Discovering divine flora in ‘Arcane Botanicals’ thesis lecture

I do not often find myself in the Van Ingen Art Library, but I made my way to its top floor on the evening of Feb. 15 in search of plants. There, Natalia Fay ’24, an art history major and my dear friend, was holding an opening reception for an exhibition based on her senior thesis. Entitled “Arcane Botanicals: Natural Imagery in Dioscorides’ ‘De Materia Medica,’” the thesis is an exploration of the representation of plants in a sixth century manuscript of the book written by Pedanius Dioscorides in the first century. The atmosphere was convivial, with students and professors milling about, munching on a provided assortment of crackers, cheeses and fruit.

In the center of the room was a large glass case, artfully arranged with displays of the texts in question. I am relatively unfamiliar with the world of art history; I am a biochemistry major and, while I enjoy plants, I have a very limited vocabulary with which to make sense of the world of dusty tomes, ancient manuscripts and artistic renditions. I was there primarily to learn and to immerse myself in the academic world of one of my friends. I have, of course, known for many years now that Fay is an art history major, but I am always curious to know more about what particularly within a field interests someone. For her, it seems to be botanical symbolism as a method of making sense of both the natural and the divine. 

I made my way around all four sides of the glass case, ducking through animated, chatty professors, peering at the facsimiles and the neatly printed labels describing the images. I spent a few minutes with each plant, intrigued by the form and details of the drawings. Many of them were colored in dark greens and browns, with intricate depictions of plant structures such as the veins and roots. One in particular caught my eye: a depiction of a mandrake plant taking on a humanoid figure. There were scribbles in different languages all over the page. According to the label, informal Greek is what made up the main text of the page, but it was supplemented in spots with what seemed to be notes in Arabic. Other pages, including one depicting a warrior and a physician, were written entirely in Arabic. With my admittedly extremely limited skill for reading the language, I squinted at the lines of text, hoping to glean something, to little avail. 

According to Fay’s talk, the different languages scribbled throughout the facsimiles are a sign of the varied ownership of the manuscript throughout the centuries. The manuscript was first commissioned in Constantinople for a member of the Byzantine royal family in the sixth century. After the city was conquered by Ottoman Turks during one of the Crusades, the manuscript changed hands and then was used by Ottoman doctors as a medicinal manuscript. The presence of the mandrake, however, also points to the influence of folklore upon the text; mandrakes are present throughout myths of many cultures, and it is said that hearing the cry of a mandrake would be fatal. Like many people, my mind went exactly to the one scene in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” where the students are learning how to repot mandrakes and Neville Longbottom faints. 

The image of the mandrake from the translation Fay is focusing on, also known as the Vienna Dioscorides, was compared to those from another translation of “De Materia Medica,” also known as the Leiden Dioscorides. In the Leiden Dioscorides, there are two different drawings of the mandrake, which are gendered and distinctly less humanoid than the one in the Vienna Dioscorides. Seeing these two versions of the text next to each other made me, a layperson, appreciate the diversity that can exist even between different translations of the same text. 

What caught my attention most in the whole display was a gigantic aloe plant, meant to serve as a comparison to another folio from the text. Fay noted, “By having the plant in the display I was hoping to elicit some sort of discussion between the naturalism of the plant and the varying depictions with which it was displayed.” I learned later that the aloe was loaned from the Olmsted Biology Greenhouse, which made my scientist heart sing. 

As the evening came to a close and people made their way out of the art library, I found myself with a new appreciation for the study of art, as well as my friend’s passion within her field.

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