The Doctrine of Signatures

As an extension of my last post, about learning sign-language and applying symbolic languages for the greater good, I’d like to talk about the role of healing and protection in this practice. Artists are trained to see, not just to create. Drawing, painting and sculpting are ways of seeing – seeing with the heart and seeing with the hands. The doctrine of signatures was a framing concept in medicine that hails from the time of Galen, and states that we should read the botanical world visually, and that each plant in our herbal medicine chest should be used to treat the body part or ailment it resembled in appearance. Paraclesus (credited with the illustration above) is quoted  “Nature marks each growth … according to its curative benefit”, in short – like treats like.

Not just a physician, but a noted astrologer who was influential to the Rosicrucian Order, Paraclesus also invented an alphabet called the Alphabet of the Magi, for engraving angelic names upon talismans and amulets for purposes of healing. So, there is a very long and established tradition of medical healers working not only to heal the body, but also attempting to act on more subtle and less commonly understood bodies of the etheric realms. Going further back still and casting a broader geographical net, folk healers the world over are known to have employed not just plants, but the use of signs and symbols to ward off evil, attract love, enhance fertility and heal throughout the ages. As within the doctrine of signatures, like treats like can also be applied to the visual healing arts. So, there is no real conceptual gap in bridging the now disparate disciplines of medicine and ideograms. What I’m really doing here is reinterpreting an age-old tradition to act as a salve in troubled times.


Of course, I have no monopoly on any of this, anyone can make their own medicine, just as anyone can make their own magic or art. What I’m interested in offering, having grown up with a nurse for a Mother and teacher for a Father, is a way to help people facilitate their own healing, their own protection from perceived threats, through the revival of these ideas. I can make it easier for those who don’t consider themselves artistic, by fabricating objects and images to be used as a focal point in healing mindfulness practice. Or I can validate the use of these old ideas in the present, by offering new permutations on them, and hopefully seeding fertile minds with ways they can create their own sigils, signs and symbols for positive change. Whatever the vehicle of transmission, I find that I require the earth and plants to ground an otherwise very abstract and conceptual art practice.

Art is medicine, not just in terms of art therapy, whereby an individual is examining past experience through creative practice toward a better understanding of self, but in terms of actively navigating the present and projecting into the future through the act of creation. It has been said that artists are the shamans of the modern world, as we have lost the essential role of storyteller and dream interpreter to a culture that values nothing but the material. Global capitalism places for-profit competition above all else, and we’ve been failed by the strictly empirical reality that came of the Enlightenment. To me, countering the cultural monopoly of whiteness has everything to do with rejecting these values in favor of reconnecting to our roots – both literally and culturally. Understanding our origins historically and geographically allows us to start to untangle intercultural wounds, and connects us to traditional forms of ecospirituality, which all peoples shared in common at one point in history.

While we give lip-service to multiculturalism and liberal democratic values, we simultaneously undermine pluralism by insisting that there is only one material reality. I’m here, as one among many, to offer a counterargument to the prevailing discourse, to homeopathically heal via the distribution of a counter-paradigm. The reason artists have been equated to shamans is because they come bearing new imagery that helps to reinterpret the present. We reflect that which we are surrounded by, so choose your set and setting carefully, reject pessimism and ground yourself in the nearest available patch of earth. Let the elements speak on subtle levels, and root yourself in the mystery of being over a concrete grid that boxes our vision into incrementally smaller bits of information. Make room for holistic dreams, as they are a tonic for what ails us. This practice is my dream for you to do with what you will.