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Behind the scenes of the Teylers Museum

450: The bishop and the apothecary: on the title page of Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis

 

One of the absolute treasures in the Library of Teylers Museum is a hand-coloured edition of  Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (1613). Besler was a Nuremberg apothecary and botanist, who was also in charge of the wellknown botanical garden of Johann Conrad von Gemmingen, archbishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. In the Hortus Eystettensis  over a 1000 medicinal, edible and decorative plants from the bishop’s garden are illustrated.

 

Besler is a particular favourite for VIP tours, but the Teyler copy is also available in digital format: http://www.teylersmuseum.eu/wotpdf/Bessler_tomus_I/Flash.htm#/9/

 

Although the Hortus Eystettensis is nowadays mainly appreciated for the beautiful plates (all the plants are arranged by seasons and they are all depicted in full bloom), the title page still bears witness to the wider ambitions of the bishop.

 

The main element of the sumptuously engraved title page is formed by a temple porch (or triumphal arch?) crowned with  the coat of arms of the bishop. On both sides of the coat of arms personifications of Flora (with a basket of flowers) and Ceres (the Roman goddess of agriculture embracing a beehive) are depicted.

 

Two men on either side of the arch point towards a garden in the centre of the title page. Cartouches indicate the men as ‘Salomon’ and ‘Cyrus’. Who are they? And what are they doing there?

 

The Jewish King Solomon is portrayed in the Bible discussing botany “from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls” (1 Kings 4:33) and was thus considered an expert on botany (as Besler describes in his preface).

 

King Cyrus the Great ( c. 600 BC / 576 BC – 530 BC), founder of the mighty Persian Achaemenid Empire, also had -according to the description given of him by Cicero-, an extensive knowledge of botany.

 

And the garden in the centre? It is the most quintessential garden of all: the Garden of Eden, in which God the Father can be seen showing Adam around. Everything seems at rest and peaceful, but the contemporary beholder –well versed in Christian doctrine- would immediately have known how the story would end. The palm tree in the centre of the Garden is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose fruits –according to Genesis- eventually would lead to the expulsion of Man from Paradise.

 

The olive branch in the hand of Ceres is connected to this story. In the interpretation of Klaus Walter Littger, it is “a symbol of reconciliation between God and Man and God’s promise after the Flood that the earth would once again bring forth life and would once again be furtile” (introduction in: The Garden at Eichstätt: the Book of Plants by Basilius Besler (Taschen 2000), p. 25).

 

With these learned references the bishop not only places himself in a venerable tradition of mythical wise men interested in botany, but also presents his garden as a recreation of  the garden of gardens: Paradise recreated in Eichstätt.

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