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  • The Glass Delusion

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 17 December 2014

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher's Physica Subterranea, 1669.

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea.

    ‘Man, like all animals, is glass and can return to glass’ writes the German alchemist Johann Becher in his work Physica Subterranea published in 1669. Becher claimed that he had found the secret of turning dead bodies into transparent glass, so that we could surround ourselves with beautiful vases formed of our ancestors (preferable, he writes, to ‘hideous and disgusting cadavers’).

    The glass of each animal and plant has its own particular colour – that of plants is green, while glass made from humans, he writes, is a milky white colour with ‘a slight tinge of narcissus’.

    Becher, unfortunately, was wrong. Trace amounts of silicon, the element that is used in forming glass,* do exist in the human body through our diet (beer is one particularly good source) and may improve the health of bones – but it’s unclear exactly how it does this, or whether it’s biologically essential.** However, this hasn’t stopped a proliferation of claims for the benefits of silica supplements to make our teeth, hair, nails and skin stronger and more glassily beautiful.

    Silicon is essential to some plants and animals, though, in particular those erose earlier in the evolution of life such as glass sponges, which use silica to grow their interlocking needle-like spicules.

    As artist in residence here at the Grant Museum I’ve been focusing on the sponge collection and the ways in which a material can be both organic and inorganic – combining to form both a living animal and a glass jar. One aspect that particularly interests me is the history of humans believing that they are made of glass, a belief which spread amongst European scholars during the 15th to 17th century.

    For Johann Becher, this fueled his desire to create glass vases from dead bodies. For others, however, it was a debilitating disorder known as ‘The Glass Delusion’. Sufferers believed that they were made from glass and would shatter at just one touch. It mainly afflicted wealthy men, and the most famous sufferer was perhaps King Charles VI of France who believed himself made entirely from glass and wore protective clothing to prevent being smashed to pieces.

    For other sufferers it was mainly their head or buttocks that concerned them, so they avoided sitting down, or always carried a soft cushion. Why this belief spread during this period is unclear, but it had disappeared by the end of the 17th century, coinciding with the gradual replacement of alchemy with the emergence of modern chemistry.

    However, as the current interest in silica supplements suggests, it seems there’s still a belief that glass may combine with and enhance the human body – not to shatter us, but to make us glow with a glassy transparency.

     

    Image source: ‘The Magic and Myth of Alchemy’, Lloyd Library and Museum, 2011. www.lloydlibrary.org/exhibits/alchemy/alchemists.html. Accessed 12.12.2014.

    * Silicon is an element that likes to share – in particular with oxygen. Rather than existing in its pure state, it tends to gives away or share its electrons with other elements, and this creates compounds. One of these compounds is silica, also known as silicon dioxide, which exists in sand – this is the stuff that is used to create glass.

    ** See R. Jugdaohsingh, ‘Silicon and bone health’, Journal of Nutritional Health and Aging. 11(2), Mar-Apr, 2007. 99-110.

    Eleanor Morgan is Artist in Residence at the Grant Museum of Zoology

    Back to Ancients/Basics

    By Edmund Connolly, on 13 December 2013

    by guest blogger: Helen Pike

    Feeling the stress of Christmas, blitzed out on overpriced gaudy baubles, one too many festive drinks on the calendar, need a restorative notion …. then take a tour round the Petrie museum this December time and contemplate a more ancient approach to soothe your furrowed brows…

    Why not deck the halls with thoughts of the Amarna temple wall tiles

    A colourful array of Amarna tiles. Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

    A colourful array of Amarna tiles. Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

    These tiles were found at Amarna capital of the heretic Pharaoh Akenaten with his missus the renowned beauty Nefertiti -who both knew a thing or two about decoration preferring to chuck out the chintz if you like and gods of previous dynasties and bring in a revolution in terms of artistic production and new idols – the sprit of Aten. The tiles in the Petrie collection are exquisite in terms colour and pattern and conjure up what must have been a spectacular wall covering in the temple. Take a leaf out of the master of sun worship and reinvent your home your own way this Christmas with a new take on décor and not be swayed by the gaudy baubles out there… (more…)

    Petrie’s Menagerie: The Horse

    By Edmund Connolly, on 16 August 2013

    Last week’s animals weren’t as exotic as their forerunners, and we will be looking at another recognisable animal for both Ancient Egyptians and Victorian Londoners. As promised, this week will be examining the horse, perhaps a not so obvious element of an Egypt based menagerie.

    Petrie’s Menagerie #4 The Horse

    Man’s best friend may be a dog, but man’s most useful friend is probably the horse and I won’t insult my readers by describing one.

    “With the harnessing of its strength and swiftness to provide mobility, the horse transformed human existence”

    Lawrence, 223.

    Icelandic ponies, I spent a few holidays riding these shaggy beasts around France. copyright wikipedia.org

    Icelandic ponies, I spent a few holidays riding these shaggy beasts around France. copyright wikipedia.org

    (more…)