On the front, the scripted scroll twists and twirls, intertwining with branches. The scroll here almost seems to be literally scrolling, with only some letters visible; the presence of others, hidden behind branches or in folds, is implied. The design makes it difficult to tell whether the entire message is shown in this inscription, and further damage to the surface makes it even harder to decipher the fragmented words.
Close-up images of the pharmacy jar (front). Photo © The Courtauld.
The puzzle-like quality of the message inspired our design for its display in the gallery. Black letters were taken from the jar’s surface and released into the interior of the case. By allowing them to float within the confines of the case, we form a parallel with the readings of the inscription held in suspension. Visitors are invited to walk around the display and imagine the multiplicity of readings of these letters.
To play around with the idea of word puzzle further, we had a conversation with ChatGPT and asked them to write several anagrams from the original motto or saying. We tended to refine our instruction gradually and received some strikingly beautiful sentences, all of which still adopted the tone of voice of a proverb.
New words, phrases and meanings created via rearranging the letters from existing words or sentences are known as anagrams. You might have attempted making them when playing word games like Scrabble, but anagrams are much more than that: they can also serve poetic and aesthetic purposes. The German artist and author Unica Zürn was well known for her works of anagram poetry. In her work, The Man of Jasmine (Der Mann im Jasmin), she depicted the main character as obsessed with anagrams and automatic drawings, which were believed to be either autobiographical or highly reflective of her own experience. Imagining the rearrangement of letters gives her access to “the ‘other’ and offers her a new sense of self”.
Anagrams seem to have been an approach to freeing herself from rationality. Zürn experienced several psychotic episodes and hospitalisation throughout her life, and, like the protagonist of The Man of Jasmine, she was constantly haunted (or inspired) by hallucinations. Her flipping between conscious and unconscious states, and between rational and irrational ones, offers another path into our investigation of the jar, as we turn to the fantastical decorations on its reverse.