Folio from an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides

Folio from an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides


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Abdallah ibn al-Fadl


written and illustrated by

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Sheet: 33.1 x 24.5 cm (13 1/16 x 9 5/8 in.)

John L. Severance Fund 1977.91


This page is from an herbal, an illustrated book on the properties of plants. Herbals were among the first manuscripts of the Islamic world to include painted figural imagery. The lines in red are titles signaling how to make a particular kind of medicine. Initially written in Greek by a physician working for the Roman imperial army in what is present-day Turkey during the 1st century AD, the text was translated into Arabic during the 800s for a caliph who sponsored many translations of Greek scientific and philosophical treatises. This copy entered the royal Topkapi Palace library in Istanbul, from where 33 of its illustrated pages were dispersed to various collections. The first recipe on the text page describes the production of a syrup used for coughs, chronic diarrhea, and the treatment of syphilis in women. It states that the herb wormwood should be added to give it a more pleasant smell. The second recipe is for a syrup made from pine nuts, and the third is used to relieve chest pains and coughing without fever. The painting on the reverse depicts a physician in red and his two assistants preparing a medicinal syrup thought to be good for digestion. In accordance with the instructions on the page, tar in the consistency of dough is to be washed in salt water, then plain water. The artist has shown the washing taking place in a great basin. The syrup is then boiled, as seen on the left, and ladled into a bowl for storage. Translation of the text on recto (1977.91.a): 1. How to make a medicinal syrup called "Retastus." It is a syrup of wormwood. Wormwood is an herb. The odoriferous wormwood prevented the syrup from smelling. The retastus syrup was used in many countries. It was used for coughs, chronic diarrhea and for chronic syphilis in women. 2. How to make a kind of syrup called "Satroslitas." The syrup is made from pine nuts. The nuts are ground and shaken. It has the same effect as the syrup above and is used for the same illnesses. 3. How to make a syrup called "Kamadritas." It is a dry tar syrup. The tar is washed with water and then put on a plate. This syrup is used for chronic coughing without fever and also for chest pains. It makes one feel hot. Translation of the text on verso (1977.91.b): 4. How to make a syrup called "Felsantas." It is a moist tar syrup. (It can can be shaped like dough.) It is made form tar which is ashed in salt (sea) water. When the water is clear the tar is clean enough. Then it should be washed with plain water. The syrup is boiled and stored in bowls or cans. The syrup makes one feel warm or hot and is good for digestion. (Translation from the Arabic by Mr. Tadros, CMA guard, c. 1977)

See also
Islamic Art
Islamic Art
Type of artwork: 

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