Demons of David Teniers the Younger’s Alchemists

Keywords: Alchemy, David Teniers the Younger, devil and demons, The Temptations of St. Anthony

Alchemy was resisted by both the Catholic and Protestant Church. Protestant reformers in northern Netherlands dealt with the threat by declaring magic as false and inefficacious as the true God could not be manipulated into revealing his secrets of nature (Tambiah, 1990, pp. 19-20). They attributed marvellous events to the work of demons and proclaimed that magicians were agents in disguise (Easlea, 1980, p. 96). Alchemists in the Catholic Spanish Netherlands became subject to the Spanish Inquisition. Follower of Paracelsusian alchemy who discovered the existence of multiple gasses such as Flemish Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644) came under virtual house arrest for much of two decades for his writings which brought him accusations of dabbling in black magic (Butterfield, 1965, p. 94: Elmer, 2004, p. 121).

The recurring motifs in Antwerp-born David Teniers the Younger’s (1610- 1690) representations of alchemists are also found in his numerous highly moralising paintings depicting witches and on the traditional religious theme of The Temptations of St. Anthony. Both subjects are represented with numerous demons. These demons known as grotesques were often represented as possessing different animal parts (Gibson, 2006, pp. 30-33). What connects these subjects with the representation of the alchemist are his signature use of hanging animal specimens which often do not explicitly correlate to an identifiable species and horse skulls. When the horse skull motif manifests itself in his representations of St. Anthony and of witches’, it is used as a mask of a cloaked demon which is sometimes represented with a demon peasant riding it (Davidson, 1979, p. 38). This cloaked demon possibly makes a satirical reference to mythology surrounding demon horses sent to deceive humanity (Howey, 2003, p. 35).

David Tenier’s the Younger, Temptation of St Anthony, c.1650,
oil on copper, height: 59 cm (23.2 in); width: 79.3 cm (31.2 in),
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Teniers appears to use these commonly used motifs to connect his subjects. This suggests that alchemy was closely related with demonology, which was something alchemists were accused of frequently (Elmer, 2004, pp. 114, 121). Sometimes the two subjects of the witch and St. Anthony also include an owl amongst the demons to suggest folly (illustrated in Davidson, 1979, pp. 99, 103). However, the owl has also been associated with far more sinister attributes and has also been said to be associated with the Devil (Davidson, 1979, p. 38). Several Netherlandish proverbs associate evil with the owl. These proverbs arise from its preference for the dark, such as ‘this is a real nest of owls’ which illustrates where evil may occur. It also can be symbolic of the seven deadly sins such as pride, envy, and greed in which alchemists were also frequently accused of (Davidson, 1979, p. 41). More interestingly, Teniers representations of The Temptations of St. Anthony include peasants and are represented as attempting to tempt St. Anthony into smoking and drinking as they were often represented in Teniers’ tavern interiors. It is still curious as to why Teniers represented the alchemist in a far more subtle and less satirical manner than these connected subjects. However, the common iconography appears significant in regards to the sheer repetitiveness as well as the fact that they stand in contrast to his alternative scenes.

In Teniers’ Alchemist in his Workshop, Teniers produces a similar variation of the representation of an alchemist with bellows in a laboratory who has been distracted by a mouse beside a knocked-over basket of coals. One of the alchemist’s assistants depicted in the background holds up a vial in the traditional vein of uroscopy, thus quackery and fraud associated with the physician became exchangeable with representations of the alchemist (Schummer and Spector, 2007, pp. 12-13). What is most interesting about this composition is the large hanging lizard from the ceiling. This large beak snouted lizard provides a highly exotic specimen whose frilled spine resembles an iguana from the New World (Davidson, 1987, p. 62; Westermann, 2005, p. 114. It is reasonable to believe that specimens were taken back from the Dutch colonies in Brazil). It is possible that this lizard is an attempt to represent an actual species, however, considering Teniers is often credited for his ‘extremely accurate’ depictions, he appears to have fallen short in his accuracy in depicting the true likeness of the iguana. Teniers’ biographer, Jane Davidson attempted to reconcile this by stating that his depictions of lizards indicate that he painted from specimens that had been stuffed (Davidson, 1987, pp. 62, 72). However, in one of Teniers’ representations of The Temptations of St. Anthony which depicts demons in the form of animals sent by the Devil to tempt the saint, the same frilled spined lizard is depicted as one of the demonic animals sent to torment St. Anthony (Davidson, 1979, pp. 36-7 St. Anthony was the first hermit and founder of ascetic monasticism. Born in Egypt in 251 CE, he devoted his life to solitude and prayer and lived in tombs outside his village. After living in isolation for many years, he returned to the world to found monasteries and combat Arian heresy. It was believed that the Devil sent demons in the form of bulls, lions, dragons, wolves, adders, serpents and scorpions to torment St. Anthony).

David Teniers the Younger, Alchemist in his Workshop, c.1650,
Oil on canvas, 71 x 87.5cm,
Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Eddleman Collection.

The use of a lizard to represent a demon could be due to the notion that reptiles were despised as they could inhabit earth, air and water, thus defying humanities belief in natural order (Corbett, ‘Painted Science’, 2004, p. 79). This common iconography alludes to the connection between demonology and alchemy. The presence of a black cat amongst the pots in front of the hearth in Teniers’ Alchemist in his Workshop about to pounce as it shows interest in chasing the mouse, is a symbol for lurking trouble (Carr-Gomm, 1995, p. 51). The black cat has also been associated with the Devil. Black cats chasing mice were used as symbols for the Devil who likewise captured souls (Steffler, 2002, p. 106). Together they could serve as a warning of the believed connection between demonology and alchemy and supports the suggestion that the hanging animals in Teniers representations allude to demonology and that the threat of going to hell looms over the alchemist’s head as they serve as messengers of Satan who take sinners away to hell (Hall, 1994, p. 118). If Davidson is correct that these lizards are intended to represent dragons which are referred to in alchemical treatises, then it can only help to support this theory as dragons were also used as symbols for the Devil, who himself was described as such in the book of Revelation 20.2 of The New Testament (Davidson, 1987, p. 76; Hall, 1994, p. 118).

What remains unclear are why these animals, if symbolising demonic animals sent by the Devil, are depicted hanging from the ceiling of alchemical interiors. Netherlandish proverbs and plays referenced women who were so angry and strong-willed that they could tie up the Devil himself (Gibson, 2006, p. 130 In a famous play, Mariken van Nijmeghen, an ill-tempered woman says that she is so angry she could tie up the Devil ‘or bind him to a cushion as if he were a babe.’). The subject of Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’) representing angry housewives who plunder hell for gold and silver vessels while tying up demons became a reoccurring subject in Netherlandish art including Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), who was highly influential on Teniers career. The motif of a woman tying up a demon was depicted by Teniers. He represented a witch indicative of the magic circle inscribed on the floor by her witches’ knife (athame) to keep the demons at bay while she ties an odd-looking fish with a face resembling more that of a dog with a protruding tongue to a pillow (Davidson, 1975, p. 142). The connection between these strung-up animals appears to be significant, but the exact intended meaning by Teniers still remains elusive. Provided that some alchemists were connected with demonology, Teniers could be making reference to the perceived arrogance of alchemists who believe they could get the better of demons by practicing black magic. In contrast, it could even be represented as a talisman, by attributing magical properties to inanimate or living creatures to ward off evil (Degivry, 2003, p. 337 ). The witch mentioned above could be in fact making a talisman out of the demon as indicated by the magic circle and symbols she has inscribed on the ground (Guiley, 2006, p. 304).

David Teniers the Younger, Old Woman Binding a Devil to a Cushion, c.1635,
Oil on wood, 31 x 46cm,
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek.

What appears to be clear from the connected iconography of Teniers’ paintings is that the alchemist’s behaviour is alluding to the practice of sinful behaviour as are his representations of peasants depicted drinking and smoking. It was believed those who paid the services of alchemists were at risk of eternal damnation (Haynes, 2007, p.11; Elmer, 2004, p. 121). This is a possible link of the hanging fish and reptiles in representations of medical professions whose foundations also laid in alchemy. This interpretation is all the more likely as Teniers was Catholic and such beliefs in demons and witches were still prevalent in the seventeenth-century Netherlands (Davidson, 1979, pp. 42-3). Teniers reference to supernatural creatures, his interest in the exotic and didactic correlate with Counter-Reformation aesthetics associated with High Baroque art, which is also illustrated by his interest in moralising religious themes depicted in genre settings (Davidson, 1979, p. 52). Representations of the alchemist therefore allowed Teniers to extend his interest in religious and moralising themes in a seemingly objective genre depiction of an alchemist. Therefore, the strung-up animals represented in Teniers’ paintings allowed for demonic symbolism in genre painting that were designed to reflect everyday human experience and shun the supernatural (Kahr, 1993, p. 8). However, as illustrated above, they were frequently used as a vehicle for depicting religious themes centred on orthodox principles (Kahr, 1993, p. xiii.).

In David Teniers the Younger’s, The Alchemist, c.1645, the trademark fish hanging from the ceiling is represented as a standard specimen of fish that resembles those which hang from his tavern depictions. The peasant woman who peers down from a window above is also a reoccurring motif in Teniers’ tavern scenes, which was also frequently used in his alchemical laboratories. Teniers could be once again linking the tavern scenes to mock the seemingly dignified alchemist for his false sense of grandeur that could be further evidenced by the horse skull propped up beside him against the furnace. As this species of fish has been identified as Cyclopterus lumpus, or ‘Lumpfish’, which are benthic (an organism that lived on the bottom of the sea or fresh water), it could thus appear to be a satirical comment as the fish would be considered a ‘bottom dweller’ as were the ‘low-life’s’ depicted in Teniers peasant scenes (Davidson, 1987, p. 77; Helfman et. al., 2009, p. 300). Similar fish were also depicted as demons in his representations of witches’ and his series of The Temptations of St. Anthony. Once again, Teniers could be making a connection between the practice of alchemy, which could possibly teeter on the lines of demonology in a similar way that drinking and smoking peasants which he also depicted amongst the demons in his representations of The Temptations of St. Anthony are of sinful behaviour.

David Teniers the Younger, The Alchemist, c.1645,
Oil on panel, 51 x71cm,
Brunswick, Herzog Anton ulrich-Museum.

Jane Davidson concluded in her biography of David Teniers the Younger that ‘with the exceptions of a few satires the majority of David the Younger’s alchemists may be considered simply as observations of one phase of seventeenth-century science’ (Davidson, 1979, p. 39). Davidson further concluded that the lizards hanging from Teniers’ alchemist laboratory ceilings were realistic depictions of life as they were believed to be used in alchemical recipes and the preparation of medicine (Davidson, 1987, pp. 62, 75, 76). Although animal oils had been used in medicinal applications, their use was not significant especially considering the prominent position of the animals hung in Teniers’ paintings (Ferchl and Süssenguth, 1939, p. 85). There is also an impracticality of using ingredients hung up from high ceilings left to dry.

Paracelsus explicitly states that ‘the matter of the philosophers is not to be sought in animals’ (Paracelsus, ‘The Aurora of the Philosophers’, 2007, p. 41). Salamanders also only appear to serve as a symbolic role to the alchemical process rather than an actual ingredient (Guiley, 2006, p. 75; Greenberg, 2007, p. 72; Thompson, 2002, p. 127; Paracelsus, ‘The Book Concerning The Tincture of The Philosophers’, 2007, p. 6; Mercer, 2003, p. 173). Furthermore, medicinal remedies were more typically distilled from herbs or metals (Bayer, 2007, pp. 366-7, 380; Principe and DeWitt, 2002, p. 4; Crone, 2004, p. 161). Mercury, salt, and sulphur were frequently cited as the main ingredient in making the Elixir, which also formed the basis of Paracelsius’ medical application of alchemy (Ferchl and Süssenguth, 1939, p. 113; Guiley, 2006, pp. 9, 89, 285, 318; Smith, 2004, p. 161; Bacon, 2004, p. ii. Roger Bacon only mentions using minerals and metals in alchemy). Furthermore, as Davidson suggests, that these lizards could signify dragons as they are mentioned in alchemical treatises (Davidson, 1987, p. 76). However, references to the use of dragon’s blood are in reference to the blood-red mercury, cinnabar (Rulandus, 1992, p. 102). Davidson further fails to sufficiently explain why Teniers chose to represent a fish instead of a lizard in other alchemical representations. The use of animals as an ingredient in the alchemical process does not explain Teniers’ depictions of fish hung from the ceilings of Tavern interiors, nor does Davidson’s interpretation rule out a symbolic or double meaning. Although Davidson acknowledges Teniers’ portrayal of lizards in his Temptations of St. Anthony series, she fails to explain why Teniers would choose to represent the lizard as two contradictory symbols; one as a mythological demon while the other as a symbol of early scientific investigation (Davidson, 1987, p. 75).

However, a more thorough study of symbolism used by Teniers and reoccurring motifs that appear in his body of works of art says more about morality and Netherlandish society far beyond current interpretations of his alchemical paintings. Teniers is known for his highly moralising religious themes depicted in genre settings to be more readily relatable to the public. It appears that his representations of alchemists have been the subject of the same treatment and thus show his influence of Counter-Reformation aesthetics associated with Italian High Baroque (Davidson, 1979, p. 52). As a result, it is more likely the case that the hanging fish and reptiles by Teniers served as a symbolic and moralising motif which connects his representations of alchemists to his satirical and moralising images of peasants and physicians as well as to demonology as represented in his themes depicting witches and The Temptations of St. Anthony.

Representations of the alchemist in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art to a large extent reflect the collective socio-cultural fears that accompanied this dynamic and transformative period of early Modern Europe. In this way, the paintings discussed reveal a sense of ambivalence that was also expressed in representations of contemporary medical practices whose foundation was laid in the Paracelsusian application of alchemy in medicine. This apprehension is illustrated by the commonality between the representations of figures in the medical professions such as physicians, dentists, and barber-surgeons who were often the subject of similar satirical and didactic treatment as the representation of the alchemist. The practice of alchemy was commonly linked with medicine, which was illustrated by using similar iconography. Images of the medical professions and alchemy also possessed the shared motif of the hanging fish or reptile resulting in these joint themes being linked to demonology. When looking at Tenier’s oeuvre, sufficient evidence exists to suggest that the animals hanging from the ceilings in Teniers’ laboratories were symbolic of demonology and of sinful pursuits. The reason for this distinctive placement is still unclear and requires further investigation.

David Teniers the Younger, The Surgeon, c.1670,
Oil on canvas, 57.2 x 73.7cm,
Norfolk, Virginia, Chrysler Museum of Art.

For more read: The Image and Identity of the Alchemist in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art


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