Strong Spirits

Wenceslaus Hollar after Leonoardo da Vinci, Study of two Women, 1645, Etching, 84×115 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Links between the project of replicating and perfecting nature through alchemy and the parallel endeavors of the visual arts have existed since ancient times as William Newman has shown in his seminal study (Promethean Ambitions 2004). The claim of alchemy and especially of Paracelsus, however, to not only reproducing and perfecting living bodies with the help of new technologies, but to also creating artificial bodies through art and science, transcended the scope of the pictorial arts.

Medicine and Paracelsian iatrochemistry as a sub-form of alchemy were situated between the ultimate ambition of creating artificial life and the mere life-like imitation of the body in painting and sculpture. They aimed at healing, forming and improving the body on the basis of physiological and pharmaceutical knowledge.

Knowledge of illnesses and remedies, and for midwifery especially of conception and childbirth, was closely linked to genuinely artistic views of the malleability of materials. Imagination, which played an important role in the body and diseases in the early modern period, was an important agent for the malleable material of the body, as, among others, Yasmin Haskell has convincingly shown (Imagination and Imaginary Diseases in the Early Modern Period 2013).

Wenceslaus Hollar after Leonoardo da Vinci, Study of Human Skull, 1645, Etching, 77×91 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

The early modern concept of the imagination included the processing of visual impressions, the shaping of images recorded into the mind as memories, and the influencing of physical processes through the mental faculty. Conversely, the composition of the bodily fluids influenced visual perception and mental states (Angus Gowland, Melancholy, Imagination, and Dreaming in Renaissance Learning 2013 and Koen Vermeir, Imagination between Physick and Philosophy: On the Central Role of the Imagination in the Work of Henry More 2008).

With Leonardo’s notion of the artistic imagination not as a passive medium but as an active force close to the intellect able to create new images through combination, an ability which could be improved upon with practice, engaging with art works had the potential to not only stimulate intellectually but to heal physically as well. Claudia Swan’s longstanding research on imaginative processes is here of special importance (Counterfeit Chimeras: Early Modern Theories of the Imagination and the Work of Art 2015). Frank Fehrenbach has highlighted Leonardo’s concept of training the imagination (The Cycle of Images 2015).

Through the targeted training of the imagination it was conceivable that artists, and thus ultimately art recipients as well, could influence physical processes and not just, as has been discussed among others by Stuart Clark (Vanities of the Eye 2007) and for the English court in particular Stephanie Shirilan (Robert Burton and the Transformative Powers of Melancholy 2016), that physical processes influenced and impaired perception.

Wenceslaus Hollar after Leonoardo da Vinci, Study of a Bald Man, 1648, Etching, 68×46 mm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

This possible effect of viewing art is part of but goes beyond theories of artistic invention, because it is the mind influencing the body. Theories of artistic invention have been productively discussed by Michael Cole (The Demonic Arts and the Origin of the Medium 2002). Hannah Bader in turn has focused on the imagination as having a physical effect (Early Modern Magic as a Theory of Contagion and the Power of Imagination 2005).

“True beauty comes from within” was not an empty phrase in the 17th century, in England especially, but instead a tenet: according to Neoplatonic principles, imagination and intellect formed the spirit, which in turn shaped the body (Karl Möseneder, Paracelsus und die Bilder 2009 and Margaret Healy, Shakespeare, Alchemy and the Creative Imagination 2011).

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Rabe (2022, March 20). Strong Spirits. Lady Arundel 1654–2054. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

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