And there he was. That anguished man on the cross, larger than life, bearing all the marks of ergotism. His skin was covered in sores from whipping and disease, his lips and toes tainted blue, his spindly figures splayed open, the tips twisting around the nails in his hands.Page 123
Dr. Dugdale’s impression of the depiction of Christ in this altarpiece is striking and shows the greater impression she was able to have by seeing in in person.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is composed of a number of painted panels and sculptures that were opened and closed depending on holidays and seasons of the liturgical year. Typically viewers would have gazed upon the crucified Christ. But sometimes, patients and pilgrims sat before another panel, seldom opened, called “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons.”Page 124
The bright colors of the demons attacking St. Anthony, combined with their gruesome beastly features, make this image particularly terrifying. How would you relate this to the experiences of sick and dying people you have known?
There is another being in the lower left corner, neither vicious beast nor truly human. He sits back on his haunches, grimacing face cast upward, legs spread wide, bloated belly pushed against the surrounding darkness. His skin is littered with the haloed lesions of St. Anthony’s fire. His feet are webbed, his left arm a gangrenous stump.Page 125
St. Anthony is the target of torment in this picture. But the figure in the bottom left is the image of bodily suffering. The suffering, both bodily and spiritual, that I witness in hospitals are mostly invisible. This vividly grotesque and tortured body is a powerful image of the suffering of sick persons that goes mostly unseen.
In the lower right corner of Grünewald’s painting, directly across from the miserable hybrid creature, a piece of parchment is tacked to a tree stump. On it are written the word Anthony purportedly uttered when finally liberated from the demons: Ubi eras, ibesu bone, ubi eras, quare non affuisti ut sanares vulnera mea? “Where were you, O good Jesus, where were you? Why did you not come sooner to help me and heal my wounds?”Page 127
St. Anthony’s words are familiar to me and, I’m sure, to many of us who have experienced illness in our own lives of in the lives of people we care for. The combination of questioning God and expressing faith and devotion (“O good Jesus”) is frequent in Scripture, especially in Psalms and Lamentations. It also reminds us of Jesus’ words on the cross that are drawn from Psalm 22.
The experience of illness produces the experience of forsakenness, of abandonment. Our families and friends, even our doctors, have no idea what to do with us. So they leave us alone with our wounds and our bloated bellies, and there we sit in misery, the demons of death thrashing about us.”Page 129
I think illness can provoke feelings of forsakenness, but I don’t think it always does. In caring for the sick, I think it is important to be alert for feelings of forsakenness. But sick people feel other things too, and it is best to allow them and invite them to express how they feel. I think it is also important to assure people that their feelings are natural and needn’t be a cause of guilt or shame, and that feelings are not what are most important in us or most revealing to us. Someone might feel like God has forsaken him. That’s okay. The psalmists felt that. Jesus felt that. They also knew that it wasn’t true. God is with the sick and hears and answers their prayers whether they feel that or not.
One cannot help being disturbed by the anguished face that persists in printed form, unable to experience relief. The viewer’s ultimate response is to look aside, to forsake the one who suffers.Page 129
Dr. Dugdale writes about the “frozen in time” affect of visual art. The depictions of anguish in the Isenheim Altarpiece do not change. Their suffering is never relieved. In the case of Jesus on the cross, this expresses something uniquely true. Jesus indeed suffered once and for all. But Jesus’ once-for-all suffering embraces all people in every time and place. For as long as the human suffering continues, the suffering of Jesus, as depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece, remains present in our midst.
If this masterpiece once belonged to the “art of dying” tradition, it no longer does. It is simply “art”–to be consumed.Page 132
There is truth the what Dr. Dugdale writes here, and it applies to so much religious art in our modern world. It’s great that so many people can see the art works that are curated in modern museums. A few years ago, I had the delightful and moving experience of seeing the frescos of Fra Angelico in San Marco in Florence, which used to be a Dominican priory but is now a museum. I am glad that so many people can see those frescos, which previously were only seen be Dominican friars within their cloister. But so much of the delight of seeing those masterpieces was imagining them in their original setting, inspiring the friars and aiding their meditations on the mysteries of salvation. Something wonderful had been lost.
Can doctors care well for patients–and can we care well for one another–when we treat bodies as collections of organs rather that as human beings whose capacities and beliefs surpass the purely material? The answer, surely, is no.Page 132-133
This reflection of Dr. Dugdale’s segues into the subject of Chapter 7: Spirit.