Hofmann’s bad trip
Inadvertent of its consequences, Albert Hofmann, a chemist working for the Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis), meticulously wrote these lines in his journal:
4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 pro mil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about ten cc water. Tasteless.
17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.
Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle. From 18:00- ca.20:00 most severe crisis. (See special report)
Here the notes on his laboratory book abruptly stop. The detached tone of his writing, so typical in scientific reports where the first person is usually self-effaced, would soon morph into prophetic. His inner self would also dissolve in the process, but this time not in the wake of fighting vanity or pursuing objectivity. He had been able to write the last words only with great effort.
What followed was a relentless sensory assault, a parade of kaleidoscopic images in constant flux that unfolded from a central point in the visual scene. These colourful visions eroded all borders, assuming the shape of Gothic buttresses and vaults, countless repetitions of pillars, ferocious flowers, masts and ropes of vessels and iterated church choirs.
The doors of perception
In 1929, Hofmann had joined the Sandoz chemistry department in Basel, attracted by their ongoing research on the medicinal properties of natural compounds. His boss was Professor Arthur Stoll, who had amassed a wealth of experience in this field, after his stint with Professor Richard Willstätter, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on chlorophyll and CO2 assimilation. His job was to isolate the active principles of known medicinal plants, producing more stable versions of them by chemical synthesis.
The transmission of scientific knowledge often obeys dynastic rules; being the last shoot in a noble lineage of distinguished plant chemists certainly emboldened Hofmann, who got down to work vigorously. After all, he had championed the enzymatic digestion of chitin, the component of insect shells and crustacean claws, ultimately proving that this molecule is an analogue of cellulose, the structural backbone of plants. Both kingdoms surrendered to him, and the faculty board hastily followed: his Ph.D. was rated with distinction.
Albert Hofmann (1906-2008), the Swiss chemist that synthesized LSD.
His first target molecule was ergotamine, isolated in 1918 by Stoll himself. Ergotamine was the first ergot alkaloid obtained in pure form and was used in obstetrics and to fight migraines. Ergot is produced by a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that grows parasitically on rye wheat. The first mention of the medicinal use of ergot to precipitate childbirth appears already in the herbal of Adam Lonitzer and dates from 1582.
When Hofmann resumed work on ergot alkaloids in Basel, research on these substances had lost momentum; competitors on the other side of the Atlantic had taken an edge over the Basel team. In the early 1930s, W.A. Jacobs and L.C. Craig of the Rockefeller Institute had identified the chemical core common to all ergot compounds. They named it lysergic acid.
Feeling that he was on the right track, Hofmann trusted Louis Pasteur’s words: ” In the realm of scientific observation, luck is granted only to those who are prepared.” In chemistry, those were days of never-ending fractional extractions followed by cycles of precipitation and recrystallisation. One day in 1938, Hofmann was combining lysergic acid with amines, a reaction that yielded a family of compounds with structural similarities. He singled out one of these substances, the 25th derivative in the synthetic series, for pharmacological testing. LSD-25, as he named it, caused powerful uterine contractions entirely in tune with the typical effects of ergot alkaloids. But there was something else to it: the research report indicated, in passing, that animals became particularly restless. Physicians and pharmacologists did not consider the new substance interesting enough to pursue further tests, and investigations on LSD-25 stopped.
Despite this, Hofmann had a strange presentiment about it and kept a sample safely in his drawer. The feeling that this substance could have unusual properties haunted him for a long time. Five years later, he decided to revisit the relatively uninteresting LSD-25. While he was repeating one of the steps leading to its synthesis, the vapours emanating from the mixture inebriated him, causing him to interrupt his work right away. The exposure to the compound conjured strange visions that felt incredibly palpable. Once the effects receded, Hofmann realised that he had struck gold.
Three days later, on April 19, 1943, he self-administered LSD-25 and unveiled a whole new world.
Bosch & St. Anthony’s Triptych
In the Middle Ages people sometimes used contaminated rye grains to bake bread, without even suspecting that ergot mould, when heated, transforms into a form of lysergic acid diethylamide, widely known today as LSD. Medieval chronicles tell us of horrifying cases of victims suffering from burning pain, and convulsions in most cases accompanied by vivid hallucinations. This condition could easily aggravate and develop into a gangrenous form, which usually led to the detachment of limbs. This disease caused ravages amidst impoverished and famine-stricken rural communities in medieval Europe, affecting in particular France and the Netherlands. Its various names record the geographical scope of the outbreak: ignis sacer, mal des ardents, holy fire, heiliges Feuer. In Paris alone, during the year 1418, fifty thousand people were presumably killed by ergotism. For many, it was another sign of divine wrath, a godly punishment inflicted upon those who deviated from the righteous path.
In her excellent book on Bosch, Laurinda Dixon tackles the difficult job of analysing the intriguing iconography of his paintings. In 1495, Hieronymus Bosch painted The St. Anthony Triptych, currently owned by the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, in Lisbon. On these oil panels, we follow the saint through different episodes of his life, as Satan and his acolytes systematically test his proverbial endurance to temptations. He is far from being alone on this perilous journey, for Bosch has seeded around him a myriad of figures drawn out of his bestiary. With a stunning calligraphic precision that makes us think of French illuminated manuscripts, demonic creatures of all sorts tease the saint and fittingly punish lustful lovers and gluttons reminding the viewer what sinners are to expect in the next life. Were these images comparable to the visions experienced by consumers of contaminated bread? Bosch bookends the central panel with his trademark infernal scene but also masters the sweet dissolution of the landscape into a horizon made of gradations of blue. This approach would later reach the climax in the hands of Joachim Patinir.
Hieronymus Bosch, St. Anthony’s Triptych, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.
Because of his prolonged fight with demons and his unshakeable faith in Christ, St. Anthony, the father of monasticism, seemed an ideal inspirational figure for those suffering from ergotism. Not surprisingly, his cult resurged during these bleak years, and the Antonite order of monks specialised in giving medical care to the ailing. Hospitals run by the order were labelled: a passerby affected by ergotism would immediately recognise the amputated limbs of former patients hanging above the entrance portals, as a welcoming sign. These were the designated places for treatment and boasted high levels of hygiene, a peaceful atmosphere and a healthy diet of pork sourced from the pigs kept at the monastery. This animal was sacred to St Anthony; a small pet pig is one of his symbols.
But Antonite monasteries were also chemistry laboratories, fully equipped with distilleries ready to produce the cooling elixirs and surgical anaesthetics necessary for their mission. Monks would pour one of these healing potions over St. Anthony’s relics, spread among different monasteries of the order, and collect the precious balm to treat the victims of ergotism.
Based on a thorough study of extant contemporary books and engravings, Dixon makes a convincing case that the fantastic domes in the picture are nothing less than laboratory apparatus, dispelling esoteric connotations usually associated with Bosch’s work. Chemistry and pharmacology were inseparable in those days, and the art of distillation was widely available in manuals that proposed homemade recipes to produce medicines. In them, we find funnels and flasks, not unlike the one used by the strange character at the bottom of the left panel.
On the left, detail of the right panel (top). On the right, furnace, folio 106v from MS Harley 2407, fifteenth century, British Library, London. Taken from the book “Bosch”, written by Laurinda Dixon, Copyright Phaidon Press, 2003.
To alleviate the burning pain, monks preconised the use of mandrake root (Mandragora) to induce numbness. Interestingly, mandrake root’s forked appearance served as a pretext for its anthropomorphic representation in contemporary books. By drying this root, monks produced talismans against the holy fire, which strongly resembled the man-tree hybrid in the painting. The oversized cherry tomato in the central panel might also be an allusion to mandrakes’ fruit.
From left to right. Mandrake, Mandrake from Pier Andrea Mattioli (Commentarii, Venice, 1565) & detail of St. Anthony’s Triptych (central panel). Images were taken and adapted from the book “Bosch”, written by Laurinda Dixon, Copyright Phaidon Press, 2003.
Interestingly, mandrake’s root has in itself powerful hallucinogenic and narcotic effects, which added to the visions induced by lysergic acid. The flying fish that crosses the skies might be a visual correlate of a feeling often reported by LSD consumers: Hofmann himself felt he was “floating outside of my own body” during his 1943 trip.
We do not know if the Antonite order commissioned this painting, but Bosch’s work probably provided a devotional image in support of those affected by this terrible disease.
Matthias Grünewald and the Isenheim Altarpiece
Between 1512 and 1516, Matthias Grünewald worked on an altarpiece commissioned by the Superior of the St. Anthony’s Order for its hospital at Isenheim, in Alsace.
Grünewald created a poignant narrative based on the expressionistic representation of suffering, which becomes tangible when viewing the altarpiece in its closed state. The visitor to the Musée d’Unterlinden discovers a triptych, whose central panel is a profoundly moving representation of Christ in the Cross. The atmosphere is lugubrious: under a black sky, we see the lacerated body of Christ, pierced by uncountable wounds. With bluish lips and crisped hands, he transmits the drama of a person who just passed away: we can almost feel his last breath.
The Isenheim Altarpiece, closed panels view. Painted by Matthias Grünewald between 1512-1516. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar.
The outer wings reveal a diverse scene. Using a bright palette of colours, Grünewald vitally tells us the story of the Annunciation of the Archangel St. Gabriel to the Virgin, the birth of Christ and the Resurrection. This last panel is boldly chromatic: Christ emerges from the tomb in a halo of blinding light that dissolves his face, with further rays of light pouring out of his wounds. One can easily imagine the ecstatic impression left in the viewers that suffered from the Fire of St. Anthony.
Detail of the Resurrection, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar.
The inner wings introduce us to the episodes in the life of St. Anthony. We learn of his trip to visit St. Paul when both were hermits living in the desert. However, there is nothing in this landscape that would remind us of Egypt, the original setting of the story. The meeting point is a dense wood covered by lichens, more reminiscent of Northern Europe. The pendant of this scene, the right-wing, focuses on the temptations suffered by St. Anthony. Grotesque demons pull the saint by the hair, but suddenly, amidst this virulent assault, God appears above them surrounded by an army of angels. One of them even trespasses a demon with a lance, arriving at the rescue of the saint who famously asked: “Oh, Lord, where were you, good Jesus, why didn’t you come to heal my wounds?”
Detail from the inner wings of the Isenheim Altarpiece showing “St. Anthony is attacked by the demons”, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar.
Otto Dix & Der Krieg
To conclude, we will mention another German painter who was seduced by the story of St. Anthony. Otto Dix, who had fought in the First World War, denounced the corrupt postwar society of the 1920s and 1930s in a series of corrosive paintings that satirised militarism and its consequences. When the Nazis came to power, they expelled Dix from the Art Academy in Dresden and banned him from publicly exhibiting his work. Soon afterwards, he joined the lists of Degenerate Art. Two hundred sixty of his works were removed from the German public collections: many of them were sold to galleries outside Germany or simply burnt. The atmosphere turned dangerously threatening for Dix and his family. Ostracised by the regime, he followed the saint’s fate and transformed into a modern hermit, retiring himself to the Lake Constance.
Otto Dix, The temptation of St. Anthony, 1937.
His Temptation of St. Anthony is imbued with the vibrant colours of the Isenheim Altarpiece, a work he particularly appreciated. The Saint crawls under the weight of a sinful blond woman who pushes him down with her foot. This character is reminiscent of the prostitutes he painted in the early 1920s. Adopting the paroxysmal realism of his predecessor, he condemned the war in his triptych from the years 1929-1932, laying the ground for contemporary artists like Anselm Kiefer, who reflect on the consequences of totalitarianism.
Otto Dix, Der Krieg, 1929-1932. Dresden , Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister.
Hofmann A. LSD-My problem child: Reflections on sacred drugs, mysticism, and science. Published by J.P. Tarcher Inc., 1983.
Dixon L, Bosch (Art & Ideas), Phaidon Press Ltd., 2003.
Karcher E, Dix, Published by Taschen, 2010.
De Paepe P, Le retable d’Issenheim, Musée d’Unterlinden, Editions Artlys, Paris, 2015.