With St. Patrick’s Day approaching we thought it would be appropriate to feature three of the more beautiful and intriguing prints from our collection produced by John Hagerty, a Baltimore printer and the son of Irish immigrants: The Tree of Life, Hieroglyphicks of a Christian, and Hieroglyphicks of the Natural Man. More selfishly I was hoping that these mysterious prints would give me some undiscovered insight into HBO’s True Detective…
These prints are renowned as some of the more handsome items in our collection, but interestingly very little is known about them. In researching this post I had to rely heavily on a paper by Paula Velthuys, presented at the 15th North American Print Conference held here at the Maryland Historical Society in 1983, in addition to Laura Rice’s Maryland History in Prints, 1743-1900 (a commonly referenced book in underbelly posts).
In 1779, ten years after becoming enchanted with Methodism, John Hagerty (1747-1823) raced his horse out of what is now Frederick County to spread the word of God. Known as circuit riders, Hagerty and his ilk traveled from town to town holding revivals which sometimes lasted several days, full of singing, yelling, dancing, and general revelry. This more accessible flavor of religion appealed greatly to the more marginalized segments of the population, especially women, slaves, African-Americans, and immigrants. The religious fervor created at these energetic festivities helped Methodism spread like wild fire throughout the Mid-Atlantic; it is said that at one event held in Baltimore some 30 to 40 worshipers were converted.
Just like any successful evangelist, Hagerty didn’t show up empty handed; he wouldn’t rely on the memory of the events alone to capture the imaginations of his flock. In 1789 he was stationed in Baltimore, which by that time had become the center of American Methodism. He not only established a printing company at 12 Light Street to produce religious material, but he also bought a paper mill west of the city. He quickly went to work producing prints with powerful visual imagery that his largely illiterate followers could attach to their religion.
The resulting prints, The Tree of Life, Hieroglyphicks of a Christian, and Hieroglyphicks of the Natural Man were extremely unique for their time. Though the word hieroglyph today is associated with Egyptian deities, and artwork inside tombs and pyramids, this was not always the case. The meaning of the word used to be more broad; hieroglyph described any image or symbol representing divine thought. The allegorical depiction of virtue and vice represented by the trees in these three prints strangely disappeared from Western Art after the 14th century. For the next 400 years or so, the great majority of depictions of virtue and vice were mostly told through personification.
The biblical symbolism of the tree most likely stems from Matthew, Chapter VII: 15-20:
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
The first two prints, Hieroglyphicks of a Natural Man, and Hieroglyphicks of the Christian, depict trees representing man born in his natural state and the saved Christian respectively. The bottom of the former, Natural Man, contains a verse from Luke, Chapter 3, at the bottom reading: “Cut it Down; why cumbereth it the ground?” In this print, the tree of the natural born man is rooted in unbelief. We can see the Devil watering this tree, and Death holding an axe, preparing to chop it down and send the unbeliever to hell. This tree is crooked, gnarled, and notably lacks leaves; it is an unhealthy tree. It is bearing fruit, but not the kind you want to chomp down on. Though some of the vices near the bottom seem benign such as: unprofitable conversation, vain glory, and idleness, the high hanging fruit near the top contains the real poisonous stuff: murder, incest, extortion , theft, etc. Quite notably atheism, witchcraft, deism, and other non-Christian forms of belief also accompany the hardest hitters. We can also see the symbol for evil, a serpent coiled up in the center of the tree, with slugs and scorpions scurrying around the wasteland below. It is not a pleasant scene.
The passage below the latter, Hieroglyphicks of the Christian, shows quite the opposite. From Psalm 1, Chapter 3: He shall be like a tree planted by the waterside that will bring forth his fruit in due season. This print depicts the fate of a repentant soul. An angel is protecting the healthy tree from the devil. It bears virtuous fruit such as purity, zeal, and benevolence as it prospers in a beautiful land, basking in the grace of God.
The Tree of Life, arguably the most attractive of the three, is quite rich in detail. This depiction of Jesus Christ on a tree bearing “the fruits of salvation” is growing inside the gated walls of New Jerusalem. The outside world and its evils are depicted in great detail on the other side of the gates, engaged in all sorts of illicit acts. The door to hell is depicted on the lower right segment of the print with demons trying to lure the people into its bottomless pit. There is also not a lack of false prophets and fornicators if you look closely.
Not a lot is known about the artists who engraved the original copper plates these prints were produced from. The name Morton appears on the prints, but evidently there was no lithographer by that name in the United States at that time. Paula Velthuys believes that this person named Morton was perhaps an English artist. In 1983 when she did her research that was all that was known about the prints, and at this point I can’t find much more out. Until more is discovered about this individual, it seems that John Hagerty gets most of the credit for them in his role as distributor and promoter. (Eben Dennis)
Velthuys, Paula, “John Hagerty’s Hieroglyphicks”: a paper presented at the 15th North American Print Conference at the Maryland Historical Society, 1983.
Rice, Laura, Maryland in Prints, 1743-1900 (Maryland Historical Society Press: Baltimore, MD, 2002)
1804 Baltimore City Directory
Passano File, Maryland Historical Society Library
Warren, Marion and Mame, Baltimore When She Was What She Used to Be, 1850-1930 (Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore MD, 1983)
 The discovery of the Rosetta Stone, 8 years after these prints were created, was responsible for the word being so tightly bound to the ancient Egyptian script.
 From Paula Velthuys’ paper on John Hagerty’s Hieroglyphicks.