Is the presence of St Anthony the Abbot enough to hint at the date of January 17 in the scene? And why Hans Memling turns the saint’s pet pig into a bristly boar?
We know that among the Celts the boar embodied the lowest point of the winter solstice. While the representation of Saint Anthony the Abbot, in the Christian era, symbolically indicated a particular day in January, a detail that could have gone almost unnoticed if we do not find it often involved with dates that could seem more ritualistic than routine. For instance, Nicolas Flamel’s legend and Rennes le Chateau affair do share “January 17” as a meticulously stressed important detail of death and resurrection, in Alchemy called Magisterium Magnum.
The painting we are examining is an oil on wood known as “Virgin with Child, St. Anthony the Abbot and a donor”, dated 1472, and now conserved in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. We know that Memling was an apprentice in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, nevertheless, he seems to be clearly influenced by Jan van Eyck’s paintings, both for pictorial details and for focusing on symbolic aspects. For instance, the way Memling provides a date to this painting, white numerals on the rear wall of the room as in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, is in fact a feature of Jan Van Eyck.
Not new to paint biblical characters with animals, this time Hans Memling sets a personage with a rather disreputable animal, a swine, in an altarpiece while introducing the donor, that’s to say the person who must not be offended, as presumably the commissioner of the work, kneeling in front of the Virgin and Child and, above all, having the coin purse hanging from his belt. In fact, we have no report of Anthony the Abbot being used among other wealthy donors, if not because he was usually identified by the attribute of the pig.
We are not surprised to see the donor pictorially accompanied by his protector. But very hardly the choice of the saint was made to specific arrangements of the donor, in reality very often the saint was just an artistic escamotage planned by the painter, who instead had precise pictorial and symbolic needs under his contract. And, among Flemish Renaissance painters, Hans Memling is surely one of the most symbolic. But here Hans Memling clearly represents a young wild boar, not a piglet or a sow as required by the Church tradition. A boar is an animal that, unlike the pig, belongs to pagan and not Christian iconography and symbology.
To strengthen this impression there is the textile panel acting as a tapestry for the throne. Memling has sometimes used this weird floral decoration, in fact, it can be defined as a textile trademark for him, like the “Memling’s rugs”. But while the latter reflects the known iconography and decorations of Middle East rugs, the gold panels on the back of the throne of the Virgin look more like the Dionysian thyrsus than a known to botany flower. The other known Memling altarpieces in which we can see a similar item to decorate the back of a majestic dominion chair (1) are the “Virgin and Child with St. James and St. Dominic” (1488-1490) and the “Donne Triptych” (1470-1478). In the first altarpiece, the divine child is represented while opening a book. So we are in the first part of our alchemical works, the mere “opening” of the raw matter, which we call “preliminary works” ( see an Opus Magnum scheme) to achieve our Universal Dissolvent. But the scene probably represented in “Virgin and Child with St Anthony the Abbot and a Donor” might be a successive phase even not planned in our Opus Magnum scheme. A phase that may go above and beyond our laboratory work (2). In the Donne altarpiece, the divine child is again opening the book, but the complexity of the symbology here would take us to consider a broader survey of alchemical works.
The thyrsus can only reflect the symbols, or modes of representation, collectively associated with Dionysus, and his cult (3). Which, if we do not want to limit ourselves to give it the meaning of hectic and thoughtless drunken orgies, traditionally reserved for the uneducated, we have instead to read in it the hidden and high significance of resurrection and immortality, also ritualized as Eleusinian Mysteries.
Given that, the only other extravagant detail we can rely on seems to actually be the boar, along with the date the saint who makes it his attribute used to be celebrated. And this will lead us to talk of the sky and stars, of which the boar was an ancient Celtic symbol. While the Greek piglet owns, once again, Dionysus’ and Demeter’s sacrificial scenes.
But let’s get back to the key character of St. Anthony the Abbot, who used to be portrayed by Renaissance painters, not for his love for animals, but mainly for his hermit life in the Egyptian desert, the “Temptation of St. Anthony” was in fact a common artistic subject of the time. Among the artists who have represented the saint with the swine attribute, there is Hieronymus Bosch and his “Temptation of St. Anthony”, in which the hermit is portrayed along with a bristly piglet wearing a bell, another important attribute, a symbol of death and resurrection. The same does Pisanello, rendering a real boar in front of St. George with the dragon. Another typical attribute of St. Anthony is the Tau cross, which marks his historical life, providing a date between the end of the pagan era and the beginning of Christianity. The book, or the act of writing, in this case, symbolizes huge knowledge attributed to St. Anthony. In the end, a legend says he has brought fire to the world, hence many diseases involving herpes will be tied to the Egyptian saint.
Anthony the Abbot (c. 251 – 356?), also known as the Anchorite of Thebes, is often erroneously considered the first monk, but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him (among them also ascetic pagan hermits called the “Therapeutae”), he was just the first to live in the Egyptian wilderness, the desert proper. The day he felt that the time of his departure had approached, he instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave on the mountaintop where he had chosen to live. Some years later his remains were reportedly discovered and transferred to Alexandria, and eventually, the relics were brought by crusaders to France. In the Roman Catholic saints calendar St. Anthony the abbot is celebrated on January 17 because, as the legend says, that was the day of his death. But there is no evidence that he had actually died on January 17, so this wouldn’t explain his calendar position. The real fact is that we don’t even know the exact year of his death, not only the day. So let’s try to investigate the boar and see how far this study can take us.
Margarethe Riemschneider (from Die Religion der Kelten, the religion of the Celts): “… when it comes to St. Anthony the Abbot it was noted that the pig was originally a wild boar, in a painting kept at the National Gallery in London, Pisanello depicted the hermit with a wild boar. The boar god was the symbol of Lug, also represented as the god-deer and god of the game.
The boar was an attribute of the Celtic god represented as a young man carrying the animal in his arms. Lug was the one who raises from the dead, assuring the resurrection of man, and, every year, the return of the spring, the “light”: thus guarantor of fertility and new life. He was the son of the Great Celtic Mother whom boars and pigs were consecrated, like the Roman Ceres. The Celts honored him to the point of putting a wild boar statue on the helmet and representing him on their banners. They even smeared a thick chalk slurry on their short hair, those who had it, because it would become rigid and resembled the rind of the animal, as evidenced by the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
In many of the Celtic legends there are tales of the hunting of the immortal boar carried out to take over a comb and scissors placed in his ears: the allegory of communion, in the form of cosmetics, with the god Lug, symbolized precisely as hair pomaded like bristles. The same Druid priests were called “Big White boars.” Even in the Middle ages, the boar remained in effect a divine animal, the legend had it that all the kings of the Merovingian bloodline had a backbone covered with bristles like the wild boar, and Theophanes reports that they had the nickname of “back-hairy” or “bristly”.
The converted Celts had probably transferred the attributes of Lug to Saint Anthony, whose relics were brought by the crusaders in the town of Arles, in their own lands, France. In later times the boar was refined and replaced with the pig, to eradicate the memory of the ancient pre-Christian religion. They justified the piglet with a legend: the pig was a devil defeated by the hermit and forced to follow him subdued.
Lug, god of death and resurrection, ruled over the underworld in that function; in the process of Christianization, St. Anthony also assumed the role of the guardian of hell, thus he became the one who could save the souls destined for damnation, and also became “master of fire.”
Only following this underground route between medieval Christianity and pagan religion it can be explained the huge and, at first sight, incomprehensible popularity of the Egyptian anchorite in the West and his celebration day when people bring pets for the blessing to avert disease and promote fertility. In this ceremony the echo of ancient lustration is clearly perceptible, so the memory of the hermit fades in a fusion of rituals, some Romans, others of Celtic tribes, which are intended to encourage the advent of spring.”
As we are talking of a calendar date, we may suggest that some astronomical code is involved here, or, at least, the sky situation of the day. In very ancient times the constellation of the Great Bear was known as “Boar”. In “Introduzione alla Magia” by the group of Ur, we can find the following passage: “The concept of sacred land, or land of the white boar, polar land, is not to be intended as the extreme northern lands of the planet, but rather the sky”. Is it the northern sky, or the winter sky? Nicolas Flamel in Le Livre des Figures Hiéroglyphiques, the book of the hieroglyphic figures, writes: “… So the first time I made the projection, it was on mercury, which I converted half a pound or so in pure silver, better than the one extracted from mine as the evidence proved several times. It was January 17, a Monday around noon, in my house, in the only presence of Perrenelle, the year 1382 … I did it then with the red stone, similar to mercury again in the presence of Perrenelle alone, in the same house, on April 25 of that year, about five o’clock in the evening … “. Why Flamel doesn’t communicate to us the date of the achievement of the Mercurius and the fixation of the volatile Mercurius? And the victorious coming out of the white Sulphur, days was much more important to mark than the date of two projections? In fact the operations I have mentioned necessarily need the right astronomical code, that’s to say the right Moon, Sun, Stars, and hour of the day (the dawn). He also incorrectly writes the name of his wife, Perrenelle instead of Pernelle. Not an ingenious mistake. Was he really only interested in getting rich?
January 17 is also the date carved on Marie de Nègre d’Ables de Blanchefort funeral stele. The specimen kept in Rennes le Chateau museum is a restoration of the original stele broken up by Berènger Saunier after having desecrated her grave in 1895. In 1905 Elie Tisseyre in an account of a trip to Rennes-le- Chateau, amazed by the neglected state of the tomb of the illustrious personage, made a drawing of it. A second rendering was made by Eugène Stublein (Pierres gravées de Languedoc, supposed re-edition of 1884 work, deposited 1966). The reader probably is already acquainted with the fact that very likely the tomb of the marquise was found empty, and the weird circumstances of the funeral documents as well as the absent funeral ceremony lead to the suggestion that the whole operation was conceived to hide something very unusual (see The Last Lady of Rennes).
We can say beyond any doubt that the moon is not involved, in fact, the moon’s phases last about 28 days and never fit exactly into the solar calendar. Concerning the Sun, on January 17 it is slowly rising from the lowest solstice point. A modern astrological theory states that on January 17, approximately, it may vary slightly from year to year, the sun enters the actual stars of Capricorn (sidereal constellation). In earlier times this constellation was known as the Gate of the Death. But, in my opinion, this is just a curiosity, in fact, the precession of the equinoxes shifts the entrances of the zodiacal signs practically every few years, so it can not be considered for an entire century span. Ovid in his Fasti, book one, seems instead not to consider the precession and reports that on January 17 the Sun moves from Capricorn into Aquarius on or about this date.
Among Greeks and Latins, the first days of January were marked by the birth of Apollo, the new Sun. On January 6 Romans celebrated the birth of a new divine child. Virgil in his sixth Eclogue says that a divine child will be born “iam regnat Apollo” or Apollo already ruling, but he doesn’t indicate the exact day. We know that January has been called after the god Ianus. Some stated that Ianus too was the Sun and he is portrayed as double because he ruled both the doors of the sky, that’s to say he opened the sky in the sunrise and closed it in the sunset. He was also said to be the god of the celestial axis. Furthermore, his statues often held in the right hand the number CCC and in the other the number LXV to indicate the measuring of the year, the main effect of the Sun. Others wanted that Ianus, or Eanus, was the world, or sky, from the Latin ab eundo, Phoenicians represented this deity with a dragon, who twists and bites itself, meaning that the world feeds and sustains itself.
In his “Georgics” Virgil narrates that on the Greek Island of Andros, in a Dionysus temple, there was a fountain throwing wine on the first day of January. So In January waters were falling from the sky, and this nomenclature often meant that particular stars did appear. In fact, when we have an exact day of the year, if it is not a solstice or an equinox, we can be quite sure it is a star affair. So we should have a look at the January sky, in the Paris meridian ( which affected both the Parisian Flamel and the village of Rennes le Chateau). But yet we don’t know what quadrant to analyze if the face of the north, south, east, or west. Polaris as we all know shows the North; having it in front, then behind we have the south, on the left the West, and the East on the right. I would suggest drawing our attention to the axis of north-south, as it seems involved in many ancient rituals of death and birth. But the constellations revolve apparently from East to West. What does this mean? That our constellation, which in the evening we see in the East, at night can be high above the horizon in the direction of the South and can be identified in the West between 5 and 6 in the morning. So we should know what time we have to look at the sky.
The January sky appears dominated by the large figure of Orion, Sirius star, and the asterism of the Winter Triangle. Orion is the absolute protagonist of the sky: its characteristic hourglass shape, the three stars aligned of the belt and its position at the turn of the celestial equator make it the benchmark for worldwide stargazers. The line, drawn by the three stars of the belt, if extended towards the south-east, leads to Sirius, the brightest star in the entire sky; this star, together with Betelgeuse (α Orionis) and Procyon (α Canis Minoris) is the Winter Triangle. To the south of Sirius, the body of the Canis Maior is marked by a chain of stars that continues southeast, ending in a triangle.
At the beginning of the second half of January, Sirius tends to twinkle in the south quadrant and move from east to west. Sirius shines brightly after dinnertime below Orion in the southeast. Around 8 or 9 p.m., depending on your location, Sirius shines precisely below fiery Betelgeuse in Orion’s shoulder and leads Betelgeuse early in the evening. Betelgeuse leads later.
In conclusion, we will see that in classical mythology the celestial axis north-south ruled the world of births and deaths. And one might think of a precise and ritual orientation.
- See also The Throne Hieroglyph and the Nightly Power of Isis ;
- See also Elias Ashmole and the Prophetic Red Stone ;
- See also Dionysus, Universal Dissolvent and Kykeon ;
- See also The Last Lady of Rennes ;
- See also The Dangerous Journey into the Gundestrup Cauldron ;