Robert Campin and Workshop (South Netherlandish, Tournai, ca. 1375–1444). Triptych with the Annunciation, known as the “Merode Altarpiece,” ca. 1427–32. Made in Tournai, South Netherlands. Oil on oak. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70a–c). See Google Art Project for an in-depth look at this work.
A great many things have changed during the twenty years that I’ve been working at The Cloisters, but its special atmosphere remains constant. One of the most unique aspects of the Museum is the way in which the gardens are integrated into the collection. From the Museum’s inception, the curators envisioned the artwork and gardens as a whole, where the plants were not merely aesthetic elements, but also of great educational value. Many of the galleries either open directly onto or provide views into one of the three interior gardens (see floor plan). This arrangement encourages visitors to experience the gardens as part of medieval culture, to make connections between the plants and the objects, and to understand both within the historical context presented in the galleries.
A straightforward example is illustrated by the renowned Annunciation Triptych (shown above). Various plants are depicted along the bottom of the left-hand panel, either scattered in the turf or growing alongside the path and steps. In the detail below, the little white Bellis perennis, or English daisy, is clearly identifiable against the stone steps. Observant summertime visitors will encounter this very plant again in Cuxa Cloister, where daisies have been introduced within the turf.
The extraordinary sculpture (shown below) of Saint Anthony Abbot attributed to Niclaus of Haguenau was installed in the newly renovated Late Gothic Hall and is a locus for the interpretation of the gardens and artwork. Anthony, a third-century hermit saint, was the father of monasticism; an order in his name was founded in the eleventh century. The Antonites established hospitals to care for the sick, and it is possible that this figure was made for one of their foundations.
Attributed to Niclaus of Haguenau (ca. 1445-1538). Saint Anthony Abbot. Germany (modern France), Alsace, Strasbourg, ca. 1500. Walnut. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1988 (1988.159).
Missing is the saint’s Tau cross attribute; only the upper crutch has survived. According to his legend, Anthony was tormented by demons that appeared as beasts and tore at his flesh until Christ intervened on his behalf. (See also the engraving Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, ca. 1470–75, by Martin Schongauer, and the recent special exhibition Michelangelo’s First Painting, which treats the same theme.) Saint Anthony’s suffering led victims of physical ailments—skin diseases, in particular—to appeal to him for comfort.
Niclaus of Haguenau is also known for the sculpted shrine figures of the celebrated Isenheim altarpiece, now in the Musée d’Unterlinden, which he completed with the painter Matthias Grünewald for the hospital chapel at the Antonite monastery. The Antonite monks in Isenheim were known for ministering to victims of the horrific disease ergotism, also known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” or ignis sacer. The cause of the condition was unknown in the medieval period (we now know that it results from consumption of grain contaminated by the fungus Claviceps purpurea), but the symptoms included a burning sensation in patients’ limbs, and vasoconstriction, which eventually led to gangrene and the need to amputate affected extremities. A wretched figure in Grünewald’s depiction of Saint Anthony’s torment (on the right-hand wing of the altar) clearly suffers from skin diseases, including ergotism (see image).
The Antonites treated sufferers of ergotism with a wine-vinegar mixture called Saint Vinage, which had been strained over the bones of Saint Anthony. It was drunk or applied topically and reportedly accomplished some cures, perhaps because the alcohol dilated capillaries and allowed blood to flow to the patient’s extremities. In accordance with Galenic theory, treatments to counteract the burning heat of the disease also included the use of herbs thought to be cold and dry: verbena, sage, plantain, poppy, and mandrake. All of these herbs are grown in the Bonnefont Herb Garden, just down the stairs from the Late Gothic Hall.
Corn Poppy, Papaver rhoeas, grown in the Bonnefont Herb Garden. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt. The corn poppy is among the herbs associated with Saint Anthony that Grünewald depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece scene of Saint Anthony meeting the Hermit Paul.
Also exhibited in proximity to the herb garden is a tiny, gold pendant. Each hollow half of this T-shaped Tau cross is engraved with images of the Virgin and Child and the Trinity.
Tau Cross, ca. 1485. England, Lincolnshire. Found in a field at Winteringham. Cast and engraved gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Cloisters Collection, 1990 (1990.283a,b).
It has been suggested that the cross was intended to contain either an amuletic herbal compound or relics to protect the wearer from the ravages of Saint Anthony’s Fire. Regardless of the original contents of this capsule pendant, its distinctive form clearly identifies it with Anthony and indicates that the owner held the saint in some particular esteem.
Christina Alphonso is Associate Manager for Administration at The Cloisters.
Behling, Lottlisa. Die Pflanze in der mittelalterlichen Tafelmalerei. Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1957.
Hayum, Andrée. The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Husband, Timothy B. “The Winteringham Tau Cross and Ignis Sacer,” The Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 27, 1992, pp. 19-35.
Tags: Antonites, Bellis perennis, Claviceps purpurea, corn poppy, Cuxa Garden, English daisy, ergotism, fungus, Galen, grain, hermit, ignis sacer, Isenheim, mandrake, Matthias Grünewald, monasticism, Niclaus of Haguenau, plantain, poppy, sage, Saint Anthony Abbott, Saint Anthony's Fire, Saint Vinage, Tau cross, verbena