Spotlight: vanity of vanities, all is vanity

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By | From the Collections

Jodocus Müller, city apothecary of Dresden, was a prominent and presumably wealthy citizen of that town. In a certificate of 1675 he listed the six pursuits to which he had dedicated his life:

  1.  To learn the ‘A. B. C.,’ to spell, read, write and speak correctly
  2. To sing well, to pray and to often hear God’s commands from pious clergymen
  3. Pyrotechnica, together with the secrets of St. Anna the occult one and the eternal pharmaceutic art
  4. To cast cannon and to fix artillery as well as the beautiful art of Alchemy
  5. To explain the qualities of minerals, metals and other fossils
  6. To study Algebra and ‘al-kabbala’

At the end of this list he concluded: “I have decided that I will remain faithful to these beautiful arts until the gloomy sephulchre opens its portals to receive me.”

Some of these pursuits are represented in a fine, illustrated manuscript by Müller, held by the Wellcome Library (MS.3644)  and now digitised and freely available in our media player. At the front of the manuscript he included this picture which undoubtedly speaks to his final sentence.


Worms have picked the last vestiges of flesh from the skeleton of what appears to have once been a bishop, his mitre carefully set beside his skull. Filthy toads lurk beneath his raised legs. Various admonitory inscriptions in French and Latin decorate the scene.

For those of you planning to visit London, Müller’s manuscript has also been recreated in facsimile together with a number of other Wellcome manuscripts, and can be viewed in the newly opened Reading Room at Wellcome Collection.

Author: Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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