Jesus the Apothecary, from the Chants Royaux Sur La Conception Couronne du Puy de Rouen by Unknown French artist

Unknown French artist

Jesus the Apothecary, from the Chants Royaux Sur La Conception Couronne du Puy de Rouen, 1519–28, Manuscript illumination, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, BnF, Fr. 1537, fol. 82v, Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Christ the Pharmacist

Commentary by

This small illumination develops a very striking theme: Christ is represented as an apothecary in his pharmacy, prescribing the remedy of salvation to Adam and Eve.

In the New Testament, Christ compares himself to a physician (Mark 2:17 and parr.), and from the time of the early Church onwards, theologians continued to interpret him as a healer (e.g. Origen Homily on Leviticus 8; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 1.2) who through his Cross and Resurrection provided the medicine that humanity really needs.

The visual motif of Christ as apothecary which we see here explicitly develops this tradition. It is one of the earliest examples of this iconography in Christian art.

We see Christ working in the dispensary. Adam and Eve present themselves as patients or customers. As their need for a medicine goes beyond their physical ailments, the apothecary Jesus Christ makes out the following prescription which the observer can read when taking a close look: ‘Le Restaurant qui pour mort rend la vie’, that is, ‘The restorative that provides life for the dead’.

The way Jesus cures the blind man in John 9 (‘[he] spat on the ground, made a paste, and put it over the eyes of the blind man’; v.6) has parallels with the apothecary using his medicines. But, as in the manuscript illumination, this is more than a cure for a physical ailment. Jesus not only restores the power of the blind man’s eyes; he also gives him the capacity to see the true light which is himself (John 9:5). The healed man is contrasted with those who assume they can ‘see’ but whose physical sight conceals a spiritual blindness (v.39).

The motif of Christ in an apothecary's dispensary was subsequently adopted widely, especially in France and Germany. (Many such representations offer a valuable historical record of pharmaceutical dispensaries as they existed at the time.)

In modern times, the model of Jesus as healer remains an important but also a divisive one. In European mainline Christianity, the distinction between physical and spiritual healing has led to comprehensive medical services under the patronage of —but distinct from—churches: churches are not pharmacies. In many ‘new’ churches around the globe, however, healing rituals are practised and granted high importance.

In John 9, some of Jesus’s interlocutors are angry and suspicious about his actions. Now as then, the question of how physical and spiritual healing interconnect will draw very diverse reactions.

 

References

Barkley, Gary Wayne (trans.). 2010. Origin: Homilies on Leviticus, 1–16, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 83 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press)

Krafft, Fritz. 2001. Christus als Apotheker. Ursprung, Aussage und Geschichte eines christlichen Sinnbildes (Marburg: Universitätsbibliothek)

Moles, John. 2011. Jesus The Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity, HISTOS, 5: 117–82

Porterfield, Amanda. 2005. Healing in the History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Wood, Simon P. (trans.). 2008. Clement of Alexandria: Christ the Educator, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 23 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press)

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