Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stargazing with Dr. Browne

The physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) occupies a unique place in Western intellectual history. The age in which he lived, the greater part of the seventeenth century, has been described as a century of transition and one of fundamental change. Predominantly religious in outlook in its opening, it was scientific in perspective by its end. Sir Thomas Browne's response to this seismic shift in Western consciousness is one of balanced equilibrium; neither unreservedly advocating advancement of the new science, nor renouncing of his life-long interest in esoteric and Hermetic ways of thinking. As one critic noted - 

'to the student of the history of ideas in its modern sense of the inter-relation of philosophy, science, religion and art, Browne is of great importance'. [1] 

Browne himself seems to have been aware of his Janus-like place in intellectual history when confessing in Religio Medici (1643) - 

'In Philosophy where truth seems double-faced there is no man more paradoxical than myself’.[2] 

Browne’s ‘paradoxical philosophy’ is exemplified in his appreciation of the new science of astronomy alongside a more than casual interest in the esoteric art of astrology ; subjects which for centuries co-existed but which began to go their quite separate ways in his life-time. Remarks and observations upon astronomy as well as astrology can be found in each and every book by the Norwich physician-philosopher.

Browne proclaims his knowledge of astronomy in his Religio Medici, revealing himself as someone who doesn’t always suffer fools gladly, declaring-

'I know the names, and somewhat more, of all the constellations in my Horizon, yet I have seen a prating Mariner that could only name the Pointers and the North Star, out-talk me, and conceit himself a whole Sphere above me'. [3]

The newly-qualified physician also informs his reader in Religio Medici that -

'I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn, and I think I have a piece of that Leaden Planet in me'. [4] 

and - ‘If there be any truth in Astrology, I may outlive a Jubilee, as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years’. [5]

In these characteristic fusions of medical and scientific imagery, Browne seems concerned with a highly-significant approaching astrological event in his life, the so-called 'Saturn Return' of astrology, a strong, though little commented upon incentive for his putting pen to paper in order to write his spiritual testament and psychological self-portrait. 

In  astrology Saturn is a malefic planet of restriction, contraction, limitation and melancholy. The astrological term of the Saturn return occurs when the planet Saturn returns to the same place it occupied at a person's birth.  The influence of the Saturn return is considered to start in the person's late twenties, notably from the age of 27 until around 30. Astrologers believe that when Saturn "returns" to the same degree in its orbit it occupied at the time of birth, a person crosses over a major threshold and enters the next stage of life. Psychologically, the first Saturn return is seen as the time of reaching full adulthood, and being faced with adult challenges and responsibilities. With the second Saturn return, full maturity occurs. And with the third and usually final return, a person enters wise old age. These periods are estimated to occur at the ages of 27-31, 56-60 and 84-90. 

Browne’s subsequent publication, the encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) was a vanguard work of scientific journalism which went through 6 editions in his life-time.  Translated into several languages it earned its author European fame. The bulk of Browne’s science can be found in its pages, including experiments with magnetism and static electricity as well as numerous examples of ‘occular observation’ along with introducing hypothesis and deductive reasoning to the general reading public. Browne's major contribution to the English Scientific Revolution has often been under-estimated. Pseudodoxia Epidemica was respected and inspirational to a whole generation of younger English scientists who increasingly did not work empirically 'in the field’ as much as engage in abstract reasoning, as Newton’s discoveries demonstrated. 

A somewhat simplistic analogy of Browne’s place in the English Scientific Revolution can be made in the form of a circuit of a  relay race. Browne receives and firmly  grasps the baton from the early English scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) heeding Bacon’s exhortation of 'ocular observation’ along with rational deduction, as illustrated throughout the pages of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Indeed, the opening lines of its address ‘To the Reader’ echoes the very same words as those found in an essay by Bacon.[6] 

Browne is fast off the blocks while all around him are engaged in the horrors of the English Civil war (1642-49) and is responsible in passing on the baton of scientific enquiry from Bacon to a number of  men of science and learning who engaged in correspondence with him, these include Robert Boyle, Christopher Merret, Henry Power, Henry Oldenburg, John Evelyn, Walter Charleton and William Dugdale amongst many others. Several of these correspondents became participating members of the Royal Society. The Royal Society’s endorsement of scientific enquiry and  public debate passes the baton on for one final leg to its most illustrious member, Isaac Newton, who mathematically deduced the laws of gravity. In Newton’s discoveries the team-work of several generations of English scientists collectively achieve the victory of first past the post in the seventeenth century scientific revolution. 

In essence however, Browne, like his mentor Francis Bacon, held fast to a double theory that, while sense and experience are the sources of our knowledge of the natural world, faith and inspiration are the sources of our knowledge of the supernatural, of God, and of the rational soul. 

A fruitful comparison can also be made between Browne and the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler’s life like Browne’s, spanned a watershed in scientific thought. The German astronomer augmented his rational inductive science and the astronomical discoveries of Galileo with Neoplatonic and Pythagorean ideas. Kepler’s astronomical discoveries were as much structured upon precise mathematical calculation as deeply held theological beliefs and God-given revelation; his scientific perspective, not unlike Browne’s, were a complex fusion of Christian awe of the Creation, along with precise analysis as well as concepts originating from the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Pythagoras. Whilst Kepler extolled the virtues of the number six in his study of snowflakes, the number five is celebrated in Browne’s discourse The Garden of Cyrus

Like his near exact contemporary Francis Bacon (1561-1626) Kepler believed in two, quite contrasting sources of knowledge, only one of which is credited nowadays. In addition to natural forms of knowledge obtained through reason, hypothesis, deduction and experiment, he also believed in supernatural sources of knowledge such as astrology. Even the scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1726) it is now known, believed in these two kinds of knowledge, namely natural and supernatural. 

Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion were fundamental contributions to Newton's development of a theory of gravity, whilst his strong astrological inclinations were responsible for introducing the aspect of the Quincunx to denote planets 150 degrees apart. Unsurprisingly, Kepler’s books are well-represented in Browne’s library. [7]

As with Kepler, the seventeenth century Norwich physician-philosopher just won’t fit neatly into tight, restrictive 21st definitions, no matter how much certain science journalists attempt to do so. [8]

Browne's beliefs, paradoxical to modern sensibilities are evident in the fact that in Pseudodoxia Epidemica he not  demonstrates an understanding of astronomy in conjunction to ideas on astrological correspondences. Thus its possible for him to make the astronomical observation-

'For if we consult the Doctrine of the sphere, and observe the ascension of the Pleiades, which maketh the beginning of Summer, we shall discover that in the latitude of 40, these stars arise in the 16 degree of Taurus; but in the latitude of 50, they ascend in the eleventh degree of the same sign, that is, 5 days sooner'. [9] 

as well as the astrological speculation -  

'since the natures of the fixed Stars, are astrologically differenced by the Planets, and are esteemed Martial or Jovial, according to the colours whereby they answer these Planets; why although the red Comets do carry the portensions of Mars, the brightly-white should not be of the Influence of Jupiter or Venus, answerably unto Cor Scorpii and Arcturus; is not absurd to doubt'. [10]

Its also in Pseudodoxia Epidemica that the first recorded usage of the word ‘Selenography’ occurs, amongst numerous words introduced by Browne into the English language. Although  its not listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward’s libraries, Browne must surely have perused a copy of the Polish astronomer Hevelius’ Atlas of the moon, Selenographia (1647) in order for him to state-  

'And therefore the learned Hevelius in his accurate Selenography, or description of the Moon, hath well translated the known appellations of Regions, Seas and Mountains, unto the parts of that Luminary: and rather then use invented names or humane denominations, with witty congruity hath placed Mount Sinai, Taurus, Mæotis Palus, the Mediterranean Sea, Mauritania, Sicily, and Asia Minor in the Moon'. [11]

The Copernican heliocentric universe seems to be somewhat reluctantly accepted by Browne in Religio Medici when stating - 'I conclude therefore and say, there is no happiness under (or as Copernicus will have it, above) the Sun'. [11b]

Galileo's great work of astronomy Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (1635) advocating the Copernican heliocentric universe, along with its English translation known as The Two World Systems (1661) is in Browne's library, but the Polish astronomer's great work is not to be found listed as once upon his library-shelves.  However, an edition of the Dutch astronomer Christiaan van Huygens (1629-95) study of the planet Saturn, the first to accurately detect and describe the planet's ring-system, Systema Saturniun (pub.1659) is listed as once upon his library shelves, suggesting that the Norwich doctor kept up to date with astronomical discoveries. 


Nowhere in his collected writings is there greater evidence of Browne's subscribing to the tenets of Hermetic philosophy than in his diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Never intended by their author to be separated, a common modern-day publishing error, together they are structured upon a fundamental tenet of Hermeticism, namely the myriad of correspondences between Microcosm and Macrocosm. The subject of Urn-Burial being the small, little world of mortal man, the Microcosm, whilst The Garden of Cyrus concerns itself with the universal and eternal, the Macrocosm. 

A number of polarities involving truth, imagery and symbolism can be detected in Browne's diptych discourses, among them (and this list is far from exhaustive) - unknowingness and revelation, Darkness and Light, along with symbolism of the tomb/womb, and the Grave and Garden. Their plexiformed relationship  often works through unconscious association upon the reader. Together their respectives themes of Time and Space form a mandala-like unity. Even stylistically they are antithetical to each other. The baroque flourishes and slow, stately prose of  Urn-Burial is stylistically far removed from the breathless and experimental, Mannerist in concept, numerological preoccupations of The Garden of Cyrus.

Several of Browne's amateur hobbies are featured in the Discourses, notably antiquarianism and archaeology in Urn-Burial, whilst optics and botany are prominent in The Garden of  Cyrus. Each  discourse also includes remarks and observations upon astronomy and astrology. (Incidentally, the word ‘polarity’ is yet another word introduced into the English language by Browne).

The theme of the unknowingness of the human condition is amplified in Urn-Burial in a passage on the astronomical phenomena of newly discovered stars and sunspots, detected by ‘Perspectives’, as telescopes were once known as. The new discoveries of astronomy revealed to those living in the seventeenth century that the Universe may be neither as fixed nor as stable as once believed by the ancient world of Ptolemaic astronomy. 

'whereof beside Comets and new Stars, perspectives begin to tell tales. And the spots that wander about the Sun, with Phaetons favour, would make clear conviction'.

Browne’s knowledge of astronomy was sufficiently advanced to know that one face of the moon,  the so-called  dark side of the moon, is permanently invisible to human eyes -

.’.....while according to better discovery the poor Inhabitants of the Moon have but a polary life, and must pass half their days in the shadow of that Luminary'.

The apotheosis of Urn-Burial includes an example of Browne's unique astral symbolism,  the learned Norwich physician-philosopher declaiming -

'Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible sun within us'.

Besides being a fine example of Browne’s frequent usage of the literary device of parallelism, that is, stating the same thing twice contrastingly, this superb fusion of Browne’s scientific, spiritual and psychological learning deserves elaboration. The idea of an ‘invisible sun’ can be found in the writings of the Belgian physician Gerard Dorn (1530-84) the foremost promoter of the ideas of the alchemist Paracelsus and whose principal works can be found in the vast compendium Theatrum Chemicum  [12] The notion of an 'invisible sun’ can be traced even further back in time to the source of much Christian mysticism, that of Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, a Christian theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century CE. 

Perhaps one of the most accessible books in recent years on the beginnings of Western science is Philip Ball’s, ‘Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything’ (2013). Those wishing to understand the beginnings of modern-day Scientific enquiry and the vital influence which Hermeticism wielded in its development are recommended to consult its pages. For example, Philip Ball notes of the Elizabethan mathematician and magus John Dee (1527-1608) whose eldest son Arthur Dee (b. Manchester 1572 d. Norwich 1651) was a close friend of Browne’s -

 ‘Like Kepler, Galileo and later Newton, Dee held that the secrets of the world were at root mathematical and geometrical’ and crucially, ‘we have been encouraged to divorce mathematical and geometrical reasoning from its strong Renaissance associations with magic’. [13] Philip Ball’s remarks on Dee are equally applicable to Browne’s own scientific perspective, not least in the transcendent geometry and ‘mystical mathematics’ in the discourse The Garden of Cyrus.   

The Garden of Cyrus

No literary work of Browne’s demonstrates his esoteric approach to science better than The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Its primary objective is advocation, via the Quincunx pattern, of God as a skillful geometrician and the intelligent Designer of the universe. Browne’s quinary quest cites examples of the Quincunx, amongst other inter-related symbols including the lattice pattern, the figure of decussation X and the number five, in subjects as diverse as - Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion, especially the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world plantations and gardening, geometry, including the Archimedean solids, sculpture, numismatics, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics, including the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least numerous botanical  observations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity.

The Discourse opens dramatically with a dazzling fusion of comparative religion, optical imagery and cosmology  -

'That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology, may pass for no blind apprehension of the Creation of the Sun and Moon, in the work of the fourth day When the diffused light and shooting rays of those Luminaries contracted into orbs’.

There's a generous amount of highly original astral symbolism sprinkled throughout the pages of The Garden of Cyrus, while mention of astronomical constellations, in conjunction with Browne’s subtle humour can be found in the opening of the Discourse’s central, third chapter-

'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 stellar 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 Pythagorical Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarel in his Starry Book of Heaven....'

But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx of the Hyades upon the head of Taurus....

In a literary work jam-packed with esoteric references, Browne's numerological quest can be seen to endorse the teachings of the seminal scholar Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) who was responsible for re-introducing Pythagorean 'mystical mathematics' to Renaissance Europe, advocating-  

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

In many ways The Garden of Cyrus is a highly-condensed compendium of esoteric topics which fascinated Browne. It includes the astrological speculation-  

'Under what abstruse foundation Astrologers do Figure the good or bad Fate from our Children, in a good Fortune, or the fifth house of their Celestial Schemes. Whether the Egyptians described a Star by a Figure of five points, with reference unto the five Capital aspects, whereby they transmit their Influences, or abstruser Considerations ?'

The same curious mixture of  a critical belief in  astrology and  an awareness of the discoveries of astronomy occurs in Browne's posthumous collection of short essays unimaginatively entitled by  its literary executor as Christian Morals (1716). 

In Christian Morals (circa 1670 pub. post. 1716) Browne introduces into English language the astronomical description of stars as seen in the Milky Way as 'nebulous’ and 'lacteous’, declaring -

'numerous numbers must be content to stand like lacteous or nebulous stars, little taken notice of, or dim in their generations'. [14]  

Browne's cosmological speculations led him to the profound observation that - 'The created world is but a small parenthesis in eternity'. [15]

Its also in Christian Morals that Browne’s ambiguous relationship to astrology can be detected. He’s highly critical of natal astrology when declaiming -

'Burden not the back of Aries, Leo, or Taurus, with thy faults, nor make Saturn, Mars, or Venus, guilty of thy Follies'.  [16]

And effectively demolishes the claims of the astrological birth-chart in his sharp observation - ‘for some are Astrologically well-disposed who are morally highly viscous’. [17]

However, far from entirely dismissing the esoteric art, Browne also speculates -

'If we rightly understood the Names whereby God calleth the Stars, if we knew his Name for the Dog-Star, or by what appellation Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn obey his Will, it might be a welcome accession unto Astrology, which speaks of great things, and is fain to use  Greek and Barbaric systems'.[18]

A quite emphatic statement by Browne demonstrating his critical belief in astrology can be seen in his stating in Christian Morals -

'And therefore the Wisdom of Astrologers, who speak of future things, hath wisely softened the severity of their Doctrines; and even in their sad predictions, while they tell us of inclination not coaction from the Stars, they Kill us not with Stygian Oaths and merciless necessity, but leave us hopes of evasion'.  
(Part 3: 16)

Nor can one omit mention of  a couplet found in Browne's Commonplace notebooks-

'Who will not commend the wit of astrology ?
Venus born out the sea hath her exaltation in Pisces.'

Browne kept abreast and well-informed of the latest scientific discoveries throughout his life. Astronomy seems to have been of great interest to him in his later years. Writing to his eldest son Edward Browne (1644-1708) resident in Rome on his travels, he confirms of their joint eye-witnessing -

'I see the little comet or blazing star every clear evening, the last time I observed it about 42 degrees of height, about 7 o’ clock, in the constellation of Cetus, or the whale, in the head thereof; it moveth west and northly, so that it moveth towards Pisces or Linum Septentrionale pisces. Ten degrees is the utmost extent of the tail...That which I saw in 1618 began in Libra, and moved northward, ending about the tail of Ursa Major; it was far brighter than this, and the tail extended 40 degrees, lasted little above a month. This now seen hath lasted above a month already, so that I believe from the motion that it began in Eridanus or Fluvius'.  [19]

He even considers acquiring astronomical instruments, writing to Edward Browne-

'..some that have had them tell me there is account made of some kind of spectacles without glasses, and made by a little trunk or case to admit the species with advantage. ....I hear such instruments are made and sold in London; and some tell me they have had them here. Enquire after them, and where they are made, and send a pair, as I remember there is no great art in the making thereof'.  [20]

However, although his eye-sight seems as sharp as ever, his advanced years are now of little help for stargazing, writing to Edward -

'The stream or tail of the comet was very long, when I saw it, in a clear  night, and I believe it was the same night when you saw it,  at St. Albans ; but the weather was so piercing cold, that I  could not endure to stand in it, otherwise I might have taken the altitude of the star or head of the comet, and then  reckoned the length of the tail to our vertical point, and then, allowing for the altitude, I might have seen how much  of ninety degrees the tail took up ; as, if the altitude were 30 degrees, the tail, coming to the vertex, must be sixty degrees extended'. [21]

Comets remain  of interest to Browne, when writing to Edward Browne, less than two years before his death -

'The news letters mentioned it, but to little or no purpose, or any information. We have had somewhat cloudy or foggy evenings, so that we hear no more of it, and this day was clear and frosty, and the sun set very bright and red, but we could not see a star, it was so misty this night, while I am writing, which is between seven and eight o'clock. I never saw a large and very long tail of a comet, since 1618, when I was at school. I believe it will be much observed and discoursed, and accounts given of it by the R. S. (i.e. Royal Society) and observers beyond sea'. [22] 

Browne also demonstrates his understanding of parallaxis, explaining the astronomical term to his eldest son thus -

'By this parallaxis astronomers find out the comet's distance from the earth ; and, in that of 1618, they found it to be as far above the moon as  the moon is above the earth, and so find out its place, or sphere it is in, which I believe will be performed, or is already, by some astronomers'. [23]

He advises his son - 'You might do well to have a figure of parallaxis, and to understand it, for it may be very useful, and is in many books. Now, if this comet be very high, and at a great distance above the moon, or in the sphere of Mercury or Venus, it will have but little parallaxis, and so we may conclude that it is above the moon'. [24] 

Perhaps Browne's late interest in astronomy was the result of his having a mystical apprehension of stars as the source of all life on Earth. Our own star, the sun supports and sustains all life on earth, including humanity.

In essence, Browne's scientific outlook was forever inclined towards the tenets of Hermeticism with its correspondences, analogies and polarities, concepts not always conducive to modern quantitative science. Browne was also a believer in unquantifiable aesthetic principles such as symmetry, harmony, order and proportion, and for this reason he never fully embraced the discoveries of a science which challenged or refuted concepts such as his beloved 'music of the Spheres' or the eternal patterns and archetypes of an Intelligent or Grand Designer.

Its thus as a paradoxical figure in intellectual history, with one foot planted firmly in esoteric lore and the other, in modern scientific enquiry that Browne reveals himself to us today. His holistic approach to medicine and critical following of Paracelsus marks him as a progressive-thinking medical man in seventeenth century England. Indeed, it's in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, not astronomy that Browne's greatest achievements lay. Its not without significance that the double-faced figure of Janus, one of Browne's favourite symbols, which the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung considered to be a 'perfect symbol of the Psyche',  or that one of the very earliest usages of the word  'Archetype'  occurs in Browne's literary works.

To summarize, Browne's place in intellectual history, as one of the very last Renaissance men who held an equal interest in both astrology and the newly developing science of astronomy is paradoxical to modern sensibilities, forever insistent upon Either/Or.

Yet its precisely because of Sir Thomas Browne's consultation of both natural and supernatural knowledge that he may be defined as much an early chemist as an alchemist, as much an Hermetic philosopher as advocate of rational, deductive science and as much an astrologer as vigorous promoter of the new science of astronomy. And this is precisely why Norwich's very own 'Starman' remains a controversial and little-understood, yet also highly significant figure in Western intellectual history. 

Science and Astronomy books in Browne’s library includes -

Robert Boyle - Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy, London 1671 
Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Trent 1635
Sidereus Nuncius, London 1653
Two World Systems Englished by T. Sainsbury, 1661
William Gilbert. De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure 1600
Robert Hooke - Lectures, London 1678
Christian Huygens - Systema Saturnium, The Hague 1659
Johannes Kepler -  Mysterium Cosmographicum, Tübingen 1596
Kepler - de Stella nova in pede Serpentis, Prague 1606

Highly Recommended

* Philip Ball - Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything pub. Vintage 2013
* Wonders of the Solar System presented by Professor Brian Cox BBC DVD 2010

Also consulted

Star Names : Their Lore and Meaning Richard Hinckley 1899 Allen Dove pub. 1963

Ingenious Pursuits : Building the Scientific Revolution Lisa Jardine pub. Little, Brown and co. 1999


Images Top -Dying double helix Nebula in the constellation Aquarius
Next - Hevelius Selenographia
Next - Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus
Next - Galaxy in which our own solar system is located
Next - Comet ISON
Last -  A Page from a Star Atas dated 1674

Link to the latest astronomical discovery. Astronomers witness neutron stars colliding. This extraordinary event has been ‘seen’ for the first time, in both gravitational waves and light – ending decades-old debate about where gold comes from

[1] Leonard Nathanson -The Strategy for Truth pub. Chicago Uni. Press 1967
[2] Religio Medici Part 1: 6
[3] R.M. Part 2. 6
[4]  R.M Part 2:11
[5]  R.M Part 1: 41
[6] Bacon's Essay 'Of Vicissitude of Things' opens with the words - 'Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion'. 

Browne's to the Reader opens with the words - 'Would Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledge were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion',

[7] Kepler's books in Browne's Library includes -Mysterium Cosmographicum (Prague 1596) 1711 Sales Catalogue Page 28 Quarto no. 2
De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (Prague 1606) Sales Catalogue  page 29 no. 18  and Ad Vitellionem Paraipolomena (Frankfurt 1606) S.C.  page 29 no.34
[8] Hugh Aldersey Williams 'The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st century' Granta 2015. There's a number of caveats to be sounded about this book. Whilst its to be applauded for generating interest in Browne, its also very much Aldersey-William's own Religio Medici Link to Review here. Hugh Aldersey-William's proposal that Browne was a closet atheist in particular is highly unlikely, but also a good example how Browne's strongly archetypical 'Old wise man' persona is a magnet for psychological projection, invariably of an unconscious nature.
[9] Pseudodoxia Epidemica bk 7 chapter 3
[10] P.E. bk 6 chapter 14
[11] Ibid.
[11b] R.M Part 2 : Section 15
[12] 1711 Sales Catalogue Page 25 no. 124
[13] Philip Ball - Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything pub. Vintage 2013 
[14] Christian Morals Part 3 Section 24
[15] C.M. Part 3 Section 29
[16]  C.M. Part 3 section 7
[17]  Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Letter dated Nch. Jan 1st 1664-65 to Edward Browne
[20] Letter dated Nov 23rd 1677 to Edward Browne
[21] Letter dated 7th Jan 1681 to Edward Browne
[22] Letter dated 17th Dec 1680 to Edward Browne
[23] Letter dated 7th Jan 1681 to Edward Browne
[24] Letter dated 12 Jan 1681 to Edward Browne

This essay dedicated to Tchenka Sunderland - Astrologer, one-time mentor and decades long encourager of my Brunonian studies.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Four 'Rarities in Pictures' from Dr. Browne's Musaeum Clausum

When the artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell, the two leading exponents of North Sea magical realism were introduced to Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum they instantly recognised the seventeenth century physician-philosopher as one possessing an inventive imagination; the paintings listed as  'Rarities in Pictures' in Browne's imaginary art-gallery in particular, attracted their interest. Subsequently, during the summer of 2016, both artists set to work, inspired by the novel idea of bringing to life a picture from Browne's bizarre art-gallery.

Musaeum Clausum (The closed or Sealed museum) is an inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, pictures and objects conjured up by Thomas Browne (1605-82) quite late in his life (an event from 1673 is mentioned), several of which represent pre-occupations which fascinated the Norwich doctor throughout his life. Ever the literary showman with a flair for the theatrical and with subtle humour, Browne declares his inventory to be ‘Containing some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living’

In recent times Browne's writings in general have attracted the attention of many artists, not least his Musaeum Clausum for its anticipation of modern modes of artistic expression [1]. Indeed, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1996) a life-long admirer of Browne who alluded to him throughout his literary career, and the writer most often associated with the literary origins of magical realism once stated, as if with Browne’s Musaeum Clausum in mind  - 

"To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed."

Musaeum Clausum's art-gallery of 'Rarities in pictures’ succinctly describes paintings roughly sketched out in a few brush-stroke sentences; some are located in exotic settings such as moonlight, the polar regions and underwater, others depict historical events such as sea-battles, amongst a variety of fancies from the Norwich philosopher-physician's imagination.

The artist Mark Burrell (b. 1957) selected the item entitled ‘A vestal sinner in the cave with a candle’ from 'Rarities in Pictures' as raw material to work on. Burrell’s Sacred Presence (detail above, oil and alkyd resin on board 19 x 19 3/4 inches) depicts a cave in which a young girl with a questioning and slightly defiant expression, stands beside a table on which several candles are lit. A highly-charged and numinous atmosphere is evoked through the lapsed virgin's encounter with a supernatural apparition. A floating, genie-like torso faces her, ambiguous in facial features, the apparition is simultaneously erotic and scary. A ghostly visage can also be seen looking on. As often in Burrell’s art, a numinous atmosphere is enhanced through highly-charged colouration along with skilful portraiture and exquisite detail. 

Candles and the magical light which they create can be seen in several of Burrell’s paintings. Exercising his artistic license Burrell has chosen to paint several lit candles, heightening the drama of the numinous moment. Until relatively recently candles were a primary source of light. In the modern age with its demand for eyes to constantly focus upon the artificial light of the phone, computer and television screen, candle-light is a relaxing and soothing balm to the eyes. Candle light retains its spiritual significance from mankind's very earliest religious experiences to the present-day. 

In  Mark Burrell’s Sacred Presence the torso of a hybrid creature, like a genie released from a bottle, hovers bare-breasted and quivers with secret Freudian allusions, the artist subtly inviting the viewer to project their own unconscious psychological contents onto its presence. From the bare skeletal frame-work of a single sentence description, Burrell has fleshed-out and conjured up a dark and mysterious, and ultimately inexplicable, fairy-tale narrative in his own unique and inimitable style. 

Burrell's Sacred Presence may poetically be described as an Hallucination gothique. It should be noted that the word 'Gothic’ in its original meaning is descriptive of the marvellous and amazing, such as found in Burrell's paintings of fair-grounds, sun-sets, bonfires and fireworks, along with the wonders of childhood, as much as the darker and gloomier associations of the word, while the word 'hallucination' here simply means a vivid, yet controlled, visual imagination, without any association of chemical inducement whatsoever. 

The setting of the cave invites exploration. In the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's famous allegory of the cave, found in book 7 of his discourse The Republic, the human condition is described as one in which unenlightened people forever mistake the fleeting and insubstantial shadows they see projected onto a cave wall for the reality of the Eternal Platonic forms. 

In the cave paintings at Lascaux in France, estimated to be 20,000 years old, various animals can be seen. First discovered in 1940, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) after visiting the paleolithic caves remarked, 'They've invented everything'. Picasso subsequently incorporated imagery found in the caves of Lascaux in his own paintings. Indeed its no exaggeration to state, as Picasso realized, that the cave was in fact the setting of mankind’s very first art gallery. 

The subject-matter of Browne’s ‘vestal sinner’ originates from Roman antiquity. The Vestal virgins were entrusted to the task of keeping the sacred flame of the temple dedicated to Vesta permanently alight. A supreme importance was attached to the purity of the Vestal virgins, and a terrible punishment awaited her who violated her vow of chastity. If a Vestal virgin broke her vows she was punished by being entombed alive with a solitary candle in the certainty of death.  

There’s a casual, though entirely coincidental similarity to Burrell's Sacred Presence to a scene in the Mexican-American film director Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic masterpiece of magical realism, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Early in the film, the heroine Ofelia who loves reading fairy-tales, descends the steps of a  labyrinth to enter a cavernous space where she encounters a faun who sets her three tasks to complete by full moon. 

The faun in Pan's Labyrinth not unlike the spectral apparition of Sacred Presence is strongly imbued with the daemonic, that is, a benevolent nature spirit, which though seemingly scary, more often than not, is helpful to mortals. The daemonische also describes the particular genius or spirit of a place, something which Burrell expresses vividly in paintings of his home-town of Lowestoft, the sea-town possessing a distinctive character in his art.

Its important here to distinguish between the word daemonic with the much latter word 'demonic' and not to confuse the daemonic with the demonic. The Greek word daimōn was applied to the Judeo-Christian concept of an evil spirit by the early second century CE. Just how the original Greek word 'daemonic' alluding to the Spirits inhabiting Nature transformed to become 'demonic' is a good example of how the prejudices and hostilities of the Judeo-Christian world towards the Greek civilization  condemned Greek nature worship and labelled all such Nature-spirits originating from Greek civilization as pagan. [2]

There are many accounts in Greek mythology of mortals who encounter supernatural beings. In ancient Greek myth, the hero Oedipus challenges the female Sphinx who devoured all travelers who could not answer her riddle. When Oedipus gave her the correct answer he caused the Sphinx's death.

The Greek hero Oedipus is the subject of an early work of  portraiture by Mark Burrell. Painted over twenty years ago and measuring 6" x 9", Burrell’s portrait through sheer serendipity corresponds well to Browne's interest in the esoteric art of physiognomy as represented in the 'Rarities in Pictures' item 

Three Draughts of passionate Looks; .............of Oedipus when he first came to know that he had killed his Father, and married his own Mother. 

This early work of Burrell's is a fine anticipation of what is now a highly-developed feature of his mature work, namely, portraiture involving great psychological insight.

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The artist Peter Rodulfo (b. 1958) is a star of equal brilliance in the celestial firmament of North Sea magical realism. Mercurial in subject-matter, style, dimensions and the medium of his art (Rodulfo is a sculptor as well as a painter) he is now clocking up forty-plus years of industrious creativity. However, one never gets the impression of any Sisyphean effort to Rodulfo’s art, even though he confesses his paintings are problems which he only sometimes solves. Most often, a joyful delight in productive, often experimental creativity weaves throughout Rodulfo's varied and wide-ranging art-works, like a silken golden thread in finely-woven tapestry .

Peter Rodulfo also selected an item from Browne’s Museum Clausum during the summer of 2016, his painting Dr. Browne  goes Submarining originating from the 'Rarities in Pictures'  item of -

Large Submarine Pieces, well delineating the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, the Prairie or large Sea-meadow upon the Coast of Provence, the Coral Fishing, the gathering of Sponges, the Mountains, Valleys and Deserts, the Subterraneous Vents and Passages at the bottom of that Sea .... Together with a lively Draught of Cola Pesce, or the famous Sicilian Swimmer, diving into the Vorago's and broken Rocks by Charybdis, to fetch up the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea.

Adhering closely to Browne’s description, Rodulfo’s giant-sized (180 x 220 cm) oil on canvas displays the artist's masterful utilization of a strong blue pigment, in conjunction with skilful perspective and an exuberant delight in marine-life. In fact there are now many art-works by Rodulfo in which marine life is a primary feature. Three paintings by the artist focus upon the stages and symbolism of the Night Sea Voyage, for example. 

An attentive viewing of Rodulfo’s 'Large submarine Piece' reveals not only the silhouetted figure of a diver, but also,‘the golden Cup, which Frederick, King of Sicily, had purposely thrown into that Sea’.  The deep fathoms of water from the golden cup resting upon seabed to surface is effectively conveyed through a shaft of hazy sunlight at the top left of the painting. A platypus with its wide, flat bill can be seen diving headlong in its top right. The viscous nature of the sea is hinted through various pieces of flotsam and jetsam floating in the water. There's also a skillful use of perspective in the outlines of rock formations, along with finely-worked frottage which enhances the depth of Rodulfo's aquatic vision.  

Digital photography can never fully reproduce an original art-work, especially one which is so large in its dimensions. Nevertheless, a detail from Rodulfo’s jumbo-sized painting (above) goes some way towards highlighting the fantastic detail of its imagery. 

In Rodulfo’s submarine fantasy, with its hints of civilizations such as Atlantis as recounted in Plato’s Timaeus, the gods of a distant time, far from being stern and implacable, are portrayed as approachable and cheerful and above all, not necessarily patriarchal whatsoever. Male and Female together, they suggest some long-lost civilization celebrating the Hieros Gamos or 'Sacred Marriage' when men and women were co-equal in a meaningful way, long since forgotten.  

Its interesting to note that both Burrell and Rodulfo were attracted to paint items allusive to the hidden in nature. For whilst Burrell selected an item featuring the subterranean, that is, under the earth, Rodulfo opted for the submarine, that is, under the sea. These settings may be considered as allusive in symbolism to the subconscious of the human psyche. Its a moot point in terminology between the difference of subconscious and unconscious, it being far easier for an artist to depict examples from under nature than the unnatural and 'not of nature'. Of  far greater importance is the fact that both Rodulfo and Burrell are well aware that much in human relationships and affairs is influenced and driven by the hidden, subconscious psyche. 

It would be a daunting task to even begin naming the numerous influences of Rodulfo’s and Burrell’s art. Both artists live and work in historic North Sea ports which for centuries have been vigorous conduits, not only of travel, trade and commerce, but also of cultures, fashions, ideas and  art. Nevertheless, above all others it's the Swiss artist Paul Klee whom Peter Rodulfo admits to admiring most, while for Mark Burrell the English artist Stanley Spencer is held in the highest regard. Both artists also take a casual interest in the psychology of C.G. Jung and the psychological element is evident in both artist's work, consciously and unconsciously, as the shared symbolism of their respective paintings suggests, the subterranean setting of Mark Burrell's Sacred Presence harmoniously matching the submarine setting of  Peter Rodulfo's Dr. Browne goes Submarining.

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In the nineteenth century Russian artist Ilya Repin's scene from the medieval Russian fairy-tale of  the minstrel singer and sailor Sadko, the hero is seen visiting a submarine kingdom. Repin's fanciful painting entitled Sadko visiting the Underwater Kingdom (1876) alludes to lost civilizations, along with depiction of a wide variety of  marine-creatures. One wonders if the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov ever viewed Repin's painting, the subject of Sadko and his fairy-tale adventures are the plot of Rimsky-Korsakov's triumph of national opera, Sadko (1889). Rimsky-Korsakov's contemporary and great rival, Peter Tchaikovsky also found Russian fairy-tales to be inspiring. The music of Tchaikovsky's world-famous and well-loved ballets Swan Lake (1875-77) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890) along with Igor Stravinsky's  ballet The Firebird (1911) are all structured in plot and narrative upon fairy-tales. 

In the sixth scene of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko the minstrel Sadko descends to the Sea-Tsar's kingdom in order to win his daughter's hand in marriage. 

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Cheerfulness, along with humour and wit are prominent characteristics of much of  Peter Rodulfo's art, not least in his choosing to realize one of the funniest of all the items in Browne’s 'Rarities in Pictures' namely, An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.

Painted sometime late 2016/early 2017, in addition to an elephant dancing upon a tight-rope with a gyrating liveried flunky upon his back, a lobster, butterfly, tortoise, starfish, seagull and the tail of a large cetaceous creature can be seen, all of which are visible evidence of Rodulfo's great love of animals. Elephants in particular can be found lumbering about in several of Rodulfo's paintings, including his key-signature art-work As the Elephant Laughed (2012). Elephants feature in Rodulfo's art perhaps because their colossal size and docile intelligence impressed strongly upon the artist's memory when resident in India as a young boy. 

In Rodulfo's Elephant Dancing on the Ropes the rough hide of an elephant has been imitated with a thick, heavy layering of paint worked onto the canvas with a spatula. The elephant's hide is strongly lit by moonlight shining  upon its back. The drama of the moment is further enhanced by the setting rays of the sun catching the tail of a large cetaceous creature about to dive, along with the strobing beams of a lighthouse on the distant horizon. The swell of the sea in its foreground, complete with ripples and bubbles are also skillfully delineated. 

Its interesting to note that although they are quite different in mood, Rodulfo's highly amusing painting of an elephant lolloping along a rope and Burrell's sombre Sacred Presence nevertheless share imagery involving moonlight and candles. 

There are two possible sources from which Thomas Browne may have been informed about tightrope-walking elephants. As an antiquarian and a keen numismatist he may have seen ancient Roman coins which appear to depict tight-rope walking elephants, but alas, such coins are in fact of elephants treading upon serpents, with the attendant symbolism of such an act, and not tight-rope walking at all. 

A far more reliable source for tight-rope walking elephants occurs in the historian Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars who records that it was the Roman emperor Galba (3 BCE - 69 CE) who introduced the spectacular novelty of tight-rope walking elephants at the festival of Floralia [3]. Perhaps Browne, who owned a copy of Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars read of tight-rope walking elephants there. However, what can be of little doubt is that Browne, who candidly confesses in Religio Medici that-

 'I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome Picture though it be but of an Horse'. [4] 

he would have immensely enjoyed viewing Rodulfo's mirth-inducing realisation of An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.

Incidentally,  imagery involving elephants as well as the bottom of the sea occurs in Sir Thomas Browne's phantasmagorical discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) while the physician-philosopher's vigorous introduction of new words into the English language includes the words 'hallucination' as well as 'submarine'.

Rodulfo and Burrell first became aware of each other through fellow artist Guy Richardson (b. 1933) though in the eventuality they first met at a New York bar while exhibiting their art in America. As the senior member of North Sea magical realism  Guy Richardson has influenced both Rodulfo and Burrell at various stages of their artistic careers. His mixed media artwork, A Shark-wrestler in a bottle is related to themes and preoccupations encountered in both artist's work, it being a fusion of Rodulfo’s wit and humour and Burrell’s intensity of expression. 

This post is dedicated to Ms. Katerina Mayfaire  - perhaps America's biggest fan of North Sea Magical Realism, with many thanks for her inspiration.


[1] The German photographer Klaus Wehner and his art-project entitled Museum Clausum  from 2001 Link here.
The avant-garde composer Eve Beglarian and her electronic music piece entitled the Garden of Cyrus  and an American rock-band naming themselves The Garden of Cyrus spring to mind.
[2] Thanking  Ms. Clair Papillion for bringing this distinction to attention.
[3]  Suetonius Lives of the Caesars Galba section 6.
[4] Religio Medici Part II. Section 9.