Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6, Pages 123-133

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.

11 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 6, Pages 123-133”

  1. Abandonment is such a primitive and powerful human emotion! Solitary confinement is reserved as a form of extreme punishment for just that reason, I believe. And even the most spiritual among us can feel abandoned in the hour of our death—as Father Jonah points out, Christ is our guide here. God Himself, Jesus nevertheless felt abandoned on the cross. The challenge for us is to believe past our feelings….to recognize that feelings are just that. Remembering that God is always with us, especially in our hour of need, is challenging when all seems lost. Perhaps the torturers in the painting are reminders of that solitary despair–the beings torture us by seeming to be the only beings left in our world, the only beings that surround us. We must all pray for the faith to rise above our emotions and be deeply reminded of the eternal truth that nothing can separate us from God.

  2. I come late to the table. After so many profound insights what can I add? I think as we journey through life, as Dr Dugdale says, “all of us experience little deaths in our bodies as we march slowly toward our corporal end.” And when we reach that end we often feel abandoned as Anthony did and as Jesus did. That alone brings me comfort that those feelings are acceptable no matter how strong our faith may be. “The experience of illness produces the experience of forsakenness, of abandonment.”

    As to the fact that the Isenheim Altarpiece is housed in a museum rather than in a church makes some difference. However, often large cathedrals where something like this would be hung are often like museums and filled with tourists. I wish we could have art like this in hospital chapels where patients and their providers could
    be comforted and inspired by it. As Dr Dugdale says “The sick no longer take refuge in its presence.” Again Dr Dugdale portrays doctors as “medical persecutors” and asks the question can doctors care well for patients when they treat bodies as “collections of organs”? I would agree that if that is how medical professionals view patients then the answer is no. However, I have known many medical professional who give holistic care and are truly dedicated and committed to doing so.

  3. I agree that the Isenheim Altarpiece and others Christian works of art invoke a more spiritual response if they are in a church. In church, I can kneel or sit in the pews and pray before them. However, in the museum they do not lose their beauty or their meaning. In a museum, I always hope that visitors might receive a kindling or rekindling of their faith. I don’t think that is art simply to be consumed. The Lord meets where we are and draws us to him.

    When we suffer and are sick, we do sometimes feel a division from the Lord. I think, for me at least, he does not represent suffering. We call upon him for hope and deliverance from all that is hurting us. The patients that I have seen in hospitals and in nursing homes seem frightened and alone. When my mother and my sister was sick in the hospital their vital signs always improved a little when family members walked through the door. They seemed less frightened.

    Looking into someone’s eyes when you talk to them and saying their name is a part of the human connection. I have heard that many medical schools are starting to train doctors to make more of the human connection.

  4. This Isenheim Altarpiece is inspirational. It plays a role in inspiring a suffering person to communicate with God. The symbol of the cross inserts the humanity of Jesus – – it reminds us that Christ understands pain and suffering = a concept that consoles and comforts. These positive spiritual thoughts evoke a sense of renewed hope and uplift the mind of a sick, suffering patient.

    1. Yes! Art like this helps us to communicate with God. I would say that this image of Christ does more than remind us of Jesus’ compassion for us. Through this image, Jesus himself reminds us.

  5. Vera O – A collection of organs does not well serve anyone…especially with the very ill who most times even in an office visit
    do not “hear” a word of what is said or understand it…and, many times, the white coat is “on to th next one”….As Catholics/Christians…a plaque of a lay carmelite dear friend of mine reads “the world is your ship, and not your home” i.e. …we are only passing through. I recalll commenting to a wonderful specialist that “you are all soo specific and specialized on /in your particular area, that you sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees” or the entire human being for the organs and parts…despite being grateful for the acumen and knoweldge of the person…losing or not addressing humanity does not extol the capacities and beliefs of the human being, body and soul….

    1. Thanks, Vera. I like what you say about being too specialized. Of course, the increase of physicians with special expertise is a good thing, but it seems also to increase the temptation to ignore what is most special about human beings.

  6. This may be the most striking reading yet, for me. Meeting patients in a moment, it can be easy to forget – or at least not try to imagine – the course that has brought them to this point, or even sometimes the long road ahead of them. Dr Dugdale is right, particularly in inpatient medicine, there is a temptation to see a problem list and methodically address it without considering the body (let alone the soul!) behind it. I have been fortunate to work with senior physicians who ask me to remember this reality.

    I think that art like this is helpful in allowing us to recall the totality of suffering, visible or invisible. I hope one day to be able to see it.

    I find the re-positioning of art from religious spaces to museums a difficult balance. It reminds me of churches that I have seen turned into apartments or gyms. (Though that I feel more universally saddened by.) I hope that in the case of art, the presence of it in museums will spark something in individuals that will draw them to churches – particularly those who would never think to step into a church on its own. Of course, it’s important for me to remember that that actual encounter must be between the person & God, through the art. And it’s comforting to know he can act regardless of where the art is displayed.

    1. Your comment makes me think of the meaning of the word “media.” Art is rendered in a “medium” that mediates and encounter between artist and recipient (viewer, reader, listener) and, in one way or another, the encounter of both with God.

  7. I smile when I read Fr. Jonah’s statement that the suffering he witnesses in the hospitals is mostly invisible. True, we never really can know the full extent of someone else’s burden. But when we serve the sick and dying regularly, we become accustomed to the tubes and machines, the fresh wounds and dressings, the strained voices and withered bodies. We are trained to look the patients in the eyes, partly to make them more comfortable and partly to make us more comfortable. We are then able to see past the obvious physical ravages of their illness and witness the person as a whole being. How often have we heard stories about people avoiding their loved ones because they couldn’t deal with the situation or it made them uncomfortable?

    We say it is what is on the inside that counts. In some ways, I think of these demon-like figures as what could be on our insides if we choose not to live well. Recalling the diary of Eugenie von der Leyen (1867–1929), a holy woman who devoted her life to the souls in purgatory, apparitions were not clearly visible at first. As she offered prayers and sacrifices, their purification advanced. The features of their faces became more recognizable to her. Many souls started off looking like gray lumps. But those who died in particularly bad spiritual states appeared so disturbing that they could be mistaken for damned souls.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I think about the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila describing the soul as a castle made of a single perfect diamond. In her metaphor, God dwells within us in the center of the mansion, shining in His full glory. Sin clouds the soul with darkness and shrouds the diamond with filth.

    I have no idea how our souls are actually depicted or how we will appear to the Lord when we finally experience that beatific vision. We hope dying well follows a life that shapes our souls into beautiful polished gemstones rather than terrifying anguished demons.

    On the day my Mother died, she revealed her highly-coveted beauty secret to me. As it turns out, her beauty secret was simply love. She believed that by loving and by being loved, you improve your inner beauty. The more you engage in loving actions, the more your inner beauty radiates outward.

    In the spirit of Lent, I encourage each of us to get a beauty treatment by commiting an act of love. As we develop our inner beauty, our world will become a more beautiful place. Through the love of God and transformed by His mercy, let us all shine like the bright diamonds we hope to become.

    1. I love “We are trained to look the patients in the eyes, partly to make them more comfortable and partly to make us more comfortable” and I fully intend to steal it.

      I also love your reflection about how our souls might be visible rendered. I think God sees both the disturbing and diamond appearances but, by the time of beatific vision, has turned the former into the latter.

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