« Perpetual Lamps of the Ancients | Original Articles | The Poetical Garland of Julia »

Natural Productions Resembling Artificial Compositions

SOME stones are preserved by the curious, for representing distinctly figures traced by nature alone, and without the aid of art.

Pliny mentions an agate, in which appeared, formed by the hand of nature, Apollo amidst the nine Muses holding a harp. Majolus assures us, that at Venice another is seen, in which is naturally formed the perfect figure of a man. At Pisa, in the church of St. John, there is a similar natural production, which represents an old hermit in a desert, seated by the side of a stream, and who holds in his hands a small bell, as St. Anthony is commonly painted. In the temple of St. Sophia, at Constantinople, there was formerly on a white marble the image of St. John the Baptist covered with the skin of a camel, with this only imperfection, that nature had given but one leg. At Ravenna, in the church of St. Vital, a cordelier is seen on a dusky stone. They found in Italy a marble, in which a crucifix was so elaborately finished, that there appeared the nails, the drops of blood, and the wounds, as perfectly as the most excellent painter could have performed. At Sneilberg, in Germany, they found in a mine a certain rough metal, on whlch was seen the figure of a man, who carried a child on his back. in Provence they found in a mine a quantity of natural figures of birds, trees, rats, and serpents; and in some places of the western parts of Tartary, are seen on divers rocks the figures of camels, horses, and sheep. Pancirollus, in his Lost Antiquities, attests, that in a church at Rome, a marble perfectly represented a priest celebrating mass, and raising the host. Paul lII. conceiving that art had been used, scraped the marble to discover whether any painting had been employed: but nothing of the kind was discovered. “I have seen,” writes a friend, “many of these curiosities. They are always helped out by art. In my father’s house was a gray marble chimney-piece, which abounded in portraits, landscape, &c. the greatest part of which was made by myself.” My learned friend the Rev. Stephen Weston possesses a very large collection, many certainly untouched by art. One stone appears like a perfect cameo of a Minerva’s head; another shows an old man’s head, beautiful as if the hand of Raphael had designed it. Both these stones are transparent. Some exhibit portraits.

There is preserved in the British Museum a black stone on which nature has sketched a resemblance of the portrait of Chaucer. Stones of this kind, possessing a sufficient degree of resemblance, are rare; but art appears not to have been used. Even in plants, we find this sort of resemblance. There is a species of the orchis found in the mountainous parts of Lincolnshire, Kent, &c. Nature has formed a bee, apparently feeding in the breast of the flower, with so mnch exactness, that it is impossible at a very small distance to distinguish the imposition. Hence the plant derives its name, and is called the BEE-FLOWER. Langhorne elegantly notices its appearance.

“See on that flowret’s velvet breast,
     How close the busy vagrant lies!
  His thin-wrought plume, his downy breast,
     The ambrosial gold that swells his thighs.
“Perhaps his fragrant load may bind
     His limbs;—we’ll set the captive free—
  I sought the LIVING BEE to find,
     And found the PICTURE of a BEE.”

The late Mr. Jackson, of Exeter, wrote to me on this subject: “This orchis is common near our sea-coasts; but instead of being exactly like a BEE, it is not like it at all. It has a general resemblance to a fly, and by the help of imagination may he supposed to be a fly pitched upon the flower. The mandrake very frequently has a forked root, which may be fancied to resemble thighs and legs. I have seen it helped out with nails on the toes.”

An ingenious botanist, a stranger to me, after reading this article, was so kind as to send me specimens of the fly orchis, ophrys muscifera, and of the bee orchis, ophrys apifera. Their resemblance to these insects when in fuli flower is the most perfect conceivable: they are distinct plants. The poetical eye of Langhorne was equally correct and fanciful; and that too of Jackson, who differed so positively. Many controversies have been carried on, from a want of a little more knowledge; like that of the BEE orchis and the FLY orchis; both parties prove to be right.

Another curious specimen of the playful operations of nature is the mandrake; a plant indeed, when it is bare of leaves, perfectly resembling that of the human form. The ginseng tree is noticed for the same appearance. This object the same poet has noticed:

“Mark how that rooted mandrake wears
     His human feet, his human hands;
  Oft, as his shapely form he rears,
     Aghast the frighted ploughman stands.”

He closes this beautiful fable with the following stanza, not unapposite to the curious subject of this article:

“Helvetia’s rocks, Sabrina’s waves,
     Still many a shining pebble bear:
  Where nature’s studious hand engraves
     The PERFECT FORM, and leaves it there.”

Editor’s Notes

 § A footnote is appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities, upon the phrase ‘on which nature has sketched a resemblance of the portrait of Chaucer:’

One of the most curious of these natural portraits is the enormous rock in Wales, known as the Pitt Stone. It is an immense fragment, the outline bearing a perfect resemblance to the profile of the great statesman. The frontispiece to Brace’s “Visit to Norway and Sweden” represents an island popularly known as “The Horesman’s Island,” that takes the form of a gigantic mounted horseman wading through the deep. W. B. Cooke, the late eminent engraver, amused himself by depicting a landscape with waterfalls and ruins, which when turned on one side, formed a perfect human face.

 ¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. One paragraph included in earlier versions of the piece, is, however, omitted above:

In the “Academy” of Abbé Bourdelot, a work which is written in dialogue, one of the persons shews a large flint, which appears to be a piece of oak; some of the assembly are of opinion that it is a piece of oak petrified; on which subject there arises a discussion, whether bones, wood, and other materials, can be petrified. Some maintain the affirmative, and some the negative. One of them says, that a friend has shewn him a piece of wood petrified, with all its veins apparent; and what confirms its being wood is, that the piece is lighter than stone, but heavier than wood. Another informs the assembly, that he had seen in Auvergne a fountain of which the water became petrified in twenty-four hours. It had also formed of itself a petrified canal, which served as a bridge, above a stream of water which traverses it. He had also a piece of bacon petrified so naturally, that it deceived the eye.