On “The dream of Saint John Damascene: the Virgin attaches his severed right hand” (artist unknown)

While sifting through the Wellcome Library Collection of early modern visual media, one might come across a rather curious 17th century sketch depicting the Virgin Mary leaning tenderly over Saint John Damascene while he gazes upward in gratitude. The archived image has been tagged with the usual array of keywords, including “dream,” “Virgin Mary,” “vision,” and “John Damascene.” However, the inclusion of a sixth word— “amputation”— hints at the drawing’s remarkability in terms of its subject matter. Upon closer inspection, the Virgin Mary is shown grasping the severed hand of the saint; the unknown artist chose to capture the precise moment before the notably unbloody appendage was reattached to the limb’s stump.

L0041636 The dream of Saint John Damascene

The Dream of Saint John Damascene: The Virgin Attaches His severed Right Hand. Drawing, 16–, 1600. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0041636.html

The illustration captures multiple aspects of the early modern medical imaginary, layering conceptions of embodiment, physicality, and the “sanctioned touch” of the healer. “The Dream” essentially depicts an allegory of reunion; the saint is reunited with the maternal beacon of divinity (i.e. the Virgin Mary) while his hand is reunited with his arm’s stump. The sterile bloodlessness of the limb’s reattachment is somewhat characteristic of depictions from the late 16th to the early 18th century— as Nancy Siraisi remarks in Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, medical illustrations were often comical in their refusal to engage with the painful violence of surgery, especially regarding amputation. And yet, the absence of overt pain signifiers— the wincing of patients, bystanders to restrain patients— does not preclude these texts’ ability to engage with the wounds themselves. “The Dream,” for example, treats the viewer to a frontal view of the stump, figuring the site of reattachment at the visual center of the drawing. In short, this text demands that one look closer instead of shying away.

Indeed, 17th century European depictions of surgery complicate conventional definitions of “the study” as the product of any one discipline. Such texts often provided representational “case studies” for early modern medical practitioners, but they often served an allegorical and/or aesthetic purpose— i.e. studies in form. The somewhat ambiguous nature such texts accurately reflects the similarly murky distinction between medicine as a rather abstract and theory-driven field and medicine as an empirically based practice during this period; indeed, the word “medicine” as applied to early modern healing represents, to an extent, a misnomer in that it supposes a unified body committed to standardized practices. In reality, the disciplinary landscape was complex in its social, practical, and political stratification.

Some more notes on Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

  1. I. Insultus Morbi primus; The first alteration, The first grudging of the sicknesse.

 “I stand in the way of tentations, (naturally, necessarily, all men doe so: for there is a Snake in every path, tentations in every vocation) but I go, I run, I flie into the ways of tentation, which I might shun; nay, I breake into houses, wher the plague is; I presse into places of tentation, and tempt the devil himself, and solicite & importune them, who had rather be left unsolicited by me. I fall sick of Sin, and am bedded and bedrid, buried and putrified in the practice of Sin, and all this while have no presage, no pulse, no sense of my sicknesse…” (I. Expostulation)

Donne’s first Devotion emphasizes his sense of haplessness in the face of disease– not necessarily in his inability to cure it, but in his inability to have seen it coming. Rather than shrink from life altogether, Donne instead describes himself as running directly “into the ways of tentation,” thus exposing himself directly to the contagion of sin. His description of the plague-ridden house initially reads as a simple metaphor for the sinful body, corrupt through and through. And yet, Donne’s words should be considered within the context of the contemporary belief that that plague was a symptom of or punishment for one’s sinful behavior. What appears to be a simple binary equivalency is, in reality, a complex semiotic construction that conflates causes with symptoms and origins with vectors. In Donne’s Devotions, plague is almost never entirely figurative because the author was dealing with a very real affliction racking his body; his soul, on the other hand, receives “no presage, no pulse” of its status, leading Donne to cast about desperately for a sign of corruption within.


John Donne’s funerary monument, which depicts him in his funeral shroud. Donne posed for the piece while still alive.


Donne’s continued reference to houses in part recalls the strict measures outlined in England’s Plague Orders, first issued in 1578 (Slack 209). Among other things, the Orders imposed quarantine regulations upon houses which were “visited” (or suspected to have been) by the plague for up to forty days. Inhabitants were not allowed to leave, and the said houses were constantly monitored by “plague-wardens” patrolling the streets of London. The act of breaking into a plague-ridden house, as Donne describes himself doing, would not only be counter-intuitive but criminal. Mercutio’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet, “A plague o’ both your houses,” (III.i.1593), is most commonly interpreted as a supremely vitriolic curse; a tempting reinterpretation would take into account the armistice forced by the quarantine, effectively staying the violence between the two sides.

The above passage in particular is characterized by palpable tension between the volition of the body versus that of the soul. The author’s sin is not a passive sin, but one to which he is drawn like a moth to flame. Furthermore, the fact that the plague represents both sin and its consequence further heightens the sense of fatalism in these lines. Indeed, the evocation of Exodus 12 seems most plausible in this Expostulation, where Donne refuses to be “passed over” or exempt from the wrath of the plague. Early modern descriptions of contagious sites as being “visited” reminds one that the visitor was God in addition to the pestilence. By breaking into such houses, Donne reaffirms his commitment to finding God not only despite his sin but through it, and his forced entry is a means of violent introspection that invites infection rather than avoiding it.

Ultimately, Donne’s words seem to provide little consolation, either for the reader or for their author. Everyone, it would seem, inhabits a plague-ridden house, and he is far more guilty than most. Before despairing entirely, however, he pauses to remind himself to trust in his house/body’s keeper, considering, “we are all prodigall sonnes, and not disinherited [. . .] we are God’s tenants here, and yet here, he, our Land-Lord, payes us Rents.” (Expostulation I). Despite his sense of claustrophobic isolation, the sickly Donne has not been disinherited by God. Indeed, he reasons that all bodies are merely rented dwellings to be exchanged someday for the chance to reside in God’s temple. The idea of God as the omnipresent landlord might have been reassuring for the victim who was otherwise dispossessed of everything, including his/her own body. And yet, it might also have stood as a dark reminder of the subjective upheaval disease was capable of producing, especially in regards to property and privacy. In short, Donne’s seemingly desperate vision of himself charging into a quarantine zone captures much of the existential and spiritual anxiety of disease survivors in seventeenth century London–in which utter isolation and violations of privacy and subjectivity often coincided. The house, which normally afforded the opportunity for privacy, was now subject to inspections and surveillance. The seeming lack of privacy seems contradicted, however, by the constant sense of abandonment and the fear of contagion, as Donne later observes in Devotion V: “As Sicknesse is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sicknes is solitude; when the infectiousnes of the disease deterrs them who should assist, from comming; Even the Phisician dares scarse come” (Meditation V).

The plague epidemic often collapsed the distinction between event and locus; Donne’s choice of a devotional writing style perhaps seems most appropriate for this reason, given that he explores the microcosmic world within himself even as he reflects upon its fragility. In many ways Donne’s first entry in the Devotions Upon Emergent  Occasions is most reflective of the body in flux, observing not only the body as physically susceptible to change when afflicted, but the mind and the spirit as well. Donne finds reassurance in his writings, but he also finds confusion, consternation, and wonder.