Medieval diseases were brutal. From the deadly Black Death, which fundamentally transformed the world, to the sweating sickness that killed in hours, medieval Europeans dealt with all kinds of mysterious and agonizing ailments. And here's another to add to that list: St. Anthony's Fire.
St. Anthony's Fire made victims feel like their limbs were on fire, and it was caused by ergot, a fungus that could infect rye grain. Hundreds of hospitals sprung up to offer St. Anthony's Fire treatments, but no one knew what caused the disease, which made people's limbs turn black and fall off. For centuries, Europeans wondered: Is St. Anthony's Fire contagious? Was it sent by God as a punishment? And could anything cure the disease?
One crafty nobleman marketed his cure as "holy grains" (i.e. uninfected grains), but thousands died of ergotism before farmers realized the black cockspurs on rye grains were deadly. And it turns out there's a connection between St. Anthony's Fire and LSD – which might have influenced Renaissance art.
The disease started with a faint burning sensation in the skin. Soon, red spots covered the infected person's body, who felt like their limbs were on fire. Then, their arms would swell and turn bright red. Terrible hallucinations would plague them, convincing them demons were assaulting their bodies before dragging them on a journey to Hell.
Finally, gangrene would set in, and the victim's fingers and toes would drop off one by one. Once infected, few survived.
The hallucinations people suffered after eating the ergot fungus were real — so real that the fungus is chemically linked with LSD. In 1938, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman was experimenting on the ergot fungus when he accidentally synthesized a psychedelic drug called LSD.
In fact, the chemical similarities between LSD and ergot fungus carry over to the effects of the substances. Both cause severe hallucinations, and both have a long history of influencing art — ergotism shaped some Renaissance masters, while LSD drove the psychedelic art movement in the 1960s.
Northern Renaissance painters in the 16th century wrestled with dark themes in their works, particularly in depictions of St. Anthony. One 16th-century painting (pictured above), The Temptation of St. Anthony, attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, shows Anthony being carried away into the skies by fantastic beasts. The creatures, flying on huge fish and surrounded by winged creatures, drag the saint off into the clouds.
The image echoed rumors that St. Anthony's Fire caused flying hallucinations, making victims believe they could take flight. The building in the background of the painting is consumed with flames, also potentially a reference to the disease. And many art historians believe that St. Anthony's Fire influenced many of the great Renaissance paintings.
Why was St. Anthony's Fire named after St. Anthony of Egypt? Anthony was a desert hermit who wandered the Egyptian wilderness, and during his travels, the Devil tormented Anthony with hallucinations. Demons constantly attacked the saint in graphic ways. As St. Anthony's biographer wrote it, "[The demons] approach in different guise, and... they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers."
These torments are only in Anthony's head, though, "For they are nothing and quickly disappear." The similarity between St. Anthony's hallucinations and those brought on with ergotism linked the two, leading to the name St. Anthony's Fire.