The most famous of the French Calvinist Huguenots was Bernard Pallisy (Pallisey) (b. ca. 1510-d. 1588), a glazier or glassmaker and pottery artist whose later works of art became some of the most inspirational examples of natural history for the time.  Two-hundred and fifty years before the French Bourgoisie suffered the fate due to their own invention, the guillotine, Bernard Pallisy suffered one of the worst forms of social prejudice and criticism any artisan and leader of his people could face.  He was imprisoned due to his unique religious faith, where he remained until his death some   sixteen years later in 1588.  

Pallisy was born around 1510 as a French Catholic, but as his skills as an artisan were not noticed at all until his more mature years as an artisan during the 1530s.  During these years of his increase in popularity, Pallisy learned to admire nature as both a philosopher and a scientist.   We would not learn about this philosophical turn he made towards natural theology–the expression of God through nature–until his later years in life.  This is when he wrote and had published two major writing son this personal discovery Recepte véritable, 1563, and Discours admirables, 1580.

Recepte véritable covered various aspects of life for the time, ranging from the practice of farming, agriculture, and producing more lucrative crop beds to developing a better understanding of your natural surroundings, such as the geology of your land including its numerous natural bounties ranging from earth products such as mineral, ores, salts and gems, to the value of the natural springs and rich forests that sprung from the land.  Without any disregard for mankind’s blessings upon this land, he recommended that each family or landowner make the best use of his property, by developing a garden decorated with the various forms of earthenware he had produced.  Some of this earthenware was polished up with biblical quotations, but the most profound of his earthenware works were his garden and nature trimmed dishes and cups, pieces which he would very soon become quite famous for.  Also as part of this 1563 book, Pallisy discussed his view of religion and the history of the Protestant church at Saintes that he helped found.  Due to the ongoing Catholic attacks his Protestant church members received, he developed some plans to produce a Protestant church meant to serve as a refuge his plans for which consisted of a spiral fortress that would prevent any Catholic attempts to attack his fellow Protestants to cease their acts of aggression and even murder.

The most profound writings on natural theology appeared in Pallisy’s second book, Discours admirables.  About this time in life, Pallisy began to make sense of much of what he was seeing in the natural setting.  This led him to present his intrepretation of the natural sciences in a series of lectures given in Paris.   By then, Pallisy had developed certain levels of expertise in a variety of natural science disciplines, ranging from natural philosophy, agriculture, botany, zoology, paleontology, geology, minerology, metallurgy, meteorology, hydrology, alchemy, physics, medicine and toxicology to some the more artisan crafts and skills including ceramics.  His lengthiest treatise in this book is on hydrology, followed by exceptional works as well on metals,  drugs, stones and gems, the various salts, their nature, effects, and methods of generation, the nature of clay and marl, and the art of the potter. 

Most important to Pallisy’s Discours admirables were the views he expressed on hydrology and paleontology.  His work on the natural history, topography and geography of streams was exceptional and perhaps ahead of its time.   Few other scientist for the time understood the formation and origin of streams and rivers, claiming they were formed by more than just simple precipitation and weather.  In a modern sense, his views on the roles of soils in forming streams and the relationship of this to the formation of clay and marl beds preceded a similar view on these same soil behaviors known as the infiltration theory.   His understanding of the flow of water beneath the terrain, the existence of this water in beds or layers, and the application of these concepts to producing successful artesian wells, recharging them with nearby rivers, and the use of local forests to protect this topographical feature from unnecessary erosion, enabled him to produce a very complete plant on how to construct manmade water fountains fed from this water for use in domestic and public settings.  Pallisy’s view of hydrology and the cycling of water in nature was far better and more accurate than most of the theories for natural stream development for the time.  His theory contested the popular beliefs that that river and stream water were only produced from evaporated seawater which once in the air condensed into precipitation and fed these waterways. 

Palissy had an extensive interest in the works of art produced by nature–fossils.   He might have been familiar with some of the more interesting writings of fossils detailed by Hippocrates in his Philos. i. Fragment 14; Dox. 590 on Xenophanes of Kolophon:

“And he says that nothing comes into being , nor is anything destroyed, nor moved; and that the universe is one and is not subject to change. And he says that god is eternal and one, homogeneous throughout, limited, spherical, with power of sense- perception in all parts. The sun is formed each day from small fiery particles which are gathered together: the earth is infinite, and is not surrounded by air or by sky; an infinite number of suns and moons exist, and all things come from earth. The sea, he said, is salt because so many things flow together and become mixed in it; but Metrodoros assigns as the reason for its saltness that it has filtered through the earth. . . And Xenophanes believes that once the earth was mingled with the sea, but in the course of time it became freed from moisture; and his proofs are such as these: that shells are found in the midst of the land and among the mountains, that in the quarries of Syracuse the imprints of a fish and of seals had been found, and in Paros the imprint of an anchovy at some depth in the stone, and in Melite shallow impressions of all sorts of sea products. He says that these imprints were made when everything long ago was covered with mud, and then the imprint dried in the mud. Farther he says that all men will be destroyed when the earth sinks into the sea and becomes mud, and that the race will begin anew from the beginning; and this transformation takes place for all worlds.”

Palissy believed these marks in stone were the stamps or remnants of plants and animals.  Palissy’s first Protestant-like decision made in context with this particular story in natural history is his rejection of the claims that these fossils were clues and evidence for the biblical flood.  Palissy claimed that inland fossils were more like the result of an inland lake, a representation of some of the modern living species and several now extinct species.   Because he was read in Cardano’s De subtilitate, Pallisy was able  to pull together his own version of a story on how these fossils were born.  As inferred by Palissy’s broad knowledge of the natural sciences professed in his first book, he was a believer in petrification as the natural processes by which fossils are formed. 

The Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography writes:

“Palissy held other advanced views. From experimentation he concluded that all minerals with geometric crystal forms must have crystallized in water; his classification of salts was nearly correct; and he suggested the concept of superposition for the development of sedimentary rocks. In his writings on medicine he demonstrated that potable gold was neither potable nor beneficial, and he showed that mithridate, a remedy composed of some 300 ingredients, was useless and probably harmful. He presented observations in support of his scientific ideas, and scathingly denounced established authorities if their findings did not agree with his own data. While there is some question concerning his originality—La Rocque discussed his dependence on thirty-one other writers on earth sciences whose works were available in the sixteenth century, and Thorndike charged him with plagiarizing Jacques Besson’s L’art et la science de trouver les eaux of 1567—there is little doubt that Palissy was probably one of the first men in France to teach natural sciences from facts, specimens, and demonstrations rather than hypotheses.”  [see]




John Calvin (1509-1564)

Natural Theology and the Huguenot Ceramist

As a ceramist, nature paved the way for much of Pallisy’s new work beginning around 1539.  So amazed by the fossil world and its philosophical meaning when it came to the originality of the Bible writings about the Great Flood, and the popular claim that fossils were proof of Noah’s experiences, Pallisy saw another value to his new and unique understanding of nature.  He was already very much attracted to the crystals, gems, mineral and other stone and rock formations typical of  nature, not as a geologist but as a potter.  Fossils to him represented a perfect casting of the past, with an important meaning attached to each and every one of these beings found in nature  as a unique work of art.  Pallisy felt he had to do the same, and so as a ceramist he did.

Pallisy made castings of the animals and plants he saw and used these to mold and form his earthenware pieces.  His very prolonged periods of time spent perfecting this skill began in Saintes sometime before 1565, perhaps as early as 1540, and would be continued for decades to come.   He produced a new form of enamelization process for his earthenware with which various plants and animals could be illustrated in high-relief.   These natural works of art led to his popularity, but his words as a Huguenot were not always favored by Royal Society.


New York Metropolitan Museum of Art: ceramic dish (1565-1570, workshop of Bernard Palissy)

Vassoio rustico attribuito a bernard palissy







The above 3 from hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.  See

The realism of Pallisy’s work is what made it stand out, both then and now.  Not only did his work consist of the animals and plants, but also many parts of their natural environmental setting.  With this work we find the crayfish settled in a gravelly, sandy pool and the fish and frogs in their proper places in nature.


Pallisy was a brilliant artist, but yet he was a Huguenot trying to survive in a strongly Catholic community setting.  His artistry won him the fame he needed on the right occasions to spare himself from doing jail time. or worse.  Due to the respect he received as an artist, his life was spared several times throughout the French religious wars which began in 1562.   During the Saint Bartholomew’s Day of Massacre of 1572/3 his life was again spared, unlike the fate of many of his friends and peers. 

[Saint Bartholomew’s Day of Massacre was initiated by Catherine de Medici, through her son King Henry IX.  This killing of Calvanist Huguenots was in direct response to her Roman Catholic daughter marrying a member of Calvinist fame and royalty, King Henry III of Navarre.  Six days later, on August 23, 1572, the killings began.  As many as 30,000  French Huguenots were killed by Catholics within the first days.  Crowds mobbed Huguenot communities, gatherings and religious settings throughout the city of Paris and its surrounding communities.  By the time this massive killing spree was over, October, most of the leaders of this Huguenot movement were dead.  Recent estimates are that as many as 80,000 Huguenots were killed. (see]

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre


In 1562, Pallisy was imprisoned but then released soonafter.  He removed to Tuileries where he set up a new artisan business.  The popularity of his new artform may have saved him from an untimely death in 1572 when the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in France, but ultimately he still had to face the remainder of his life in prison.   Following his return to prison, he remained there until his death in 1588.

Wikipedia: Millais’ painting, A Huguenot and his Catholic lover on the eve of St. Bartholomew’s day