How The Natural Hallucinatory Effects of Ergotism Influenced Renaissance Artists Like Hieronymus Bosch

Could a natural hallucinogen have influenced many of the Renaissance paintings and painters, such as Hieronymus Bosch, over the course of history? Many scientists and art historians believe so. Ergotism is a fungal infection which occurs after one has consumed ergot fungus, which sometimes shows up on different cereal grains like rye.

When people have accidentally consumed this fungus, they find themselves subject to a dizzying array of unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, insomnia, general agitation and delirium. Interestingly, this delirium very frequently includes very specific types of hallucinations which deal with fire and animals. Outbreak of ergotism have occurred many times throughout history, and most recently took hold of a small French village in 1951.

When the drug known as LSD-25 was accidentally conjured up by Albert Hoffmann, a Swiss chemist, it was created from ergot fungi. This is the same fungus which has also produced the numerous outbreaks of ergotism, and the similar hallucinogenic effects of this are believed to have influenced Renaissance painting and painters in a very large way.

Unlike LSD, however, those suffering from ergotism weren’t always aware of what was affecting them in the beginning, partly due to the fact that the start of their symptoms appear to have mimicked the bubonic plague. After endless bouts of nausea coupled with insomnia and then followed by horrific hallucinations, those affected frequently ended up contracting gangrene and oftentimes were forced to undergo an amputation of their limbs. During the Renaissance era, the misery of those suffering from ergotism led many to believe that those afflicted were on a very real journey towards Hell, as can be seen in many paintings of the time.

'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' by Max Ernst in 1945.

John G. Fuller wrote the book The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire which went into vivid detail on the psychotic experiences of those that suffered from the most recent bout of ergotism in 1951. These include cases of people enduring such awful hallucinations that they leapt out of windows just to escape from them.

The subject of Saint Anthony is one which recurs in Renaissance paintings and those dealing with the hallucinogenic effects of ergot fungus, perhaps because those who are religious look to the saint as one who stood up to numerous temptations that were proffered up by the Devil, and feel that Anthony may lead them out of their drug-induced sufferings if they believe strongly enough. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who wrote the Life of Saint Anthony, describes many of the hallucinatory toils that humans must sometimes undergo, according to Hyperallergic.

“For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand.”

Ergotism was caused by the ergot fungus, which would appear on cereal grains such as rye.

The medical humanities journal Hektoen International notes that Matthias Grünewald’s Renaissance painting Isenheim Altarpiece depicts in vivid detail a man that is in the throes of ergotism and is suffering greatly. Dr. Sally Hickson described how the responsible rye grain was given the nickname of St. Anthony’s Fire.

“At the Isenheim hospital, the Antonine monks devoted themselves to the care of sick and dying peasants, many of them suffering from the effects of ergotism, a disease caused by consuming rye grain infected with fungus and popularly known as St. Anthony’s Fire.”

Hieronymus Bosch himself painted Saint Anthony at least 20 times over the course of his life, with his Anthony triptych being one of the most famous of these and Bosch would have been well acquainted with the unique hallucinatory effects of ergotism as there were no less than 40 reported outbreaks in Northern Europe since they were recorded. One such notorious outbreak occurred in 1418 in Paris and saw up to 50,000 people dying from it. It wasn’t until Bosch had died that the cause of ergotism was finally discovered.

Aside from Bosch, other artists like Jan Mandijn and Nikolaus Hagenauer addressed the subject of Saint Anthony and the ergot fungus, and in 1905 what were believed to be the remains of the saint were transported to La-Motte-Saint-Didier in France, with the belief that the relics associated with him might be able to heal ergotism or Saint Anthony’s Fire.

Hieronymus Bosch depicted Saint Anthony 20 times over the course of his life and would have been well acquainted with ergotism and its imagery

While today medical authorities know what causes ergotism, during the time of the Renaissance people strove to understand what was causing the freakish hallucinatory images of fires and wild beasts that they faced, and this struggle was depicted in numerous paintings by artists like Hieronymous Bosch.

[Featured Image by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images]