Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6, Pages 113-122

The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald:

The Antonites ‘prescribed’ viewing the altarpiece to those in their care who were suffering from St. Anthony’s fire. . . . The altarpiece assured the sick that Christ understood their pain

Page 120

The American novelist Francine Prose described the Isenheim Altarpiece as ‘life changing.’ She was astonished to find that ‘at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a miracle of comfort and consolation.’

Page 120

It was an essay by the nineteenth-century French art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans that moved me to see the altarpiece for myself. Huysmans writes of Grünewald:

‘There, in the old Unterlinden convent, he seizes on you the moment you go in and promptly strikes you dumb with the fearsome nightmare of a Calvary. It is as if a typhoon of art had been let loose and was sweeping you away, and you need a few minutes to recover from the impact, to surmount the impression of awful horror made by the huge crucified Christ dominating the nave of this museum.’

Page 121

Chapter 6 is titled, Body. Dr. Dugdale writes about the outbreaks of “dancing plague” in the medieval Europe. She examines its possible connection with Ergot poisoning, and what medievals called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” This leads to her discussion of the Isenheim Altarpiece pictured above.

In next week’s post, we will consider Dr. Dugdale’s narration of her visit to the French town of Colmar to see the altarpiece, her description of what she saw, and her ensuing reflections. For this week’s discussion, I propose that we first consider our own impressions of the altarpiece. We might also consider the accounts of Prose and Huysmans that inclined Dr. Dugdale to make that trip.

The fact that Dr. Dugdale made the trans-Atlantic trip to see this altarpiece tells us that she was not content seeing a photo like one posted above. Looking at this photo is nothing like the experience Huysmans relates. Much is lost is this particular translation. But the photo does convey much. And we can, albeit in a limited way, form our impressions of this work of art.

Looking at this image of the crucified Christ, my eyes are drawn to his fingers. His whole body appears severely afflicted but his fingers stand out, showing the kind of intense contortion that seems to characterize “St. Anthony’s fire.” I think this image presents Christ’s bodily suffering in a powerful way, emphasizing the relationship between his Passion and the passions of those with this particular disease. I think there is a profound truth here. Jesus suffers with and for those specific people. That truth is conveyed powerfully in this altarpiece. That is not to say that other images of the crucified Christ are less true. The crucifixion of Christ is a mystery of Christian faith. It is the redemptive action (and Passion) of God for the salvation of all people. Other images convey that inexhaustible reality in different ways. But this one is extraordinary, even when we only see the photo.

The quotations Dr. Dugdale includes here use strong language to describe the experience of seeing Grünewald’s altarpiece: “life-changing,” “strikes you dumb.” Both of the authors Dr. Dugdale quotes write about the powerful impact of the altarpiece as a work of art. Prose writes about “what art can do,” and Huysmans about “a typhoon of art.” I do not question the power of the Isenheim Altarpiece as a work of art. But I very much suspect that the medieval Antonites who commissioned it and “‘prescribed’ viewing the altarpiece to those in their care” thought that the “small miracle of comfort and consolation” would be accomplished less by the artistic quality of the altarpiece and more by the crucified Christ whom it depicts.

I look forward to reading about your impressions of the Isenheim Altarpiece in your comments.

13 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6, Pages 113-122”

  1. The depiction in numerous mediums of Jesus’ crucifixion have various representations. Many reveal the wound from the spear and the bleeding from the forehead because of the crown of thorns, but many also show a body in a perfect form with no evidence of such wounds. This later image would be found in the Eastern Orthodox church although rarely since the Cross is usually a jeweled item in the EOC without the body of Christ. Actually, neither represented the crucified Christ. There is an often viewed photo of a slave with his back covered with large scars (keloids) from beatings with a whip. Jesus would have been scourged over his body with a whip with multiple thongs (up to 39 in the Jewish custom) ending in metal tips. Skin would be shredded, eyes would be lost, etc. Later in history this would be called the “half death” since half of the victims died from this punishment. This practice ,at one time, was not uncommon in the Catholic church especially as a substitute for excommunication in the case of monks. Even major paintings do not show the grim reality of scourging. The Isenheim Altarpeice does not appropriately depict the crucifixion and is an appropriative version visualizing the sacrifices Jesus as a victim of St. Anthony’s Fire as well as the Roman punishment. Although this altarpiece does not show evidence of gangrene of the digits or nose, it does demonstrate the spasms in the hands. I have read that body lesions are present, but I can not see them in the on line images. Therefore, in part, it does represent the agony of St. Anthony’s Fire. The attempt to attach Christ’s sacrifice in substitution for our sins to the suffering from SAF is a stretch for a metaphor. If I were suffering from SAF, this painting would not give me comfort. I prefer the approach of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A painting of Christ leaving a tomb with the broken chains of death left behind in the tomb would give me, as a Christian, courage knowing that my faith and belief in Jesus Christ would unite me with G-d and an everlasting life free of the pains of this world.

  2. Thank you, Jacqueline. It’s great to read about the religious response to the dancing plague in Strasburg. I don’t know why Dr. Dugdale omitted this. However, I think modern people often dismiss religious healing and many are doing that with COVID-19 in our time. They seem to imagine that, as a serious response to a crisis, religious approaches to healing can only be alternatives to medical approaches. In our modern world, people often seem to think that, because our medical knowledge and practice has moved forward, religious approaches to healing are backward. We are tempted to think that technology and medicine have made recourse to God obsolete, except as a private concern and for private comfort. I wonder whether the idea of pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Vitus as a serious response to plague would be taken seriously in our time.

  3. I agree that it would likely be an immensely moving experience to see the Isenheim Altarpiece in person. It seems to me that the nexus of its power lies in its relatable depiction of suffering, particularly as conveyed by Christ’s hands. Not only is the body of Christ bleeding and contorted from pain, but His fingers speak to me the the expression of the last ounces of His human energy reaching outward to the Father for help. The power of our fingers is not to be underestimated in our wellness; but in our dying, our fingers and hands may be the last part of ourselves to communicate. In the altarpiece, they are plaintive, desperate, oozing the need for help through the pain and to prevent the terror of what may be to come. To me, the despair these hands of Christ communicate is the anthesis of prayerful hands clasped together, or hands clasped to another in love and longing. These are hands of a Christ who feels alone, abandoned, in the depth of despair and trying with their last shreds of energy to seek help. What an incredibly powerful metaphor for human suffering, and what a strong call to each of us to clasp our hands in prayer and love when we are able.

    1. Angela, I love what you say about Jesus’ posture on the cross in relation to his prayer. As you say, his hands are unlike the typical position of prayerful hands but they express a desperate grasping for help, which could be a description of intense prayer. The extended arms of Christ on the cross have traditionally been understood as expressing the universal embrace of his love for all. I think it is most enriching and very theologically sound to reflect on the ways that Jesus’ body, hanging on the cross, (and different images thereof) express what he is inwardly doing in his sacrificial death.

  4. I don’t think the idea of this prescription is that foreign, though I understand Dugdale’s wariness to give it credence, particularly given her audience. The idea of meditation, whether on an idea or on nothing, is increasingly popular. One issue faced by those with terrible, chronic illnesses is a sense of aloneness, that their pain is not well understood. Even in medicine, there is a temptation to think we understand diseases, despite the fact that even in treating others, we likely undermeasure the impact they have on the individual. So we all have a tendency to seek companionship, particularly in someone we look up to: in the time of St Anthony’s Fire, it was the suffering Christ – now, for many, it may be a celebrity who has been diagnosed a given disease. There is comfort and solidarity in that, and I don’t doubt that that changes how people feel – at least naturally, if not supernaturally.

    With regards to the altarpiece, I love it. I think even now, in a day where there seem to be very few rules in art, the concept expressed here – Christ suffering with a specific disease, a specific set of symptoms that only certain people could relate to – is very powerful. I am curious if there have been other examples in history: Christ with cancer, Christ with arthritis, leprosy, etc – nothing came up in my cursory google search, but I find it a powerful way to think of Christ’s suffering – and I think that could certainly heal.

  5. For sure, Jesus in this artwork, knew their pain, and He knows our pain…It is colorful and catches the blood and guts of the moment…
    It is “awful” yet “consoling” Our pains are His pains and vice versa. Dugdale made the trip to be “up close and personal”
    In NY, we have access (normally) to such beautiful, awesom cathedrals and churches…that we can sit quietly and reflect
    and meditate on such types of art. …something I definitely could relate to…the diseases, the art, the crucifixion, and so forth. Vera O

    1. I agree with you, Vera, that here in NYC we have many beautiful churches. That is one of my favorite things about our city. St. Catherine’s is one of those beautiful churches and this year our Dominican community started processing around our church after our night prayer to sing and recite prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Catherine, St. Dominic and other saints depicted there. The artistic beauty in our church has become a greater aid to our life of prayer.

  6. I think that perhaps it is the viewing of the crucified Christ so beautifully rendered, that a patient praying in its presence and in the Church sanctuary might receive some comfort, and perhaps even miraculous healing might occur. This sentence does not seem far from what anyone else has said about this work of art, but this is how I see it. I find myself wishing that is was on exhibit here in New York City so that I could go see it. When my sister passed away it was a source of comfort for me to go and pray in the chapel at the hospital. I was alone at first, and I knelt before the altar and crucifix to pray. Through the Lord our God all things are possible. When I worked at the museum, sometimes I used to go and spend time looking at the Christian objects in the medieval and Byzantine areas. Seeing the crucifixes, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints was comforting.

    1. Thank’s Jenita. In the second half of this chapter, Dr. Dugdale talks about how this altarpiece is no longer serving its consoling purpose in the “art of dying” tradition now that it is displayed as a museum piece. I think there is truth in what she says, but I love your reminder that seeing this kind of art in museums can also be consoling.

  7. I was so glad that I could Google the Isenheim Altarpiece and see a full screen picture of it. I am often deeply moved by art, so I can well understand how this depiction of the suffering and crucified Christ would bring comfort to one who is also suffering. I think it could well answer Anthony’s purportedly last uttered words “Where were you, O good Jesus, where were you? Why did you not come sooner to help me and heal my wounds.” This picture of the crucified Christ depicting in a stark and gruesome way Jesus’s own suffering perhaps answers that question – he is suffering right along with us. I had a friend who was dying from terminal cancer, and I often think of the last conversation I had with her and how ecstatic she was that she had just been able to travel to Italy to see De Vinci’s Last Supper. She was a nurse and was well aware she only had months to live. I am sorry that I never asked her what exactly about that picture brought her such comfort. I often look at it and wonder … Perhaps it is Jesus’s sweet and resigned look, as he faces what he knows lies ahead.

    1. Thank you Blanche. I especially appreciate your comments about your friend being consoled by De Vinci’s Last Supper. There is a passage in the second part of this chapter about the power of visual art that I intend to quote in our next post. I’ll be thinking about your comments when I write about that.

  8. In our lifetimes, both music and art therapy have been prescribed to ease and soothe all sorts of ills. What I especially appreciate about the Isenheim Altarpiece is that it offers comfort and consolation with no words. The story is depicted so masterfully that people of all languages, ages, educational backgrounds and faiths can witness the transformative message that they are not alone. Christ is united with them in their suffering, he understands their pain and weaknesses and he loves them so much that he offers his earthly life for them. The message is even more powerful than the medium.

    I can’t help but notice that earlier in the chapter, Dr. Dugdale glosses over the religious narrative associated with Mrs. Troffea and her dancing plague. Let us consider those accounts.

    When the town’s council realized that encouraging more dancing failed to stop the dancing, they considered a spiritual solution. Documents indicate that Mrs. Troffea was cured after her pilgrimage to the holy shrine of St. Vitus. Some thought that St. Vitus, angered by the nefarious acts committed by the townspeople, cursed the city with a dancing plague. Others believed that through his intercession with repentance and prayer, the contagion could be eradicated. Regardless, authorities started taking the afflicted residents to the grotto nestled in the hills above Saverne which housed the shrine of St.Vitus. Priests incorporated incense and Latin incantations into an elaborate healing ritual. They anointed the choreomaniacs with holy water and oil. According to historical chronicals, the wild movements began to cease. Within weeks, the epidemic had ended.

    The dancing plague, a neurological disorder classified as a form of dyskinesia, is often called St. Vitus’s Dance. St. Vitus, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers believed to have especially efficacious powers against the ravages of disease, is often invoked for those who suffer from epilepsy. By the 16th century, faithful Germans danced around his statue on his feast day with the hopes of obtaining a year of good health. His association with manic dancing led to his recognition as the patron saint of dancers.

    We may never know what really happened in Strasbourg in 1518, but I like to think that with God, anything is possible.

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