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica Thomas Browne's Quincunx is also an amalgam of ancient world and home-grown esoteric schemata.

Originating from the teachings of Pythagoras (the Quincunx pattern can be seen at the heart of the Pythagorean symbol of the Tetractys a triangle of ten dots) and from Della Porta's advocation in Villa, the Quincunx becomes in Browne's mystical vision, an all-embracing, metaphysical Weltanschauung which unites the physician-philosopher's spiritual and scientific beliefs. Its repeatedly delineated throughout a literary work which has perplexing all but the most determined reader.

With words utterly applicable to the hermetic content of The Garden of  psychologist C.G. Jung noted -

Intellectual responsibility seems always to have been the alchemists weak spot... The less respect they showed for the bowed shoulders of the sweating reader, the greater was their debt to the unconscious...The alchemists were so steeped in their inner experiences, that their whole concern was to devise fitting images and expressions regardless whether they were intelligible or not. They performed the inestimable service of having constructed a phenomenology of the unconscious long before the advent of psychology..The alchemists did not really know what they were writing about. Whether we know today seems to me not altogether sure. [9]
The American poet and literary critic John Irwin (b. 1940 - died December 20th 2019) noted -  'the idea that there is a necessary (because original) correspondence among numbers, letters and geometric shapes, is a belief  found in esoteric  alchemy and the cabala'. Irwin perceptively states of the symbolic importance of Browne's Quincunx that-

The quincunx represents God's infallible intelligence while it also embodies the main 'tools' man uses to decipher the universe: mathematics, geometry and language. The implication is that if the God-given design of man's original plantation was a quincuncial network, then this design must express the basic relationship between man and the world, known and unknown, which is to say that this formal pattern imposed on physical nature schematizes the interface of mind and world in that it contains within itself the various modes of intelligible representation of the world, i.e. mathematics, language, geometry joined together in the homogeneousness of their physical inscription as numbers, letters and geometric shapes. [10]

The word 'elegant'  is encountered several times in The Garden of Cyrus. Its an apt definition of  the discourse as a whole. In its third, central chapter the reader is informed that -

Studious Observators may discover more analogies in the orderly book of nature, and cannot escape the Elegancy of her hand in other correspondencies.

A similar encouragement occurs in the apotheosis of the 'highly hermetic' discourse [11] in its fifth and final chapter where Browne declares -

A large field is yet left unto sharper discerners to enlarge upon this Order'.


[1] from 'Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook' edited by Joscelyn Godwin pub. Arkana 1987
[2] Ibid.
[3] R.M. Part 2 Section 9
[4] Urn-Burial chapter 4 The polarized zodiac signs Cancer‬ and Capricorn respectively as the exit and entrance to heaven occurs in Macrobius,‭ ‬‘‬The Dream of Scipio,‭ ‬I:12 where its stated, ‘the soul came down by Cancer to enter the body at conception and ascended by Capricornus at death‭’‬.
[5] Gaspar Schott‭ Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium‭ is listed in 1711 Sales auction Catalogue of Browne's library page 30 no. 52
[6] Oedipus Egypticus 1711 Sales Catalogue page 8 no. 91
[7] Rinat Baibekhov's Pan Dimensions 62 cm. x 82 cm. Medium acrylic on paper, mounted on board and framed. 2010. Available for Sale.
[8]  The Garden of Cyrus chapter 3. The historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars wrote of  the  Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BCE- 13 CE) -  'It is said that his body was covered with spots and that he had birthmarks scattered over his breast and belly, corresponding in form, order and number with the stars of the Bear in the heavens'. Paragraph 80.
Della Porta's Coelestis Physiogranonia is listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne's library page 41 no. 41
[9] Collected Works of C.G. Jung Volume 16 para 497
[10] The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. John T. Irwin  pub. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1996
[11]  Writing in 2014 Prof. Peter Forshaw of the University of Amsterdam  stated 'we find Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) commenting on the, 'strange Cryptography of Gaffarel in his Starry-Book of Heaven', in his highly Hermetic 'The Garden of Cyrus'. (1658)'

Books consulted

*  Thomas Browne: Selected Writings edited and with an introduction by Kevin Killeen pub.Oxford University Press 2014

* Music, Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook edited by Joscelyn Godwin pub. Arkana 1987

* Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England Penelope Gouk  pub. Yale University Press 1999

* The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story John T. Irwin  pub. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1996

This post dedicated to the Brownean scholar Ms. Anna Wyatt.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Mathematical Beehives and the Peacock Fountain

Listed as once in the library of  Thomas Browne (1605-82) Beehives of Universal Mathematical Philosophy by the Italian mathematician and astronomer Mario Bettini (1582-1657) is a compendium of mathematics, physics and optics. Each chapter of Apiaria Universae Philosophiae Mathematicae (its Latin title) is a self-contained 'Beehive' in which a proposition or topic of early modern science is discussed including Euclidean geometry, optics, acoustics, the camera obscura, mathematical discussion of the flight of projectiles, the art of navigation and the measurement of time. Some of the many studies and experiments in Bettini's Aparia are considered to be innovative contributions to the early scientific revolution. [1]

Bettini's Aparia went through a number of editions from its first publication in 1642. Browne's edition is dated 1656, just two years before the publication of his discourse The Garden of Cyrus. If Browne acquired an edition of Bettini's 'Beehives' in 1656, then it  potentially influenced either consciously or unconsciously, Browne's penning the discourse, The Garden of Cyrus. Either way Bettini's Aparia and Browne's The Garden of Cyrus are thematically united, jointly supplying evidence to their reader of how the principles of geometry pervade the world. In Browne's case this involves countless examples of the 'mathematics of nature' via the geometry of the quincunx pattern. 

Although the bulk of Browne's scientific writings are  to be found in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica,  many of the topics covered by Bettini in Aparia also feature in Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus. For example, in the second proposition or 'Beehive' in Bettini's 'Beehives of Universal Mathematical Philosophy' the Jesuit scientist examines the mathematics of the spider-web - 

The spider and its web-making ability feature twice in Browne's Garden of Cyrus, firstly in his observing - 'that the woof of the neat Retiarie Spider, which seems to weave without transversion, and by the union of right lines to make out a continued surface.' and secondly  - 'And no mean Observations hereof there is in the Mathematics of the neatest Retiary Spider, which concluding in forty four Circles, from five Semi-diameters beginneth that elegant texture'. [2]


Browne also shared with Bettini an interest in bees. From the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Pappus of Alexandria to the Renaissance-era various mathematicians and philosophers believed bees to be Heaven-instructed mathematicians which were capable of 'geometrical forethought' and in possession of knowledge transcendent to humanity. 

Bee's important contributions to civilization consist of honey, a rare source of sweetness and wax, useful for many aspects of human commerce including candles for light. Honey and wax were both valuable contributions to the advancement of civilization until the advent of gas and electric lighting and the discovery of other sources of sugar. Evidence of human beekeeping, known as apiculture, can be found in Hindu, Hittite, Greek and ancient Egyptian civilizations and as such bees have fascinated poet, philosopher and scientist alike.  From the Roman poet Virgil's verse on apiculture in his fourth Georgic to Bernard Mandeville's inverted theory of the relationship between morality and economics in The Fable of the Bees (1719) to the mysticism of Maurice Maeterlinck's  Life of the Bee (1900) bees are frequently associated with activity, diligence, an industrious work-ethic and order. The collective nature of the beehive has been used as evidence supporting both communal and monarchical forms of government.

Thomas Browne makes a beeline towards advocating the wisdom of the 'curious mathematics' of bees in Religio Medici when proposing -

'Indeed what reason may not go to School to the wisdom of Bees, Ants, and Spiders ? What wise hand teacheth them to do what reason cannot teach us?..... in these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematics, and the civility of these little Citizens, more neatly set forth the wisdom of their Maker;  [3]

Centuries before the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924) described the horror of  Gregor Samsa's transformation into a giant beetle in his short story Die Verwandlung (1915) Thomas Browne in Religio Medici (1643) imagined himself  as a bee in flight -

'when homeward I shall drive

Rich with the spoils of nature to my hive,
There will I sit, like that industrious fly,
Buzzing thy praises'.....[4]

Browne's mystical awe in contemplation of the 'curious mathematics' of the bee in Religio Medici transforms into  a sharp-eyed 'ocular observation' of nature in The Garden of Cyrus in which the geometry of the beehive is closely examined-

'The sexangular Cells in the Honeycombs of Bees, are disposeth after this order, much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires, though much in their busy life and actions, more in the edificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-corner’d, declining a circle, whereof many stand not close together, and completely fill the area of the place; But rather affecting a six-sided figure, whereby every cell affords a common side unto six more, and also a fit receptacle for the Bee it self, which gathering into a Cylindrical Figure, aptly enters its sexangular house, more nearly approaching a circular Figure, then either doth the Square or Triangle. And the Combs themselves so regularly contrived, that their mutual intersections make three Lozenges at the bottom of every Cell; which severally regarded make three Rows of neat Rhomboidal Figures, connected at the angles, and so continue three several chains throughout the whole comb'. [5]

Its difficult to imagine the sheer profusion of natural life which existed in Browne's day. Bird and insect populations were much denser than today. Scientific evidence indicates there's been a 33% decline among the 130 plus species of pollinating insects in just the past 13 years. This decline is closely related to world food security and even, potentially, to the extinction of present-day civilization. 

In modern times the Russian mathematician and esotericist, P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) speculated of bees-

'Having begun to alter their being, their life and their form, bees and ants, taken as individuals, severed their connection with the laws of  Nature, ceased to express these laws individually and began to express them only collectively. And then Nature raised her magic wand, and they became small insects, incapable of doing Nature any harm'.

'Ants and bees alike both call for our admiration by the wonderful completeness of their organisation, and at the same time repel and frighten us, and provoke a feeling of undefinable aversion by the invariably cold reasoning which dominates their life and by the absolute impossibility for an individual to escape from the wheel of life of the ant-hill or beehive. We are terrified at the thought we might resemble them'. [6]


In Bettini's Aparia the optical illusion of replicating the image of just one foot-soldier into a total of twelve foot-soldier's, advantageous strategy in military affairs, is demonstrated. (below).

A superb example of Browne's sharp sighted  'ocular observation' occurs in the learned doctor's declaration -

'He that would exactly discern the shape of a Bees mouth, need observing eyes, and good augmenting glasses; wherein is discoverable one of the neatest pieces in nature, and must have a more piercing eye then mine'. [7]

Thomas Browne's  interest in optics is celebrated in French artists Anne and Patrick Poirier's 'geometric garden' of twenty interconnecting sculptures in granite and two large-scale marble pieces, one of a brain, the other an eye, which were installed in 2007 near the physician's 17th century home at Hay Hill, Norwich. The Italian marble block, approximately 1.5 metre square has on its obverse an eye and the word 'Memorabilia' on its reverse.

Of the many facets of optics such as reflection, refraction, magnification and perspective, it seems as if  the study and understanding of the workings of the camera obscura was the 'holy grail' of the 17th century European scientific revolution. Mario Bettini describes the workings of the camera obscura in his Aparia, and a rough description of its workings also occurs in The Garden of Cyrus. 

'wherein the pictures from objects are represented, answerable to the paper, or wall in the dark chamber; after the decussation of the rays at the hole of the hornycoat, and their refraction upon the Christalline humour, answering the foramen of the window, and the convex or burning-glasses, which refract the rays that enter it'.

The subject of acoustics is explored in the third volume of Bettini's Aparia ; a topic also included in The Garden of Cyrus -

'A like rule is observed in the reflection of the vocal and sonorous line in Echoes, which cannot therefore be heard in all stations. But happening in woody plantations, by waters, and able to return some words; if reached by a pleasant and well-dividing voice, there may be heard the softest notes in nature'. [9]

An authoritative Brunonian scholar perceptively notes of the geometric and mathematical content of The Garden of Cyrus -

'In long stretches of chapters 3 and 4 of Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus, the job of preserving the ubiquity of decussation (X) in nature is mathematical, the tapering cylindricality of trees, Archimedes on conic shapes, squaring the circle, and pyramids of light through the aperture of the eye. If The Garden of Cyrus is an almost mathematical work, suffused in the Euclidean pleasures of number and form, Browne also dwells in the near tactility and texture of his geometrical vocabulary, 'helicall or spirall roundles, volutas, conicall sections, circular Pyramids, and fustrums of Archimedes'. [10]

It was during the early scientific revolution (generally considered to begin with Nicolaus Copernicus's theological-challenging heliocentric universe, 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres' in 1543 and culminating in the abstract mathematics and physics of Isaac Newton's Principia in 1687) that the study of optics, along with astronomy and botany among other subjects became accessible to educated and leisured enquirers, in particular from the ranks of priest and physician, Mario Bettini and Thomas Browne's respective professions. 

Jesuits such as Bettini made many contributions to the development of science and have been described as "the single most important contributor to experimental physics in the seventeenth century." By the eighteenth century the Jesuits had "contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes and to scientific fields as varied as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, often before anyone else, the coloured bands of Jupiter, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorized about the circulation of the blood, the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.

Above all other Jesuit scientists however it was books by the polymath Athanasius Kircher (1601-80) which were avidly collected by Browne. A near exact contemporary to Browne, Kircher has been described as 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism in post-Reformation Europe'  and was a favourite read of the physician-philosopher, as the contents of his library reveals. Browne often wrote with his most recent reading in mind; its hardly coincidental therefore that the antiquarian artefact known as the Bembine Tablet of Isis is mentioned not once, but twice, in The Garden of Cyrus for Browne had  recently acquired Kircher's vast work of comparative religion Oedipus Aegypticus (Rome 1650-1655) in which the Bembine Tablet, the Rosetta Stone of its age, is reproduced and 'interpreted' by Kircher. Although frequently misapprehending the true meaning of the antiquities, Egyptian hieroglyphs and world religion myth he encountered, nevertheless Kircher paved the way for future study in comparative religion.  [11] 

Although Browne often purchased books swiftly upon their publication there's no easy way of ascertaining whether or not he acquired an edition of Bettini’s Aparia in the year of 1656 and even though Browne's The Garden of Cyrus (1658) shares subject-matter with Bettini's Aparia, it also ranges into topics as diverse as - Architecture, Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion, mythology, gardening and plantations in antiquity, geometry, the Archimedean solids, sculpture, numismatics, games and sports including backgammon, knuckle-stones, chess, archery and skittles as well as paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, the camera obscura, perspective, acoustics, music therapy, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least, botany, including speculations upon the related topics of  germination, generation, longevity and heredity. All these topics are used by Browne in order to supply his reader with evidence of the archetypal quincunx pattern's  eternal existence.

In essence the subjects of mathematics and geometry were viewed  in tandem during the seventeenth century, from both a practical, utilitarian perspective as well as from an esoteric view-point. Discoveries of mathematical laws and geometrical principles, 'the higher geometry of nature' were interpreted by early scientific enquirers, all of whom were religious-minded, as evidence of the wisdom of God, 'the supreme geometrician' in Browne's personal, mystical vision in The Garden of Cyrus whilst Bettini's Aparia is in essence a Counter-Reformation attempt to harness the rapid development  of  science to Church teaching and authority.

Bettini's Aparia is related not only in  its subject-matter but also in its frontispiece art-work to Browne's discourse. New study of the frontispiece to Bettini's Aparia by the Bolognese artist Francesco Curti entitled The Garden of Mathematical Sciences reveals it to exhibit the self-same fusion of scientific enquiry and esoteric symbolism as encountered in Browne's Garden of Cyrus. Curti's early colour engraving as such may be considered a worthy  'alternative' candidate to the frontispiece of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus. This relationship between Browne's textual discourse to Curti's visual artwork is rewarding to explore in depth. 

The Garden of Mathematical Sciences

The colour engraving and frontispiece to Bettini's Aparia entitled The Garden of Mathematical Sciences (above) by the Bolognese artist Francesco Curti (1603-1670) conjures a garden in which mathematics is associated with nature. In what is a highly symmetrical and artificial composition combining art with nature, Curti's engraving depicts a Villa courtyard with an extensive background landscape. In its foreground stand ten antique vases, each of which has optical phenomena etched upon it,  a scientific instrument  growing from it as if a flower, and a stem with a geometric shape attached to it. Curti's ornate vases represent the vigorous growth of  mathematical science during the early scientific revolution in which understanding of geometry and mathematics advanced understanding in subjects as  diverse as architecture, navigation, art-perspective and optics. [12] 

Centre-stage in Curti's Garden of Mathematical Sciences there is a sculptured stone basin supported by two entwined water-nymphs or Naiads, female spirits once believed to preside over fountains, wells, streams and freshwater. A peacock alights upon the water basin's sculptured ornamentation with one foot upon a sphere its other mysteriously grasping a staff with a single eye at its tip. Water streams from its fanned feathers, creating a perpetual fountain. Two hedged gardens, rough pasture, bees in flight, a geometrical spider-web, two mystical statua and the figure of Mercurius holding an armillary sphere while standing upon a pyramid of six  beehives can also be seen.

A comparative study of Curti's engraving to Browne's discourse is assisted by the fact that The Garden of Cyrus  is itself a highly visual work in its abundance of  visual imagery; both 'Garden' art-works may loosely be defined as possessing characteristics associated with Mannerist art. 

The art-historian John Shearman noted that characteristics of  Mannerist art included - Hidden classical references, refinements, interlacing of forms and unexpected and departures from common usage. The Hungarian art-historian Arnold Hauser noted that Mannerist art delighted in symbols and hidden meanings and that it catered for an essentially international cultured class, was a refined and exclusive style, with an intellectual and even surrealistic outlook. He also noted that Mannerist art was inclined towards esoteric concepts in its symbolism. In words easily applicable to either 'Garden' art-work Hauser defined the qualities and excesses of Mannerist art thus -

'At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse.' [13]

Thus, although differing in medium, both 'Garden' art-works with their utilization of multiplicity and variety, juxtaposition of art and nature, along with their fusion of scientific enquiry to esoteric symbolism, easily conform to the artistic style and objectives of Mannerist art. However, such is the stylistic contrast between Browne's two philosophical discourses that while the stoicism of Urn-Burial with its survey of human grief, passion and bereavement, couched in oratorical prose is utterly Baroque in theme and style; its diptych  companion, The Garden of Cyrus with its procession of examples from art and nature involving great variety and multiplicity and many esoteric allusions is exemplary of Mannerist artistic traits.

In Curti's Garden of Mathematical Sciences the superimposed symbols of fountain and peacock are worthwhile looking at closely.   

Victorian-era, Gothic-style fountain, Plantation Gardens, Norwich.

Fountains feature prominently in gardens from the Renaissance era onwards. The functional aspect of the fountain, to provide drinking-water, was superseded as a purely decorative and entertainment feature in gardens. In addition to creating health-inducing negative ions, fountains also camouflage conversation from prying ears in public, urban spaces. Many of Rome's famous fountains were constructed during the seventeenth century including Bernini's fountain of the Four Rivers, the  Trevi Fountain and the so-called Bee Fountain. 

Contemporary to the construction of such large-scale public fountains Jacob Dobrzenski (1623-97) a Professor of mathematics and medicine of Nigro Ponte, Ferrara, published a book in 1657 with the intriguing title of, 'New and More Pleasing Philosophy on the Wonderful Spirit of Fountains' (Nova et amenior de admirando fontium genio philosophia).

    15th c. illustration from De Sphera Modeni,Italy. 

The alchemical symbolism of the fountain was developed through Bernard of Treviso's story of a King who is rejuvenated after bathing in a fountain. Trevsio's story was included in the 17th century anthology known as the Theatrum Chemicum. A Fountain of Love is also mentioned on several occasions by the philosophical alchemist Gerard Dorn in his Speculativa Philosophia  in the first volume of the Theatrum Chemicum a copy of which was once in Thomas Browne's library. [14]

'Approach the fountain here, Body, so that you may drink your fill with your Mind and not thirst any more for Vanities. O admirable efficacy of the fountain, which makes one from the two and brings peace between enemies ! The fountain of Love can make Mind from Spirit and Feeling Soul, but here it makes one man from Mind and Body. [15]

Alchemical literature and iconography frequently alludes to a fountain of Youth in which the magical powers of its waters restore and rejuvenate; like the philosophical bath the mercurial character of the fons mercuralis in which mercury is transformed  means it is dualistic, being poisonous as well as healing,  apt symbolism of the underlying unity of the trickster god of alchemy.

In his late work Mysterium Coniunctionis - An inquiry into the synthesis and separation of psychic opposites (1963) C.G.Jung likens the everlasting fountain to psychic processes, thus -

The ever-flowing fountain expresses a continual flow of interest towards the unconscious, a kind of constant attention or "religio" which might also be called devotion.....If attention is directed towards the unconscious, the unconscious will yield up its contents, and these in turn will fructify the conscious like a fountain of living water.   [16] 

The myth of how the peacock got its many 'eyes' and how it became a bird sacred to the goddess Juno is recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a source-book of inspiration to Renaissance painter, poet and sculptor alike. The Roman poet relates how the hundred eyes in the head of Argus took their rest two at a time while the others kept watch on guard. Wherever Argus stood he was looking at Io, and had Io in front of him even when his back was turned. Zeus ordered Hermes to assassinate Argus. The goddess Juno had the hundred eyes of Argus preserved forever, into a peacock's tail. [17]

The subject of Juno and the hundred eyes of Argus became a popular theme during the seventeenth century.  European artists including Rubens, Velasquez and many others  were inspired by the Greek myth. [18]

Avian symbolism often features in alchemical iconography in which the raven, swan, pelican, dove, owl and peacock are frequently encountered. Several symbolic attributes are associated with the peacock, these include it being, like the phoenix, a solar bird from its wheel-like fanned display of feathers, as a symbol of rebirth and immortality from its supposed incorruptible flesh, as a symbol of multiplication from the many 'eyes' upon its fanned feathers, while the optical effect of iridescence produced by its feathers is likened to the numinous experience of the alchemist engaged in experiment.

Symbols can endure paradox. Whilst the peacock, like the phoenix is a solar symbol from the way in which it spreads its tail in the shape of a wheel,  the many 'eyes' upon its fanned feathers are analogous to the starry night sky.

C.G. Jung notes - 'The peacock is an old emblem of rebirth and resurrection, quite frequently found on Christian sarcophagi' [19] a fact which Thomas Browne noted  in Urn-Burial when writing of early Christian funeral iconography depicting,  'the mystical figures of peacocks, doves and cocks'. 

Jung also states-

'The caudo pavonis announces the end of the work, just as Iris, its synonym, is the messenger of God. The exquisite display of colour's in the peacock's fan heralds the imminent synthesis of all qualities and elements, which are united in the  "rotundity" of the philosophical stone'. [20] 

Jung  likened the iridescence of peacock's feathers to alchemical experimentation stating - 'The chemical causes of the cauda pavonis are probably the iridescent skin on molten metals and the vivid colours of certain compounds of mercury'. [21]  

The optical effect of iridescence on silk may have been known  to Thomas Browne when very young for his father was a wealthy silk merchant. In  Pseudodoxia Epidemica he notes

'And from such salary irradiations may those wondrous varieties arise, which are observable in Animals, as Mallards heads, and Peacocks feathers, receiving intention or alteration according as they are presented unto the light'.[22]

The 19th century mythologist De Gubernatis stated-

'The serene and starry sky and the sun are peacocks. The deep-blue firmament shining with a thousand brilliant eyes, and the sun rich with the colours of the rainbow, present the appearance of a peacock in all the splendour of its eye-spangled feathers. .....It is commonly said of the peacock that it has an angel's feathers, a devil's voice, and a thief's walk'. [23]

On a mundane level the many eyes of the peacock's tail may be interpreted as symbolizing  the watchfulness of the observer during the alchemical  opus while at a higher level poly optics symbolizes the alchemical stage of Multiplication. Crucially, in Jung’s view the motif of the all-seeing 'eyes' of the peacock - polyophtalmia (many eyes) - is associated with ‘multiple consciousness’ that is, with the various quasi-conscious states  which exist in the unconscious. Multiple eyes symbolize what Jung calls 'multiple luminosities' of the unconscious. Particularly, polyophthalmia ‘indicates the observing consciousness is the observing agent of the psyche. Polyopthalmia can also symbolically illuminate the concept of foreknowledge, that is, not about knowing something in advance (‘fore’) but rather instead about being able to observe what is already in existence through a simultaneous multiplicity of perspectives. Thus, the many eyes of the displayed tail feathers of the peacock can be said to symbolize a non-linear multiplicity of perspectives. [24 ] 

In the richly coloured and detailed engraving for Salomon Trismosin's Splendor Solis by Jörg Breu the Elder (1480-1537) a peacock is depicted encased within an alchemical vessel (above).

The peacock's  fanned feather display exhibits the short-lived nature of all manifestation, since its forms appear and vanish as swiftly as the peacock displays and furls its tail. Indeed, to the present-day the sudden appearance of a rainbow (the peacock's close symbolic relation) caused by the optical effect of light refracted through water, retains a fragment of a once potent numinosity to those seeing it occur in nature. 

Although the goddess  Juno is named in The Garden of Cyrus, the bird sacred to her, the peacock is not; however, geese, ducks, cormorant, bittern, owls, swallows along with butterflies, bees, beavers, rattlesnakes, lambs and carp as well as elephants and whales are mentioned in the discourse.

Browne was in fact a keen bird-fancier, keeping at one time or another a cormorant, owl, bittern, golden eagle and even an ostrich so he may well have approved of a peacock on a frontispiece for his discourse,  stating in the dedicatory epistle of The Garden of Cyrus‘noble spirits contented not themselves with Trees, but by the attendance of Aviaries, Fish Ponds, and all variety of Animals’.

In many ways the symbols of peacock and fountain in Curti's engraving are near-identical in their symbolic meaning, that of a numinous and revivifying phenomena accompanying the alchemist and/or early scientist in their quest. The appearance of the cauda pavonis of the peacock is considered to be a dramatic indicator of success in the opus while the fountain is similarly associated with flourishing and growth in the alchemical opus.

In essence Curti's Garden of  Mathematical Sciences captures the moment of revelation. As such it depicts a 'Light-bulb' moment as experienced by the alchemist/scientist whilst engaged in experiment in the laboratory. The light-bulb did not of course exist during the 17th century, and a more natural, if at first, seemingly paradoxical imagery is employed by Curti to express the  short-lived psychic experience of revelation.  

In modern times the 'Light-bulb moment' can be traced in origin to a character in Max Fleischer's early Betty Boop cartoons (1935-1937). Grampy is an eccentric inventor who entertains his guests by building self-playing musical instruments out of household gadgets. Whenever presented with an unexpected new problem, Grampy puts on his thinking cap, a mortarboard with a light-bulb on top. When the light-bulb lights up Grampy is able to solve his problem and build a new gadget to solve the problem.

The two mid-seventeenth century 'Garden' art-works text and image are related to each other not only in title,  chronology and subject-matter,  but also, crucially, in their self-same fusion of scientific enquiry with esoteric symbolism. Juxtaposed to its depiction of scientific instruments in Curti's Garden of  Mathematical Sciences allusions to Pythagorean  number symbolism can be seen; the self-same fusion of nascent scientific enquiry to esoteric symbolism permeates Browne's mystical vision of the inter-connection of art and nature in The Garden of Cyrus. 

The Renaissance was an era in which  the 'Re-birth' or 'rediscovery' of various forms of knowledge occurred. Its useful to realise that this included the 'rediscovery' of esoteric writings such as the Corpus Hermeticum by so-called Gnostic authors, as well as 're-discovered' texts, foremost of which was the discourse known as the Timaeus by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Second only to the many myths included in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, Plato's discourse the Timaeus was the most frequently consulted hand-book which influenced and inspired hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike during the Renaissance.  In  what is his most Pythagorean work, Plato's  Timaeus recounts how the demiurge created the world in the geometric form of a globe. The round figure is proposed to be the most perfect one, because it comprehends  all other figures and  is therefore the most omnimorphic of all figures, each point on its surface being equidistant from its centre. The sphere is featured above all other shapes in the frontispiece engraving The Garden of Mathematical Sciences with no less than ten spheres in total around each of the two enclosed gardens of Curti's Neoplatonic landscape view from a courtyard villa. 

 In his highly influential Oration on the Dignity of Man (De hominis dignitate) of 1486 the Renaissance humanist scholar Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) famously justified the importance of the human quest for knowledge within a Neoplatonic framework. Pico della Mirandola is also credited with re-introducing the 'mystical mathematics'  of Pythagoras to Renaissance Europe. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras was worshipped and venerated as a god for almost one thousand years before institutions teaching his ideas were closed down at the Fall of the Roman empire. Pythagoras taught that -

'By number, a way is had, to the searching out and understanding of everything able to be known'. 

Pythagoreans believed the number ten to be the number of totality and perfection containing within it all other numbers. It was depicted in Pythagorean teachings in the form of the tetractys a pyramid of dots (1+2+3+4) representing universal principles. 

Pythagorean numerology and Platonic shapes abound in Curti's illustration The Garden of Mathematical Sciences. The sphere is featured in repeated groupings of  ten as well as ten bees in quincunx formation and in ten vases in a 2 x 5 arrangement in its foreground.  The  number of chapters  in Browne's diptych discourses total ten and the figure X along with citations from Plato's Timaeus loom large throughout the pages of The Garden of Cyrus from its very opening  to its Platonic meditation upon the figure X as a symbol of the soul.

Radiating from the centre of the tetkratys pattern the hexagon can be seen, believed by Bettini, among others, to be 'proof' of the transcendent mathematical ability of bees in their construction of hexagonal honeycomb cells. The quincunx pattern (four corner dots of a square with one at the centre as upon dice) celebrated for its ubiquity in art and nature in Browne's Garden of Cyrus can also be discerned at the centre of the tetkratys. 

Although the figure of quincunx  is mentioned in classical antiquity it was during the Renaissance  that the idea of it being a pattern which transcends the realm of the artificial originates. The idea can be found in book 4 of the Italian Renaissance scholar Giambattista Della Porta's agricultural encyclopedia Villa (1583-1592) in which Della Porta (1535-1615) asserts that the quincunx pattern in addition to featuring in gardens and plantations, 'is to be found in each and every single thing in nature'. An illustration of the quincunx pattern was 'lifted'  from Della Porta's agricultural encyclopaedia Villa by Thomas Browne for the frontispiece of his 'Garden' discourse  (below)

Magnification of Curti's frontispiece  reveals the very same  quincunx pattern occurs in the hedge panels surrounding the gardens of Curti's imaginary Villa, in the formation of bees in flight, as well as the double 2 + 1 + 2 arrangement  of the ornates vases in its courtyard foreground.

In conclusion, Curti's Garden of Mathematical Sciences features two quite different approaches and interpretations of number which  co-existed during the 17th century before going their separate ways. It alludes to Pythagorean numerology as well as promoting the new 'observational' sciences of optics and astronomy. Its therefore a strong candidate as an alternative frontispiece to Browne’s 'Garden' discourse as these two quite different interpretations of number, that of Pythagorean number symbolism and a utilitarian, early scientific approach to number occurs in Curti's Garden of Mathematical Sciences (circa 1660) as well as in Browne's  1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus .  


[1] Mario Bettini's book is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue  of Thomas Browne's library on p. 28 no. 16 under Folio by its half-title Fucaria & Auctaria ad Apiaria Philosophiae Mathematicae 1656. 
[2]  The Garden of Cyrus chapter 2
[3] Religio Medici Part 1:13
[4] Religio Medici Part 1:15
[5] The Garden of Cyrus
[6] A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the psychological method in its application to problems of Science, Religion an Art. by P.D. Ouspensky RKP 1931
[7] The Garden of Cyrus
[8] Optic books in Browne's library include - Alhazen  - Opticae Thesaurus Libri X, Basle 1572 Francois d'Aguillon - Opticorum Libri 6, Antwerp 1613 Johannes Kepler - Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Frankfurt 1604 Athanasius Kircher - Ars Magna Lucis & Umbrae, Rome 1646 Christoph Scheiner - Rosa Ursina sive Sol, Bracciano, 1630
[9] The Garden of Cyrus
[10]  Thomas Browne Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen OUP 2014 
[11] Oedipus Aegyptiacus  1711 Sales Catalogue page 8 no. 91
[12] Francesco Curti colour image courtesy of Getty Images, with thanks for fair usage. This image has been available online since December 31st 2016. The full size of Francesco's Curti's colour engraving is approximately 30 x 40 cm. There are in fact two different versions of the  frontispiece for The Garden of Mathematical Sciences. Early editions include a frontispiece by Matthiae Galasso/Matthias Galassus while later editions feature Francesco Curti's colour engraving.

The biggest difference between the two versions is the various ensigns, banners and disembodied armoury in Galassus's version being replaced in Curti's engraving by the figure of Mercurius holding a banner with Papal ensigns. Both versions depict an armillary sphere, symbolic in Mathias Gallius's version to the world-wide influence of the missionary Jesuit Order. In Curtius's version it is Mercurius, the messenger of revelation and guiding 'deity' of alchemy who is featured in the frontispiece's symbolism.
[13] John Shearman Mannerism London, Penguin/Baltimore, MD, 1967 
and Arnold Hauser Mannerism. The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art
[14] Theatrum Chemicum Sales Catalogue page 24 no. 124
[15] Ibid.
[16] CW 14: 193
[17] Ovid Metamorphoses  Book 1 500-746 Penguin 1955
[18] Artists inspired by the Greek myth of Juno and the peacock include - Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) Juno and Argus, c. 1610, oil on canvas, 249 x 296 cm.  (Post illustration) Other seventeenth century paintings on the theme of Juno, Argus and the Peacock include- Claude Gellée ‘Mercury Lulling Argus to Sleep with the Sound of His Pipe’ (1662) - Cornelis Bisschop (1630-1674) Circle of Cornelius van Poelenburgh (circa 1650) - Govert Flinck (1615-60) circa 1635-45 - Jacob Jordaens circa 1620 - Carel Fabritius ( circa 1645 and circa 1647) Velázquez (1659) Hendrik Goltzius (1615) Antonio Balestra (1666-1740)
[19] C.W.  Vol. 9i: 686
[20]  C.W.  381 n. 2
[20]   C.W.  vol. 14 396
[21] CW 9i 581 n. 129
[22] Pseudodoxia Epidemica
[23] Angelo De Grubernatis Zoological Mythology II London 1872
[24] - Time and Timelessness: Temporality in the theory of Carl Jung By Angeliki Yiassemides

The bee is considered to be the most important living creature on the planet

Recommended listening

Alchemical literature of the sixteenth and seventh centuries frequently alludes to  the transformative power of music, most notably in Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens (1617). The twentieth century musical genre of Jazz  - an art-form which thrives upon experiment and which has the meditative and melancholic music genre of the 'blues', almost equivalent to the Nigredo stage of the alchemical opus - is a worthy contender for representing certain prerequisites and templates of alchemy,  the musician in the studio or in performance expressing inner experience as much as the alchemist  in his laboratory engaged in the alchemical opus. 

A highly-stylized cry of the peacock can be heard in the legendary tenor saxophonist Stan Getz's interpretation of pianist/composer  Jimmy Rowles  The Peacocks (1975)    

John Coltrane (1926-67) and Stan Getz (1927-1991) were the t
wo tenor saxophonists who dominated 20th century JazzLike chalk and cheese to each other, each possessed a unique technique and interpretative skill, as their respective performances and recordings demonstrate. If Stan Getz's The Peacocks may be considered as expressive of the nigredo stage of alchemy, John Coltrane's rendering of The Night has a Thousand Eyes is an albedo fountain of musical notes.

The English composer William Alwyn (1905-1985) in his autobiography Winged Chariot states of his 5th symphony  Hydriotaphia (1973) 'Browne's wonderful prose sets the mood of each section and is an expression of my personal indebtedness to a great man whose writings have been a life-long source of solace and inspiration'.  Alwyn's Naiades (1971)  a Fantasy Sonata for flute and Harp aurally depicts the water-nymphs of antiquity, as seen supporting a water-basin in Curti's colour engraving.  

This blog essay for the artist Rinat Baibekov with thanks for encouragement.