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American Rustic Scenes

Bernard Palissy, John Winthrop the Younger, and Benjamin Franklin

Bernard Palissy’s life and work were familiar to colonial British America’s two foremost natural philosophers, both of whom were prominent political figures as well: John Winthrop Jr. (1606–76), the eldest son of the governor of Massachusetts and one of the first governors of Connecticut Colony, and Benjamin Franklin (1706–90).

Though Cotton Mather has acquired a more enduring scientific reputation among colonial historians as a result of his work to develop a technique for smallpox inoculation in early New England, John Winthrop Jr. was also internationally known during his own time and more widely venerated as an alchemist and rustic practitioner of Paracelsian chemical medicine. Indeed, Cotton himself famously eulogized Winthrop as “Hermes Christianus” in 1676.1 Winthrop’s natural philosophy, and his historical connections to Palissy, the fall of La Rochelle, and New York Colony are discussed in subsequent chapters. Yet I think it is particularly appropriate to introduce him here, because he and his “physician’s” chair constitute perhaps the earliest verifiable context for a reader of Palissy’s books in America.

Winthrop’s natural-philosophical reputation was made when he became the first American colonist elected to the Royal Society of London. In 1663, he was listed among the charter members of that stronghold of British Paracelsian science. As his membership in the Royal Society suggests, Winthrop kept up an impressive network of scientific correspondence internationally and was well respected on the Continent and in England. Indeed, despite what European colleagues read as nearly insurmountable wilderness conditions, he maintained a heroic record of scientific research.2 Just as Palissy’s Parisian colleagues were intrigued by the exoticism of his Recepte véritable, the author of which was identified as being “from Xaintes,” a provincial outpost, the “wilderness” setting only added luster to the sense of primitive authenticity that Winthrop’s natural philosophy inspired among London adepts. Londoners surely (with some justice) considered seventeenth-century Connecticut more rustic than Saintes appeared to Parisians. Also, like the Huguenot, Winthrop never hesitated to underscore his isolation from centers of metropolitan learning; a harsh truth, of course, but also an effective way to burnish his own backwoods mythology in Europe.

Winthrop is remembered by historians of science as one of the few colonial scientists who owned Galileo’s books and an up-to-date telescope, which was used to make dramatic—if dubious—observations of Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. These claims helped his reputation in England, which led, in part, to Winthrop’s election to the Royal Society. Above all, however, Winthrop’s reputation was built on his status as a Paracelsian physician who managed to accumulate the most advanced, complete, and current alchemical library in seventeenth-century British America. At his death, Winthrop’s library was said to contain thousands of British and European titles.

Today, more than 600 volumes on various subjects have been counted among documented survivals. Some 275 of these—almost half—are titles devoted to the study of Paracelsian alchemy, chemistry, and the new chemical medicine.3 Despite being greatly reduced by attrition, this latter inventory included a cross-section of early modern natural philosophy, from Ramon Llull and many of the leading figures of medieval alchemy, to the complete works of Paracelsus and Winthrop’s natural-philosophical contemporaries.

Given his bias toward Germanic alchemical thinking, it is unlikely that Winthrop did not own a copy of Böhme’s Aurora, but no copy has yet been documented, and neither are the whereabouts known of any copy of Palissy’s Recepte véritable that he possessed. Winthrop’s signed and underlined copy of Palissy’s Discours admirables (fig. 6.1) is, however, among the 275 surviving alchemical volumes from his library, and it is currently preserved in the New-York Society Library, the repository of many Winthrop books through the largesse of a nineteenth-century New York descendant.4 So by no later than the 1670s, Palissy’s Huguenot artisanal discourse had been diffused far from Saintonge, along Protestant international trade routes, to colonial British America. There, his Discours admirables was retrieved from its place on the shelf in Winthrop’s New World alchemical library next to the other books of Paracelsian natural philosophy he considered indispensable to understanding the American experience.

The presence of at least one (and originally perhaps both) of Palissy’s books in Winthrop’s alchemical library signals an extraordinary opportunity in seventeenth-century American cultural history, because here two seemingly disparate artifacts converge in space and time. The joined great chair (fig. 6.2) in which Winthrop presumably sat while reading Palissy’s Discours in his library (or laboratory) is the only known seventeenth-century American-made physician’s chair extant, that has been confidently associated with its original owner to help reconstruct at least a significant part of Winthrop’s scene of reading; that is to say, the part that held Winthrop’s sitting body.

FIGURE 6.1. Title page from John Winthrop Jr.’s personal copy of Bernard Palissy’s Discours admirables (Paris, 1580). Courtesy The New-York Society Library.

FIGURE 6.2. John Winthrop Jr.’s physician’s chair, southern coastal Connecticut or Long Island, ca. 1650–60. H: 44½″,W: 26½″, D: 13⅝″. Oak. Courtesy The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford. The back panel is raised in a Continental manner more common to furniture made in New Amsterdam / New York than early New England. This chair has lost its carved crest rail.

Thanks to its Winthrop provenance and the filial piety with which early New England antiquarians venerated armchairs belonging to a member of the founding oligarchy, the history of this chair, made of American red oak (Quercus rubra), and hence reliably a colonial artifact, because red oak was not used in European furniture, is remarkably well preserved for a piece of furniture that was usually mobile. Until it was lost in 1929, a label attached to its seat indicated that the chair had been made for Winthrop’s “inaugural” as governor of Connecticut. There were two such events—in 1657, and again in 1659—both appropriate dates for such a chair, although the exact date of its construction was not specified on the label. Winthrop remained governor the second time until his death in 1676 in Boston. He resided in New London, Saybrook, Mystic, and Hartford as well, and the probate inventory taken of Winthrop’s Hartford belongings made reference to “1 Timbard bottmd Chayre 00:13:00.” This likely denoted the chair in figure 6.2, indicating it was in the governor’s household at the time of his death.5 The chair was to remain in the Winthrop family until about 1836. At that time, the relic was acquired by Wesleyan University for use as the president’s ceremonial chair. It remained at Wesleyan until 1964, when it entered the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.6

Leading historians of American furniture have consistently argued, based on tenuous logic, that the makers of Winthrop’s chair were Nicholas Disbrowe and Thomas Spencer. Disbrowe, who was born at Saffron Walden in Essex in 1612, emigrated to Dorchester in the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime before 1635, in which year he was working in Hartford, where he died in 1683. Spencer was also born in England, in 1607, in Stotfold, Bedfordshire; he worked in Hartford as well and died there in 1687.7 This attribution will not bear close scrutiny, for it is based solely on documentation of Disbrowe and Spencer having worked in Hartford around the time the chair was made.

Moreover, the available evidence must be manipulated heavily to fit this received wisdom. Although Disbrowe has been documented as Hartford’s principal joiner at the time, and he could have done the joined and carved work on Winthrop’s chair, an extremely detailed inventory of his shop tools reveals that Disbrowe owned neither a lathe nor turner’s chisels and hence probably did not possess (or require) the skills necessary to turn the well-regulated columnar posts. On the other hand, the argument goes, Thomas Spencer, who lived just a few yards from Disbrowe in Hartford, was a turner without known joinery skills. But the family alliance of these two interdependent shops was sealed when Spencer’s son Obadiah (1639–1712) married Disbrowe’s daughter Mary. Working together, the Disbrowe-Spencer shops could, therefore, have joined, carved, and turned Winthrop’s chair for his inaugural in 1657 or 1659.8 A good story, but for the problem that there is no reliable evidence whatever to link the two woodworkers to Winthrop’s chair, or, more important in an age of patronage, to Winthrop himself. On the contrary, there is really nothing beyond its appearance in the Hartford inventory of colonial America’s most notoriously footloose settler to even suggest that the chair was made in Hartford.

Idiosyncratic formal attributes reveal something other than a variant on the central or southeastern English woodworking styles in which Disbrowe and Spencer trained and that characterize most early Hartford furniture. The chair’s dramatic raised (or “tabled”), molded and beveled panel back is an attribute rarely seen on Connecticut work. However, tabled panels were commonplace on oak and other hardwood New Amsterdam furniture and can also be found on a well-known group of furniture from early Rhode Island Colony, as well as on a small quantity of furniture that survives from the seventeenth-century Chesapeake. Most of the Virginia examples were produced in artisans’ shops working in the Germanic or Dutch rather than in the British tradition, reflecting the pluralistic settlement patterns of the middle and southern British colonies. Winthrop had invested heavily in real estate and other property on both the Connecticut and the New Netherlands coasts of Long Island Sound by the early 1640s, and he established residence at the mouth of the Mystic River basin in autumn 1646. Consider, then, that the armchair may have been made by an artisan working in those areas bordering New Amsterdam and Rhode Island, places where Winthrop had extensive political and economic interests and patronized local artisans.9

There is scant evidence in his huge correspondence of Winthrop’s having employed Disbrowe and Spencer, and he was closely associated with other woodworkers from the Long Island Sound coastal region who were more logical choices to make a physician’s chair for the American “Hermes Christianus” than the two Hartford men. Among these was “a verry Ingenuous man” called “John Elderkin, the Miller.” Elderkin’s peripatetic migration from the Boston region south into the Long Island Sound borderlands mirrored Winthrop’s own. Having arrived in New England about 1637, Elderkin (b. England, 1616–1687) moved frequently to follow his trade as a builder of meetinghouses, mills, and wharves, as well as ships, interior woodwork, and furniture. Contracts and building receipts record the wanderings of this busy artisan and his family. Between 1641 and 1661, Elderkin lived and worked in Dedham and Lynn in Massachusetts, New London and Norwich in Connecticut, Providence in Rhode Island, and Southold on Long Island. Sometime between 1640 and 1680, Elderkin probably made a singularly idiosyncratic joined, turned, and carved three-posted chair (fig. 6.3) that was long in the possession of the Waldo family of millwrights and carpenters, who lived in Braintree, Charlestown, and Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Its provenance begins with Abigail Elderkin Waldo (b. 1715), not the original owner, but the great-granddaughter of John Elderkin.10

While the rigorous inquiry necessary to attribute Winthrop’s armchair to Elderkin would be out of place here, some formal, professional, and patronage relationships may reasonably connect these two chairs. Indeed, a casual observer will note only slight differences between the carved arms on both chairs and the closeness of the column under the arms (and above the seat) on the Elderkin chair to the turned front posts on the Winthrop chair. Even if Disbrowe is presumed to have farmed out the turning on the Winthrop chair to Spencer, from Elderkin’s detailed construction contracts, it is clear that the highly skilled Elderkin did the joinery as well as the turning and carving. Finally, the backs of both chairs rake back dramatically above the seat, an unusual approach in American armchairs to molding the sitter’s posture to provide both comfort and distance. However, this facilitated reading of the carved back panel by visitors: the discourse of the chair was evidently expected to stand in for the sitter when he was absent.

Judging formal attributes can seem tedious or obscure, but they are magnified greatly in significance when seen in light of Winthrop’s letters of the 1650s, which clearly refer to his powerful, perhaps bonded, patronage relationship with Elderkin. On August 31, 1651, William Wells of Southold felt compelled to write to Winthrop, not Elderkin, to obtain the latter’s services. Winthrop’s permission was deemed necessary in “grantinge and persuading your Millwright John Elderkin to come a long.” Wells wanted Elderkin “to view the ruins of our old water mill; and build us a new.” Later that year, Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard wrote Winthrop: “[W]ee have greate want of a mill and there is one with you that I here is a verry Ingenuous man about such work that is goodman Elderkin, but wee here you have some Ingadgement uppon him. Now these are to intreate you if possible you can disspense a while with him.”

FIGURE 6.3. Unique three-posted joined great chair, attributed to that “verry Ingenuous man” John Elderkin, John Winthrop Jr.’s artisan client, who worked as a millwright and woodworker for valued members of Winthrop’s patronage network on both sides of the Long Island Sound. H: 42½″,W: 22½″, D: 19¼″. Oak, ash, and cherry. Courtesy Chipstone Foundation, Fox Point, Wisconsin. Photo, Gavin Ashworth. Did Elderkin also make the equally unique and “ingenious” physician’s chair in figure 6.2? Compare the arms, as well as the turning, carving and molding patterns.

The “engagement” to which Mayhew referred was put into writing in March 1652, when Elderkin formally contracted with Winthrop in New London for “one whole yeere beginning the first of April next to worke with him in any Carpentry worke that I can doe and to bueild him a Saw mill and keepe the Corne mill.” Meanwhile, probably at the bidding of Winthrop, who was making aggressive forays into Long Island politics and real estate at the time, Elderkin had also accepted the work on offer in Southold, rather than Martha’s Vineyard. His contract with Winthrop stipulated that “what time I shall be absent at South hold or upon my own occasions I shall make good.”11

Elderkin thus contracted to do “any Carpentry worke” to Winthrop’s specifications, including millwright’s work. Just as plain from the contracts is how broad a definition “carpentry” had in this rural context, where “ingenious” artisans commonly employed multiple skills without guild restrictions. The “Carpentry worke” stipulated in El-derkin’s case thus almost certainly included highly elaborate furniture like Winthrop’s armchair, made at the end of the decade, and expensive interior finishing joinery of the sort the “Connecticut River God” John Pyncheon Jr. asked Winthrop to facilitate for him. “Sir, I am bold to request that the room in which my wife will be this winter may speedily be made warm,” Pyncheon wrote anxiously in October 1654, as the New England winter approached. “I pray let Goodman Elderkin be called on to do it out of hand in regard my wife is but tender and cold will set in quickly.” Since any carpenter could clapboard a room’s interior, Pyncheon undoubtedly meant that Elderkin should line it with frame-and-panel work like that on joined (or “wainscot”) chairs.12

This request tells us that Elderkin was still the most highly regarded woodworker in the area, and that Winthrop was still his principal patron, around the end of 1654, less than three years before the earliest date that Winthrop’s chair is thought to have been made, and just five years before the latest. Would not his most “ingenious” craftsman and client have been the logical choice to construct the honorific physician’s chair? Ingénieux was a word Palissy used interchangeably with expérimenté and inventeur to describe his own craftsmanship of natural-philosophical things. The fact that Elderkin was the Paracelsian Winthrop’s client and a venerated millwright suggests that he understood the skilled work of his hands in cosmological terms, based ultimately on the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm. Some sense of the esteem in which Elderkin was held in Winthrop’s patronage network (and the level of philosophical discourse in which this artisan engaged) may be gleaned from a greeting conveyed from Elderkin to Winthrop by Roger Williams in a letter from Rhode Island written in October 1650: “Yours by Elderkin (who predicates your just praise in many respects etc.) common, philosophicall, morall virtue, laudata crescit.” Like the miller Menocchio, he may have perceived the concentric movement of wooden gears in the mills he constructed metaphorically. Of all the artisans in Winthrop’s circle, Elderkin embodied the cosmic circles carved into the back of his patron’s chair through manual labor. Whether his hands actually made the chair is a subject for future research. Yet the problem of attribution is less important to the overall argument than Elderkin’s skills and the indisputable fact that they were available and “engaged” by Winthrop in the Long Island Sound borderlands region.

Despite this symbolically loaded artifact’s understandably long historiography, it is surprising that while every publication includes a similar exegesis of Winthrop’s chair’s history, its attribution to Disbrowe and Spencer and to a lesser degree an inventory of its construction (the continental tabled panel is never discussed), none has analyzed the chair’s most noteworthy and historically significant feature: its elaborate carved back. This is astonishing in light of the fact that the carved back panel was added because of the natural-philosophical and medical identity of the individual whom antiquarians have worked painstakingly to associate with this relic. Of more concern, after such intensive labor in the archives, is their inability simply to stand back from the written narrative and look at the chair itself; more precisely, to reconsider the chair together with the mental and physical context of the alchemist whose body it was originally built to support.

On the first level of analysis, because the design was unique, the maker was instructed to follow a design to be adapted from one of many books available in Winthrop’s Paracelsian medico-alchemical library, to lay out and carve the unusual variant on the Copernican heliocentric cosmos displayed on the back panel of the chair. If Winthrop’s chair was made no later than 1659, the printed source from which its maker’s template was derived was probably a European book.13 The Copernican System had, however, been taught at Harvard as early as 1659, the year of Winthrop’s second inaugural.14

Whatever the original source, the relationship between a printed “Copernican System” and the back panel of Winthrop’s chair is made plain enough by the woodcut published in Boston in John Foster’s Almanack for 1675 (fig. 6.4). The representation of the sun as an open flower emanating light seems remarkably similar to Foster’s more conventional sun with a smiling face. The central “sun” on Winthrop’s chair appears to have only three orbits revolving around it, despite the information that “Sol keeps his throne, and around him shines / Upon six worlds which walk in single lines.” Concentric circles were conventional signifiers in the natural-philosophical context for the emanation of light in and out of matter (here, wood). As is evident in Foster’s cosmos, they were also sometimes used to signify Saturn’s rings, which Winthrop reported having seen with his telescope in 1660, and with which he was identified in Europe. To put Saturn at the center of any cosmology, Copernican or Ptolemaic, was unusual. Still, it must be considered that the back panel was intended to convey a double meaning; to imply Winthrop’s personal and natural-philosophical associations with both Saturn and Earth. With the availability of simultaneous readings in mind, it is evident that with only three of the six Copernican rings visible on the chair, the primary text arguably referred above all to Winthrop’s sitting in and preoccupation with the Earth itself, the third planet in orbit around the sun after Mercury and Venus.

The eight additional “suns,” accompanied by small satellite cabochons in “orbit” around Earth’s orbit, are problematical and cannot be explained adequately as representations of Saturn’s multiple moons or by the poem’s lines “and eight less Globes, again encompassing / One th’ Earth, four Jove, three Saturn with his Ring.” These eight miniature representations are indeed “less[er] Globes” in size, but it is difficult to read them as the eight Copernican moons encompassing three different planets. Rather, the eight flowering celestial bodies revolving in the third orbit around the central “sun” are not eight separate planets, but the earth alone—with its single moon—marked at eight positions as it rotates around the star.

FIGURE 6.4. John Foster, The Copernican System, woodcut published in An Almanack of CoelestialMotions for the Year of the Christian Epocha, 1681 (Boston, 1681). MHS image no. 3627. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society. Marginalia were added by the famous Boston diarist Samuel Sewell (1652–1730). Like Winthrop, “Sol keeps his throne.”

This suggests that the four additional planets in the far corners of the back panel may represent Mars the next (or fourth) in orbit from the sun. The carver was constrained by the geometry of the chair’s back panel, and was obviously unable to represent the next planet’s rotation in a circular fashion as he did Earth, where he had plenty of room to swing his compass. Since Mars was associated with flaming fire (and hence alchemy) but also war and strife, it is possible that these outer four entities signified other planets (perhaps Jupiter) or comets. Winthrop wrote the Royal Society with observations about both. More mundane explanations might be that the four outer shapes served as filler or ambiguous fixed stars (stellae inerrantes). Or the outer bodies were simply a standard representation of the boundary between the microcosm and macrocosm, called the caelum stellatum, or “the heavens,” a convention in seventeenth-century printed cosmologies. Indeed, it is repeated in the Foster woodcut as well.

The motion signified on the panel was heliocentric; Earth’s movement around the sun seems clear enough. Yet standard print sources for the Copernican system do not match, so we must begin again with the books in Winthrop’s library. Inasmuch as this chair represented its sitter, and Winthrop’s fame as a medical practitioner was common knowledge among “rustic” New Englanders and physicians throughout the Atlantic world, it makes sense to turn to his medical treatises for images of physicians’ chairs. These were often associated with physicians in early modern representation. The physician was depicted elevated above the stricken body, book in hand, seated enthroned in his impressive chair, directing the manual labors of a lowly chirugeon.

Indeed, a likely pictorial source can be found in Winthrop’s library among his remarkably complete collection of books by the influential English Calvinist Paracelsian, alchemist, mystic, and physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637). No fewer than eleven titles by Fludd survive with Winthrop’s signature or ex libris mark, reflecting the high regard in which Fludd was held among book collectors and the rising monetary value attending the magnificent illustrations of his books, which always warranted special care and protection. Fludd’s cosmologies and medical texts appear in every alchemical library of importance in the Protestant world during the war years of the 1620s and 1630s.15 So it is unsurprising that Winthrop’s copies of Fludd’s well-known Integrum morborum mysterium (Frankfurt, 1631) and Katholikon [Gr.] medicorum katoptron [Gr.] (Frankfurt, 1631)—which were bound together in one volume16—possessed two engravings concerning Paracelsian medical practice, which reveal that Winthrop’s “inaugural chair” was indeed a physician’s chair.

A good case can be made that the basic design for the joined back panel was copied directly from The Circle of Urinary Colours (fig. 6.5), an anonymous plate from the In-tegrum, which itself was copied from a fifteenth-century manuscript now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (the seated physician at center was added later, and distinguishes Fludd’s image from the Bodleian manuscript).17 Here in the “sun” (or central) position on Winthrop’s chair sits a physician in his chair, expounding knowledge of urinary colors from a medical book propped open on a small table. Orbiting around this central figure are seven spheres filled with text poured into them from urine vials, which read, in a circular pattern beginning from the sphere at top right: “Reds, ranging from a crocus-colour to that of intense fire, signify excesses in the digestion”; with the final sphere of gold and of course perfect health at top left: “Golden colours alone are the sign of a perfect digestion.” This engraving of The Circle of Urinary Colours was a companion to The Physician Examines a Specimen (fig. 6.6) in the Medicorum.18

FIGURE 6.5. The Circle of Urinary Colours. Anonymous engraving in Robert Fludd, Integrum morborum mysterium: Sive medicinae catholicae... [and] Katholikon [Gr.] medicorum katoptron [Gr.] . . . [and] Pulsus seu nova et arcanapulsuum historia, e sacro fonte radicaliter extracta, nec non medicorum ethnicorum dictis authoritate comprobata, three works, forming the complete tractate 2 of vol. i of the Medicina catholica in one vol. (Frankfurt: Wolfgang Hofmann for Willem Fitzer, 1631). Courtesy Yale University, Harvey Cushing / John Hay Whitney Medical Library. The Paracelsian physician in his chair, book open to the appropriate passages, is orbited by vials of different colored urine, which revolve heliocentrically around his seated body like planets in the Copernican system (here, the physician himself, his heart animated by the Holy Spirit, takes the place of the sun, the light of which resides in his heart). Only the alchemical golden color indicated a state of perfect inner health. This image arguably provided the conceptual framework for the carving on the back of the chair in figure 6.2. John Winthrop Jr. acquired a complete set of Flood’s titles through his London correspondent Edward Howes.

FIGURE 6.6. The Physician Examines a Specimen, Anonymous engraving in Robert Fludd, Integrum morborum mysterium: Sive medicinae catholicae... [and] Katholikon [Gr.] medicorum katoptron [Gr.] . . . [and] Pulsus seu nova et arcanapulsuum historia, e sacro fonte radicaliter extracta, nec non medicorum ethnicorum dictis authoritate comprobata, three works, forming the complete tractate 2 of vol. 1 of the Medicina catholica in one vol. (Frankfurt: Wolfgang Hofmann for Willem Fitzer, 1631). Courtesy Yale University Harvey Cushing / John Hay Whitney Medical Library. Color is determined by holding a specimen up to light traveling between the sun and the physician’s heart. The pontil glass window forms circles similar to those on the bound books up on the shelves; perhaps the window alludes to the light of grace opening the book of nature?

The Physician Examines a Specimen was set into the title page of a section of the Medicorum Fludd called “Physiological Urinomancy,” wherein he devoted five books to diagnosis through the examination of urine. Here the sumptuously dressed physician sits in his chair at a clothed table in his laboratory. He presides over books, pens, and ink, and receives a urine specimen from his young operator or laboratory assistant, who has obtained it from a patient (not pictured). The physician transfers the specimen into a vial (known as a weather-glass) and holds it up to the light to examine its color. The laboratory windows are made of pontil circles from spun glass. This was not uncommon in itself. Still, the circular pieces resonate with the spheres in The Circle of Urinary Colours and, at the same time, suggest the corpuscularity of astral light shining down into the alchemist-physician’s laboratory, carrying fragmented light split by the duality of fallen Nature and transparent grace through the specimen and on to the open book of natural philosophy on the table.

Images in which the physician’s chair played a central role in setting the scene and establishing a practioner’s identity show common form, function, and visual grammar when juxtaposed with the carved back panel of Winthrop’s chair. Convergence is apparently at hand, and yet why are there only seven orbiting spheres in Fludd, while eight “earths” circle the sun on Winthrop’s chair? The answer lies in those carved earths, revolving around the third orbit from the sun. The number seven was commonly used to section a standard color wheel, hence, the same color wheel was transposed onto Fludd’s Circle of Urinary Colours, with its seven spheres. The number eight in this context was merged with the eight geographical orientation points found on most early modern sundials, signified by an eight-pointed star known as the dial “rose.”19 These composite astrological, geographical, and temporal languages came together in Winthrop’s chair. We are confronted, then, with the convergence of pluralist discourse in a dialogue between a much loved relic and its owner’s experience. The dialogue was between bibliography and artisanry; geography and temporality; the mystical orders of Paracelsian natural philosophy and a governor’s natural and divine right to rule. Convergence speaks, finally, of the meeting of inner and outer geography. How did the accommodation of these multiple discourses, unified in the body of one sitter in his physician’s and governor’s chair, represent John Winthrop the Younger to his local and international constituencies?

The question is ambiguous, but intentionally so, for the issue of pluralism and the willful ambiguity of Winthrop’s personal and civic governance in Europe, New England, and New York were central motifs of both his private and his public life. In this way, Winthrop’s personal history shared with Palissy’s themes of the manipulation of social self-identity as a response to an authoritarian religious regime. Unlike in Palissy’s case, however, this was a regime in which Winthrop was ostensibly a part of the ruling order.

Even with no more than speculation about his identity to go on, and lacking a paper trail as rich as Palissy’s, we can nevertheless imagine the chair maker’s mastery of riven oak and hand tools. Carving the back was not daunting, using compass and rule, the principal tools of joinery and carving (as well as of the millwright, surveyor, and mapmaker). Any “ingenious” carver would have found this task relatively routine. These basic scoring tools were analogous to a writer’s pen for woodworkers, so the old chair itself will tell us how its carving might have been designed in a dialogue with printed sources in the younger Winthrop’s library.

First, a panel of green or partially dried—and therefore soft and workable native red oak—was sawn to measure, held fast or hammered onto the carver’s workbench, planed, and “tabled.” Taking a ruler in hand, the carver bisected the panel to locate its center. This left a quadripartite rectangle which was again bisected, using the pattern of a St. Andrew’s cross, thus subdividing the panel into eight triangles. The original scoring lines are still partially visible to document the process.

Setting aside the rule, a compass was taken in hand. Placing the point carefully at the mark that denoted the panel’s center, a circle two and three-quarter inches in diameter was scored, to signify the sun. Extending the compass approximately half an inch each time, three more circles were scored to denote orbits for the three planets closest to the sun, ending with Earth. Taking up a larger compass and placing the point at the panel’s center, another larger circle was scored, this one approximately nine inches in diameter, which intersected with those lines ruled previously at eight equidistant points circling the sun.

Then, retrieving the small compass once again (making sure it was still set for a 2¾-inch diameter), eight more 2¾-inch circles were scored at the eight intersecting points of the 9-inch circle. The ruler was retrieved, but this time merely to increase the depth of the previously ruled score marks for reference, for they were then contained in all nine of the 2¾-inch circles. These lines are still visible. Placing the compass point at the endpoint of the single line intersecting with the circle’s circumference closest to the panel’s corners, another intersecting arc was scored. This provided a center point for the outer stars, perhaps the boundary between the microcosm below and the macrocosm, located at the panel’s four corners.

Finally, the small compass point was placed at points located along the circumference of each of the thirteen 2¾-inch circles and a series of intersecting arcs was scored, until all the points were utilized. Ultimately, a final, tiny circle was scored in the center of each one. The pattern that emerged was a basic template to allow a high degree of certainty for carving tools, as the carver now worked freehand with chisels, gouges, and parting tools, and completed his representation of Winthrop’s heliocentric system.

The thirteen stylized flowers were then carved with raised stigmas: eight Earths orbiting the sun at the orientation points of the compass star, and four blazing stars in the outer reaches of this earthbound solar system made of wood. Finally, empty peg holes on the crest rail and top of the back stiles of Winthrop’s chair, bear witness to the missing carved crest and finials. The absent elements resolved animated motion that emanated out in concentric circles on the back panel as it came to rest at the crest. Following Böhme’s logic, impulses absorbed by the physical body from its natural environment eventually moved upward into the head. There they were “proven,” but only as an a posteriori effect of action in the soulish heart.

On an existential level, spectators (patients, clients, patrons, citizens) were invited to sense that the entire back panel, with the sun’s universal light diffused in speckled patterns completely across, around, and into its surface, was constructed as part of his natural-philosophical and artisanal program, which projected mystical power and significance beyond the immediate physical context of the laboratory. Corpuscular light was perceived to emanate from within or behind the wood, as well as from outside the room. The carver tried to emulate the “stars” represented in the flowery spheres by faceting the wood like a natural crystal or faceted gemstone.

If this chair was painted originally, that surface is long gone, the common fate of chairs that were painted to appear as if they were made of stone, to blend into the subterranean aesthetic of the grotto. When new, the simulated surface of carved stone was itself materially alive, indeed animated, blazing with light and movement. It was animation by the light of grace hidden in the matter of the natural world, so the totality sparkled before the eyes like stars. Light and motion, purity and corruption, eschato-logical patience and the pressures of personal experience, three of the principal dialectics of Paracelsian science Palissy adapted to his experience, craft, and local history, materialized in this artifact.

Just as earth spun around the sun under God’s direction, both driven and constrained simultaneously in his light until end times, so too pulsating circularity was punctuated and ramified by earth’s eightfold mimetic repetition on the chair back, with terrestrial moons spinning in, out, and around the moving planet. The implied motion of the carved back panel was designed to command visual perception as the primary point of focus. As stand-in and cosmological pattern for the sitter’s inner body absent its habitual occupant, the back’s motions became its most specific, charismatic scene of reading; following Roland Barthes’s “reflections on photography,” its punctum.20

This effect was reinforced further by two separate but interdependent elements of the armchair’s internal systems of display. Like that of the New York leather chair, the chair’s back hovered above its “timbered bottom” and raked backward rather dramatically, an uncommon feature in seventeenth-century New England joined great chairs. This feature was derived, like so much of Winthrop’s library, from European Continental (especially French) prototypes. It effectively forced the tabled panel up into the beholder’s field of vision, like a book on a reading stand.

The chair’s perceptual field was further transformed into a scene of reading by the strong focal presence of four turned and stacked Doric columns deployed in front, parallel to the sitter’s space. These projected aggressively out into the spectator’s space as well, appearing on either side of the panel above and below the seat. Furniture historians concerned with colonial America have just begun to address the significance of turned Doric columns in early woodworking. Some would adduce, with good reason, that Winthrop and his chair maker decided to approximate Doric front posts and legs (with academically correct entasis in their profiles) for Winthrop’s chair on his lathe, ignoring the other variations he was competent to turn, because the Doric columns indicated that the governor wished to present himself as having inculcated certain desirable values. Winthrop wanted to sit in a chair that reflected the latest international style, refracted through the lens of the turners of metropolitan London. Furniture forms supported or adorned with Doric columns were considered the height of classicizing fashion in mid-seventeenth-century London, and hence were generally found on urban forms in colonial America.21 This overtly art-historical strategy addresses precedents in the grammar of classicism, beginning with Vitruvius, who associated the Doric order with masculine proportions. Hence, colonial furniture deploying Doric columns signified masculine hegemony.22

Certainly, the consideration of metropolitan style diffusion and patriarchy are operative here and are absolutely necessary as preliminary steps in understanding the power of Winthrop’s chair. The governor’s style-consciousness is self-evident. It is implicit in his elite family and adherence to the latest developments in fashionable Paracelsist science available from the most sophisticated districts of European print culture. To say that the chair is an awesome symbol of patriarchy seems by now redundant: it was made for the “inaugural” of a head of state and had associations back to the thrones of kingship. Even at the level of the poorest family in colonial America that could afford to make or acquire a simple turned armchair, furniture forms with arms were associated by custom with male heads of household. Women and children are usually illustrated sitting on low anonymous forms and stools, which rarely survived, or an available chest.

It is neither style transmission nor iconographical analysis that interests me most in the presence of Doric columns as frontal pendants framing the upturned back panel of Winthrop’s chair. Rather, it is their function as a perceptual intermediary and bridge between beholder and text that is most suggestive. The columns direct the spectator-reader specifically to the point of focus—here, the carved back panel that embodied motion and light in the animated material of the wood.

Consider two colonial furniture forms of this period that deployed turned Doric columns in an analogous manner to those on the Winthrop chair: tall-case pendulum-driven clocks and desks. With some notable exceptions, the faces of nearly every early tall-case clock known, where turned elements were involved, employed either freestanding or attached Doric columns, such as the ones on the New York Colony tall-case clock made by Anthony Ward, ca. 1724–30, now in the Bowne House Historical Society in Flushing, New York, the house for which it was originally made. While it is almost impossible to escape the often-repeated analogy between the Copernican system and the face of clockmaking, it is nonetheless instructive to say that Enlightenment notions of a purely mechanistic universe spinning on toward the Apocalypse like a well-oiled clock under God’s benign if detached eye, seem a bit naïve or at least premature for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Paracelsian texts in Winthrop’s library—indeed the chair itself—indicate that he did not ascribe to such notions unambiguously when he settled into his “Copernican” armchair. In fact, every American almanac, from the earliest ones published in the seventeenth century to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s in the eighteenth century, published illustrations of both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, just as they were mixed in popular consciousness. That heliocentrism was the ascending paradigm does not mean that the earlier one was forgotten; in practice, astronomical structures were absorbed into the stubborn pattern of conservative adaptation of new forms and ultimately cosmological syncretism.

Copernicus was the formal inversion of Ptolemy, yet such cosmological shifts in the monistic universe of spiritualists who believed in the universality of the soul ensured that experience of difference and distance remained ambiguous. Listen first to Böhme’s critique of the Ptolemaic system, with the chair’s back in mind:

The SUN hath its own Royall place to itself, and doth notgoe away from that place, where it came to be at the first; as some suppose, that it runeth round about the Globe of the Earth in a Day & a Night, and some of the Astrologers also write so.... This opinion or supposition is not right, but the earth roveth itself about; and runneth with the other Planets, as in a wheele, round about the Sun. The Earth doth not remaine staying in one Place, but runneth round in a yeare, once about the Sun.23

Following Böhme’s Copernican system, however, the sun’s “own Royall place” was never fixed or determined at a discrete distance from fallen earth or man, because the sun was not perceived as a body as such, but as made of the same stuff as the infinitely subtle light of God:

Planets are Peculiar Bodys of their own which have a corporeal propertie of themselves, and are not bound to any setled or fixed place, but only to their Circle Orb or Sphere wherein they runne their course. But the SUN is not such a Body, but only a place or Locality kindled by the Light of God. The place, where the SUN is, is such a place, as you may choose or suppose any where above the Earth: and if God should kindle the Light by the Heat, then the whole world would be such a meer SUN; for the same power, wherein the Sun standeth, is everywhere, all over; and before the time of wrath [the Fall], it was every where all over in the place of this world, as Light as the Sun is now, but not so intollerable. For that heat was not so great as in the Sun, and therefore the light also was very meek, and thus in respect of the horrible fiercenesse of the Sun, the Sun is differenced or distinguisht from the Meeknesse of God.24

FIGURE 6.7. Frontispiece by Wenceslaus Hollar from Jakob Böhme’s Aurora (London, 1656). Courtesy Department of Special Collections, the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Citations from Revelation explain the imagery: seven torches of fire, “which are the seven spirits of God,” burn above the throne of heaven. The throne, shining “under a rainbow that looked like an emerald” and through “a sea of glass, like crystal,” is surrounded by four “living creatures” with wings—a lion, ox, a man’s face, and a flying eagle—all “full of eyes in front and behind.” Before the throne is the Lamb of God with the book of seven seals, broken open. The scene is encompassed by twenty-four elders in white with gold crowns who float above the aurora rising in east. The beast and his minions lurk below in shadow, but finally “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2). The postlapsarian veil is dropped at the end of time, and perception is absolute.

The inner and outer sun negated astrological, geographical, and social distance. God’s light enabled the sun to exist here, there, and everywhere, ubiquitously. In Winthrop’s time, the light of God usually existed only as potential power, to be drawn into the pious body through the veil of postlapsarian corruption by the extension of spiritual heat between macrocosm and microcosm. The application of heat was key to the animation of the spirit, just as it was any alchemical operation. Everything depended on fire in the crucible, as would the ultimate purging of all corruption in the apocalyptic fires. Böhme’s frontispiece in Aurora (fig. 6.7) considers these themes through a vacant but spiritually complete armchair surrounded by fire, as well as iconography and textual captions from Revelation. The primary text (Rev. 1:4) identifies the chair as God’s throne, centering a prophetic vision of the militant Jesus Christ (the Lamb next to the open book of the seven seals) returning to battle the Beast (commanding his dark forces arrayed in deep shadow in the low central foreground): “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne.”

The title Aurora refers implicitly to this text. Böhme’s vision of final things takes the form of an aurora, rising radiantly in “the east,” the millennial “dawn” (or sunrise) revealing the “seven spirits.” These appear as seven flaming urns, which float weightlessly above and “before his throne” in the frontispiece. Several other texts are noted from Revelation, as well as Isaiah and Matthew, which sound themes of God’s memory and retribution (Rev. 2:4); whiteness as the elect’s “garment” and signifier of purity’s conquest over corruption (Rev. 3:4–5); God’s light revealing both good and evil hidden in darkness (Isa. 9:2, Matt. 4:16); and, of utmost importance to persecuted Huguenots and other refugees from religious oppression, the ultimate reward of salvation for “you who have kept my word of patient endurance” (Rev. 3:10). The eschatology of waiting patiently was symbolized by worship of God’s throne, the savior’s place of waiting.

The throne itself descends below the circular vault of heaven (the caelum stellatum, boundary between macrocosm and microcosm), ablaze in heat and light. Meanwhile the aurora rises to meet it, reuniting the fragmented heaven and earth for the first time since the Fall. The throne is the conduit for millennial conjunction of the light with the sublunar world, signified by the triangle inside a rectangle on its back. God’s chair is pure energy and contained motion. It is the embodiment and channel of Trinitarian forces descending to earth for the penultimate battle between love and wrath. “And this Firmament of Heaven is his throne or footstool,” Böhme wrote to describe God’s natural position before descending below the arch at the end of time.

Böhme explained postlapsarian astral function further in terms of the Ficinian analogy that overcame the boundary between heaven and earth and promoted soulish unity:

The qualifying or fountain spirits of his natural Body rule in the whole Body of this world, and all is tyed bound or united with them, whatsoever standeth in the Astral Birth in the Part of Love: The other part of this world is tyed bound and united with the Devill. . . . Doth not every man in his Astrall qualifying or fountain Spirits comprehend the whole place or Body of this world, and the place comprehendeth man? It is all but one Body, onely there are distinct members.25

Such a chair mediated and unified the cosmos through the actions of its occupant, who received and emanated astral light in his heart. Yet Winthrop’s physician’s chair remained the vehicle of either love or wrath, subject to the sitter’s heart and God’s leveling impulses. “I have set you upon Moses his chair,” Böhme wrote (in God’s voice) “and entrusted you with my flock; but you mind nothing but the wooll, and mind not my sheep, and therewith, you build your great Palaces. But I will set you on the Stoole of Pestilence.”26

The box that contained the energy of the triangle of air and fire focused readers’ perceptions on the back of the throne in the frontispiece, as did the Doric columns that narrowed the field of vision on clock faces, desks, and Winthrop’s chair. When perceived from an imagined spectator’s perspective on Winthrop’s chair, a curious reversal occurred as he approached its front (or back). Perhaps the most resonant deployment of the Doric order occurs on open reading desks such as one mahogany example, ca. 1700 (Fig. 6.8), also from New York colony, in the Brooklyn Museum. Here, as in all similar desks well beyond this period, Doric columns frame and define (in period parlance) the desk’s “prospect door.” This meant, literally, the door “of perspective view,” “of looking forth or out,” “of facing or being so situated as to have its front in a specified direction.” Until the seventeenth century, “prospect” also meant “point of view.”27 The prospect door flanked by Doric columns also framed the vanishing point in influential design books published by Jean Vredeman de Vries.28 The governor approaching his physician’s chair to reinforce his sense of social and occupational self-identity, or a member of his household standing deferentially or contemptuously to face Winthrop’s absent presence in the shape of his unoccupied chair, focused on the available “prospect,” as he did while sitting before the prospect door of his desk. His perception had already been conditioned by years of habituation to focus his eyes on a spot predetermined by the dominant order (in this case by the governor himself) before he began to read.

FIGURE 6.8. Detail of desk interior with inlaid prospect door, New York City, ca. 1700. Mahogany, red gum, and ash veneers. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art. The “gothic” inlay between the Doric columns might refer to doors, book boards, towers, or fortress turrets.

But such scenes of reading sometimes caused the eye to focus on texts that were more ambiguous than the dominant order might wish. Consider the prospect door of the desk in figure 6.8, made of exotic imported wood, one of the few that survive with architectonic inlay on the prospect door. We know that each of these survivals was probably made by an urban cabinetmaker in the port of New York. At first glance, the old-fashioned gothic-style inlay, a near repetition of the open letter slots with the more contemporary double cyma curve arches on either side of the closed prospect door, resembles an open book on its desk, reading stand, or scriptorium; or perhaps an open book on its stand with pages turning. Indeed, some later desks simulate the spines of well-known books to make it appear as if they are columns guarding the entrance to the prospect door.

Yet the book’s image fades back into architecture again when it is remembered that New York City was home to more refugee artisans from the European wars of religion than any other port in the colonies, with the possible exception of Philadelphia. In Europe, many of these artisans had specialized in dovetailed board chests, generically called “Flanders chests” (fig. 6.9). Flanders chests are known by their architectonic “prospects” on the front and were imported into England in large numbers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a parallel to the wanderings of the refugees.29 By the seventeenth century, Britain hosted numbers of Dutch, German, Flemish, and French Huguenot woodworkers, especially south of London, and at Ipswich in Suffolk, Norwich in Norfolk, and Aberdeen in northeastern Scotland.30 Hence, “Flanders chests” were also produced in Britain and were thought to be among the first board and dovetail furniture forms constructed in great quantities on British soil. Native British craftsmen did not use the dovetail in their guilds until relatively late, depending on often wasteful frame and panel joinery for centuries, even through periods of wood starvation, until they were trained to innovate by masters who were also refugees from the Continent.

FIGURE 6.9. Flanders chest. England, ca. 1600. H: 23½″: 48½″, D: 22¼″. Oak, with marquetry made of sycamore and an unidentified conifer. Courtesy Dedham Historical Society, Dedham, Massachusetts. Gift of Henry Smith, 1887. Such chests were commonly identified with England’s continental refugees during the era of the Thirty Years War. This particular example was carried to Dedham, Massachusetts, from Norfolk, England, by the woodworker Michael Metcalfe (1586–1664).

For many refugees, the gothic spires inlaid in the board chests in which they carried their belongings recalled some forsaken walled town or fortress near their homes, destroyed in the wars of religion. For the dozen or so southwestern Huguenot woodworking artisans living in New York City by 1700 who were capable of constructing such a desk, the gothic spires that guarded the secrets hidden behind its prospect door read unambiguously as a figure for the two great medieval stone towers that still flank the tiny portal that opens into the inner harbor of what was once the walled fortress of La Rochelle. After all, these towers became so famous by the sixteenth century that Rabelais imagined Gargantua binding up a portion of Pantagruel’s body with the giant chain strung between them. And the unknown owner of this desk (perhaps a Rochelais merchant whose family survived 1628) had secrets. The prospect door of these desks usually opens with a key to reveal a small, dark, now empty, space. But it is shallow for the depth of its container. With practiced slight of hand, a hidden, inner lock was slipped, to slide the prospect compartment out from the desk, to be taken away in a moment. Behind the door is a false back hiding a number of tiny, secret drawers: rough-hewn and unfinished; not intended for display. Whatever these obscure little boxes once contained has long since been removed and forgotten.

John Winthrop the Younger thus expanded the material world when taking his seat, perhaps with his tiny copy of Palissy’s Discours admirables in hand. Of course, until that moment, Winthrop’s chair had remained unoccupied, a sort of unstable, asymmetrical text, autonomous yet incomplete. The chair always inferred the presence of its absent intermediary. Winthrop himself had to assume his position for interlocutors, because even a chair as remarkable as this one does not communicate fully until it is occupied by the body for which it was constructed.

Clothing and cow barns, pill boxes or lockets holding a knot of hair preserved from the head of a loved one; a chest of drawers, a grand château, or a pewter spoon resting tenuously on the edge of a simple glazed ceramic dish; nearly every man-made object is essentially a receptacle. Most things were made to serve as an environment for the body or to contain bits of nature and culture that serve to maintain the body. When artisans engaged in maintenance work, the effect could be as primordial (an act of self-preservation) as it was practical. With the exception of garments, or perhaps a bed or coffin, there is no more intimate receptacle for one’s body than a chair. Chairs have served in private as “close stools” to function as receptacles for the body’s most interior products. Yet, taken together with a sitter’s clothing worn at the moment he assumes his seat, there is also no more intimate public receptacle for the body than a chair.31

When, no later than 1659, Winthrop sat down publicly in his joined great chair for the first time, he was still covered neck to foot with the tight Elizabethan costume members of the colonial elite wore in the seventeenth century. This costume had the effect of defining segments and linkages of the anatomy separately, like military armor, as in figure 6.6. It resembled the costume he wears in one of two surviving portraits. In the second, recently discovered portrait (fig. 6.10), he is still covered neck to foot, but in one of the loose, cloaklike garments that were newly fashionable, which obscured the body.32 In either case, only the face and some hair were exposed (or, absent gloves, the face, hair, and hands). As Winthrop settled into his seat, each segment of his anatomy, particularly when (as in the 1650s and 1660s) defined by his joined, armorlike clothing, found its corresponding element on the negative space of the joined physician’s chair: head to crest (now missing); back to carved back panel; neck, shoulders, and biceps to crest rail and rear stiles framing the back panel; arms and hands to “arms” and grips; buttocks and thighs to “timbered bottom”; and his knees, shins, calves, and shod feet to front legs and “feet.” In a very real sense, when Winthrop took his seat, his physician’s chair gathered around the back of his torso like a second body.

FIGURE 6.10. Portrait of Winthrop the Younger, by an unidentified seventeenth-century artist (school of Lely or Dobson). Oil on canvas. MHS image no. 2015. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Or, in Palissy’s terms, like the shell of a mollusk. This was clearly the implication of the Netherlandish artist Jacques de Gheyn the Younger’s design of 1620, drawn in ink, for a subterranean grotto to be built at the stadholder’s house in The Hague (fig. 6.11). Here the wary wild man reappears, sitting in a shell chair, hidden underground in a fortresslike grotto, which appears to be a kind synthesis of Palissy’s rustic basins and Winthrop’s chair. All Palissy’s tiny, overlooked creatures are there with the wild man, crawling in and out of their shells and the holes in the earth, making the subterranean space come alive with motion. The seated rustic rests the arms and hands of his inner body on cosmic wheels that resemble the one carved on the back of Winthrop’s chair. The entire scene projects cosmological design, with the crust of the earth arched over this anxious sitter’s armored, disguised head, like the arched firmament over the apocalyptic throne in Aurora’s frontispiece. At the apex of the grotto, just under the ceiling of earth, hovers a sphere glowing with the light of Nature in the “little world” above. This forms the apex of a Trinitarian triangle as well, with the two wheels in the sitter’s hands completing the link.

Hidden inside the elemental earth is a teeming, fecund culture that facilitates growth. At the center sits the natural man, who draws protection and power from the activity around him in the corpuscular labyrinth. This axial position in between the glowing sphere above and the earth below, which merges through his chair, makes this rustic the conduit for the light’s creative energy as it enters him, through his shell and chair, and passes, as he sits motionless, into the permeable earth and its tiny creatures. This repeats the motion of the light in God’s throne as it descends to earth to merge with Böhme’s prophesies in Aurora. The same motion of heat and light animated Winthrop as he sat still, arms raised parallel to the heart, in his physician’s chair.

FIGURE 6.11. Jacques de Gheyn the Younger, design for a subterranean grotto for the Stad-holder’s House in the Hague (The Hague, 1620). Ink and wash on paper. © Copyright The British Museum. The silent, wild man armored on his throne of shells, watches and listens for danger. He seems both protected and imprisoned by a permanent need for such modes ofse-curity. Fellow denizens of the subterranean world peer from shadowy holes in the rock walls, also depending on camouflage and a highly developed sense of hearing for security. Earlike forms are ubiquitous in the transatlantic visual vocabulary, constituting the “auricular style.”

The parts of Winthrop’s anatomy most intimately associated by direct contact with the point of focus of his chair were his chest and back. But the matrix (or punctum) of the carved back panel was the sun, at the very center of the Copernican system, which its artisan located by bisecting the panel and scored by piercing the point of his compass precisely into the point of bisection. When seated, Winthrop’s body hid that central point of focus, which was now in contact, pulsating simultaneously with his heart.

Imagine Winthrop’s heart had heated up, thus activating the celestial order now spinning and shining furiously behind, around, and in him. It was through Winthrop’s heart that he was able to draw the heavens (and heavenly knowledge of the healing arts) down to his specific geographical point on earth, located by its orbit on the panel. As if to belie naïve notions that the followers of Copernicus “looked forward rationally” to modern science and the Enlightenment,33 when mystics and pantheists like Giordano Bruno and other Renaissance magi were among the first to embrace heliocentrism, Winthrop’s body protected and absorbed the hidden light and motion transmitted from behind his back in the macrocosm, and, with his heart as bridge, both these animating forces entered the microcosm of his body.

Moreover, because the eight earths rotated around the sun like directional points on a compass, Winthrop sat down to position himself, like a gnomon, to refract the light of the sun, no matter where on earth he sat in his chair. Harvey’s circulation of the blood, itself tied to great cosmological and political themes, was embedded in the very nature of this physician’s chair. If the spheres on the back signified the earth in orbit around the sun, with the sun also the younger Winthrop’s metaphorical heart at center, the sphere at center remains identical to the eight in orbit. Thus, there are eight connected hearts circulating at once around Winthrop’s physician’s heart—the origin of the blood flow—even as earth circulated around the sun.

Winthrop lived and worked by such silent insights of Paracelsian epistemology and experience, which are still communicated by the chair in his absence (to adumbrate a subsequent chapter in which his chair returns to illuminate another scene of reading). The secret heart of man was, for him, at the very center of the microcosm, just as the sun was at the center of the macrocosm. We may surmise this from Winthrop’s library, which contained books by Oswald Croll (1560–1609), whose natural-philosophical program merged Calvinist sacramentalism with medical practice. Croll made his name as a Paracelsian philosopher of the medical heart.34 Listen to Owen Hannaway articulate Croll’s systematic understanding of the heart as medium for the astral body in Paracelsian science and medicine:

It was through [the astral body] that the soul was poured by God into the body of man. The astral body found its principal location in man’s heart, from where it spread to all members of his body, having been joined to the spirit in the heart by means of natural heat and thereby diffused throughout the blood. Since the astral body originated in the stars, it kept the same circular course as that of the firmament. Croll presumably believed that the blood circulated in the body on the basis of such analogical reasoning. Thus man had two bodies; his corruptible, visible body of flesh and blood and his invisible, insensible astral body, which was derived from the stars. The astral body, as the source and seat of all vital activity in man, was the “true” body of man, “which moveth, guideth, and per-formeth all skilful matters.” As such, it was the primary locus of Paracelsian physiological and medical theory. . . . The seat of man’s knowledge of nature was thus not the mind but the heart, which was the focal point of man’s astral spirit, from which it circulated to all the members of the body. The faculty associated with the astral spirit was not reason but the imagination.35

Böhme called this convergence of astral heat and light in the pious heart Barm-hertzig-keit, translated in the popular London edition of the Aurora (1656) as “warm-hearted-ness,” but also meaning compassion, charity, and mercy.36 The mystical experience of saying and feeling Barmhertzigkeit was an inner process of linguistic, bodily, and cosmic unification:

Now the word BAR M- [warm] is a dead word, void of understanding, so that no man understands what it meaneth. . . . But when a man saith BARM-HERTZ-, he fetcheth or presseth the second syllable out from the Deep of the Body, out from the Heart, for the right Spirit speaketh forth the word HEARTZ, which riseth up aloft from the heat of the Heart, in which the Light goeth forth and floweth. . . . The heat is the Kernel of the Spirit, out of which the light goeth, and kindleth it self in the midst or Center . . . and becometh captivated ... as in the midst or center wherein the Sonne of God is generated, and that is the very {Hertz, Heart,} of God. And the Lights Flame or Flash; which in the twinkling of an Eye or Moment, shineth into all the powers [of the trinity], even as the Sun doth in the whole world; [it] is the Holy Ghost, which goeth forth from the clarity or brightnesse of the Sonne of God, and is the flash of Lightning and sharpnesse.37

Without experiencing Barmhertzigkeit—as did Winthrop in his physician’s chair—facilitating this process of compassionate convergence, it was impossible to comprehend the meaning of Scripture beyond the “dead letter” of the word, or to diagnose and cure illness, or to govern wisely. The inner meaning of all were entwined with the animate soul of the reader.

Hence, when Winthrop took his seat, his physician’s chair and body were together transformed by inner and outer body heat and conjoined by light and motion, through warmheartedness, into a unified combination of dualities; the conciliation of opposites between spirit and matter. This was the Neoplatonic resolution that Winthrop’s simultaneous reading of Palissy’s Discours (or his missing copy of the Recepte) would have reinforced. Can it be said that Winthrop’s “‘true’ or ‘inner’ body” is revealed today in the form of his chair? Can this presence be the essence of its metaphysical status as a relic?

I have speculated on how much an artisan such as John Elderkin understood of the Paracelsian system of experience communicated by the younger Winthrop’s chair. Dare we presume that he, or some other artisan from close by, understood that the heliocentric system carved into the back panel of the chair was as close to the reality of motion in a carver’s compass, the wheel of a great lathe, or the gears in a mill as it was to the heavenly and bodily motion it represented to Winthrop or other natural philosophers at work in their laboratories or studies? This question is made more intriguing in light of Elderkin’s role as a courier of alchemical and natural-philosophical books from Winthrop’s library to client chemists and laboratory operators on the New England and New York frontier. Surely he read them as well?38

Answers may also be supplied by other artisans from different contexts. Quaker joiners and their co-religionist patrons in Chester County, Pennsylvania, suggested some understanding of Winthrop’s position from the artisanal perspective. Their sustained, systematic use of heliocentric compass work patterns is to be seen in a very large group of surviving artifacts called “spice boxes” (fig. 6.12); a form that fell out of fashion in the colonies after the seventeenth century everywhere but in Chester County. It endured there as the region’s most identifiable domestic artifact until well into the nineteenth century, or for as long as Quakers remained the dominant religious, cultural, and economic community.39 Perhaps Quaker artisans, possessed of similar preoccupations with the hidden life of the soul, also reinvented and sustained containers looking very much like freestanding “prospect door” compartments for spices and tiny personal effects. Like the spice box drawers they were put into, none of these little things was larger than the palm of one’s hand. Evidently, rural Quaker patrons still wanted a heliocentric cosmos scored on a door with compass and rule that opened to a tiny, sometimes playful microcosm of visible and invisible drawers.

FIGURE 6.12. Detail of a spice box door. Chester County, Pennsylvania, ca. 1730. Walnut, with inlays. Collection of H. L. Chalfant. Photo, George Fistrovich. Chester County spice boxes were usually made by local Quaker craftsmen and descended in Quaker families.

FIGURE 6.13. Spice box dated 1676, Essex County, Massachusetts. H: 17¼″,W: 17″, D: 9⅞″. Red oak, soft maple, red cedar, and black walnut. Courtesy Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware.

The formative role of Quaker patrons as primary customers for such interior artifacts is clear. This was also true of spice boxes with similar decoration made in seventeenth-century New England (fig. 6.13). Intermarried families of Massachusetts Quakers, persecuted by orthodox Calvinists in the late 1650s and 1660s, were the chiefusers of these earlier spice boxes in New England. Quaker interest in this form peaked during the years of persecution, and spice boxes accompanied refugees as they fled to safety on western Long Island.40 Some refugee artisans in this migration then founded craft dynasties in New York. Unlike his father, John Winthrop the Younger had quiet sympathy for Quakers in New England, and he subsequently patronized the influential Long Island group. His physician’s chair itself suggests shared worldviews.

Hillel Schwartz and Margaret Jacob have made us aware of how much English Quakers and Huguenot refugees had in common in the seventeenth century, when many quietist Huguenots converted to Quakerism. This was especially true among Paracelsian Huguenot artisans, particularly the southwestern Huguenots who emigrated to New York City and western Long Island. It remained for that same group of refugee artisans to remember the hard lessons of their culture of reversals in colonial New York and to effect the profound shift in “imagination” embodied in Winthrop’s chair. In New York, the disguised and hidden power of chairs was shifted from the heart of the sitter to its artisans.

Even as Winthrop’s chair exemplified the private, disguised artisanal and occult elements of Palissy’s Paracelsianism, Franklin was harnessed to the potter’s plainness, egalitarianism, and civic virtue. These two parallel strains of Paracelsianism coexisted in colonial America, though it is prudent to recall that the apparent transparency of Franklin’s plainness and public pose is extremely dubious. Still, Franklin’s link with Palissy, although distant in time, was more explicit than Winthrop’s.

The last edition of Palissy’s work in the early modern era, combining the Recepte and Discours and called the Oeuvres de Bernard Palissy, was published in Paris, “Chez Ruault,” in 1777. Franklin arrived in France in that year to promote the colonists’ revolutionary cause, and to that end he set up a press at Passy. He set to work publishing polemical books and pamphlets, becoming an artisan-hero in France, in particular among those craftsmen who followed the ink trade.41 The editors at Ruault posited “a great analogy” between Palissy’s “method” and that of the “modest” American artisan and scientist, dedicating this new omnibus edition of the Huguenot’s writings, “To Monsieur Franklin”:

I offer you the Works of Bernard Palissy, to honor the memory of the greatest physician that France produced during a time when natural history was still in its cradle. This profound observer, nearly forgotten for two centuries, could not be restored under worthier conditions that by your auspices. The genius that characterizes him has returned in your work: like him, you announce the greatest truths with the modesty that is the quality of the true sage; and there is a great analogy between Palissy’s method and that which you have used in your discoveries of physical phenomena, so that I cannot offer two names more worthy of the admiration of the learned. But the French philosophe, completely absorbed as he was in uncovering the secrets of Nature, did not penetrate those of political science, which the sages of antiquity cultivated as one of the most important [branches] of philosophy. You have enjoyed all the prizes, Monsieur.42

The “great analogy” was a not-so-veiled reference to the practice of Paracelsian natural philosophy shared by the two rustics deemed “worthy of the admiration of the learned,” denied in Palissy’s era by scholastics. This great analogy was perceived by Franklin as well, inasmuch as publication was “by your auspices,” a phrase that connoted Franklin’s economic interest and political patronage. The parallels between “Poor Richard,” the simple, parsimonious American printer, and the “pauvre artisan sans lettres” were clearly drawn. Robert Darnton has evoked the scientific milieu of the Paris in which Franklin, like his fellow francophile Thomas Jefferson, became a revolutionary symbol to Mesmerists in search of a “new Paracelsus.” These occult figures included J. L. Carra who, in his Esprit du monde et de la philosophie (Paris, 1777), wrote about the outbreak of the American Revolution in apocalyptic terms. Carra’s Neoplatonic explication of natural phenomena prophesied a universal revolution, based on an idiosyncratic reading of Rousseau. According to Carra, all was revealed to him through the physico-moral forces of the universe.43

Franklin carefully distanced himself from these “new” Paracelsians. Yet at the same time, he positioned himself alongside Palissy. Following the editors at Ruault, who claim Palissy’s “absorption” “in uncovering the secrets of nature” as a precedent for Franklin’s ability to “penetrate those of political science,” the dedication of Palissy’s Oeuvres to Franklin during a period of intense political instability in France established that French Paracelsianism had finally come full circle in American revolutionary republicanism and Franklin’s “discoveries of Physical phenomena.”44 Palissy had searched shadows for hidden secrets, whereas Franklin triumphed over darkness (with electricity) and “tasted all the prizes.” These included, above all, his sense of “political science, which the sages of antiquity cultivated as one of the most important [branches] of philosophy.” Ruault’s Franklin had reinvented the Paracelsian program for the Enlightenment. He moved natural philosophy into the public scrutiny of Aristotelian civic humanism, suppressing its legacy of clandestine and spiritualist Neoplatonism. Whether such stark distinctions existed in eighteenth-century practice, or in Franklin’s life, is debatable.

The same year Franklin’s name was linked with the rustic Saintongeais potter’s, the American was depicted in a series of French portraits wearing his famous marten-fur cap, acquired on a trip to Canada. The image appears in the 1777 engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin, after a Charles Nicolas Cochin drawing. Yet even before the Saint-Aubin print, Franklin in his marten cap was molded for a terra-cotta ceramic medallion by Jean-Baptiste Nini after a drawing by Thomas Walpole, cousin of Horace, which was titled “B. Franklin Americain” (fig. 6.14, fig. 6.15).45

FIGURE 6.14. Jean-Baptiste Nini (1717–86). Terra-cotta medallion entitled B. Franklin Americain. D. 4½″. 1777. Courtesy Nathan Liverant and Son Antiques.

FIGURE 6.15. Reverse of the medallion in figure 6.14.

Franklin was well aware that Rousseau had been identified with just such a shapeless fur cap when he visited England in 1766, where the French philosophe also wore it in a portrait by Allan Ramsay, which was ultimately engraved and then adapted for a black basalt ceramic medallion by Josiah Wedgwood. Franklin claimed the fur was worn to alleviate a scalp irritation made worse by wigs, though he was enormously pleased by the obvious comparison to Rousseau and the style sensation that his new liberty cap caused in Paris.46

The Nini medallion of Franklin was thus the earliest and most successful variant of this image in France, and was widely copied in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. In fact, the Nini medallion was made a part of a propaganda program hatched by the American faction in Paris. Intent on acquiring war materials for which they had no ready cash through a complex series of speculative ventures, including the sale of future prizes taken at sea, Franklin and his friends decided to have the cheap images made in abundance. “It was necessary for them to establish him as a symbol, to ‘sell’ him to the public,” Charles Sellers writes. “This was the one object of the first Nini medallion and its success is indubitable.”47 Like Palissy, who had pioneered the use of similar ceramic medallions in Paris exactly two centuries before, Franklin, by whose “auspices” the potter’s Oeuvres were “restored,” used ceramic gifts to expand and solidify his patronage network. This was clearly the case in the example illustrated in figures 6.14 and 15, which has inscribed on its back: “Presented by his Excellency Doctor Franklin to J. L. Austin Paris May 1779.” Major Jonathan L. Austin (1748–1826), a Boston merchant and secretary of the Board of War of Massachusetts, was a member of Franklin’s revolutionary faction in Paris. Unlike Palissy, however, Franklin’s rustic artisan shows his own heroic face on the front of the medal, rather than disguising himself in its materials.

In a letter from Paris written early in 1777, Franklin flirted with his English friend Emma Thompson, then in Lille, saying, “I know you wish you could see me; but you can’t, I will describe myself to you. Figure me in your mind [in] ... a fine Fur Cap, which comes down to my Forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how this must appear among the Powder’d Heads of Paris! . . . Adieu, Madcap.”48 With this playful riposte, in which he turned the tables on a “Hussy”, the crafty “Americain” linked his costume directly, if ironically, to the feuillu/wildman tradition that had once made the Huguenot monks of Palissy’s little history appear “so that the people would think they were fools or mad.” Franklin contrived to pull the hairy cap down to frame his famous round spectacles. This magnified his eyes to seem as if they were peeping through the fur, recalling medieval prototypes from the forest. This time, however, the amused Franklin consigned the “mad cap” to another rustic in the provinces (“Here the ladies are more civil”) and signified his own triumph over—and familiarity with—the hidden secrets of nature, not their wild furtiveness and dangerous inaccessibility to citizens from the metropolis.49

Paris embraced Franklin, who was hardly a fool, as a rustic genius of a kind not seen there since Palissy’s day. “Everything in him announced the simplicity and innocence of primitive morals,” wrote one impressionable nobleman:

He showed the astonished multitude . . . an erect and vigorous body clad in the simplest garments. His eyes were shadowed by large glasses and in his hand he carried a white cane. He spoke little. He knew how to be impolite without being rude, and his pride seemed to be that of nature. Such a person was made to excite the curiosity of Paris. The people clustered around as he passed and asked, “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air.”50

Palissy, a skilled heretic, had arrived in Paris from Saintonge two centuries earlier. After barely escaping the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, he ultimately died a prisoner in the Bastille, but he was rehabilitated by Benjamin Franklin, who merged the potter’s persona with his own as the rustic artisan of the American Revolution. Palissy’s costume of heretical concealment had become transparent, noble, polite, and natural.

This moment of convergence also witnessed the rehabilitation of the Huguenot in France, whose “modern” tradition of autonomy and resistance to authority was then nearly three centuries old. Writing in his Journal de ma vie, sometime between 1764 and 1803, the glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra, nominally a Catholic but more accurately a disciple of Rousseau’s view that religion was just an excuse for arbitrary abuse of power, expressed admiration and sympathy for persecuted sects, especially Huguenots and Jews: “Ah the Christian religion which they say is tolerant. How can you ministers of the altar act with such cruelty that they [in this instance, the Jews] are forced to hide in doors or alleyways. . . . You don’t think that they are our brothers and that they are equal to us in the eyes of the Eternal.”51

Ménétra’s cries of injustice and his pleas to allow the persecuted to step from the shadows into the light came too late. Huguenots had acquired the habit of hiding. Yet it was through strategies of hiding and deception that such heretics as Palissy discovered their identity, their true sense of self. After all, it was scientific and artisanal work done in hiding that inspired Benjamin Franklin and Ruault to retrieve Palissy’s memory after two centuries of obscurity and compare him with “B. Franklin Americain.” And both Collardeau and Richelieu demonstrated their appreciation for the power that hiding gave southwestern Huguenots. More than for any other reason, it was to deny the Huguenots a place to hide that their artisans’ clothing was ripped off the backs of the three Huguenot preachers and the walls of La Rochelle were reduced “par terre.” Just as the Rochelais were forced after 1628 to live deceptively in a shadowy subterranean world, based on a century of rustic practice, so too Saintongeais Huguenot artisans continued to labor to construct “second bodies” to extend their quest for refuge above ground.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781421427614
Related ISBN
9781421429359
MARC Record
OCLC
1048221187
Pages
242-276
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-15
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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