Tuesday, March 05, 2024

A Browne bookshelf


I've found these books on Thomas Browne to be useful over the decades. From left to right - 

* Collected Works of Thomas Browne Religio Medici edited by Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti. pub. Oxford University Press 2023

* Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne, The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. edited by C.A.Patrides pub. Uni. of Missouri Press 1982

* The Opium of Time: Gavin Francis pub. Oxford Uni.Press 2023 

* Sir Thomas Browne- Joan Bennett
pub. Cambridge Uni. Press 1962

* The Strategy of Truth – Leonard Nathanson  pub. Uni. Of Chicago 1967

* Sir Thomas Browne: A Doctor’s Life of Science and Faith - J.S. Finch pub. Henry Schuman N.Y. 1950

* 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658) with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended.

Thomas Browne Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. Oxford Uni. Press 2014 

* Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study - Frank Huntley pub.  Uni. of Michigan 1962

*The Miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne edited by Geoffrey Keynes pub. Faber and Faber 1946

*  2 of the 3 volumes of The Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited by Simon Wilkins  pub. Henry Bohn 1832

Not included in photo -

*  A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction  with an Introduction, Notes and Index by J.S. Finch. pub.  E. J. Brill 1986 (Essential for understanding the extraordinary range of Browne's interests and studies).

*  The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited and with an Introduction by C. A. Patrides Penguin  1977 (First favourite).

*  Peter Green Writers and their Work no. 108 pub. Longmans and co. 1959 ( brief but insightful essay 36 pp )

* King James Bible (1611). Fundamental to Browne's spirituality, frequently referenced throughout his writings and a major influence upon his literary style.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

'the Theatre of ourselves' : the proto-psychology of Doctor Browne

Because of the multiplicity of his interests, scientific, antiquarian and esoteric, the philosopher-physician Thomas Browne (1605-82) is often termed a polymath but an equally useful and perhaps preciser definition of him, one which is tailor-made for both his profession and deep interest in people, is that of early or proto-psychologist. 

As a doctor practising in the 17th century Browne had plenty of occasion to observe mental trauma through sickness, disease and bereavement.  Living through one of the most psychologically disturbed times in all English history he was also witness to extremes of human behaviour during the Civil war and its consequences.

Primary elements of Browne's proto-psychology include - a capacity for self-analysis,  a lifelong interest in people, usage of proper-noun symbolism and a fascination with the inner world of dreams. Furthermore, modern scholarship has detected a remarkable relationship between Browne's proto-psychology to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

Officially published in 1643 Browne's Religio Medici remains a classic of World literature; its thought-provoking soliloquies reward the attention of casual reader and academic alike. 

The first ever comparative edition of Religio Medici was published by Oxford University Press in April 2023 after protracted delay. Edited by Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti, the scholarly introduction to the Oxford edition of Browne's Collected Works discusses Religio Medici's major themes and reception, citing the Romantic poet Coleridge, who proposed it should be read  'in a dramatic & not in a metaphysical View - as a sweet Exhibition of character & passion & not as an Expression or Investigation of positive Truth'. [1]

The first volume of the ambitious project to publish a critical edition of the complete works of Thomas Browne reproduces three different versions of Religio Medici for the first time ever. 

The Pembroke manuscript, a subsequent revised version and the official version are all reproduced,  making it easy to identify text which Browne excluded from the authorized version. Only the early Pembroke version includes the following text, declared in a typical fusion of spirituality, scientific credentials and hermetic imagery- 

'Those strange and mystical transmigrations that I have observed in silkworms, turned my Philosophy into Divinity...............I have therefore forsaken those strict definitions of Death, by privation of life, extinction of natural heat, separation &c. of soul and body, and have framed one in hermetical way unto my own fancy - death is the final change, by which that noble portion of the microcosm is perfected (Latin trans.) for to me that considers things in a natural or experimental way, man seems to be but a digestion or a preparative way unto the last and glorious Elixir which lies imprisoned in the chains of flesh'. [2]

The first readers of Religio Medici were at turns shocked, astonished and admiring of Browne's frank display of his enigmatic personality and advocacy for tolerance in religious belief. He also invites his reader to witness the labyrinthine meanderings of his thought. A precocious talent for self-analysis is prominent throughout its pages.

In many ways examination and understanding of self is the bedrock foundation of Browne's proto-psychology; without such rigours he would never have achieved individuation or developed fully in his creativity. In Religio Medici the newly-qualified physician informs his reader of the psychic crisis he experienced in his trial of self- examination. His devout Christian faith was of its time, Hell along with the Devil were very real psychic entities to him in his self-analysis.

'The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in. I feel sometimes a hell within myself, Lucifer keeps his court in my breast, Legion is revived in me'. [3]

'Tis that unruly regiment within me that will destroy me, 'tis I that do infect myself, the man without a Navel yet lives in me;  I feel that original canker corrode and devour me. Lord deliver me from myself'.[4]

'The Devil that did but buffet Saint Paul, plays me thinks at Sharp with me. Let me be nothing if within the compass of my self, I do not find the battle of Lepanto passion against reason, reason against faith, faith against the Devil, and my conscience against all..There is another man within me that's angry with me, rebukes, commands and eastwards me'. [ 5] 

'Thus did the devil did play Chess with me and yielding a pawn thought to gain a Queen from me. And whilst I laboured to raise the structure of my reason he strove to undermine the edifice of my faith'. [6]


Its testimony to his deep interest in people that even when advanced in years, when asked for his medical advice, Browne dutifully made the journey from his home in Norwich to the sea-port of Yarmouth. He recorded his doctor's call on what must be a very early known case of the eating disorder bulimia in a notebook thus-

'There is a woman now Living in Yarmouth named Elizabeth Michell, an hundred and two years old, a person of 4 foot and an half high, very lean, very poor, and Living in a meane room without ordinary accommodation. Her youngest son is 45 years old; though she answers well enough to ordinary Questions, yet she conceives her eldest daughter to be her mother. Butt what is remarkable in her is a kind of boulime or dog appetite; she greedily eating day and night all that her allowance, friends and charitable people afford her, drinking beer or water, and making little distinction of any food either of broths, flesh, fish, apples, pears, and any coarse food in no small quantity, insomuch that the overseers of late have been fain to augment her weekly allowance. She sleeps indifferently well till hunger awakes her and then she must have no ordinary supply whether in the day or night. She vomits not, nor is very laxative. This is the oldest example of the sal esurinum chymicorum, which I have taken notice of; though I am ready to afford my charity unto her, yet I should be loth to spend a piece of ambergris I have upon her, and to allow six grains to every dose till I found some effect in moderating her appetite: though that be esteemed a great specific in her condition'. [7]


Symbols are integral to Browne's proto-psychology. In Religio Medici Egyptian hieroglyphs, the 'book of nature' and music are all proposed to be symbols containing a wealth of hidden spiritual wisdom to the receptive enquirer. The sources of Browne's literary symbolism are varied. The Bible and Greek mythology were two happy hunting grounds for his proper-name symbolism. He was also capable of  developing 'home-grown' symbols such as the urn and quincunx which enable him, 'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, to paradoxically release 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'. [8]  

Geographic place names with their frequently unconscious associations are also utilized by Browne. One in particular made a big impression upon C.G. Jung. 

It was the South African traveller and explorer Laurens van der Post (1906-96) who introduced Carl Jung  to one of Browne's greatest psychological observations. It celebrates the mystery of consciousness and employs an original proper-place name symbolic of the unconscious psyche.  

Van der Post quoted Browne’s bold declaration - 'We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us'; and recorded Jung's response. ‘He was deeply moved. He wrote it down and exclaimed 'that was, and is, just it. But it needed the Africa without to drive home the point in my own self'. Clearly, Jung was impressed by Browne's proto-psychology proper-name symbolism. [9]

It remains unknown whether Jung read Religio Medici which was translated into German in 1746. He was however fond of quoting its title and once stated – ‘For the educated person who studied alchemy as part of his general education it was a real Religio medici  [10]

According to Jung the seventeenth century was the era in which alchemy and hermetic philosophy attained their most significance. In his view Browne’s era was 'one of those periods in human history when symbol formation still went on unimpeded'. He also noted that Hermetic philosophy was, in the main, practised by physicians not only because many known alchemists were physicians, but also because chemistry in those days was essentially a pharmacopeia.  [11] 

From proto-psychologists such as Browne there emerged the beginnings of the modern science of psychology.  As 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]

Jung's psychology is based upon the protean multiplicity of symbols which the human psyche ceaselessly creates. The symbolic meaning of almost every ancient world myth, animal, geometric form, feature of Nature,  planetary god and number is elaborated upon in his writings, for he believed that-  

'The protean mythologeme and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly and, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept; for the symbol not only conveys a visualization of the process but—and this is perhaps just as important—it also brings a re-experiencing it'. [13]

A superb example of how Browne’s proto-psychology anticipates Jung's interpretation of symbols can be  seen in the Roman god Janus. The double-faced god Janus who presents his two faces simultaneously to  the past and future pops up as a proper-name symbol in each of Browne’s literary works. In Urn-Burial  the gloomy but realistic thought that, 'one face of Janus holds no proportion to the other' occurs, while in Cyrus the finger language of  'the mystical statua of Janus' is featured. The double-faced god clearly held proto-psychological significance to Browne. Centuries later, Carl Jung declared the Roman god Janus to be none other than,  'a perfect symbol of the human psyche, as it faces both the past and future. Anything psychic is Janus-faced: it looks both backwards and forwards. Because it is evolving it is also preparing for the future'. [14] 

Listed as once in Browne's library, the five gargantuan tomes of the Theatrum Chemicum were the most popular and comprehensive collection of alchemical literature available in the seventeenth century. A woodcut depicting the Nigredo stage of alchemy is reproduced in its first volume. (above). Encased within a bubble the researcher lays prone with a black crow on his stomach. The five planets and two luminaries orbit above him. The black star of Saturn, a planet long associated with melancholy and isolation as well as deep insight, radiates its dark influence upon the researcher. 

We can be confident Browne perused his edition of the Theatrum Chemicun closely for he 'borrowed'  from the highly moral and psychological writings of the Belgian alchemist Gerard Dorn (c. 1530-84) whose writings form the bulk of its first volume Dorn's image of an 'invisible sun'. Browne's 'borrowing' occurs in the fifth and final chapter of Urn-Burial where he inspirationally declares - 'Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us'.

Though he lacked modern-day terminology Browne nonetheless  was adept in his usage of symbols and imagery in his attempts to describe the workings of the psyche. He was well acquainted through his reading of alchemical literature such as the Theatrum Chemicum with the sophisticated, yet commonplace schemata of the alchemical stages of the opus known as the Nigredo (Blackness) and Albedo (Whiteness). There's strong evidence that this concept is utilized as the framework for his Discourses. A superabundance of similarities can be discerned, far beyond casual coincidence, between the themes, imagery and symbols of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus to those of the Nigredo and Albedo of alchemy. 

C.G. Jung helpfully defines the initial nigredo stage of alchemy thus-        

'the nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced.. grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a katabasis, a journey to the underworld as Dante also experienced it'.  [15] 

Urn-Burial alludes to several 'soul journeys' of classical literature, including Dante's Inferno as well as Homer's Odyssey in which Ulysses descends into the Underworld. the Discourse also alludes to the soul journeys of Scipio's Dream and Plato's myth of Er. The religious mystic in Browne knew that each one of us from our birth, conscious or not of the fact, embarks upon a soul-journey with Death as a final port of call.

Alchemical literature frequently warns the researcher of the dangers of being engulfed and overwhelmed by the dark contents of the initial stage of the nigredo. Browne resisted this peril through professional acumen, but was also aware of how other's succumbed to the despair of the Nigredo -

'It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressional, and otherwise made in vain. [16]

Browne’s proto-psychology in Urn-Burial  stoically notes of the relationship between pain and memory.

‘We slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. … To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature.' [17]

The Nigredo is encapsulated perfectly in Urn-Burial's pithy expression, 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing'.  Though little recognised, Browne's forensic survey of the burial rites and customs of  various world religions, contemplation of ancient world beliefs associated with death and the afterlife along with its mention of putrefaction and mortification makes it the most sustained and exemplary work of the Nigredo stage of alchemy extant in English literature.  

The succeeding stage of the alchemical opus was known as the albedo or whitening in which a widening of consciousness and revelation occurs. The albedo is frequently likened in alchemical literature to the Creation, Paradise and the Garden of Eden, each of which are alluded to in the opening paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus. 

Misapprehension and prejudice continues to bedevil understanding of the vital influence which alchemy, Neoplatonic thought and Hermetic philosophy exerted upon artist, scientist and philosopher alike throughout the Renaissance. Such misapprehensions continue to hamper comprehension of Browne who read and studied alchemical literature closely, as the contents of his library reveals. Along with other spiritual alchemists Browne  intuited the bizarre symbolism and imagery of alchemy as a proto-psychology which discoursed upon the unconscious processes of the psyche to attain self-knowledge and individuation, the very Philosopher's Stone no less. In essence, Browne recognised in alchemical literature a kinship to the moralism and insights of Christian theology. Spiritually orientated alchemy is his greatest interest, as he makes clear in Religio Medici - 

'The smattering I have of the Philosopher's Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold)  hath taught me a great deal of theology'. [18]

Even late in his life, when orthodox in his Christian faith, Browne justified the study of esoteric literature, naming two mystical scientists who he held in high regard in Christian Morals - 'many would be content that some would write like Helmont and Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations'. [19]

The frontispiece to Mario Bettini's Beehives of Univeral Mathematical Philosophy (published in 1656 and listed as once in Browne's library) is a fitting visualization of the overall mood-music of The Garden of Cyrus. In its foreground is a villa courtyard in which mathematical, optical and geometric instruments stand in vases as if cultivated plants. In the centre of the courtyard a peacock stands upon a sphere and displays its feathers, water flows from its feathered eyes creating a streaming fountain. Mercurius, the god of communication and revelation stands aloft a pyramid of skep beehives holding an armillary sphere. Ten bees in quincunx formation hover beside him.

The Garden of Cyrus is crowded with concepts and symbols from various Western esoteric disciplines. The quincunx is one of many symbols featured in the discourse. Although the quincunx is mentioned in classical antiquity the idea of it being a pattern which transcends the realm of the artificial originates from the Renaissance. The idea can be found in book 4 of the Italian polymath and scholar Giambattista Della Porta's vast agricultural encyclopedia known as Villa (1583-1592). Della Porta (1535-1615) asserts in Villa 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 from Della Porta's Villa was borrowed by Browne for the frontispiece of The Garden of Cyrus. Astoundingly, centuries later, C.G. Jung declared the quincunx to be none other than 'a symbol of the quinta essentia which is identical to the Philosopher's Stone'. [20]     

In contrast to Urn-Burial's slow, stately rhythms, The Garden of Cyrus includes many paragraphs of rapid, near breathless prose. In a rare first person outburst Browne couples the game of chess to Persia to Egyptian deities, Hermes Trismegistus to cosmology to the potent alchemical 'coniunctio' symbol of Sol et Luna in a train of stream-of-consciousness association. 

'In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, far different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, which might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sun and Moon'. [21]

While Urn-Burial with its oratorical flourishes and 'full Organ-stop' prose exhibits distinctly baroque traits thematically and stylistically,  in complete contrast The Garden of Cyrus has strong Mannerist characteristics in style and theme. The Hungarian art-historian Arnold Hauser noted that Mannerist art delighted in symbols and hidden meanings and that it had an intellectual and even surrealistic outlook. He also noted that Mannerist art was inclined towards esoteric concepts and defined its qualities and excesses in words easily applicable to  Browne's creativity and the hermetic content of The Garden of Cyrus. 

'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.' [22]

C.G. Jung studied and borrowed from hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike in the development of his psychology. His great achievement was identifying the unconscious imagery of the alchemists to be a proto-psychology which discusses the stages and processes of the psyche in its striving towards Self-realization and individuation. Foremost of all symbols in Jung's psychology are the archetypes, the primordial models of the psyche which he believed  are embedded at the deepest strata of  the collective psyche; some of the most important are the hero, the lover, the Great Mother, the wise ruler and the trickster. 

Although mention of archetypes can be traced back to Plato and Gnostic philosophers, one of the earliest modern usages of the word 'archetype' occurs in The Garden of Cyrus. Browne even attempts to delineate a specific archetype, that of the 'wise ruler' through proper-name symbolism allusion to the Persian King Cyrus, the biblical leaders Solomon and Moses, the Roman Emperor Augustus and the Macedonian Alexander the Great. The  archetype of the 'Great Mother' is also tentatively sketched in Cyrus through allusion to the matriarchal figures of Sarah of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek goddess Juno, and Isis of ancient Egypt.

Another great example of how Browne's proto-psychology anticipates Jung's occurs at the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus with his advising his reader  'to search out the quaternio's and figured draughts of this order'. Its advice was taken seriously by Carl Jung with the Swiss psychoanalyst firmly believing that the quaternity or patterns which are four-fold to invariably symbolize wholeness or totality;  and in fact the earliest known divisions of Space and Time - the four seasons of the Year and the four points of the compass are based upon a quaternity, as are the four humours of ancient Greek medicine along with the four temperaments of medieval medicine as well as the four gospels of the New Testament. Jung even structured his understanding of the psyche upon a quaternity, defining the psyche as comprising of four entities in totality, these being - Rational thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition.  


C.G. Jung once declared - 'the late alchemical texts are fantastic and baroque; only when we have learnt to interpret them can we recognise what treasures they hide'. [23] Today Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) can be identified as Browne's supreme work of proto-psychology. Jam-packed with symbolism and imagery allusive to esoteric concepts, together they form a portrait of the psyche, unconscious and conscious, irrational and rational, stoical and transcendent, fearful of Death yet always planning for the future.  

Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are highly polarised to each other in respective truth, imagery and symbolism. The invisible world of decay and death in Urn-Burial is 'answered' by the visible world of growth and life in The Garden of Cyrus. Imagery of darkness in Urn-Burial  is mirrored by imagery of Light in The Garden of Cyrus. Likewise, the gloomy, Saturnine speculations of Urn-Burial are 'answered' by the cheerful, Mercurial revelations of Cyrus. Together the diptych traces a commonplace route of 'Soul-journey' literature from the Grave to the Garden. Browne’s soul-journey begins in the ‘subterranean world’ of Urn-Burial's opening paragraph and arrives at ‘the City of Heaven’ in the penultimate paragraph of Cyrus. The gordian knot of why these two philosophical discourses of 1658 share a multiplicity of oppositions or polarities thematically and in imagery such as -  Darkness and Light, Decay and Growth, Mortality and Eternity, Body and Soul, Accident and Design, Speculation and Revelation, World and Universe, Microcosm and Macrocosm is swiftly spliced by C. G. Jung's sharp remark - 'the alchemystical philosophers made the opposites and their union their chiefest concern'. [24]

If we choose to reflect in depth on the themes, rich imagery and symbolism within Dr. Browne's major work of proto-psychology and Hermetic philosophy, it can lead us deep into the mysteries of our inner world. Far from the received wisdom of Urn Burial being simply a gloomy essay on Death with an essay on gardening appended to it to bulk out for the printer, as one Victorian literary critic believed, the literary spiritual mandala of Urn-Burial   and The Garden of Cyrus with its Nigredo speculations and Albedo revelations is capable of unlocking the mysteries of the psyche/soul's architecture.

The altered state of consciousness known as dreaming fascinated Browne. It remains unknown why exactly we dream. For most dreams are involuntary,  a sequence of strange events and unfamiliar places which are out of one’s control  and which simply happen to one when asleep. Browne however was one of those fortunate people able to manipulate the sequence of events of a dream at will, so-called lucid dreaming. Supplementing his many observations on dreams in Religio Medici Browne describes his ability to lucid dream 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 fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams'. [25]

For those living in the grim realities of the seventeenth century, the ability to lucid dream must have been a welcome diversion. In tandem with his wide-ranging reading lucid dreaming was rich fuel for Browne’s artistic imagination. 

Concrete evidence of the relationship between Browne’s proto-psychology to modern-day psychoanalysis can be found in his short tract on dreams. Taking his cue from Paracelsus on the psychotherapeutic value of interpreting dreams, especially at a critical stage of a patient’s illness, Browne expounds his theory for interpreting dreams 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'.    [26] 

Browne's proposal that dreams can be interpreted by 'symbolical adaptation' links him closely to Jung's psychology for the Swiss analyst also believed that his patients dreams could be interpreted through 'symbolical adaptation'. 

Browne mentions in his tract that dreams have changed lives, naming J.B. van Helmont and Jerome Cardan as recipients of transformative dreams. And centuries later, after dreaming of being trapped in the 17th century, Jung embarked upon what was to be over thirty years study of alchemy and its literature. 


Writing in 1961 the American psychiatrist Jerome Schneck asserted- 'When Browne is assessed with the context of modern medico-psychological principles, the strength and richness of his thoughts and the appreciation of him as a psychologically minded physician comes to more fruitful expression. It may be reasonable to predict that more elements of interest in Sir Thomas Browne will be discovered in the future. He will find a more significant place in psychiatry. His importance in the history of medicine will be more fully perceived'. [27]

Browne is indeed more interested in the Renaissance discovery of the psyche than in the discoveries made by the two scientific instruments developed in his lifetime, the telescope and microscope. This is because, above all, it is spirituality and the psychic processes of the mind, in particular self-realization and individuation which are his primary concern. Browne's only science of any value is his contribution to the science of the mind. Without doubt he'd have agreed with Carl Jung’s assessment of our modern-day world. 

‘Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter’. [28] 

Today, Sir Thomas Browne can confidently be termed an early or proto-psychologist. His capacity for self-analysis, deep interest in people, usage of symbolism and fascination with dreams are each vital components of his proto psychology. Though lacking in terminology, he nonetheless attempted to  through his proper-name symbolism and imagery such as 'the theatre of ourselves' to delineate the psyche. But perhaps his greatest achievement as a proto psychologist is simply his introduction into English language words useful to his profession such as - ‘medical’ ‘pathology’ 'suicide' ‘hallucination’ and best of all ‘therapeutic’. Furthermore, as I hope I've adequately proved, Thomas Browne’s proto-psychology has a unique, and yet to be fully explored relationship to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

See also 

Above - Author delivering a slightly different version of this essay in the Vernon Castle Room for the Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library, Norwich. October 3rd 2023. 

Photo Header  - Rainbow Bricks Lego 1000 pieces completed October 2023

[1] Collected Works of Thomas Browne Religio Medici edited Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti 
Oxford University Press 2023

Photo  - first volume of  the Collected Writings of Thomas Browne.

[2]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 39
[3]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 51
[4]  Ibid.
[5]  R.M. Part 2 : 7
[6]  R.M. 
[7] Miscellaneous writing Keynes Faber and Faber 1931
[8]  Sir Thomas Browne - Peter Green  pub. Longmans, Green and co. 1959
[9]  ' Jung and the story of our times' Laurens van der Post Penguin 1976
[10]  C.W. vol. 10 :727
[11]  C.W. vol.13:353
[12]  C.W.  vol.14:737
[13] C.W. 13: 199
[14] C.W. vol. 6. Psychological Types (1921)  para. 717

Woodcut from Theatrum Chemicum Sales Catalogue page 24 no. 124  

[15] CW 14:93
[16] Urn-Burial chapter 
[17] Ibid.
[18] R.M. 1 :39
[19]   Christian Morals  Part 2 Section 5 

Photo - Mario Bettini's book is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library on p. 28 no. 16 under Folio by its half-title Fucaria & Auctaria ad Apiaria Philosophiae Mathematicae 1656. 
There are 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. Browne's edition was the earlier Matthias Galasso's frontispiece (below) 

[20]   C.W. 10:737
[21] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 2
[22]  Arnold Hauser -  Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art 
Harvard University Press  1964
[23] 'Memories, dreams, Reflections' C.G. Jung  Chapter 7
[24] Foreword to C.W. vol. 14
[25] Religio Medici Part 2 ; 11
[26] On Dreams
[27] Psychiatric aspects of Sir Thomas Browne  by Jerome Schneck 1961
[28] CW13:163 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

'Compassion is the physician's teacher' : Gavin Francis - 'The Opium of Time'

The 21st century Renaissance of interest in Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) continues to flourish with a new, insightful appreciation by the Edinburgh-based doctor Gavin Francis on the seventeenth century physician-philosopher. The Opium of Time includes a generous selection of quotations from Browne's selected writings relevant to the themes of its eight, stand-alone chapters; these in turn are bookended by two reflective letters addressed to Browne in which the author reminds his reader of the very big differences in belief, culture and science between our world today and the seventeenth century of Browne's era.

Dr. Francis joins the ranks of other physicians who have admired Thomas Browne, these include the distinguished Canadian doctor William Osler (1849-1919), the surgeon Sir Geoffrey Keynes, and the Norwich-based GP Anthony Batty-Shaw (1922-2015). Much of the strength of Dr. Francis's appreciation rests in a shared profession for although separated by centuries he recognises that, in many ways little has changed in the role of his profession since Browne's day.  Faced with human illness and suffering the role of the physician as a well-informed and trusted confidant has altered little. In this respect The Opium of Time transcends the technicalities of literary criticism, highlighting Browne's tolerance, humility and compassion as key components of a shared humanism. The discourse Urn-Burial and Christian Morals in particular are favoured by the author as exemplary of Browne's psychological understanding of the human condition, encapsulated in pithy aphorisms such as 'Sorrows destroy us or themselves'.

Its refreshing to read in The Opium of Time of the influence of the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). During his short life Paracelsus dedicated himself to the art of healing, declaring 'Compassion is the physician's teacher'. Crucially, he urged physicians to experiment upon nature's properties in order to discover new chemicals for medical use, Browne himself knew 'that every plant might receive a name according unto the disease it cureth, was the wish of Paracelsus' [1] As a critical follower of Paracelsus, Browne, like the Swiss physician, was both early chemist and alchemist, the difference between the two activities being fluid not fixed, even with latter scientific figures such as Robert Boyle (1627-91) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). 

Its primarily because of Dr. Francis's non-judgemental mention of the influence of Paracelsian medicine when others have either denounced, or what's worse, ridiculed Browne's 'spagyric' medicine (the Paracelsian neologism 'spagyric' is inscribed in verse on Browne's coffin-plate) that The Opium of Time can be said to be the most insightful book by a medical professional on Browne since William Osler's day, over a century ago.

The parallel between the humility of Christian faith and the humility of caring work in nursing and medicine is noted by Dr. Francis, a staunch advocate of the beloved but beleaguered institute founded upon Christian values known as the NHS. In Browne's day devout physicians took inspiration from Christ's Ministry. [2] While not sharing his subject's religious faith, Dr. Francis nevertheless applauds Browne's Christian stoicism, engendered one suspects, by a shared close proximity to human suffering and mortality in profession. 

Gavin Francis also highlights Browne's little-recognised sense of humour, a tool which used carefully, he suggests, can assist the doctor-patient relationship when faced with seemingly unsurpassable dilemmas. Humour is encountered throughout Browne's writings. His quip on William Harvey's detection of the circulation of the blood as being, “a discovery I prefer to that of Columbus” (i.e that of America) [3] is typical of his dry and learned humour.  Browne's most sustained piece of humour is the hilarious, 'To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer' . It may have been composed in order to cheer up his friend Joseph Hall (1574-1656) who was deposed as Bishop Of Norwich in 1643 for supporting the Royalist cause.   

In addition to examining the influence of piety and humility upon Browne's intellect and spirituality, Dr. Francis also tackles the thorny subject of the physician's involvement in a witch trial, discussing how much he was influenced by the endemic misogyny of his era. Browne never testified at the Bury trial, nor could his opinion have influenced any verdict while the patriarchal authority of the Judaic Old Testament held blind sway over reason. A single verse in the Old Testament sanctioned and 'justified' the legal condemnation to death of what is estimated to have been a quarter million of mostly women throughout Europe from 1400-1700. [4] 

Much has been made on what is one of the very few biographical details known about Browne, often inviting disapproval from a comfortably removed historical perspective. His culpability and supposed failure in risking his status and social standing when faced with mass-mind irrationality and legalized prejudice is often exaggerated. Its worthwhile remembering, as Dr. Francis does, that Browne dedicated a large part of his life to relieving the suffering of others. His psychological observation that, 'No man can justly censure or condemn another because indeed no man truly knows another' seems applicable here. [5]

Dr. Francis shares with his subject in a love of travel, both doctors recognising that travel usually broadens the mind in tolerance, understanding and appreciation of different societies and cultures. Its thus an easy excuse for the author to visit Padua in Italy and Leiden in the Netherlands in search of traces of Browne's academic sojourns. 

Replete with original observations which others have overlooked, Dr. Francis also draws attention to how Thomas Browne when elderly, enjoyed reading, or having read to him, accounts by traveller's from distant lands such as Africa, India and China. Throughout The Opium of Time one also learns more of Dr. Francis's own extensive travels which have included working visits to India and Africa as well as Antarctica. 

In a book engaging in narrative, the author takes delight as many others, in Browne's inventive coining of new words into the English language. Browne's neologisms catered for the need for a preciser vocabulary in the early scientific revolution and many, such as 'electricity' 'ambidextrous' 'network' cater for this need. Through his deep study and understanding of Greek and Latin Browne is also credited with introducing words associated with his profession such as 'medical', 'pathology' and 'hallucination' for example.     

Thomas Browne gave good advice to literary critics when declaring - 'If the substantial subject be well forged we need not examine the sparks which fly irregularly from it'. [6] 

The Opium of Time is a wholly original response to the Renaissance humanism, wit and scholarship of Thomas Browne, nevertheless a few 'irregular sparks' fly from it, silently smouldering in the deep pile carpet of truth. Credence is given to the unreliable narrator of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn who  mischievously supplements fictitious text to  the conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus. A footnote regret that Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia would not have been known to Browne is groundless. Throughout his life Browne kept well-abreast on the latest publications, nationally and internationally. The Sales Auction Catalogue of his and his eldest son Edward's combined libraries is solid evidence of the vast and extraordinary range of Browne's interests. The 1711 catalogue records that Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia (picture below) along with some half a dozen other titles by the Italian zoologist are listed as once in his library. [7]

Nor can one agree that Browne's choice of a 'provincial general practise' is exemplary of his humility. Norwich was England's second city in Browne's day, a position it occupied until the early Industrial Revolution. Densely populated and surrounded by a highly-productive agricultural hinterland, the ancient City had important links in trade, culture and travel to mainland Europe, in particular the Netherlands. As the home to a wealthy gentry who were financially able to consult and afford a doctor's fees, Norwich was an ideal location for an ambitious, newly-qualified physician to establish a medical practise in order to support a wife, home and family. 

But a greater weakness of The Opium of Time is its author's reluctance to acknowledge Browne's esoteric inclinations, resulting in an incomplete portrait of the seventeenth century physician-philosopher. Other than a welcome mention of the medical influence of Paracelsus, Dr. Francis is reluctant to discuss Browne's relationship to esotericism. Its a reluctance which results in the removal of a sentence of text. An entire sentence in which Browne makes a tacit nod to like-minded influences upon him, 'It was the opinion of Plate and is yet of the Hermetical philosophers', is removed and replaced thus .... and not presumably for the purposes of page formatting or in order to save ink. [8]

Such glossing over of Browne's esoteric credentials is regrettable. Its a slippery path to travel upon if, for example, one dislikes the sentiment expressed in a few bars of a Beethoven symphony or imagery in the lines of a Shakespeare sonnet to simply extract and omit them from a work of art. 

It's usually the British historian Dame Frances Yates (1899-1981) who is credited as the first to  explore the vital influence which Western esotericism wielded upon scientists, thinkers and artists of the Renaissance-era. Yates demonstrated Western esotericism to be worthy of academic study. Catholic in faith herself, she also disproved a commonplace misapprehension, that its necessary to personally believe ideas espoused by Western esotericism when studying its influence in intellectual history.

Ever since the humanist scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) introduced Plato's Timaeus to Western readers and attributed his translation of the Corpus Hermeticum to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, numerous thinkers, scholars and artists throughout the Renaissance era (circa 1500-1650) studied and were influenced by Western esoteric concepts such as Neoplatonism, Hermetic philosophy, Cabala, Gnosticism and alchemical symbolism which they incorporated into their art, philosophy or science. Thomas Browne, in common with British contemporaries such as the Welsh clergyman Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666) the Oxford antiquarian Elias Ashmole (1617-92), the Paracelsian physician Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and Arthur Dee (1579-1651) eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee were influenced by the tenets of Western esotericism.  Thomas Browne makes clear his allegiance in Religio Medici  when  emphatically declaring, 'the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes wherein as in a portrait things are not truly seen but in equivocal shapes'. [9] There's no evidence he ever deviated from this opinion in his life-time. Even in Christian Morals a moralistic work believed to have been written late in his life during the mid 1670's which Dr. Francis refreshingly champions for its many profound psychological observations, mention of astrology, physiognomy, the alchemical maxim solve et coagula  along with the mythic Hermes Trismegistus can be found.

The Garden of Cyrus has been described as 'the ultimate test of one's response to Browne'. For Dr. Francis and for many others, its 'the strangest of all Browne's books'. Consulting the well-worn role-call of Browne's literary critics little assists comprehension of its hermetic content. Dr. Johnson from the height of his 18th century Age of Reason in particular was unsympathetic and disparaging towards it. Modern scholarship however recognises a helpful interpreter, one who Gavin Francis mentions in his 'Shapeshifters: A Doctor's Notes on Medicine and Human change'  namely the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Through a judicious application of C.G. Jung's life-long study and understanding of Western esotericism its possible to acquire new insights on Browne's inventive creativity and literary symbolism. 

Dr. Francis notes of a passage in Urn-Burial, that - 'It is almost as if Browne wished death and new life to sit adjacent on the page. He seemed to want to demonstrate the fraternity of life and death, their interdependence.' But in fact its more through the physical binding and union of the diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus that Browne ingeniously demonstrates this fraternity. The somber, saturnine speculations of Urn-Burial are 'answered" by the mercurial garden delights of Cyrus. The gordian knot as to why they exhibit a plethora of oppositions or polarities in  respective themes, truths and imagery such as -  Decay and Growth, Mortality and Eternity, Body and Soul, Accident and Design, Speculation and Revelation, Darkness and Light, World and Universe, Microcosm and Macrocosm, is sundered in C. G. Jung's sharp observation - 'the alchemystical philosophers made the opposites and their union their chiefest concern'. [10] 

Jung's lifetime study of comparative religion and alchemical literature also assists in identifying the source of imagery at the apotheosis of Browne's Urn-Burial  in which he states,  'Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us'. Browne's 'astral imagery' in this case originates from his reading and 'borrowing' imagery by the Belgian alchemist and foremost advocate of Paracelsus, Gerard Dorn whose writings feature in the alchemical anthology known as the Theatrum Chemicum. [11] 

All of which strongly suggests Browne's esoteric inclinations are far greater than usually is acknowledged and none of which distracts from enjoyment of what is a personal appreciation.

Slender in volume but compressed with original observations and well-attuned in empathy with its subject, The Opium of Time will hopefully be enjoyed and enlighten its readers, long may it remain in print. Opium however, in Browne's proper-name symbolism is invariably associated with Oblivion, the philosopher of the Oblivion of Time in Urn-Burial knowing that ultimately little survives the devouring of Time.     

Books consulted

* The Opium of Time: Gavin Francis OUP 2023 

* Shapeshifters: A doctor's notes on medicine and human change Gavin Francis  Wellcome Collection 2016

*  The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited and with an Introduction by C. A. Patrides Penguin  1977

*  A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction  with an Introduction, Notes and Index by J.S. Finch  pub.  E. J .Brill 1986

See also

 *  The Opium of Time  Opiate imagery and drugs in Thomas Browne's  literary works. (2016) 

*   Carl Jung and Thomas Browne On the extraordinary relationship between Jung and Browne

*    Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne

*   A selection of books in Thomas Browne's library

*   To an illustrious friend on his wearisome Chatterer  


[1]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 2 chapter 7

[2] 'And Jesus went about all Galilee ....healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.' Matthew 4:23

[3] In Browne's correspondence to Henry Power

[4] 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' (Exodus 22 verse 18)

[5] Religio Medici Part 2:4

[6] Christian Morals Part 2: Section 2

[7]  Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historicum Bologna 1642. 1711 Sales Catalogue  page 18 no. 23 

[8] Religio Medici Part 1: 32

[9] Religio Medici Part 1 : 12 

[10] In foreword to C.G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis (C.W. vol. 14) 

[11] Over 900 pages of Dorn's writings feature in the first volume of the foremost alchemical anthology of the 17th century, the Theatrum Chemicum.  Browne's copy listed Sales Catalogue. page 25 no. 124.

Jung even took a copy of the Theatrum Chemicum with him when visiting India. In his Mysterium Coniunctionis he states - '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'. - CW. 14: 49


Saturday, April 01, 2023

Vulcan's Aquarium

In reply to a recent enquiry, what exactly is 'the Aquarium of Vulcan' from which this blog is named, its useful to refer to the ancient Greek  literary figure of Athenaeus, author of the Deipnsophistae or 'Banquet of the Philosophers'  the allusive source of the little-known myth of Vulcan's love-gift to Venus.

But first, by far the better-known myth associated with Vulcan is that of the goddess Venus  caught in bed with Mars, trapped by her husband Vulcan throwing an 'invisible net' over the pair of lovers. The Roman poet Ovid supplied rich material for many Renaissance-era artists in his Metamorphoses including a description of how Vulcan responded when discovering Venus and Mars in bed together.

'At once, he began to to fashion slender bronze chains, nets and snares which the eye could not see. The thinnest threads spun on the loom, or cobwebs hanging from rafters are no finer than was that workmanship. Moreover, he made them so that they would yield to the lightest touch, and to the smallest movement. These he set skillfully around his bed.

When his wife and her lover lay down together upon that couch they were caught by the chains, ingeniously fastened there by her husband's skill, and they were held fast in the very act of embracing. Immediately, Vulcan  flung open the ivory doors, and admitted the gods. There lay Venus and Mars, close bound together, a shameful sight. The gods were highly amused; ... They laughed aloud, and for long this was the best-known story in heaven'. [1] 

Vulcan enmeshing Venus and Mars in his net was a popular subject for many Renaissance artists including Velasquez, Tintoretto, Piero di Cosimo, Van Dyck and Rubens. Northern Mannerists artists in particular, such as Wtewael, Spranger and Heemskercke were all attracted to the myth.

Tintoretto in his 'Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan' dated 1551-1552 (below) has Vulcan interrupting Venus and Mar's love-making without his net. Examining by invitation her beauty, in close proximity, Vulcan is momentarily distracted from detecting a seemingly timorous Mars hiding under a bed. 

The Dutch Northern Mannerist artist Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) painted the moment in which Venus and Mars are surprised by Vulcan in three differing versions (below). The main protagonists of the celestial drama with their respective attributes can all be seen in Wtewael's elaborate staging, including Mercury with his caduceus, Saturn with his scythe along with Vulcan preparing to fling his net over the lovers.

Bartholomew Spranger (1546-1611) was a Flemish artist who worked as a Court artist for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. The erotic content of  his 'Vulcan and Venus' (below) is overt with its emphasis upon the Beauty and the Beast aspect of the relationship. The art critic Linda Murray notes of the main  thematic and stylist traits of  Mannerist art - 

'Mannerism can be quite easily recognised and defined: in general it is equated with a concentration on the nude, often in bizarre and convoluted poses, and with exaggerated muscular development; with subject matter either deliberately obscure, or treated so that it becomes difficult to understand -the main incident pushed into the background or swamped with irrelevant figures serving as excuses for displays of virtuosity in figure painting; with extremes of perspective, distorted proportions or scale -figures jammed into too small a space so that one has the impression that any movement would burst the confines of the picture space; with vivid colour schemes, employing discordant contrasts, effects of 'shot' colour, not for descriptive or naturalistic purposes, but as a powerful adjunct to the emotional impact of the picture'. [2]  

Its a seemingly unequal pairing of a submissive Vulcan and dominant Venus in Spranger's interpretation of the two gods relationship.  

With its unusual perspective, depiction of ancient world mythology and eroticism, Maarten van Heemskerck's (1498-1574)  'Venus, Mars and Vulcan'  (below) is closely associated with Northern Mannerist art in subject-matter along with exploring expressions of sexuality. Confident in her seductive qualities, its a not-so demure-looking Venus who gazes into the viewer's eyes in Heemskerck's painting. 

The Graeco-Roman myth of  Mars trapped by Vulcan's net  is included in the hermetic phantasmagoria of the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne's 'network' discourse, The Garden of Cyrus (1658) its full running title being The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Naturally, Artificially, Mystically considered.

'As for that famous network of Vulcan, which enclosed Mars and Venus, and caused that inextinguishable laugh in heaven; since the gods themselves could not discern it, we shall not pry into it. Although why Vulcan bound them, Neptune loosed them, and Apollo should first discover them, might afford no vulgar mythology'.

And in fact the highly symbolic figure of Vulcan opens Browne's hermetic discourse, ('That Vulcan gave arrows to Apollo  and Diana') and ushers its apotheosis in which 'Vulcan and his whole forge sweat to work out Achilles his armour'. 

On a mundane level the appeal of the myth of Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan may be viewed as social commentary upon the rise of adultery in urban Europe. During the Renaissance, with the increase and mix of population in European cities, opportunities for extra-marital affairs grew. The myth served well as a moral warning to its viewers.  Renaissance painters also seized upon the myth of Venus and Mars and its symbolism in order to comment upon war-torn Europe of the late 16th and early 17th centuries for from the union of Venus, the goddess of Peace and Mars, the god of war, a child named Harmony was born. From an esoteric perspective the union of Venus and Mars is a lesser example of the 'coniunctio' or union of opposites in alchemy which was more often symbolized by the luminaries Sol et Luna.

Although Vulcan was famed for his inventiveness, making armour for the hero Achilles and a chair for his mother-in-law from which she could not escape when sitting on, no painting has survived of  his constructing an aquarium for Venus. In any event, Casaubon's edition of Athenaeus's 'Banquet of the Philosophers' was not published until 1612 and therefore no painting of this subject before this date is possible.  There is however at least one Renaissance painting in which Venus is depicted visiting her husband Vulcan's forge, perhaps for the purpose of requesting a love-gift. 

In the Dutch painter Jan van Kessel's 'Venus at the forge of Vulcan'  of 1662 (below) the stark contrast between the naked vulnerability of Venus and the metallic accoutrements of protective armour scattered in its foreground is notable. 

Thomas Browne for one knew that a close relationship existed between the goddess Venus, water and fish. In his commonplace notebooks the following verse couplet can be found-

'Who will not commend the wit of Astrology ? 

Venus born of the sea hath her exaltation in Pisces'. 

Its possible that Thomas Browne knew of the myth of Vulcan's Aquarium for Isaac Casaubon's 1612 edition of Athenaeus's Deipnosophistae, or 'The Banquet of the Philosophers'  is listed as once in his library. Browne also wrote a short, humorous piece entitled 'From a reading of Athenaeus'. [3]

Athenaeus lived in Naucratis circa the late 2nd to early 3rd century CE In his day Naucratis was an important Egyptian  harbor and a dynamic melting-pot of Greek and Egyptian art and culture. Its also the setting of 'The Banquet of the Philosophers' in which characters such as physicians, philosophers, grammarians, parasites and musicians discuss topics as diverse as Baths, Wine, invented words, feasts and music, useless philosophers, precious metals, flatterers, gluttony and drunkenness, hedonism and obesity, women and love, mistresses and courtesans, the cooking of fish and cuisine in general, ships, entertainment, luxury and  perfumes.

In total the 15 books of the 'Banquet  of the  philosophers',  mention almost  800 authors. Over 2500 separate works are cited in it, making it a valuable source of numerous works of Greek literature which otherwise would have been lost, which includes three surviving lines on Vulcan's aquarium. 

James Russell Lowell famously characterized the Deipnosophistae as -'the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus is turned to gold by time'. In the seventeenth century there was a revived interest in the Banquet of the Philosophers following its publication by the scholar Isaac Casaubon  (1559-1614) in 1612. The  commentary to the text was Isaac Causabon’s magnum opus. Incidentally it was the scholarship of Isaac Causabon which proved from his textual analysis of  the Corpus Hermeticum that it could not have been written by the mythic ancient Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus who anticipated the coming of Christ, as commonly believed, but in fact was a syncretic work of  Gnostic and Greek philosophy dated centuries after Christ's era, circa 200 and 300 CE.

By all accounts Athenaeus was a favourite author of Thomas Browne for he stated in his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica-

'Athenæus, a delectable Author, very various, and justly stiled by Casaubon, Græcorum Plinius (Greek Pliny) . There is extant of his, a famous Piece, under the name of Deipnosophista, or Coena Sapientum, containing the Discourse of many learned men, at a Feast provided by Laurentius. It is a laborious Collection out of many Authors, and some whereof are mentioned nowhere else. It containeth strange and singular relations, not without some spice or sprinkling of all Learning. The Author was probably a better Grammarian then Philosopher, dealing but hardly with Aristotle and Plato, and betrayeth himself much in his Chapter De Curiositate Aristotelis. In brief, he is an Author of excellent use, and may with discretion be read unto great advantage: [4]

From his reading of Athenaeus Browne knew of ancient world sexual activities -   

'The impudent wantonness of the ancients placed sponges in the natural parts of women that by expanding they might produce a lewd and as it were haunching movement in the female, whence a keener lust is provoked in the male. In the elaborations of coition almost nothing has been untried, so that the indecent egg of Marcellus Empiricus is no marvel. Away with these foolish toys of lust'. 

Its in book 2 of  'Banquet of the Philosophers'  that Athenaeus records how the blacksmith of the gods Vulcan set about creating sheets of glass which he bonded together with an early version of tungsten steel. Tungsten is one of the oldest elements used for alloying steel. It forms a very hard carbide and iron tungstite. High tungsten content in the alloy however tends to cause brittleness and makes it subject to fracturing rather than bending. Somehow Vulcan over came this weakness, its speculated through adding 'the salty sweat' of his workshop labourers to the molten crucible. 

The little-known myth is recounted in the Deipnosophistae after heated discussion upon the best sauces to prepare for fish.  The  courtesan and lute-player musician Callipygae recites three verses from a long-lost comedy, now known only by the title of The Chessmen of Odysseus. Its believed that the following lines specifically allude to Vulcan's aquarium -

 As the Pleiades ascended, Vulcan's workshop laboured,

the sound of hammer on anvil could be heard 

echoing through mountains

 until rosy dawn glowed furnace-like in the east. 

 Salty sweat streamed in torrents into hissing troughs, 

smelting and refining the dross. 

Crafted and ready 

to bind with ox-like ribs the thick and cloudy glass,

Vulcan's love-gift  for Venus. 

[6]  (Book 2 Lines 27-29 ) 

Aquariums are mysterious habitats which often evoke great underwater beauty. They function well as calming distractions and their psychological benefits include reducing stress. Looking into an aquarium, observing fish swimming care-free, helps people momentarily forget their worries. 

The symbol of the aquarium invites speculation and analysis. For the seminal twentieth century psychologist C.G. Jung -

'The protean mythologem and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly than, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept.' [7] 

Perhaps Venus made her request to test the fullness of Vulcan's forgiveness, or else to alleviate her boredom with Vulcan spending long hours away from her at the forge, or simply for her amusement and pleasure, its not really known. Nor is it known how many or what kind of fish she choose to place in her aquarium. But whether Vulcan manufactured his love-gift for Venus specifically for any of these reasons remains unclear. What is clear is that the fish in the Aquarium of Vulcan are far more playful than previously imagined. 


[1] Ovid Metamorphosis  Book 4 lines 180-190

[2] The High Renaissance and Mannerism Linda Murray Thames and Hudson 1977

[3]  1711 Sales Auction Catalogue page 7 no. 67

[4]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica . Bk.1 chapter 8

[5] From a reading of Athenaeus 

[6] Deipnosophistae Book 2 lines 27-29

[7] Collected Works of C.G.Jung vol. 13  Alchemical Studies (1967) para. 199


Friday, February 24, 2023

The comic genius of Jan van Haasternen

Celebrating the comic genius of  Jan van Haasternen on the occasion of his birthday, with a brief look at his artwork, alongside Dutch 'Golden Age' paintings.


Jan van Haasteren (b. February 24th 1936 - ) was born  in Schiedam in the region of South Holland in the Netherlands.  His early childhood years were lived through the second World War. He later attended technical school, where he learned to become a home decoration painter, and then studied Publicity and Advertising at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam. After his military service he began his career with a small Rotterdam-based advertising agency. He joined the Marten Toonder studios in 1962 and began freelancing in 1967. Throughout the 1960's and 70's Jan worked with a wide variety of  magazine advertising  agencies and comic strip publishers. 

Jan van Haasternen joined Jumbo puzzles in 1980 and has now supplied the jigsaw manufacturing company with over two hundred of his inventive, action packed tableaux in which almost anything and everything is happening at the same time. An early example of Jan's comic strip art style can be seen in his popular 'Baron von Tast'  series. (Below)

In 'The Bachelor' (below) an unmarried man engaged in domestic chores, tidies away his pet octopus. A mysterious hand grasps to stop the pendulum of a Grand-father clock which has the ages of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years inscribed upon its face.

Two regular characters in Jan's comic puzzles are featured in his earliest artwork for Jumbo. In 'The Classroom' (below) a teacher screams in fright at a mouse whilst a cat sleeps undisturbed on top of a locker. The school children are absorbed in their own fun and games and aren't concerned at all with their teacher's alarm !

'Get that cat !' an early artwork supplied by Jan for Jumbo puzzles (below) displays a variety of architectural styles which are the background to a pack of dogs gathered to catch a cat. They've surrounded a tree in which the cat sits, calm and safe above them all. A spotty Dalmatian dog and a tabby cat are the oldest characters regularly featured in Jan's puzzle art. 

With his industrious inventiveness,  ability to supply a near endless variations upon a theme, accompanied by a humorous multiplicity of action, its not too bold to state that Jan's skillful draughtsmanship, along with his astute observation of people, shares characteristics with artists of the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. Indeed, Jan's own hometown, Schiedam, was also the birthplace of the gifted 'Golden Age' artist Adam Pynacker. Like many Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, Adam Pynacker (1622-79) had a relatively short life. He's noted for painting in the fashionable and popular Italian style which often featured ancient ruins in a rural setting lit by a glowing, south of the Alps sunlight, as in his Landscape with a Goatherd (Below)

Adam Pynacker -Landscape with a goatherd

There's one Dutch painter in particular whose art shares fruitful comparison to Jan van Haasternen's, its by another Jan, the most Dutch of all Dutch names, the artist Jan Steen (1626-79). Jan Steen's paintings capture the lives of the ordinary Dutch citizens enjoying life, often drinking, music-making and playing pranks upon each other. The chaos and disorder often to be found in Jan Steen's paintings is not so removed from Jan van Haasternen's comic art, but without Steen's moralising. In  Jan Steen's 'A School class' the moral lesson that its bad teachers who make bad schoolchildren is underscored with anarchy and chaos reigning supreme in the classroom.

Jan Steen - A School Class (circa 1670)

The prosperous times of the Dutch Republic resulted in an estimated million paintings being bought and owned by ordinary citizens in a short, historical era. The art genres of landscape, portraiture, still life, maritime scenes and depictions from mythology and the Bible were all popular, as was a genre known as 'merry group' art, such as in Jan Steen's, 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young' dated circa 1668-1670 (above).

Sometimes allusion to famous Dutch or Flemish art is easily detected. Michel Ryba's 'The Seasons' (detail below) explicitly alludes to Pieter Breugel's famous painting known as ' The Hunters in the Snow' (1565).

The Dutch nation have long been renowned for their peaceful and tolerant attitude whilst living in close proximity to each other. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Dutch Proverbs' (below) over 126 proverbs are referenced, including, 'Horse droppings are not figs' meaning appearances are deceiving, 'There's more in it than an empty herring' meaning, there's more than meets the eye, 'to hang one's cloak according to the wind' meaning to adapt one's viewpoint to the current opinion, and 'he who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again'. (Don't cry over spilt milk.) The sheer profusion of people in Bruegel's 'Dutch proverbs' is suggestive of the thriving, dense population of the Netherlands during the Renaissance and equally true of modern-day Netherlands.

Jan's view of art and of the public viewing of art in galleries is encapsulated in a puzzle below.

Jan van Haasternen's comic art for Jumbo puzzles often involves a crowd of participants, male and female, young and old, cheerful and annoyed, engaged in a multiplicity of antics and pranks, not least in his 'Acrobat Circus' (Below). Several regulars characters in Haasternen's puzzles including a bishop (swinging on a rope) a convict, a pink octopus and Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin cutting through the action, can be spotted. By the way double-clicking on these images enlarges them for greater detail, especially if using a lap-top.

'Acrobat Circus'

'St. George and the Dragon'

'The Holiday Fair'


The outdoor scene 'Winter Games' (below) is one of my personal favourites. Its exemplary of Jan's superb draughtsmanship skills, bringing alive a wide expanse with great depth of field perspective. As ever Jan's signature motif, a shark's fin can be spotted by the sharp-eyed, silently cutting its way through the hilarious action.

In 2013 Jan van Haasternen became a Knight  of the Order of Orange-Nassau for his contributions to Dutch comics culture and for his role as an inspirer of comic artists and illustrators. And in 2021 he and other members of Studio Van Haasteren (notably Dick Heins and Rob Derks) were awarded the P. Hans Frankfurther Prize for special merits. 

But perhaps the greatest award and achievement of the comic genius of Jan van Haasternen is the simple fact that Jan's puzzles gave cheer to countless puzzlers, young and old, during the long days and nights of the global pandemic (2020-22). At a time when many were time rich as never before, socially isolated and in need of mental stimulation, jigsaws, not least by Jan van Haasternen occupied the minds of many world-wide, effectively offering escape from gloomy days, giving a challenge and a chuckle during their construction, along with a real sense of accomplishment upon completion. 

I'm confident that admirers of JvH jigsaws will today raise a glass on the occasion of the artist's 87th birthday, and toast with me to the good health of the comic genius, Jan van Haasternen. 

See also