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Travelogue A12

May 20, 2014

The final element of the Sint Janshospitaal tour is set apart from the rest, in a building thirty paces off to one side in which adherents to the monastic life made their home. Below their one-time apartments there is to be found the old apothecary where sisters laboured in a high-ceilinged room with all manner of metal instruments and precious liquids with the aim of devising tangible cures for unseen ailments. Moving through the room from left to right, I began by examining the high wooden counter where scales and ledger can be seen. Behind this begins the series of shelves running around three of the four walls. At the far left, behind glass doors, the sisters could call upon small, stoppered, brown-glass jars in which various essential oils were kept. Were they to move one section to the right, they would instead find porcelain jars, larger, white and with blue decorative motifs which, from my paltry knowledge of Latin, held at one time different plants, herbs and elements.

At this point, my eyes moved back to the floor in order to look more closely at the assembled, bronze mortars and pestles, four in number, perched on waist-high, black, stone pedestals. Into one corner of the second wall a cabinet was built in the shape of a church portal and subdivided into twenty cells by a series of wooden dividers, where only the most dangerous ingredients were to be stored and kept safely under lock and key. Continuing still right and onto the third wall, I spent some time before numerous clear glass containers, larger in size and on the upper shelves, each with a browned paper ribbon winding about the outside on which the contents are surely mentioned. Below, on the lower shelves, I was faced with a larger collection of grand, clay pitchers from which liquids, both common and rare, might be poured in the amount deemed appropriate. At the top of the righthand display, a chest of drawers sit, out of reach of the long-dead apprentice who at one time rifled through the drawers in an effort to commit to heart the names of the various ingredients necessary for work. One drawer is missing, but I recalled having seen it in the main hall with a travelling apothecary case, which was a miniature triptych unto itself, with myriad unidentified minerals and glassware strewn about the interior.

On my way out, I paused before a set of minor gravestones that had been removed from the churchyard and assembled here in one corner of the main exhibition space. Although a number of different materials were present, I was surprised to find that a few among them had been whitewashed at one point or another, making me wonder whether the shelter for the dead was not subject to the same restrictions as that of the living. In one case like the other, home was brick and mortar and, with a little luck, whitewash.

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