The Exploits of Paracelsus
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better knowns as Paracelsus, had been invited by the members of the Guild of Saint Luke in the northern city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch to expound his theories. It was rumored that this invitation had been shrouded in controversy. Some said that the man was a quack, others said he practiced black magic; then there were those who claimed he was just plain mad and there were even voices who whispered he was an atheist.
Be as it may, Paracelsus appeared in ‘s-Hertogenbosch around noon on a chilly day at the end of October. A few hours later he stepped onto a small wooden stage in the guild hall, in front of a considerable (and raucous) crowd. The longer he spoke the more restless the spectators became.
When one of the guild members shouted that Paracelsus was a charlatan who’s words were only fit to be directed at a congregation of rats in a dungeon, the physician answered:
surely it was a mistake of our dear Lord to endow a pig with human speech.
Had it not been that a group of some thirty men who supported Paracelsus, and who managed to stop the affronted spectator from running onto the stage, the presentation would have been over. But the doctor managed to continue his talk up to the moment that he somehow thought it wise to galvanize his arguments by burning a copy of Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. This caused general outrage and mayhem ensued. The physician was lucky to come out of that hall without serious injuries, though it could not have been agreeable to him that most of his clothes and all of his books had been torn to shreds and that his equipment had either been stolen or smashed to pieces.
A few hours later the unfortunate (or unfortunately obstinate) doctor was sitting in a tavern near the east gate of the city. His appearance had somewhat improved, for he was wearing new clothes – that had apparently been handed to him by one of his sympathizers – yet he was drinking so much that he was rapidly effectuating an even more disheveled state than before.
Had it not been for the intervention of a mysterious young woman – who had been in his circumference ever since he had entered the city – Paracelsus would certainly have been beaten and robbed again.
Before the physician could fathom what was happening he had been chaperoned into a carriage and was brought to a tiny castle, in the woods to the east of the town. There he woke up when the sun had already begun its descent from the heavens. At first, he was alarmed, for he had no idea where he was and how he had gotten there. Thankfully his host, the young damsel, who introduced herself as Lady Lucia van der Sterren, managed to make him feel at ease. She told him that she was an avid admirer of his work. That she’d been thrilled to hear that he was going to speak in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and that therefore she had placed herself among the spectators in the guild hall. It had greatly pained her to behold how things had gone so horribly awry.
I knew that you were not safe, so I decided to keep an eye out for you, the Lady said.
I followed you with my two servants. I had wanted to talk to you earlier, but seeing in what dreadful shape you were, I did not know when and how to approach you. It was only when I began to fear for your life that I knew I could no longer hesitate.
Paracelsus expressed his gratitude and asked the Lady if her servants could help him arrange his departure. To which she answered:
It would please me very much if you could stay a few days longer.
I must once again affirm that I am most grateful, yet I can not burden your household any longer than I have already done and besides, I was planning to visit a friend of mine in Rotterdam, the doctor answered.
It would be a mistake to call your presence here a burden, dear Theophrastus, Lady Lucy spoke.
I will implore you to stay at least one more day, so you can explore my gardens. There are many herbs and plants there that might interest you. Perhaps you could even instruct me on a thing or two concerning their properties. You are also most welcome to take whatever you need that will allow you to concoct whatever potions you think you might require for the rest of your journey.
The doctor, who was now quite intrigued, could not refuse this generous offer.
Not much later Paracelsus was making his way through the castle’s numerous gardens. He was soon astonished by the enormous variety of rare herbs he encountered there.
Calamus, Myrrh, Theriac Venetian, Zedoary root, Dittany, Gentian, Angelica Root, Kaolin, Carline thistle… it’s incredible, incredible! the doctor exclaimed.
Besides herbs, he also encountered an astounding array of mushrooms.
When he returned to the castle with several full baskets he was surprised to find nobody in the reception hall, nor in the kitchen, nor in any of the other spaces he had visited. Only when the doctor went to the top of the castle he heard voices. They came from a chamber in one of the castle’s towers. When he approached the door he heard the silvery voice of Lady Lucia speak:
don’t dally, do come in!
The moment the doctor entered the room he was greatly disturbed, for he encountered a scene he – not even he! – was not at all accustomed to. In the right corner of the room stood a painter behind an easel, carefully conceiving an unspeakably indecent scene, in which as many bizarre, macabre monsters as beautiful bright angels were thronging around a masterly lifelike depiction of Lucy van der Sterren, reclining on a sort of sofa made of clouds; not just completely undressed, but in a most lurid pose, which allowed the viewer to stare straight into…
Paracelsus looked away, but that made things only more complicated because then he looked at Lady van der Sterren herself, in the flesh so to speak. Stretched out on a sofa in exactly the pose she was being depicted in. Her amazingly long black hair swirled all around her resplendent body, but not in such a way as to obscure any of the more intimate parts. Her violet eyes stared straight into the doctor’s soul.
The latter couldn’t suppress a panicked shriek.
Oh, poor, poor Theophrastus! Don’t fear my body; it’s perfectly natural… the Lady laughed, and then she said: this here is my friend Pieter. As you can see Pieter is not afraid of me either.
After this incident it took not just Lady Lucy, but also the artisan Pieter and even the two servants, to convince the much perturbed Paracelsus to stay for supper.
That the artisan also happened to be an admirer of Paracelsus was certainly instrumental in soothing the physician’s strained nerves. Pieter and Lady Lucia (restored to a perfectly respectable state) even managed to make Paracelsus lecture them about the herbs he had found in the garden. By the time dinner was served the atmosphere had become almost amenable. Paracelsus ate his mushroom broth while trying to act as insouciant as his two table companions. After his meal, he felt strangely elated, though he had only had three or four ales.
He should have known that something was not quite right when he cheerfully accepted Lady Lucia’s invitation to have a look at her collection of paintings. And thus he eagerly followed her and Pieter to a large quarter in the middle of the castle. Every wall of this space was filled with paintings, almost from the floor to the ceiling.
The doctor had never seen that many paintings before in his life. Instantly his unease returned, and more than the that, as he beheld the paintings, each and every one of them similar to the one he had witnessed earlier that day. Waves of anxiety rolled over him and knocked him off his feet. He fell to the floor, clutching his head, while whirlwinds of hideous demons, lovely angelic creatures and even more beautiful stark naked women swooped around him and danced before his eyes – also after he had closed them.
When he opened his eyes again, not much had changed, certainly not for the good; flocks of creatures had left their canvases and were dancing, jumping, flying and somersaulting through the room. Yet there was hope, a beacon of light, right in front of him… the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, calling him: Theophrastus, come here! Come to me! It was Lucy. Her light was so strong that none of the creatures could come near her. You are safe with me! Her voice rang. Paracelsus crawled towards the light, praying, sobbing.
I will save you Theophrastus, come here! But when he reached the circle of light he could not enter. You can only enter pure and untouched, without clothes, the voice called out. Of course! It made perfect sense. How blind he had been! He understood and undressed. He entered the circle and held her naked body in his arms. Her mouth tasted sweet like myrrh. Her breasts were the sun and the moon. Her garden lay before him and he entered it once more.