Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6 Art, Pages 230-231

The figure is an erect, humanized form of the hybrid creature from the Isenheim Altarpiece . . . if compared to the creature in the altarpiece painting, the viewer will soon observe the similarities. The aim is to prompt a visual reckoning with bodily finitude while also noting that disease can transfigure even as it transforms.

Page 230

The similarities between the two images are indeed easily observed: the bloated belly, the sores covering naked skin. But the differences are striking too. Not only is the upper image humanized: without webbed feet or leges extending sideways. It is less gruesome. The colors of the blue body and red sores contribute to that. So does the posture of the hybrid creature, the tight grip of its right hand, and the number and protrusion of sores, especially on its belly. What can we make of all that? A thought that comes to me is that the agony of the fantastical hybrid’s body illustrates what is less clearly visible in the more realistically rendered body of the man.

What else can we say about the image in our book? The man’s state of undress seems to suggest that he is in a private space. Maybe he is walking between his bathroom and his bed. What he had done quickly and easily when he was healthy is now difficult and precarious, requiring the use of a cane. I remember an elderly friar I lived with at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington who would walk slowly and laboriously from his room to the chapel and back. It was edifying to see him do that several times every day. Those daily commutes, which took only a minute for young students like me, seemed to take up half his waking life.

In comparing these two images, Dr. Dugdale again quotes the French art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose description of the Isenheim Altarpiece prompted her to go see it in person. Huysmans says of the hybrid creature, “His skin is littered with the haloed lesions of St. Anthony’s Fire” (Page 230). I find the description of the inflammation around his lesions as “halos” most evocative. Is there a kind of holiness associated with his agony? This creature is presumably a demon, like the other hybrids who are torturing St. Anthony. Or is he? Could he be seen as a kind of Christ figure? The image of Christ on the cross doesn’t depict him with a halo. Are the hybrid creature’s lesions his halo? I will be interested to read your thoughts about this.

I find Dr. Dugdale’s remark about transfiguration notable, especially since St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration was the gospel reading at yesterday’s Catholic Mass. I’m not sure I understand what Dr. Dugdale means by the words “transfigure” and “transform” in this context. I would normally understand “transfiguration” as denoting bodily change. Jesus’ body was changed when he was transfigured, shining radiantly white. In modern usage, “transformation” might also describe bodily change. However, according to an older philosophical and Christian anthropology, the human soul is said to be the “form” of the body. Accordingly, “transformation” would denote a change in the soul rather than the body. If we understand Dr. Dugdale’s terms in that way, she would seem to be saying that disease radically alters the human body even as it does the human soul. I’m sure that is true but I’m not sure that is all she means to say. I expect that at least some of you understand Dr. Dugdale’s remarks better than I do.

6 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6 Art, Pages 230-231”

  1. Swollen bellies, the source of our nourishment turned against us, mark both figures in this display of art. To me this is a metaphor for all that is good–the intake of food and drink–now prohibited to us as a result of disease, leaving only swollen, dysfunctional organs in its place. Perhaps this is how life is–good that can turn to bad; what is healthy and positive can always become a physiologic negative. These images are to me a reminder that we are all in God’s hands. Our bodies function by His grace, and “every hair on our head” is counted by Him. When health turns to disease, we must do what is humanly possible to heal, but never forget that human intervention can only go so far. Suffering is part of our lives–whether Christian, Buddhist, or atheist; only Christianity allows us to walk with our savior as we suffer. And the act of that communal walk with suffering as we are filled with physical pain and doubt, can challenge us to deeply feel our beliefs. This is perhaps, the most difficult aspect of the human condition, and one which Christ shared with us on Good Friday. But the consolation of Easter of 2000 years ago remains the same today. We must remember that in the midst of our suffering and pain.

  2. Dugdale seems to be focused on the finality of disease and illness. As a doctor, she has probably seen the signs of this finality take their toll upon the bodies of hospital patients. The changes in sick individuals could be looked upon as a transformation. I would imagine that the souls of individuals are touched and changed in profound ways.

    When I look at the two images above, I imagine that they do not have the strength to dress themselves completely and that clothes may irritate their skin. The skin irritation is more apparent in the second image. This is certainly a transformation in the way that one lives life. Modesty is replaced by a need to ease one’s pain or the drain on the patient’s energy. I would also imagine that some people can be transfigured by their illness as their bodies are transformed into something less recognizable.

    In this time of pain and hardship, people do sometimes come closer to the Lord. Some claim to experience a greater clarity. Is this a part of what it means to decrease as the Lord increases?

  3. Vera O – Your/Dugdale’s comment on the “daily commute” was particularly striking….whether thinking about my sister….or my mom, or now my husband and also my brother in law…all of the many things we take for granted!!! becoming extraordinarily difficult if not impossible..spending any time in a Rehab facility visiting,distributing communion, or other ministry…particularly if someone we love or care about is there…turns the “halo” into a real crown…(like our Lord’s…)Palm Sunday..and so forth..
    It’s difficult, if not imposible for any human to see visible or invisible human sadness..and not feel compassion or empathy..even for a dog!! As a person with an illness “changes” transfiguration and transformation, similar and maybe more relatable, as a person naturally ages, having had the privilege of watching others, e.g. my mom 92! at passing (not to mention myself!!) great changes are not necessarily noted on a daily basis or monthly, maybe yearly but the transfigures and transforms…mind, body and soul, infant to baby to school child..life span over decades…for sure visible invisible changes, implicit explicit, transforms, internal external, specifics…and all that is in between..changes here there and every where..recalling my sister readying to pass on…my elderly aunt.similarly ..sadness, even for our aged golden before her passing…her eyes telling me a story..peering into my eyes as I spoke to her, under the table, hiding,transforming and readying to “leave” us..Heart and soul, body and soul, mind and spirit….all altered by disease, even disease of time. These that transfigure and transform…this world into the next.

  4. In this society and especially in this country we glorify youth. We fight against aging with hair dyes, comb overs, Botox and face lifts. And as Dr. Dugdale says we “also reject the idea that our bodies will, one day, fail.” But disease has a way of not only transforming us but also transfigures us in a way where we become almost unrecognizable even to ourselves. And sometimes , even more than the idea of death, this is hard to accept. So that is why it’s so hard to look at images of diseased bodies like the hybrid creature from Isenheim’s altarpiece as well as it’s humanized form. The halos mentioned I believe is a medical term that refers to the white flare often found around certain lesions. I’m not sure it was meant to have a religious significance. Jacqueline thank you for your beautiful, meaningful comments. Especially emptying ourselves in a way to make room for God

  5. For whatever reason my eyes are drawn to the background of the image in the book – a series of narrow parallel lines. I think we’ve seen it before, in some form, in some of the other art for the book. It carries with it a sense of organization, of normalcy – and ultimately highlights how disproportionate and bloated the diseased man in the image is. He is either in a private, vulnerable place, or he is on display. Perhaps as a warning, perhaps as a lesson for those who are not yet sick as he is. Either way, he is fortunate that while the lighting highlights his ailments, it also somewhat hides his face.

    With regards to this creature in the painting, I am struck less by his lesions as by whatever he’s holding in his right hand – It looks like a torn bag containing a book, which I would have to guess is Scripture. Perhaps this lends to the idea that this poor creature has tried to fight off the demons with less success than St Anthony, and is now wounded, disfigured, and half-animal himself, while still clutching his faith & perhaps with his wounds demonstrating some “halos” from his own martyrdom to the demons. But again, more insight into what he is clutching would help.

    When I first read Dr Dugdale’s comment on transfiguration, I assume what is my own very lay definition, that is sort of a bodily change resulting in glorification. Since we only really see it primarily in the gospel we just read, I always assume a strongly positive kind of change in figure (as opposed to say, the word “disfigure”). Using my own lay definition, which perhaps connects to Dr. Dugdale’s, I think that she’s stating that perhaps suffering can elevate the spiritual life, whether by calling attention to our reliance on God or by removing distractions of everyday life. Thus, the person suffering undergoes a spiritual transfiguration even while their body undergoes a negative transformation.

    Regardless, the importance of relying on God – whether to heal, or to find joy in suffering, or to understand the difficulties of life is made all the more clear by these images. We must hold onto something that can support us – perhaps a cane, or perhaps the word of God.

  6. The panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece that depicts the temptations of Saint Anthony conveys a story of hope and salvation. While Saint Anthony is trampled, torn, clawed, beaten and bitten, he faces his demons and laughs at them. He taunts them by saying if they had any real power, only one of them would be needed to kill him. He reminds them that the Lord has taken away their power and given them the form of senseless animals. Saint Anthony places his trust in God as a defense against the torture of his demons. Angels come to his aid, the bright light of God illuminates the scene and the demons vanish. When Saint Anthony asks God why He didn’t stop the suffering sooner, God tells him that He was observing his brave fight. Because he resisted temptation and maintained his faith, God promised to always be by his side.

    The creature with the distended belly in the lower corner seems to be separate and distinct from Satan’s allies. He may feel he is losing his humanity as he suffers from advanced ergotism and struggles with his own torture and demons. But, he doesn’t retaliate and join in the attack of Saint Anthony. Rather, he is a witness to God’s mercy. In that way, he connects other patients to Jesus Christ, our Divine Physician, by relating that very message of salvation and hope to those who are sick.

    At the top of this picture, we see a fiery halo representing God. Note the similarities to the fiery halo the same artist used to illustrate the ascent of Jesus in his piece portraying the resurrection of Christ. Perhaps the fiery halos encircling the ulcerous sores are a further reminder that God is with us, around us and in us.

    With all due respect to metaphysics, ontology and Christian teaching, many people interchange and (mis)use the terms “transform” and “transfigure” in non-technical ways.  For example, “transform” can refer to a change in appearance–like a make-over. Although “transfigure” usually describes conversion into a different form, state or substance, it can also be used in the sense of glorifying or exalting someone or something. Thus, while disease can negatively transform one’s body, it can lead to a positive spiritual transfiguration. The sentiment is similar to Father Jonah’s more precise interpretation, noting the soul is the substantial form of the body. Therefore, transfiguration or metamorphosis of the body can be transformative for the soul. Of course, “soul” and “spirit” are also often confused. Given the title of the following chapter, we can anticipate more fun with words next week.

    Semantics aside, the concept is solid. Along these lines, the crucifixion scene that dominates the altarpiece includes the Latin phrase, “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui,” or  “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). As our bodies wither and we let go of our former selves, we are emptying ourselves. In such a way, we make room for God. Lent is a particularly good time to reflect upon this passage. Regardless of health or age, we can all benefit from opening ourselves to the love and grace with which God wants to fill us.

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