Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.

20 thoughts on “Apothecary of the soul

  1. Your words helped me to feel like I was there, feeling the painting with my eyes, feeling the early age of medicines wiggling in jars, memories of my childhood when penicillin brought hope to so many that had lost family and friends to unsterilized sewing needles, slightly stale meat, milk, tiny dents in canned foods. It was a different world…

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    • “The early age of medicines wiggling in jars” – what a line! What images -! The past is ever with us, even if we forget it; remembering makes us grateful, indeed. What a treasure of a response – thank you, Jill.

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  2. Fran, your post is a wonderful accompaniment to your slice about the museum you visited. I am totally fascinated by the Country Doctor Museum you visited, I am also in “awe” of the painting you shared. Of course, I took a deep dive into researching these paintings from the past and then found how contemporary artists reveal their understanding of the artwork. The allegorical reference in the painting you shared is a beautiful reminder that the Lord is our healer. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Ah, summer is the season for rest and restoration on our spiritual journeys! Thank you.

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    • Carol – thank you for picking up on my sense of awe and recalling that it’s my OLW for this year. It seems to have enjoyed enjoyed its revelations so far. I am delighted you plunged into your own research of the painting genre; I am led to do more myself, in addition to the pull to research more about the old apothecary and home remedies. Here’s to all that awaits us on these journeys.

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  3. This is a wonderful reflection on your summer outing. Such an interesting painting. I love how you just kept digging for more information. That’s the gift of summer, time to fall into the rabbit hole.

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    • Ah yes, time to fall into the rabbit hole – how I love it and chasing rabbits as well! Summer’s gift of time (a phrase I usually consider cliche to the point of irritation, but pure truth in this case). I am just thinking of all the avenues to pursue along this one topic – and all the treasures to find along the way. But – that is why we write, is it not.

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  4. Fran,
    Wow, another great post about your trip to the museum. I love the way you describe it, “feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour.” That really speaks volumes, and I certainly sense it in your writing. Beautiful. I love what I learned about these apothecary paintings. It was all new to me, but the scale with the sacrifice of Jesus outweighing the man’s sins is not new. I really enjoyed your post. May your next trip be another pilgrimage of faith and nurturing your soul.

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  5. Neat! I would love that tour. My family owned a pharmacy and I grew up in it. They had many, many jars with latin labels and lots of old stuff that always smelled musty. My grandfather said that pharmacist was the poor man’s doctor. He gave out lots of health advice over the years. Health care back in the day of a young America must have been something. I love that the painting was brought to NC and was part of the tour. I really want to go poke around that website now. Thanks for a fascinating post!

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    • How awesome to be raised with pharmacy in your blood, Linda! A part of me so wants to devote time to studying the science and art of herbal remedies, its fascinating history, and especially the transitions from alchemy to apothecary to modern pharmacy…all endlessly intriguing. I expect I’ll return to the Museum as a springboard for more inspiration and research.

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  6. Fran: Your post is fascinating! I have been in one or two of these old fashioned apothecary shops, I always find them of interest, but I have never seen such a painting. It makes me realize what a heavy burden it must have been to be the town apothecary, the trust that must be built. It also makes me glad I live in current times, although sometimes I think we haven’t learned as much as we think we have. We no longer consider illness to be caused by our sins, yet I think there is some truth in that notion. It’s a confusing issue when I get right down to it, but I am so blessed to have found recently a doctor who shares my faith and outlook. It makes my doctor visits much less stressful. Thank you for sharing, and may your summer journeys be full of blessings.

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    • “Sometimes I think we haven’t learned as much as we think we have” – these words of yours resonate with me, Karen, for I think we have forgotten a lot of what we DID know, once. Nevertheless – the issue of trust is a vital one, even in times when a whole universe of information is at our fingertips and we can read it all for ourselves. That relationship with your doctor – priceless. A gift. Like faith itself. I wish you a summer of blessed journeys as well! Many thanks for your words.

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  7. Kudos to you on this first summer journey, hopefully the first of many. I love how you described our world as bright and beckoning, especially since we lost the summer of 2020 when our world was under lockdown. I hope you’ll find time to relax and rejuvenate and travel too!

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    • It’s taken a while to decompress from “the year that was” – I think we all have to learn to trust life again. Many thanks, Ramona, and here’s to “savoring summer”! 🙂

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  8. Fran, wow, I almost feel I was there with you on your tour through your rich descriptions, your voice, your photo, link to Tuesday’s blog, and link to the Country Doctor Museum, which I did go to and read just about everything there. Fascinating! I have always been interested in the medicinal values of of plants and I like going to museums. I remember my friend’s grandmother gave cod liver oil for just about any ailment. I drink two tablespoons of Bragg’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar almost everyday to help me with digestion and to build my immunity system. I know Bragg’s company advertises a recipe book that uses the vinegar to cure many things. I remember learning about mixing honey, the apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice for colds when our girls were young, which helped. I remember helping my grandparents pick dandelion leaves before they flowered. We mixed them in the meatballs, which were delicious and they always helped to empty your bowels. I also helped my grandfather pick wild puffball mushrooms oyster mushrooms, and some other mushroom that grew off dead elm trees. My grandfather cooked the mushrooms in delicious recipes and also said how good they were for us. Thank you for sharing! Have a rejuvenating and exciting summer on all your journeys!

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    • These remedies are utterly fascinating, Gail! Those dandelion leaves in meatballs-! Reminded me of my grandmother’s stories of her mother making senna tea to help “get things moving,” etc. These old ways fascinate me. Oh, and my husband takes two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar every day; he hasn’t been troubled with arthritis for the first time in years. Following his heart attacks, cardiac arrest, and surgeries two years ago, he now walks eight miles or so every few days. I’d say he’s where the best of old and new ways meet – with a pretty big dollop of divine grace.

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  9. “Apothecary of the Soul” is a title full of hope and healing. The desire to feel unconditionally cared for in times of distress, the need for salvation from our physical and spiritual woes…I caught a few episodes of the recent PBS series on mental health, and it discussed the intertwining of religion and science during the early days of psychiatry. Many of the early “scientific” treatments were versions of religious exorcism rites. In the present, I thank God for the brilliant minds of scientists who are working so very hard to save and improve our physical and mental health. Balm for a ruffled soul today; thank you, Fran.

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    • I thank God for our doctors and our scientists as well, Chris – with this past year reiterating just what heroes they are. I’d have loved that PBS documentary, for science, religion, psychiatry, well-being ARE inextricably, fascinatingly intertwined. I am also fascinated by the history of medicine and customs, by old remedies and old wisdom, by what people knew when they didn’t know what we know now – and what we learn from them, even now. For all our gains, I sense things that have been lost along the way.

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