Blog Post: Giorgio van Meerwijk


Hypericum perforatum in Tractatus de Herbis (Sloane MS 4016 manuscript)

Giorgio van Meerwijk's residency at the British School at Rome, studying the plant of St John the Baptist and its signatures

Giorgio van Meerwijk


16 January 2024

The text follows my residency at the British School at Rome and recounts elements of the research I have undertaken on St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), its history and folklore.

Coming from a purely medicinal point of view, I started getting interested in St John’s wort’s history and folklore after making St John’s blood (also called “balm of the warrior”), an oil made with the flowering tips of the plant left to macerate in olive oil for a few weeks in the sun, after which the oil takes a bright and deep red colour. The name of the oil is said to reference the tragic death of St John the Baptist and might also be indicative of its uses as a wound herb. In Paracelsus’ words, “the holes that makes the leaves so porous indicate that this plant is a help for all inward and outward opening in the skin—whatever should be driven out through the pores […] and the putrefaction of its flowers into the form of blood, that is a sign that it is good for wounds.” These indications are what enacts the doctrine of signatures, an ancient theory which states that a herb resembling a part of the body can be used to treat ailments of this body part . Throughout the residency, I studied how this doctrine influenced physicians and herbalists in Western herbalism and further speculated on how it could be used to represent the history of St John’s wort in sculptures. How the ‘signatures’ of a sculpture can represent an aspect or a detail of the research.

Elements of how the plants were used in the past can sometimes be found in its etymology. Coming from the Greek, Hypericum could derive from hyper and eikon meaning “above” and “image”, referring to the practice of hanging the plant above icons protecting it from evil spirits but also “exceeding any imagination” alluding to the plant’s healing powers. Another theory connects it to the titan Hyperion and his son, Helios, the Greek sun god. Alongside botanical names, common names can also be a recollection of past uses. Fuga daemonum references the plant’ s uses as a protective herb against evil spirits. The herb is also used in various ways as a protective agent, against lightning, for protection for travellers, against nightmares for newborns , or simply from death and dangerous situations.

Hypericum perforatum in Tractatus de Herbis (Sloane MS 4016 manuscript)

Image: Hypericum perforatum in Tractatus de Herbis (Sloane MS 4016

Affiliations between the Sun and Hypericum perforatum are found when studying its link to St John the Baptist. The common name St John’s wort comes from an ancient tradition which states that the herb should be gathered on St John the Baptist’s day, on June 24th, at the point of the day in which the Sun is at its highest. This would give maximum potency to the plant’s uses, whether it be for a medicinal or ritual purpose; for magical purposes, the plant is thought to be more potent when found accidentally. The summer solstice being on June 21st, both happenings are intrinsically linked, especially when considering the changes in the Gregorian calendar throughout History, which would draw both days even closer.

In Italian folklore, St. John the Baptist was called “the John who cries” in contrast to St. John the Evangelist, “the John who smiles”. These symbolic names refer to the period in which both St. Johns’ days fall: the Baptist on summer solstice (when the Sun appears to be at its highest elevation point, from which it starts its annual decent) and the Evangelist on winter solstice, directly linking it to pre-Christian rituals around the Sun.

There are a lot of connections to be made between pre-Christian beliefs and the Christian calendar and celebrations in which astrology plays an important role. During the Middle Ages, the local beliefs around nature were under the pressure of the Church due to the Christianisation of the countryside, but traces of pagan traditions can still be found in the Christian calendar and regional traditional celebrations. The use of plants in rituals is a reminiscence of these traditions in which the power of natural phenomena was celebrated. Medicine was often fused with spiritual or religious beliefs, and rituals sometimes became remedies and cures for ailments.

Hybrid faiths including both Christian and pre-Christian beliefs were not uncommon. Being Christian didn’t always mean a full conversion, it could mean going to the church every Sunday without having to stop practising pagan rituals. Some conversions, instead, were gradual and pagan belief systems and deities were slowly replaced by saints and Christian theology.

During the residency, I had the chance to get access to few manuscripts. One of them was at the Vatican library, a 15th century version of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica with hand painted illustrations of the plants on pigskin paper and a few written words in ancient Greek and Latin to describe each plant. On almost all the manuscripts I’ve searched St John’s wort in, fuga daemonum was written next to the botanical name and its depiction as the herb of St. John. I saw in this an indication of the persistence of the plant’s pre-Christian tradition clashing and then blending with Christian theology. In the hand-painted manuscript I leafed through, the yellow flowers of the plant were not botanically accurate, but I started to see them as small Suns, as ‘ signatures’ of its history.

On the left, a detail of the Vatican library’s hand painted 15th century version of De Materia Medica, and on the right, a representation of a cave painting  depicting the Sun.

On the left, a detail of the Vatican library’s hand painted 15th century version of De Materia Medica, and on the right, a representation of a cave painting depicting the Sun.

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