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.