30 October 2005

The Pharmacist

This painting is currently located in the Apothecary Museum within the Heidelberg Castle in Germany. It was on the circuit of places to take visitors before we moved to Lebanon. We see Jesus in the role of Apothecary. Before him are emblems of faith, hope and charity, beneath which is a paper reading "ask and ye shall receive . . . " In the jars behind him on the left are various virtues; grace, eternal life, spirituality. On the right, a depiction of Jesus healing a blind man. An Apothecary's scales are held in his hand, doubly indicating the weighing of souls and the weighing of various treatments.

The painting was completed in the early part of the 1700s in Austria. I'm not sure I understand how to read the message of this painting, and I have two competing guesses. The first is, "The church will heal you so don't bother with that phony quack down the road." After all, Jesus is shown administering faith hope and charity to heal rather than the herbs or other medicines a 1700s pharmacist would have had. My second guess is, "Just as the Apothecary helped you out with that nasty case of lock-jaw, Jesus helps you out of the spiritual darkness you've been struggling with." The reason this interpretation appeals to me is that Apothecaries were part of the community. They weren't heretics or, worse, Alchemists. It seems likely that the painting is simply drawing a ready-at-hand analogy.

If that is the case it seems to show a changing point of view within the church toward science and change. This painting seems to indicate a church and a public that, rather than burning down the pharmacy and the pharmacist, is willing to adapt Christianity to a changing world. It seems that they found a way to relate contemporary changes to existing doctrine. We tend to hear almost exclusively about the animosity between religion and science, but this painting makes me wonder what they really thought 300 years ago.


katperkins said...

What an interesting painting. I never came across that in my art history class. That time period is not at all my favorite so I might have just not been paying attention. The interpretation really sounds like a toss-up though. I like your website.

Mary Ann said...

No, I would be shocked if you had seen it in Art History class. It isn't important enough, and because of the interpretation problems it fails to fit nicely into anyone's idea of progressive history.

But I thought it was very interesting when I saw it in the museum, so I bought a postcard, something I rarely do.