If we are going to discuss the Isenheim Altar, it seems to me that we should try to go back 400 to 600 years. This would be the time of the 13th, the 14th century, 1300-1500 A.D. It is the time of transition from the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, to the beginning of modern times. This was the time of the birth of what has become our major cultural impulse, that is, of science. It is the time of the Renaissance, the time of Reformation, and the time of major social revolt . We can look at this period as the time whereby the human being made a step from intellectual to consciousness-soul activity. We can also speak of the spiritual beings working in culture. It is the time of the workings of the Archangels Raphael, Samuel and on into the time of Gabriel.We might say that the concern for art of the Renaissance, the time of Raphael, passes into the activity of the Reformation, the time of Samuel, and then gives way to Science, the time of Gabriel.
If we look at therapeutics at that time we can delineate four different aspects. We have the Arabistic materialistic therapeutician-physician with his purgatives, bleedings and poisons. All were used in the name of healing. It is at this time when antimony came to be outlawed as a therapeutic substance.Antimony was used prior to this time in homeopathic doses, by knowing individuals. When it came into the hands of the rather conventional materialistic therapeuticians, it was used in its natural form and as such was terribly poisonous.
Contrasted with Arabistic-materialistic medicine which was in existence at that time we can site the efforts of the peripatetic physician, Paracelsus. He had a totally different aproach to therapeutics. He had an intense insight into the beingness of nature as well as that of illness in the human being. His approach was through alchemy, a kind of natural clairvoyance.He was a fighter for the path through nature, rather than the path of taking up the substances as they had been handed over to the western world through the writings of the Arabistic physicians, particularly Avicenna.
A third stream of healing, took place in the monasteries of Christendom. Here the ill were cared for. Efforts to heal illness in the name of a Spiritual Being, the Christ, was being undertaken. The great World Healer was spoken to. Priests and monks served the ill in the name of the World Healer.
A fourth stream in therapeutics was that of the saints. The saints are those who, in being sainted, had to have been able to perform the miraculous. They had to be able to heal. The healing had to be in the form of the miraculous which had to be proven.This is only one condition for being sainted. Miraculous healing was considered to be done by the spirit, as no natural means can be used to explain the healing. It is actually the saintly healer that also played a very major role in monastic life as we will see with the Issenheim Altar.
We might consider a fifth stream of therapeutician. More than likely, this stream wove into the life of the peripatetic physician, into the monastic life, and very likely into the life of the saintly healer. This stream is that of the alchemist, particularly the Rosicrucian alchemist. The Rosicrucian alchemist is the true Rosicrucian on a spiritual path. The alchemists were true to alchemy to the extent that substances transformed were given away for healing. The Rosicrucian in becoming a part of the brotherhood had to devote himself to the ignorant, the poor and the ill. This three-fold basis for the brotherhood is also the basis for true therapeutics which could underlie the life of the peripatetic physician, become a part of monastic life, and could easily also influence the saintly healers. The solitary, quiet, unknown alchemist worked as a true healer, as a true Rosicrucian, for the most part unknown to the world. Rudolf Steiner has tried to clarify this for us. I think it is important to speak of this stream at work since I am wondering if the artist of this altar-piece is not a genuine Rosicrucian . As this altar-piece was created to heal, it was created for the ignorant, the poor, and, in particular, was created for the ill.
Illness – Culture
With this background we can now progress to those who were ill at this time in middle Europe. Many souls were uneducated.
The time of great universities and public schools was not there. The first real school-university as known of today appears, as I can see, in the School of Chartres. The school there took place on two levels. The first level was of those who were, in fact, not the learned. They learned through the creation of what we have today in paintings, carvings, sculpture and stained glass windows of the Cathedral. Chartres Cathedral is exemplary in expressing this educational activity. Those who were not educated could learn in the events of the celebration of religious rites and festival activities. It is remarkable that souls could learn in the colored light of the cathedral of Chartres, as was also true of other cathedrals. Human souls could learn from the stories told in the stained glass windows of the Chartres cathedral, located almost in the middle of France.
This incredible edifice burned down six times and was reconstructed in its last form over a period of 25 years. We can stand in awe before the inner will of souls who constructed that building in the name of the spirit. This, as other mighty cathedrals arose to educate the unknowing human being. Chartres and other cathedrals stand there as expression of the extension of the spiritual into the physical world. Cathedrals stood there, stand there, to serve spiritual life.
But we can also speak of Chartres on another level. Here we have to turn to the learned, to those who strove for knowledge of the spiritual world. There we have to speak of the School of Chartres, not the cathedral church. We have “to turn away from the religious outer events. We now have to consider those of whom Rudolf Steiner has spoken again and again. Rudolf steiner has pointed to the masters of this school.
In order to understand this School of Chartres we have to look back to the School of Athens. In a way the School of Chartres was brought directly from Athens. From the School of Athens, 300-400 B.C. we have to follow a spiritual thread into the early Middle Ages, 900-1200 A.D. to Chartres. In Chartres, beginning in the 9th century and lasting for 300-400 years there unfolds an incredible schooling, a schooling for the soul. Here is to be found a schooling that tries to introduce the human being to the spiritual world, and to a relationship with nature. That which Plato and Aristotle gave in the School of Athens is brought West and placed into the middle of Europe, into the middle of France, for a new impulse in the cultural and spiritual unfolding of mankind. It is often not realized but from best as I can tell, it is this school that served as the archetype of all schools that bear the name of the schooling in the liberating, in the liberal arts. As we know, our liberal arts colleges, which for the most part furnish the schooling that comes after high school in this country, for a long time formed the foundation for higher education. Now there are many technical, administrative, political and art schools and universities. But a very major impulse in this whole country has been that of the liberal arts and liberal art schools . I believe there are 90 liberal art schools in Ohio – the state in which I grew up. If my historical perspective is correct then this impulse originated with the School of Chartres in the early Middle Ages.
We can think of the schooling of Chartres, which took up ideas and directions cultivated in Greece. The crown of Greece, which was a crown from the ancient east, was brought over to Chartres by those who taught there. We can consider a central theme in this school as taking up a path that leads to the inner being, the divine in nature. This being was called Natura. Natura had celestial planetary co-workers. These planetary beings serving Natura were known as the liberating arts. These were the seven heavenly beings of the planetary spheres. In terms of the outer manifestation of this school, we can find the liberating arts working to bring forth the cathedral . If we turn to the human soul, we find the liberating arts at work in astronomy, dialectic, rhetoric, grammar, music, arithmatics and geometry. Each of these disciplines was the garment of a planetary being.
The uneducated were served in many ways at this time by the religious life and particularly the portrayals of religious life in the carvings, sculpture, paintings and stained glass of churches and cathedrals. But another educational tool came into existence in the Middle Ages. That is the printing press. The process of printing is a fundamental impulse in the democratization of knowledge for all men. Until the era of printing, knowledge and the knowledge process was confined to the elite. The knowledge process that was cultivated in the mystery centers from ancient times in many different lands was for a highly select group of human beings. This all changed with the birth of liberal arts schooling and the invention of the printing press. The mystery school tradition actually became externalized for the first time in the School of Athens in philosophy. It reappeared nearly a thousand years later in outer art forms in the form of a schooling in the liberal arts. The art of printing also appeared to further the schooling process. However, the schooling of Chartres was seen as a spiritual process, while the invention of the printing press was seen as the work of the devil. The devil helped the living word to die into the black letters on a piece of paper. For us to have a sense for this death of the divine in the living word, is not easy to grasp today. This is difficult to comprehend. A comprehension of this death of course, can be gained by individuals really searching for the true visual cognitive process and the process of creation. Some try to comprehend the black script, the visual process, and the process of grasping ideas. One can with a little effort notice that one stands before an incredible mystery when printing, reading and comprehension is considered, contemplated. The neuro-ocular physiologist is concerned about the eye. The printer is concerned with the spewing out of paper blackened with scribbles. The psychologist today works with the neuro-endocrine-visual-physiological process of the human being.
The analytic psychologist has almost no concern for such matters. Thus for us to really live into this question of perception and cognition in relation to the printed word can become a whole new task to be taken into life. Those concerned with spiritual science can have the great fortune to discover that Rudolf Steiner has said a great deal about this process. It is an absolutely incredible mystery. Rudolf Steiner wrestled with this mystery and has shared much.
So we have spoken to the uneducated populace of the Middle Ages and the birth of the liberal arts, as well as education through art. Added to this appears the printed word. A next important aspect of the Middle Ages is the gradual revolt of the populace. There was the revolt to the domination, the dictatorship, of the catholic Church with its Pope. The Pope by that time had been proclaimed infallible. Many wanted to begin their own search for the spiritual out of a sense of freedom. There followed the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther. More and more did not want the hierarchy of the Church.The Reformation seeded the overthrow in the papal church hierarchy. It, however, lost a true sense for the hierarchical-spiritual-world. On the other hand the hierarchical spiritual was sought within the esoteric Christian stream, in a very quiet and unobtrusive fashion. Thus at this time the educational impulse gave rise to an overthrow of the authoritarian church and a quiet striving for a deeper Christianity.
A final aspect of life at that time, is that of economics. At that time there was much change from barter to the flow of monies. Around this evolution in economics was a transition from the feudal-serf, lord-serf to that of city life with entirely new human relationships . Cities were underway during this period. The ruling lord, the semi-enslaved serf, the old king-priest-slave society crumbled. New groupings of human beings unfolded with new living styles, new economic processes and new products of culture. The emerging emancipated human being began to appear with the cities of middle Europe. There arose a tremendous inner desire to cast off the shackles of slavery and serfdom and come to freedom. So this is also the time of revolt with the search for the free human being, a new life style and a new economic life. Freedom, human rights and economic process all began an intense evolutionary process with the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.
Let us spend a few moments looking at the soul life of that time. We have to deal with fading clairvoyance. There was a search for a beingness in nature. There was an imposed Christianity dictated by the Catholic Church. The old culture of middle Europe, not well developed, was giving way to an unfolding materialism. Science, born of ancient spiritual science was becoming material science. Slowly the first birthing of a modern science became penetrated by the Arabistic materialism which flowed into Europe from the Middle East through Africa and Spain. The Catholic Church and the Rosicrucian esoteric Christian strivers tried to meet this onslaught. However, through the work of Francis Bacon, materialistic science took hold. The Arabistic materialistic view, born in the brilliant school of Gondhishapur, in the 3rd to 6th century, became entrenched in middle Europe by Bacon’s (and Comenius’) deeds. The spiritual impulses of Plato and Aristotle that had been taken up in Gondhishapur were materialized there and brought to Europe. This helped create a basis for material science. As we noted, the spiritual impulses of Plato and Aristotle were taken up by the School of Chartres.
We have to consider that already a great activity of culture and civilization activity in the material world had taken place in the Middle East and Far East for centuries. Particularly the old Egyptian mysteries which from 3000 B.C. can be seen as concerned with what was happening here on the earth. We can find an even earlier earth concern around 6000 B .C., in the Green crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates valley in Persia. There began the effort to help man learn to work with the earth. The view of the earth was spiritual at that time, but the direction of human activity was earth-directed. Agri-culture was born.
Illness – History – Ergotism
From spiritual science we are told of very significant cultural activity in Sumeria (3000 B .C.) in the region of Uruk. Here quite new directions for culture were germinated. In the legend of Gilgamesh and Eabani we are informed of this. Here earth concerns were taken up and as well, for the first time, the experience of death. Clairvoyance was lost to be replace by a new method of initiation. This method had to do with the overcoming of death through knowing, a path of knowledge. While the earth as cultural concern (agriculture) was evolving in the Middle East, here in Uruk the germ of a knowledge-seeking culture was being sown.
So we have gone backward in history to find our bearings in relation to basic human tendencies in culture (6000 B.C.). The cultivation of the earth is a very old culture. In Uruk the impulse to overcome the pure earthly can be found, as well as what can be found in the culture of the Nile (3000 B.C.). If we look to 300 B.C., to Greece, we can find a further evolution of the Sumerian impulse. There philosophy, as a path, was furthered in the School of Athens (a school of knowing). The content of this school flowed over to Gondhishapur 300 A.D . and there became materialized. Another aspect of this same school moved west to Chartres in 800 A.D. to renew the spiritual in relation to esoteric Christianity. As we turn to Middle Europe in the early Christian centuries we can find foods brought from the Green-fertile crescent, Sumeria-Assyria.Rye was brought to Europe from Assyria – as well as materialistic knowledge . From a modern pharmacology text (13th Edition of Goodman and Gilman) we can find a record of a black infestation of rye in the area of Assyria. Here in the Middle East, rye became infected by a fungus turning the grain black-blue. Goodman and Gilman quote from an old Assyrian text to this effect. The textbook of pharmacology quotes from one of the sacred books of the Parsees. The quote is “Among the evil things created by Angromaynes are noxious grasses which cause pregnant women to drop the womb and die in childbirth.” It was noted that the rye produced a black malodorous product. It was also said that the Greeks and Macedonians would not eat this blackened rye. This black rye substance appears later in Middle Europe. Infected grain was shipped to Europe and grown there. This rye was made into flour for bread. This was consumed by man. The poisonous bread gave rise to the illness called St. Anthony’s fire or ergotism, as we know it today.
Thus we can follow a physical substance from the Middle East. We can follow it into Europe . The origin of the substance in Assyria is recorded about 600 B.C. Its working in Europe becomes apparent in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. We can further trace the 300 B.C. impulse of Athens into the Middle East where it is transformed 300 A.D. to become a materialistic teaching.This teaching was spread through Arabia, through Africa to Spain, and into middle Europe . The author of the substance and the teaching, we call Ahriman-Angromaynus.
Let us look at this black seed. The seed results from an infestation of the rye plant, Seculae Cereale. It is infected by the fungus Clavicips Purpurea. This fungus produces a spur formation on the grain of rye. The outer coat of the kernel becomes hardened. The inner core is replaced by the mycelia of the fungus. This results in the blackening of the kernel. In France the grain is called a cock spur and the black substance, French Argot. It has been found that this black substance is an alkaloid, a poison. It is described as being composed of an oily substance, carnutine, a glusoside, ergotenic acid, trimethylemine and sphacelinic acid.
Thus we see a substance introduced into Middle Europe which has its origin in the Middle East. In Europe the substance produced a plague. The plague was called St.Anthony’s Fire. This plague existed along with other infectious illnesses, leprosy, syphilis, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and erysipilas. I wonder if we can consider these illnesses to have come down to us in the homeopathic consideration of psora (skin and nerve sense disorder), psychosis (inner organ and rhythmic system disorders), and syphilis (endocrine-reproductory metabolic disorders). All three disorders were a part of St. Anthony’s Fire. The gangrene of St.Anthony’s Fire or ergotism I would connect with limb disorder, the limb of the metabolic system. Thus the spurred rye gave rise to incredible illness and suffering. Today we know this illness as ergotism, although then I sense it was a part of a whole trend of infectious illnesses.
So we have traced the origin of ergotism back to the culture in Arabia and Assyria, to at least 600 B.C. This was also the time when in the East another spiritual impulse was arising. This was the impulse of Buddha, which is Luciferically inclined. Here man was being led out of the physical world. This stands in contrast with what we have just been considering, where a substance-and-idea content can lead man into the material world – into the subnature world of Ahriman. A thousand or more years lie between an original impulse in the Middle East and an illness appearance. Here there is distance in time. In the place of origin (Assyria), and the place of illness (Middle Europe) there is about the same distance in space .
Let us now turn to contemplate St. Anthony’s fire more fully. and look at this illness from four different aspects. First, the illness problems with the skin; here we find bleeding, ulcer formation, swellings and excoriations. I wonder if we can consider this as a basis for psora which was then described by Hahnemman .
Second, souls also suffered from inner organ dysfunctions. This gave rise to psychotic behavior. We can think on the descriptions of psychosis by Samuel Hahnemann . Third, the endocrine organs were affected as we know so well, in relation to the reproductory process. Those who have used ergotrate know the effect on the reproductory system either at birth, at parturition or in producing an abortion.
Here the syphilis of Hahnemann can be cnsidered. Fourth and finally, we know of the gangrene produced by the effect of ergot on the extremities. Thus in the case of this illness we can speak of psora, psychosis, syphilis, and gangrene . It is an illness that is produced by the black, purple spurred grain of rye.We might contemplate a spiritual being such as Ahriman at work in the four-fold aspect of this illness.
The Medieval Of Our Day
At this time in history, with mighty changes occurring in middle Europe, we can contemplate the surfacing of this illness St. Anthony’s fire. This illness came to be served by a group of individuals, monks who were called the Antonites. Of interest is that the Antonite impulse also comes from the mid-east, from Egypt . From St.Anthony of the desert came the impulse for caretakers who would take on the care and healing of those stricken by ergotism. The caretakers had to take on human beings covered with sores, aged in body, wasted to skeleton, rotting in limb, or tormented by hypertrophied soul conditions, and hallucinations. This illness as well as the ill had to be served. The tending was taken up by the Anthonites in the 13th to 17th century. The altar-piece which we are to consider was created to help those who sought to help the human beings plagued with this illness as well as the dying.
If we now try to carry over to our modern day, we might ask what has happened to the Middle Ages. There have been some very dramatic changes. However, I would like to suggest that there is actually a direct carry over, I call it the medieval (residual) hangover. This hangover is where the problem of lords and serfs, the problem of the Reformation, the problem of freedom has not been worked through . The liberation from serfdom, the overlording, the reformation seems to appear again and again in the many movements of our day.Woman’s lib, the liberation of the husband, the liberation of the wife, the liberation of the child, the endless fight for liberation is inflaming the entire world. The struggle between authority and liberation still is continually spoken to. The true domain of freedom is difficult to find. The becoming liberated by one human being fighting the other, the one claiming the other to be lord and the individual seeking liberation speaking out of serfdom, surrounds us on all sides today. My sense is that this surfaces particularly intensely with those who seek some kind of spiritual life.When spiritual strivers meet, then the medieval struggles become alive . At such times there can appear conflict which seems a reflection of the struggle between lord and serf. This can appear in conversations, in intimate conversations that try to be held among spiritual strivers. It seems to me that the lord-serf problem surfaces again and again where human beings come together in order to be able to go a little deeper in spiritual life. There then appears the revolt to authority or the troubling submission to authority. What lived then may appear now as a deep inner experience of those souls who have lived in the Middle Ages. This can appear as a carry-over from the Middle Ages – Medieval times.
Thus I am suggesting that we carry over in particular the lord-serf experience. Submission to authority is all too prevalent. The Reformation process, the deep struggle to overcome enslavement, the becoming independent of institutions, the seeking of outer freedom can be seen on all sides.The domination of one human being over the other, whether it is there or not, is easily recreated in modern times. The Middle Ages seem to lie deep in the human soul. Where to find freedom was one of the first tasks undertaken by Rudolf Steiner in his epistemological works. His life task was to help mankind overcome the usual form of authority.
Today, while this struggle for freedom occurs, we can note a continual effort to institutionalize our religious life. our religious life is institutionalized in churches, in cathedrals, in revivals . The religious life has extended itself, and our institutional entertainment can be seen as an extension of this tendency. On the other hand, we also have the institutionalization of education . The person who needs to come to self-education, to come to his own individual path, is almost unseen or unheard of today. Garments from educational institutions seem totally dominant. The human being today is made to feel that he is not “up to snuff ” without a few degrees. our search for knowledge has been institutionalized. To become a searcher or researcher outside the sacrosanct sanctuaries of academia and research institutes, particularly government institutes, is very difficult. Rebellion or authoritarian submission lies deep in the soul in our time currently there is a tremendous struggle being waged to find a place for the unconventional, the new – the activity of the truly independent creative human being. In the case of illness, there is an institutional process that is active with great force. Lords in academia, research and therapeutics spring up on all sides. Our institutionalization of science today results in an amazing technology.The search for truth is transformed into technical accomplishment. In the process the soul is lost. The church and papal order of the medieval times has carried over into the core of present day cultural-spiritual institutions. Our concern for the Middle Ages is justified in the light of present day occurrences.
The materialism that was beginning to unfold in the Middle Ages, the direct carry over from the Middle East has made further strides in our times.We have developed amazing knowledge of the material world. Or more correctly said, we have come to manipulating the material of existence, without being aware of what that materiality is in reality.
The early efforts in printing – the reproducing in substance of what lives in the human spirit has accelerated. Printing has gone from a mechanical press to computer printers, laser printers.All this has evolved as a technological wonder in order that the human spirit can be incarcerated into substance. Now it is not the material substance that is used for printing but materialized light.
What has not been carried over from that time is alchemy .We have chemistry but not alchemy . The true alchemy, the transformations of substance for the well being of the human spirit and the unfolding of the human spirit in the process of substance transformation – this we do not know. This has been lost to mankind. The need for a real spiritual-soul chemistry has been lacking. It is just this quest that is now the challenge. Here we have to seek in a new way, just as with freedom and self-education.What we have lost is the alchemy, the Rosicrucian alchemy. With this the healer is on the verge of being totally lost as well. It is in our Anthroposophical spiritual striving that we have to recover something that has almost disappeared from existence – the unfolding of soul with substance transformation for the sake of our ill fellow human being.
What we have accomplished in chemistry in our time is quite amazing. It is a totally materialistic science but it has revealed the tetracyclic configuration of the alkaloid of ergot .We have found that there are levo-rotary aminated tetracyclic compounds (LSD).We have found other non-levo-rotary compounds and tetracyclic compounds. One of the latter compounds we know as ergotrol. Conjugated tetracyclic compounds we identify today as cholesterol. Esterified tetracyclic substances we call progesterone, testosterone, and the like. Thus when we speak of an illness today, we can identify the cause chemically-substantialy. In the case of St.Anthony’s Fire, we have identified the ergot substance produced by the infected rye as the cause of illness – ergotral . In this way we can consider chemically what has come over from over 2000 years of cultural evolution as the cause of illness. We in our day do not identify Ahriman as the creator of this poison, we describe the substance Ahrimanically. Our concern for chemistry permits us to now look back through history while contemplating substance and its origin, both chemically and atomistically. If we look back two thousand years contemplating ergot, we can come to our day to consider the problems with LSD, cholesterol, estrogens, progesterone, testosterone, and the like. Through chemistry we have a biographical thread of an evolving illness over a long period of time.
Thus we can follow the circumstances of the Middle ages into our day. The real Rosicrucian, the alchemist, has been lost; printing has been captured with amazing technical equipment (light), our populace has become educated in totally materialistic terms and institutionally. Democracy and freedom is the word of our day. The struggle and fights between human beings in social circumstances is in the forefront.We are today suffering from degenerative illness, just the opposite of the inflammatory illness of that time. St. Anthony’s Fire may be a transition from inflammatory illness to degenerative illness (gangrene). I have suggested that we are further suffering from an illness that we do not identify. I call it hangover illness. This is what is brought over from medieval times, but we are not conscious of it. This would have to be addressed by considering reincarnation and karma, karmic illness.
Illness – Four Types
For a moment let us turn to illness in our day. We can begin with four major types. I will try to suggest that we look at the Issenheim Altar with these four major types in mind. The first group of illnesses let us call psycho-spiritual illnesses. These can also be termed psychiatric-psychotic illnesses. They are illnesses that are connected with the soul-spirit embedded in the organism. A second group of illnesses are psycho-social illnesses. These are illnesses which come into consideration when illness affects behavior and the social circumstances. Behavioral (moral) disorders is another view of the same. The third major group we can denote as inflammatory illnesses.The fourth group we call sclerotic, degenerative or cancerous types of illness. This is a very broad grouping, four-folding of illness. We can compare this with the four-folding I pointed to earlier, that is psora, psychosis, syphilis, and gangrene. With this grouping we can turn to the altar-piece which permits us to carry a present four-fold grouping back into those times.
The thesis I wish to put forward is that the Issenheim Altar is an artistic creation to assist in the healing of illnesses, the four group types present at that time. At the same time I would look to the artist Rudolf Steiner, who helped to create the Group with the Representative of Man as a kind of guide, as a kind of an altar-piece in our quest today for therapies for four large groupings of illness of which we will meet as we progress with the older altar-piece.
So far we have placed the altar-piece of Mattias Grunewald into the late Middle Ages. We sought a perspective of the general social conditions of illness and of healing. The altar-piece was created for religious life, as well as to help with illness. The illnesses were four-folded – psora (skin), psychosis (organ), syphilis (gland) [from Hahnemann] , and gangrene, (limb). Leprosy, psychosis, syphilis, (measles, mumps, chicken pox, erysipelas), and ergotism or the plague have been some of the specific illnesses I have found in medical history. This approach to the Isenheim Altar is taken as a step on the way to the group carved by Rudolf Steiner, Edith Maryon, and those around them. The Group, the Representative of Man, Rudolf Steiner has indicated is a cover, a veil, that we can penetrate to look at illnesses in a new way. In this way we can come to the Representative of Man as healer of illnesses.
There are four possible archetypes in the Group. These are expressed by the falling and the rising Lucifer. Two more are depicted by the fallen and rising Ahriman. The task becomes a way for those interested in illness and healing to find a relation between these four carved figures and the four major groups of illness, psycho-spiritual, psycho-social, inflammatory, and degenerative-sclerotic. We will use the Isenheim Altar to help us. In both cases art is the basis for approaching illness. With the altar-piece we are directed to sacramental religious life. This altar-piece was used in religious cultic service.
From Rudolf Steiner we have the indication that the Group can also be used as a back drop for a new mystery to be enacted at Easter time . Here we approach illness via the path of a spiritual science. It is a mystery drama that should help us with illness and healing. The mystery of illness, its healing, the relationship with Raphael and Michael as they work and weave, and live in the breathing system of man, is to be addressed in this mystery drama. The drama has yet to be written – it needs to be written and enacted.
The Altar Location
Now let us turn to the location where this altar-piece was first constructed, created, and then placed. Isenheim was a small village of the 15th-16th century. There stood a monastery that contained a chapel. The monastery was set up to care for the ill. The services in the chapel were performed in front of this altar-piece in order to help those who were ill, dying, and were seeking to be healed. Isenheim, as best as I can tell, is now a portion of Colmar. Colmar is in Alsace Lorraine, the southeastern corner of France. The whole region is influenced very much by the nearby Vogues Mountains. Colmar is a short distance north of Basel from whence I have traveled to visit this altar-piece. Of course, near Basel is Dornach.There in Dornach, in the Goetheanum, stands the huge carving thirty feet tall which we call, “The Group – with Representative Man”.
Isenheim is said to have been on the main thoroughfare from Rome to Paris, a significant route connected with religion and learning. As far as we know, the work in Isenheim on the monastery began somewhere around 900 to 1000 A .D. It gradually grew and remained active into the period we are considering, that is, the 15th to the 16th century.
The Altar – Creation
Now let us turn to the creators of this altar-piece.We have to first consider the artist Hagenauer. He was commissioned between 1460 and 1490 to carve the inmost section. This is the section where we find St. Augustine and St. Jerome flanking St. Anthony. St. Anthony is enthroned in the middle. The carved predella below depicts the Last Supper. This carving was commissioned by Johan d’Orliaco.
In 1508 to 1516 an individual by the name of Matthias Grunewald was commissioned to paint the remainder of the altar-piece. He painted two wings for the original carving, and added a center section and finally a front piece. Thus the altar-piece is comprised of three sections – three layers, three planes.
Grunewald was known as Mattias Gothardt Nithart, we might say, Matthew of God’s Heart. Much effort has been expended to try to gather who this individual is. Nothing substantial has come forth . My contemplations run something as follows: first, we find that he is a master, he is a master at painting; he made fountains, and he created a few other paintings. As a real unknown he would qualify for the Rosicrucian stream. He worked as a healer. Though not a physician, his work has to stand as a healing impulse in mankind. Today we hear that this is almost the most frequented piece of art in the world. Matthias not only worked as a healer but he also worked as an educator . We have to consider the uneducatedness of the human beings at the time and that this altar-piece could serve for an education. This is education in the deepest sense. Healing and education flow together here.
Finally, we have to also think that many who were cared for here were the poor. The working as an unknown, as a healer, as an educator for the poor, fits the criteria for the fraternity of the Rosicrucians. It is my suspicion that he belonged to this stream working into the usual exoteric religious stream of that time. Thus, we can think of Grunewald as a possible representative of the working of the esoteric Christian stream, working within exoteric Christianity. We might consider him as a Rosicrucian and a major contributor to the cultural evolution in our time. It is wonderful to consider that human beings at that time could have worked in such a quiet way. Today the fruits, benefits of this unknown individuality now stand forth in the Western world as a major creation for therapeutics, a creation expressing the deepest in art, the deepest in spiritual-religious life.
This altar-piece now stands in the museum of Unterlinden, in Colmar. The museum was originally a monastery. The largest room is now very much devoted to this altar-piece. The altar-piece is not enshrined in a practicing religious edifice. It could be considered a pity that it does not serve the real function for which it was created.
If we have grasped the time in which this work of art was created, the place, and the authors of its creation, we would next have to turn the major theme of the altar-piece itself. The theme is the being of Anthony. He forms the major theme and in order to grasp this major theme I believe we have to consider the three historic Anthonys, not just one. I believe that all three Anthonys can very well be depicted in the altar-piece. The three Anthonys can be found in history. We need this background in order to comprehend what is a thematic element in this piece.
The Four Anthony’s
Let us first turn to an Anthony who lived in the 4th century, an Egyptian. He was an ascetic. He went into the desert to become a hermit. He, in a way, was one of the first hermits in our western religious evolution. In the East, we know of those who withdrew into contemplative life. In the West, however, this was not extensive and in a way, only began in relationship to Christianity at about the 3rd or 4th century of Christendom. Thus this Anthony of the desert is representative of the first ascetic, hermetic tendency in Christendom. Important in relation to the life of this Anthony of the desert, is that when he was 80 years of age he went into the desert to meet a kindred spirit. This spirit was the hermit Paul, who lived in silence in the desert. It was said that he was miraculously fed by the animals and cared for by the animals . As it were, he had tamed his animal, he had come to a certain inner purity. At 80 years of age our ascetic Anthony came to Paul, and there in their meetings it is recounted that many miracles took place . It is told that the birds brought food to these two. Manas, the spiritual sustenance of man, was brought to these two as a miraculous event. It is stated that Paul still lived from 90 years of age for another 28 years. He died at 118 years of age. The hermit Paul, though older than St. Anthony, was more youthful. I take it that Anthony died at 90 years of age. The hermit Paul as just noted at 118. This gives a background to the ascetic-esoteric life, the mystical-ascetic life that unfolded with this individual . This is carried over as an impulse into Christendom. This form of asceticism was taken up in the monastic movement of the outer Catholic Church. This hermetic life thereby, forms a bit of an inner, more inward esoteric path within the outer church movement.
I would then turn to the second Anthony, the Anthony of Padua . He lived in the 12th and 13th century. He first turned to Augustinian principles and then became a Franciscan. He was a person who could be a very fiery speaker . He became a rhetorician for the Church. He traveled extensively converting individuals to Christianity. It is said that he very likely had had contact with St. Francis. It is told that people by the thousands came to hear him. Again, as with St. Francis, the animals listened to him. Something of the fire of the spirit, the rhetorician of fire and spirit, lived in him. The fire of the future lived in and was expressed by this St. Anthony of Padua. This is a very different Anthony impulse than the one who forms a hermetic ascetic stream within the outer Church. This individual, with such fire, goes into the world to bring others to a world-wide Church movement. He converts human beings to be members of the Christian community of our earth.
We also know of a third Anthony, an Anthony of Florence. He lived in the 13th century. It is told that he had an immense capacity for true judgment.He was not an ascetic he was not a rhetorician, but had immense capacities to judge. One can say the forces of the heart to manage what was right, lived intensely in his soul. He was made judge for the town of Florence, which I gather at that time was very much dominated by the Catholic Church. He became the judge not only by the laity but he was known as an intensely able and fair individual to whom the Pope turned for judgment. From him the laity learned a heart judging quality within the evolving outer Catholic Church which was becoming so dominated by purely political impulses.
Thus we have three Anthonys which give a background for this altar-piece. We have an Anthony who is contemplative, is filled with feeling and fire, a rhetorician, and we have an Anthony who is a judge. In the judge we have somebody who is able to bring over something from another domain, from another world. From another world a correct perspective can be gained on the happenings in the natural world. We have Anthony the judge.
If we want to contemplate the altar-piece as a whole, we have to consider even a fourth Anthony. That is the Anthony of this altar-piece. He is an Anthony who carries the other three in his soul but in addition has to live and work in the world so that he becomes subject to those forces and beings who form the social conditions, who form the outer church, and also work to bring forth the illness of St Anthony’s fire or ergotism. As already hinted, we can here strive to find four archetypal illnesses in the altar-piece. The fourth Anthony is the Anthony who has to be tempted by and struggle with the devil. The spiritual path of this fourth St. Anthony requires the three other Anthonys. The struggle of this fourth thematic Anthony is the struggle of he who takes an intellectual path, to create an institutional life to serve the Church, the poor, the ignorant, and the ill. This is a pedantic-semi-earth bound Anthony. We have to consider his struggle with the devil, with Ahriman. This Anthony we find on the right wing of the first panel, first plane. It is he who meets the illnesses on a path .
For a moment let us look at the original carving of the altar-piece. Here we find Anthony the judge. We can see that this judge, Anthony, is placed in the context of the church. The original carver related this Anthony to the church by placing Anthony between St. Augustine on the left and St. Jerome on the right. If we consider St. Jerome we find that this is an individual who became involved in the ascetic movement in Church Christianity. He did not become concerned with outer forms. He became monastically inclined. He eventually went to Jerusalem, founded a small convent-like community and was surrounded by several women. He espoused chastity and asceticism-temperance. It was this St. Jerome who in the 4th century translated the Bible from Aramaic to the Vulgate version in Latin. Thus, it is this Anthony that reaches back into the living word which was given to man in written form, that is, the Bible .
The other figure, on the left of St. Anthony is St. Augustine. He is not a translator of the word. St. Augustine becomes a writer. He gave the written foundations for the evolution of the Catholic Church, the Church of Rome. What he set forth as a means of social community life together, what he gave forth as a basis for unfolding of a church became adapted by the later unfolding Roman Catholic institution. He wrote was in the 4th century. He is a “church father” as is the case with Jerome. As we know, Augustine first joined the Manichean stream. His father was a pagan heathen, his mother a Christian. As a boy he was exposed to the Manichean dualism. Through his mother he was converted. In his thirties he finally had many experiences, and was then baptized to become a worker for the unfolding of the Christian impulse. This Christian impulse came to manifestation in the outer Catholic Church. Thus in Jerome we have the translator of the written word as found in the Bible. In Augustine we have the writer of the word that becomes the basis for the unfolding of the outer church. My sense is that the Anthony that we have to follow in this altar-piece has to heal the impulses brought by the written form of the original word, and to heal the impulse that arose out of the writing of Augustine who then gave the basis for the lawful unfolding of a Church in relation to a religious impulse. Both the translated word and the newly created word need healing. Only the inner unspoken word and the spoken word have life. This is a fifth illness and a fifth healing. To bring to life the dead word, I sense this is an aspect of this altar-piece. I wonder if it has been considered in this way. Many writers and commentators are astonished and question how this altar-piece fits into the usual course of the unfolding of Christendom, particularly the Christendom of the outer church. As we have already indicated, there is as a part of the church with a more inward quality that is connected with the monastic movement. This is more connected with the individual relationship of the spiritual striver with the Being of Christ. The outer Church becomes lawful, becomes a significant world ruler. This needs healing through the spirit, the spiritual striving soul. This has to be healed by a real spirituality. Here an institution needs healing and much was in the air at the time of Anthony of Florence to speak to needed changes.
Thus, in summing it up, we can speak of an altar-piece that has embedded in it three Anthonys. We can conceive of a fourth who has to wend his way through an entire unfolding of this altar-piece to heal the ignorant, to heal the poor, to heal the ill, and also to heal the religious life that was unfolding in two ways, the outer church and the monastic-hermetic life. It seems to me that what we find in this altar-piece is an amazing attempt to speak to healing. A great artist is at work here. I am tempted to think that a hidden initiate tried to be helpful to further the evolution of human culture of the western world. It would seem to me to be a plausible consideration that this Matthias strove for a true impulse in esoteric Christianity. This speaks to the unfolding individual, to healing illness as well as to bringing forth a new social order and to the possibility of treading a path of initiation. Thus, an assumption that I am making is that we are here able to follow an initiation process and in doing so we can gather some very interesting insights into this artistic creation.
Altar – Present Location
This altar piece stands in a large room in the Unterlinden Museum, in Colmar, Alsace Lorraine, France. As noted before the museum was in fact a monastery in the Middle Ages, not the monastery of the Isenheim. Since I have visited this piece now five times, I had the occasion to contemplate it through the progress of life but also to note the change in the whole color of this art piece. I am not so sure that the colors are not slightly fading. This may have to do with the condition of our air. The other point that I would make is that it is a bit painful to see this dismembered altar-piece which is now on exhibition for the public. Millions stream through to look at this altar-piece. There is no question that the altar-piece has an immense dynamic. Therefore many stream towards it but one wonders what happens to the piece itself since it is not really performing what it was created to perform. It was created to be a backdrop for the religious acts of those who seek a deeper spiritual life, who are ill and seek healing. Anyone can look at it. The mood of irreverence, the uncomprehending eyes, the undevoted crowd can easily be found. The flash of cameras is no longer permitted. The humidity and the air flow is carefully controlled. But the service to the divine, for which it was created, is missing .
The art piece has been disassembled. It is presented to the viewer in a dismembered form. Basically, one would have to say that it was made to exist in three fields, in three panels. Thus, one has to view what is present currently, but at the same time reassemble the edifice in one ‘s soul because of the way that it is now exhibited .
On a number of other occasions I have spoken about this altar-piece, often taking up the magnificence of the color and the language of color. However, this time I would like to approach this art piece more from the aspect of initiation. The role of the word, gesture, speech, and human relationships will be spoken to or at least attempted.
The First Panel
If we enter the museum and walk to the entrance of the large room, we immediately meet with an overwhelming impression, the Crucifixion stands before us, entering deeply into the soul. The figure of the crucified Being, the Christ Jesus, can strike us. The almost greenish, semi-decayed, configured but mobile gesturing Crucified One, with blood streaming from the body, is an almost shocking awakening. It is particularly impressive since the size of the figure is human . Many figures in the altar-piece are actually human in size.
Once our gaze has been focused on the figure hanging on the Cross, we can quickly descend to the predella below where we see the entombment of the body of Jesus, of Christ.Very quickly we can experience a reversal while contemplating the predella. The predella is so configured that we are directed to rise to the scene of the crucifixion. Descent and ascent are enacted by the contemplative soul. Though the figure of the Crucified One is extremely heavy there is in the outstretched arms and the hands gesturing upward an element of lightness. The entwining legs and the hanging head, and the chest, all depict gestures which give a play between lightness and weight. The soul moves down and up, lives in weight and lightness. The central figure of the Crucified One seems balanced. There are three figures on the left and the single human figure with the lamb on the right but there is balance. Immediately, one notices that with the cross there is a tendency not only of balancing the above and below, weight and lightness, but there is also a balancing from right to left. There is a balance of fore and aft as well .By standing in front and noticing that there is immense depth to the painting, one can gaze into waters, the living waters behind the Crucified One. What is in front, we ourselves can meet with a depth that comes towards us. All is in movement, but brought into balance as well. The soul, through art, is addressed in height, depth, breadth, and balancing.
The sense of balance is further accentuated by two figures, on the two wings, one on the left wing and one on the right wing. The one on the left is St. Sebastian, the one on the right is St.Anthony. Often these two figures are considered as ancillary to the major theme of the altar-piece. From my way of looking at this work of art, I would like to suggest that these two figures, St. Sebastian and St. Anthony are, in fact, very crucial and significant to comprehending this altar-piece as an altar-piece depicting a Christian initiation process. Once we are in movement, in light and weight darkness, and then come to balance, we can come to stand between these two souls: St. Sebastian and St. Anthony.
To carry out my thesis I would like to suggest that we first turn to St. Sebastian on the left. He is known as one of the first Christian martyrs. He was martyred in Rome in the fourth century. He served as a guard in the army of the emperor Diocletian. It is told that he was discovered to be a Christian. Therefore he was martyred by being cudgeled, stoned, and shot through with arrows. He was saved from this death by careful nursing. Sebastian stands on a pedestal with the pillar behind him. In the left upper corner we see angels bringing a golden crown. An ethereal mobile, airy-filled reddish robe covers Sebastian’s naked body. His gesture is one of expectance, anticipation, awaiting the pains that are part of the ascetic-mystic process of the early Christian. His hands are clasped in a most inward fashion. Devotion is expressed in his hand gesture. Even though he is being pierced by arrows he can continue his path and he is totally exposed in his devotion – covered only by a transparent veil. The scene is peaceful but at the same time filled with light -beatific activity. This is a picture of ecstasy.
The configuration of this scene seems to point out some further areas of consideration. First, if we look at the pedestal upon which Sebastian is standing it can be noted to be square, but also star-form. He is standing on a star which is supported by plant configuration. The plant almost seems to follow up the pillar behind Sebastian. It is as if he is in the living plant-ether world, drawn by the stars. We could say he is supported by the pedestal but there is quite an elevating-levitational quality to the whole scene. A rising-elevating-levitation etheric element is being addressed here. The light on the pillar suggests further that Sebastian is entering the domain of light-ether unfolding. This is particularly so if one compares the black pillar that stands in the opposite wing.
Let us look at the arrows that have pierced this individual’s body and carefully look at the wounds. We notice that the blood has surfaced. A bluishness surfaces, the red seems to be turned inward. I would like to suggest that this is a rather direct expression of the beingness of the mystic who drives the blood inward. I would like to suggest that the blood is driven into the inner organs where light ether is met and that here we see a tendency to drive the blood into the body, into the inner organs producing the expression we see in the eyes of this individual. He appears inward, gazing inward. He does not appear to be looking outward into the world. This driving the blood inward, gazing inward, as if contemplating the inner organs of man could be considered to be the path of the Luciferic Christian. This is a picture of early Christendom where Christianity is fraught with a Luciferic impulse .
Martyrdom, asceticism, and mysticism, are a significant expression of this Luciferic trend. The angels carrying the heavenly crown direct our contemplation to the heavenly inner domain of the mystic as he encounters the inner organic light-filled configuration of man.
Sebastian takes hold of the blood, drives it inward as a Christian. He takes hold of the blood in a way as a being filled by the Christ. It is the Christ who comes to transform the nature of our blood. He comes to transform our blood so that we no longer have to meet as blood-brothers but as brothers of the spirit. Here spiritual brotherhood is addressed although Luciferic in its attainment. I would like to suggest this is a picture of a Luciferic path. Lucifer here is at work on our left, living in the soul, in the martyrdom of this first Christian mystic.
It is told of St. Sebastian that when he recovered after he had been cudgeled, stoned, and shot with arrows, he then returned to the emperor to confront Diocletian directly. He chastised Diocletian for not becoming a Christian. Because of this he was totally stoned to death and dumped in a sewer. Sebastian seems to have a very interesting disregard for life. Looking to the other world, Sebastian is typical of the Luciferic impulse. We can gaze directly into the soul of this first Christian mystic, martyr, who was then entombed in the Catacombs. It is said that he was dragged out of the sewer in order to be entombed. The picture of Sebastian is a pictorial representation of the path of the individual who totally disregards life, befalls hardship, is very willing to give over his body to the nether world, as it were, so long as the soul can enter into the spiritual to unite with the Christ. Again, a Luciferic trend is depicted.
Now let us look to the panel on the right. Here we meet St. Anthony. He is a robust, comfortable looking individual. Robed in a heavy red with blue, he is holding the robe with his right hand. With his left hand he holds a staff, the staff of life. He takes hold of darkness and heaviness; weight is impressed. The dark pillar reminds one very much of the darkened earth element. The light of the left wing turns to the darkness of the right wing. The staff in the left hand becomes a life-chemical-ether element. This individual, Anthony, takes hold of the life element in the world. This is far from an ascetic soul. His soul is directed into the world. His gaze meets us directly. His head is not open to the heavens. His head is hooded, he is all hooded in red, he is a thinker–”cognizer”. He stands on a square platform. The light element, so evident in the left panel here, has fallen away. In the pedestal it is as if the plant element is falling into the earth. The life ether element of the left becomes tone ether or the chemical ether element of the right, where earthiness prevails. The earth element is entered. Weightiness stands before us. The picture here is of a weighty directing soul, taking hold of life, particularly of the physical world. The expression is not of a mystic, ascetic, visionary but rather of a heavy-handed pedant. Pedantry can be read in the whole makeup of this picture. The ecstatic mystic, the visionary Sebastian on the left gives way to the earthly, concrete pedant-directing Anthony.
If we let our eye follow the staff of life in Anthony’s hand, we do not rise to heaven, but we rise to a rather ghastly demonic form. It is not Satan-Lucifer, but it is devil-Ahriman . He sits in this window. This is a snorting, hammering, Ahriman. He becomes evident in the right upper corner looking through the glass brought to our soul by Anthony of the firm heavy hand. The glass at that time was most likely mica. Mica is in fact a silicious substance which has fallen into the earth. It is like a leaf element that has been made into silica and drawn into the earth. Sub-earthly forces live in mica, laminate silica. Here Ahriman, the devil himself, breathes as man gazes into this world through the glassy eye of mica, mica-silica. The light-ether has fallen. It is fixed in weight, in fixed forms in the earth. The soul heavy-handed, directive, pedantic, and earth-bound looks with the help of mica – Ahriman’s domain. The eye of silica-quartz has fallen into the domain of the sub-earthly forces of Ahriman to become an eye of mica. It is this individual that we will follow through the initiation process.
The path depicted in this altar-piece is the path of Anthony who has to struggle with Ahriman in order to overcome that which is pedantic, which is darkness, and which is sub-earthly. St. Anthony of this wing leads us to the pedantry and illnesses of Ahriman. The whole of the altar-piece can be contemplated as the struggle of Anthony with Ahriman as Christ comes to work as a Healer. The wishful, visionary, ascetic mystical life of a Sebastian is not the path to be followed in this altar-piece.
Thus, if we now compare the right and left wing we can speak of representations that point to Lucifer and representations that point to Ahriman . The hanging body on the Cross, although heavy and dead, even suggesting decay, still expresses a kind of a life that wants to bring a balance between Lucifer and Ahriman. This speaks to an ego path. I also pointed to this ego path as the blood theme that is addressed on the left panel with St. Sebastian and the blood of the Crucified One and the Lamb .
This then is an unusual presentation of a Christian path. It is one that has to balance Lucifer and Ahriman. It is one that has to take hold of the world, take hold of the blood but it has to be done in such a way that that which was the Being and the way of the Christ is reproduced. A path of initiation that has to do with the ego, has to present, at the outset, a confrontation with Lucifer and Ahriman.
Let us descend into the predella. We can notice that the coffin is empty. The body of Jesus with the departed soul-spirit being of Christ, is not in the sarcophagus. The body is lying to the right of the coffin, is lying outside. To the right the apostle, John, holds the dead body. The sorrowing mother, Mary, with a white cap is in the center. Mary Magdalene, with prayerful hands is on the left of Mother Mary. A weightiness, a still element, can be met here in the predella. At the same time a movement in gesture can be found. We can note that the emptied-out sarcophagus on the left is lighter because of emptiness. On the right – the heavy-weighted configured body is being lifted. The gesture of the arm of Jesus is one of lifting. In terms of movement we can see the Jesus at the right, a filled mass, with the lifting gesture, in John the evangelist. The prayerful hands of Mary Magdalene, the sorrowful hand of Mother Mary, the hand of Jesus at the right, all in a way are rising gestures. We might say all gestures point to an inwardness when we say oo- (u). The hands themselves are full of life, gesture and speech. They gesture something of movement, something of an almost eurythmy-like quality. In the background of the predella, are mountains, again, a lake. The mountains rise out of the living water. The mountains rise out of the living. The empty coffin, the body living raised, the gestures, the water, the rising mountain, all help the soul rise out of the depth of earth. Only the crown of thorns rests dead on earth. Eurythmy gestures speak to life. Only the pain and suffering of the crown anchors the soul on earth .
In the predella we have a right and a left (coffin).We can see a fore (crown of thorns) and an aft (lake with mountains). There is a below (the crown of thorns, coffin and body) and a direction to an above (gestures, body and white cover on Mary). This configuration speaks to the soul asking balance as one descending into the sub-earthly with the body of Jesus. In the observant soul has to live the Christ, giving balance. The balance here is of another dimension than when the soul contemplates the Crucifixion . Here the crucified with the blood has entered the earth. The empty coffin, the dead crown, leads our soul to a consolidation experience before a re-ascent to the crucifixion. The crucifixion of this altar-piece is almost an expression of the Resurrection. In the descent into the sub-earthly our soul is consolidated, in rising it is resurrected. The two beings of the ether world (Lucifer and Ahriman) have to be balanced. He who works for healing has to struggle for balance. The balance in the ether comes through the struggle with Lucifer and Ahriman. Christ can then enter the soul.
Again, if we look at this first panel, we can note a light rising Luciferic tendency on the left and a sinking heavier Ahrimanic element on the right. The Entombment and the Crucifixion flow into an above and a below. This movement upwards and downwards as well points to Lucifer rising and Ahriman falling –above and below is there contained. The predella further gives a sense for the horizontal, as do the arms of the cross in the Crucifixion scene. The left and right of the predella contains the empty, immobile, coffin-sarcophagus, and the full-weighty but mobile body respectively. Above we find Sebastian on the left, empty, somewhat light, semi-immobile. On the right above we have a full-gesturing St.Anthony. The left and right, the above and below, asks the viewer to balance out of himself uniting with the Crucified.
In this way the two wings with the predella below are almost like a vessel, a chalice vessel. This vessel carries the events that are being depicted in the major picture of this panel, the Crucifixion.
Again, on the left above, inwardness, lightness ascending and below, empty, non-mobile. Below on the right, heaviness but ascending. Now to the right panel with St. Anthony we have a weight descending. The human soul contemplating this first panel can go through many experiences in relationships – in the domain of space, light-weight, light and darkness, life and death. It is not only the central picture that can give us experiences. With an eye, directed a bit with the ideas of spiritual science, one begins to see quite new elements in this altar-piece. An attempt at balance, a striving to move, and then identification with the Crucifixion can be undertaken by the beholder.
Now we are ready to look at the central picture. In a way we can say that it seems to arise right out of the head of the hooded Mary that is below in the predella. This hooded Mary we can carry up and swing to the left and upward. Mary Magdalene can be carried upward where she can be seen gazing through the veil that covers her head. We can notice a halo around her hands. In this circumstance she appears to pierce the veil. Mary Magdalene, who has erred, who has sinned, and who was ill, has her eyes opened in beholding the Crucifixion, she sees through the veil.
The movement upward from the predella can be followed to the right to the figure of John the Baptist. This figure of John the Baptist, stands with his foot before the lamb. In his left hand is a book. Above his right arm are letters in Roman script. The words speak to the increase of the Crucified and the decrease of the Baptist. The body of the Baptist seems to mirror, to image, St. Sebastian on the left. The well-clothed figure of John the Evangelist (left with Mary) seems to mirror the well-clothed Anthony on the right.
The entire configuration is one of word and speech. The written word here becomes alive in the gestures, color, and movement in the entire composition. If we look at the central figure, the Crucified, we can notice the gesture of (Ah ) that arises out of the arms. The hands are also gesturing an (Ah). The heavy head seems almost insignificant to the whole body that is not gesturing and giving expression to the word-speech phenomena. The gross gesture of the Crucifixion is an (Ah).
By following the torso, from above down, a spiraling-like gesture can be seen. By doing this it is not so difficult to imagine the arms rising into a gesture (U). On the right we have John the Baptist with his finger (Ee-English – I. The (Eh) of the Mary Magdalene ‘s hands are matched by the arms of John the Evangelist swung around Mother Mary in a gesture of (O). The arm gesture of (O) by John the Evangelist seems matched in a smaller gesture by Mother Mary as she holds her hands. The entire painting is full of gesture-speech. In a way we can consider a painted eurythmy scene. The dead word inscribed in Roman lettering in this panel becomes living through gesture, color, and apparent movement.
Let us now again turn to the figure of the Christ, and first to his head with the wreath of thorns. We can see blood running from the head. Proceeding we see the entire body covered with blood. The blood comes to the surface. From the chest and from the center of the feet blood flows into the earth. The whole body is as it were, blood bedecked. The earth becomes penetrated by the blood of the deeds of this spiritual being who lived in a physical body. This is new blood, not driven inward as with Sebastian but one that is carried into the world, for the world. The inwardness of the blood process is not so much depicted by the Crucified. A soul inwardness as depicted by the two figures on the left, that is by John the Evangelist, and the Mother Mary. These two are completely inward in their presentation, in their inner soul gesture. That which flows outward with the Crucified is further expressed in an outward fashion by the gaze of John the Baptist and his pointing. The piercing of the veil, the clairvoyant perception of Mary Magdalene, is balanced by the contrasting inwardness of John the Evangelist and Mother Mary. If we permit our gaze to move to the Lamb, and the configured gesture, it is possible to see in this rendering, with the flow of blood into the chalice, an inwardness that may be a balance to the outward flow of blood from the Crucified. Again, balancing can be sought .
The gaze of John the Baptist seems to be that of modern man . The gaze of consciousness-soul . This matches the gaze of St.Anthony. The inwardness of John the Evangelist and Mother Mary can be matched with that of St. Sebastian. It is Mary Magdalene who has acquired the gaze of one who sees through, a gaze which pierces the veil. This is almost a Parsifalian like expression .
The entire scene stands before a body of water. The watery element of the background helps the sense of fluidity in the mobile gestures. This scene of the Crucifixion moves into the watery mobile. The earthly is well depicted in the predella . However, in the predella we can also find a body of water. In the background of both the Entombment and Crucifixion lies water, liquid supporting the fluidic of the entire scene.
Let us look at the lamb. The lamb carries a cross and bleeds into a vessel . The animal gestures with lip and limb. This is a depiction of the animal who can be considered to represent the group soul process from the zodiac which has guided mans’ development. This now is surmounted by a man who becomes individual. It is John who stands in front of the animal-cosmic realm to insert and help the impulse of individualization. The lamb who suffers his blood and who then as spirit being of the cosmos has entered the body of Jesus now bleeds with the Crucified. As this occurs, John the Baptist takes a step. He steps in front, steps forward. John ‘s step is on to individualization, this can be seen in his stance, his finger pointing, and the wakeful gaze. The awakening individual can live on the outwardly-directed sacrifice of blood by the Crucified and the inwardly-directed sacrificed blood of the lamb.
As we make these observations and contemplations we can then consider that we stand here at the Crucifixion contemplating the time of Epiphany. John the Baptist leads us to Epiphany. The pointing of John the Baptist to the Crucified leads us from Epiphany to Easter.
Here we can consider a movement in time. The time is from Epiphany to Easter. Here in this setting, the blood of the past flows. Something more is to come. Inward and outward blood is depicted. It flows for all mankind, for the individual and the earth. The Baptist leads us from the past. The Crucifixion, with the Lamb, brings something new. The view of the future is taken up by the John the Evangelist, the Mother and the one healed of illness, Mary Magdalene. Epiphany takes up the past with a new birth. Easter with the Crucifixion is an entrance into the future. Easter has to lead to the time of mid-summer, the time of St. John. The whole of the solid earth element needs to be lifted into the watery; this is part of that future. The future includes the piercing of the veil. Inward sorrowing is needed in order to come to the tremendous inwardness through this suffering. The suffering and sorrowing leads to the veil piercing. This is a suffering through an inner path.The path is not one of asceticism; this path is one of tremendous sorrow, not over oneself, not over self-inflicted pain, but over the sorrow of the Great Being who then incarnated into a human body. This Being suffered and transformed the blood of man so that blood could then transform the earth itself.
This is a mighty contemplation. Let us put it into the souls who were ill at the time . They were trying to find healing. They were trying to find a raison d’être for their suffering. Again, we would have to transport ourselves into the time when printing was just beginning. This was a time of the uneducated, at least in middle-Europe . Such a rendering of the Spirit for those who are uneducated and ill, could work deeply into the soul of the beholder. The sense of balance, the sense of movement, the sense of life, the sense of color, the sense of word, and the sense of individuality all were being addressed. We could consider the ill, sensitive, and unlearned human being, was led into other regions of existence through this wonderful creation.This is a step towards the etheric; healing can be considered.
The Second Panel
Now let us go on to the second panel. As just indicated I have come to contemplate the first panel as bringing the ill human being into connection with Easter time, with Epiphany, as it needs to be carried over through the Crucifixion to mid-summer, the time of St. John. In the first panel we are introduced to the secret of the blood, the blood in man, the blood that flowed for man, the blood that flowed for the earth. As we turn to the second panel we enter a whole different world. It is now the events which can be carried from Christmas, winter to St. Johns, summer.The whole of the painting is drastically changed. The whole tenor is so changed that it is almost shocking. I would like to suggest that this shock is necessary since we are no longer connected now with the mysteries of the blood, but lead to the mysteries of the breath. With this second panel we come to the mysteries of breathing. Here we begin with the human being. We begin by following the breath into the human heart. From the heart, we can breathe out following an inner birth. On the outward breath, we can in enlightened consciousness, come to be born in nature. The initiation connected with blood leads over to that of the breath and even the nerve. We can enter the cosmos on the outstreaming breath. As well, we can ascend on the lyre intoned nerve that ascends into the head.
Let us start with the picture on the left. It is a picture of the Annunciation. The Archangel Gabriel breathes into the soul. The word of Annunciation is carried from the breath to the heart. A birth is imminent. In this scene the Gothic archictectural space is threefolded. I wonder if this threefolding points to the realm of the soul on the breath. We, the onlookers, are active in looking to a soul-space of the middle. The vaulted, Gothic space is like the vaulted space in our ventricles. The papillary muscles with the chordea teninae and ventricular leaflets configure a Gothic architectural space. It is quite easy to visualize a vaulted architectural space in the ventricles of the heart. Thus I suggest that this is an Annunciation in the heart. The breath flows into the heart. In the back space of the chamber enters the air-borne descending dove. Observing, feeling, passes over into quiet contemplation. In this picture the fluid-flow element comes to rest with the activity of the dove in the quiet third space . In the back space we see windows with lemniscate forms. This is not a fluid space,
I would say it is an airy space. Much in the picture appears airiform. The garment of Gabriel is moving, as if moved by the air. The dove moves in the air surrounded by light. The Virgin Mary, the Virgin birthing, the human soul we can say, which is to give birth is drawn to the airy but recoils a bit . The blue to black garmented Mary, is hardly happy her soul is already suffering the events to come . This Mary is approached by the Archangel Gabriel. This is a winged being. The wings are carried on the back and shoulders. The gesture of the right hand with stretched finger is again almost like a eurythmy gesture. The left hand holds a staff. The staff is almost like the staff of life and on the air-borne hand gesture of Gabriel descends the dove. The dove is inbreathed with the gesture. In a way Gabriel guides the breath of the virgin birth carrying the dove on the gesture of the hand. The dove is to enter the Virgin Mary soul. The Holy Spirit is guided by Gabriel – via the breath to the soul of the heart.
Into this architectural space we find a descending Isaiah . Isaiah holds a book. Art historians say that this book is written in Gothic script.He who carries this Gothic script, he is connected with the printed word. He is taken hold of by the devil – by Ahriman. Isaiah has a hoofed-foot. In this domain and province of spiritual life, in the domain of the Annunciation of birth, where air, inspiration is involved there we meet the being Ahriman . It is the hoofed foot that bespeaks the fact that Isaiah has been grasped by Ahriman. He who is involved with the written word is open to the influence of Ahriman .
The soul, in breath, birth, and in treading the path to the spirit (Holy Spirit) will encounter the illness of the fall, so well objectified by the printed word. The birth of the spirit to the awakening soul is a birth to the Virgin Mary, in contact with Gabriel and Ahriman imbued Isaiah.
Very interestingly, the onlooker stands in front of the red curtain hanging in the fore. The viewer has to advance from the red of the curtain to the blue of the Virgin, to the purple red-orange-yellow Archangel Gabriel and then to the green. The dove descends, advances towards the onlooker in the green tinted-Gothic-vaulted air-filled space. The soul of the onlooker can breathe in after wandering outbreathed in this color-configured space. The goal is the shrine of the human heart on the in-breath of the beholder.
Remarkable to me is the facial gesture of the Virgin Mary. It is hardly one of happiness. The expression of Gabriel is hardly that of great tenderness, rather it seems to indicate that a direction has to be taken. Gabriel’s gesture seems to speak and create space at the same time. The space between the gesturing hand of Gabriel and the gesturing flowing garment is almost like oral space. Out of this space comes forth the birth-word which can be .taken up by the human heart. We might compare in our thoughts, the differences of birth-word, inner word, healing word, and creative word. As we progress, the breath enters the heart and streams into the limb. With the out-streaming breath the breath streams into the surrounding world and into the head.
The baroque-like architectural space is in the second picture of the second panel. I liken it to lung space and head space . It is one of color and music. In breathing the expiration into the surrounding world and into the head leads to inspired consciousness. The breath ascending into the region of the human head meets the baroque style living but dead space.The space is pillared by life that is reduced to architecturally-fanciful forms. Perhaps church fathers stand atop the pillars, as well as the rounded-Romanesque and Gothic forms. We meet musicians anglicized and semi-demonized in inspired awakened consciousness. The musicians are humanized on one side; on the other side they are semi-demonic. If we look into the architectural space, Romanesque and Gothic, we meet, on the left, an almost Ahrimanic-like being. The arms of this greenish angel are feathered and wings sprout, grow from the back. The being is green.The face is almost human. In a way the Ahrimanic-footed Isaiah has descended to become a fallen angel playing a tune in this scene. The space is filled with music. The soul is inspired. The lung and the head are involved while we breathe out into the world around us. The printed word of Isaiah introduced us to Ahriman. Now Ahriman plays us a tune directly. The instrument played by Ahriman has a demonic-like scroll. Ahriman ‘s music is not that of the angels. We have his music in all the noises of our time.
In the foreground, outside the building we have a human playing a viola de gamba. To the right in the building is an aura-surrounded-angel-inspired Mary. Within the building are angels with winged heads.My understanding is that when artists of that time painted winged heads, Archai are being depicted. When the wings arise from the upper torso, then archangels are being depicted. Thus, the artist introduces us to the world of the hierarchies in this altar-piece as we become involved with human organology. As we look into this architectural space, lung and head, we meet haloed, wing-headed blue angels. The angels appear o the breath, as the soul is born into the world to peer into the human organism. Human organs are angel-spaced.
As we look at the foreground of this picture we can see a human being, partly angel. The wings are on the arms and lower back pointing to an Archangel. I would suggest that this is the Archangel Raphael. We moved from Gabriel to Raphael. The white garment with delicate tints sits in the foreground. Raphael is the real music player in this scene. On the path of the breath-outbreathed, the music of Raphael can ring in the soul. If we look to the face of this archangel we can notice that it is very much like the face of Mary Magdalene. In a way an archangel activity lives in the soul of Mary Magdalene . The sinner, sufferer, anointer, and healed one, live in the healing music of Raphael.
Let us again turn to the Mary of the house, the haloed Mary. At first she seems to be only a haloed head, an archai-like being. She is haloed-hallowed. She does, however, have a body. She is a radiant sun being. Her crown is red and flaming. Her head has a yellow and red aura. Above her aura are the angels whose light flame into her halo. She has progressed from a virginous soul to a holy soul, a soul who carries angels. She is the progression of soulness to which a birth can come. The virgin-holy soul awakening in the breath of lung and head can come to a birth in virgin state. A holy birth can be anticipated. She actually has a body, however, she is of archangelic make-up now.
Now we can follow the path of the breath from heart to lung to the world around us into the macrocosm. The breath can flow out into the light of day. The breath of the house can flow out. into nature. The outbreath into the world of nature is the path of the black carbon being transformed into the stone of the wise, as the soul on an alchemic path enters into the realm of nature. Here now we are met not with the soul as virgin or holy but as a mother being in nature . This is a natural soul. Here the air-borne soul is born into the motherliness of matter and nature. This outbreath is painted by Grünewald as one of the most beautiful depictions of a soul, of a female being in nature. Above the head of this mother soul, in the heights, we encounter gold. In the gold we find the Father-principle. The gold above is reflected in the almost silvery sheen in the red of the garment of the “Mother”, nature soul. Between the golden heights of the Father and the red garment with silver sheen rests the child, the son in the arms of the soul-mother-nature soul. Mother-soul holds the child in her arms.The Son of the mother-soul rests in the arms of nature.
If we contemplate this scene, we can see that it is a wonderful summer scene. The heights of the sun, and the living nature, stand out. We can find a plant with its flower in nature. Animals (sheep), can be found in the landscape. The mineral in the background is presented as static but semi-mobile-ethereal in form.
Coral-crystalline beads moved by the childs fingers, form the substance of the rosary. The kingdoms of nature stand at hand with the birth of the child of the soul in nature. Here the true inner being of man is born.
This scene depicts no usual birth. We notice that the birthing bed is empty. The potty has not been used. It is clean and empty. The bathtub is also empty. It is not needed. The scene is one of a pure birth of the soul in nature. The glass at the foot of the music chamber (the house) is said to be a Persian vessel. The waters within this Persian glass are more the waters of a pure soul – a soul born into nature. It holds the purest of living waters. The soul here in nature can birth a son, a son who can live in the life and light of nature. The waters in the background speak to the life in Nature.
Here in this scene, the usual eliminative processes connected with sweat is demanded. No pot for urine and feces is required. This scene does not depict a physical birth with a physical birth a bed, potty, a bath are all needed. Physical birth is actually an eliminative process. Not so in the case of soul birth. The event depicted here is a soul birth . The soul is born in the domain of nature. Here nature is Mother, nature is Natura. Here is a higher birth, that of a son to the soul. Here is a birth to the soul, a divine birth . The soul that lives and weaves in nature as Mother can give rise to a pure birth .
This is another step in the soul unfolding in initiation . We have noted the archai and archangels .We have noted the archai and archangels in the house. The Archangel Gabriel is obvious in the wing. I have suggested the presence of Raphael in relation to the house.
Angels are present in the nature scene. With the angels, archangels and archai there can be a Son birth to Mother Mary, Mother Nature, Natura. This is an Elohim birth. In this scene we see angels, hovering in the distance. They are with the mountains they are companions to the shepherds. These are full-winged angels. They participate in this birth process, even their limbs are like wings. My understanding is that this points to angel-ness, wings on the limbs and back. With the birth of the son in the soul, in nature, the angelic world is present. Angel, archangel, and archai are present. In the initiation process with a Mother-Mary, Nature Mary, birth the soul comes to carry angels, archangels and archai . This birth brings about an angel-filled soul. A son birth is associated with the presence of the Elohim in the soul as well.
The way this birth is depicted I conjecture that the artist is sharing Rosicrucian secrets. Presented is the secret of Rosicrucian alchemic initiation . In the background on the door to the left, is the figure of a cross. The door with the cross needs to be bedecked with the roses at the right. The pure soul birth, the son-birth of the soul will garland the cross with roses. With the unfolding-growth-maturing, the child will in course of life bring the roses to the cross. This will permit a further step in initiation to occur. It is the pure soul born in nature that will transform that which is substantial in nature into the wood of the cross. This pure, but suffered birth, brings about the sweet smell and the red of the rose as the breath unites with the divine in nature.
As we look at this Rosicrucian setting, the soul uniting with nature, Mother nature, with matter, with Natura, we can contemplate how the whole of the earth becomes a basis for existence . The church in the background could be considered to point to the fact that the whole earth has to become a church, a temple, a House of God. On this path the soul becomes a true keeper of the earth. Such a soul is devoted and committed to transform the earth into the church for all man . Such a soul becomes cosmopolitan and truly catholic, this means, universal for all men . The conventional mind will see an ordinary church or the outer Catholic Church. I think this artist saw much deeper and points to the Church for all mankind.
If we continue with the theme of initiation of the breath, we enter the domain where not only we breathe into nature to become a poet of nature but the limb becomes the activity of transforming nature. This is a further step in initiation. In the active will of the limb the breathing-soul-spirit becomes able to transform the physical – the limb and nature, with the magic of the will. (The movement of the limb is an out-breathing process.) The material limb and the solid earth is magically taken hold of in will. What is heavy is levitated and what is consolidated becomes radiant. The evolved airiform soul with higher birth transforms the dark-heavy earth into light-filled radiant substance. The halo of the Holy Mary becomes radiant earth-glorious matter. This is “mater gloriosa”. This glorious matter is spoken of in Part II of Faust, by Goethe. The Holy aura of Mary penetrates nature to create matter that is gloriously radiant through the deeds of the Son.
The aura of the Holy Mary can transform nature substance just as the growing child can transform the cross to adorn it with roses. The nature son-active soul can unite with the pure mother, holy matter, auric matter to make it radiant. This can take place when the higher ego is born in an act of will. Then the soul is Christ indwelled – Elohim indwelled. The breathing process becomes one of will – of intuitive active will. Here the densest, the heaviest becomes light, becomes transformed, and radiant. Here also the blood of man becomes radiant; radiates into star space and the higher-angel-filled soul rises to incorporate the Beingness of the Elohim. Such a soul-birth into nature – Mother Nature – as well as human nature can, through an act of will, radiate matter into star space. The earth-borne blood now becomes cosmic radiant matter. We are dealing not only with matter glorious, glorious mother substance, but matter that has the quality of star radiance. We can call this “astralized” substance. This becoms star radiant at the hour of night when the stars are out. This is an act of intuitive will. Are we not gazing on the earth become sun-like at the midnight hour, where the higher being of man can radiate his own blood nature into stellar space?
This is a breath-taking scene truly glorious. The Mother Mary in Nature has become divinely glorious.We can follow the divine-glorious which can be taken hold of by the Son become Man .Here even the matter of human nature can be transformed into a radiant condition. Here bone substance of the rock, muscle substance of the flowing garb, and astral nerve substance of the limb all become transformed for a higher state of existence. This occurs when the soul is in-dwelled, by that which streams from the heights and depths of existence and is gathered by the Man of the Spirit.
My contemplation of this panel leads from the time of the mid-winter annunciation to the heights of summer at noon and at night. In the summer we can look not so much to the resurrection but to the revelation of the great heights and depths of the Son who has become Man. We can behold the Son birth at noon-time and full Manhood at the midnight hour. We are following the course of the seasons, the blood to breath, and the unfolding of the Divine-will. Can we not sense the healing bestowed by this magnificent scene? How was it for the ill and the dying of that day?
The Third Panel
Now let us go further and turn to the last panel. Here it is notable that the predella is no longer that of the Entombment. In the previous panels, the panels depicting the Crucifixion and Birth, the Entombment remained at the base. The process of death, and life arising from death, is of primary import. However, in this third panel the thematic base becomes the Last Supper. Here we see the being of the Christ holding in his hand the earth with a cross. We can view twelve Apostles, who partake of substance. With the presence of the Christ this substance, Christ-substance, can become a basis for new life from the earth. Here it is the earth held by the Christ, which nourishes man .We here are not concerned with death, suffering, and birth. We are concerned here with processes of nourishment. Here we are concerned with earth-man as he stands and needs to be nourished to be able to act, to will. Man has to be able to be nourished, be healed, and unfold in soul and spirit in the light of a new form of judgment. Thus the third panel stands on the base of a whole new thematic consideration .
Now let us take a look at this third panel – not painted. We note that the predella is carved, as is the center of the panel. This is embossed in gold. (This is a sun scene – carved-chiseled-sculpted).We note st. Anthony sitting on a throne. He holds his staff of life. Above his head are the apocalyptic animals , below him the Last Supper. It is he who stands between the Last Supper and the Apocalyptic process which points to the future, to the domain pointing to the New Jerusalem. Here he sits on this throne as a judge. Here we are introduced to the judge Anthony that I spoke of in my introductory comments. This is an individual who is in-Throned, as it were. He has to carry the domain of the higher spiritual world, the Thrones, the Beginnings.He has to be able to so live that the beginning can work as judgment. He has to be able to make judgments about life and death, about substance for nutrition, substances of healing, about the unfolding of the soul and spirit. This is not the usual Anthony. This is an Anthony who dwells with the Thrones.
To the left of St. Anthony is St.Augustine.We have noted him to be a father of the Church . He was born in the 4th century. He was first a Manichian, as his father was. He then became converted to Christianity. He had his baptismal and Christian experience in his thirties.He then began to fight Manichenism. He began to reject the outlook that had to do with the battle with Ahriman. He entered into the Church and wrote what became the laws of the Church. Here however, I believe that the artist – and probable initiate, Grunewald places Augustine back into the world of polarities.
Augustine stands next to Anthony but between the left wing and right wing, which reasserts the principle of duality. On the right of St. Anthony is St. Jerome.As I have indicated this individual became interested in Christianity, interested in ascetic life.He led a semi-monastic like life in the 4th century. He went to the Holy Land. He became the translator of the Bible; he translated the Bible from Aramaic into Latin. Jerome, like Augustine, is a father of the church. Here he is placed in the context of the dual.
Thus we have St. Anthony sitting between two fathers of the Church. One father created the written word giving direction to the church, as an institution . The other father translated the original written word of the initiates in Christendom for the sake of the Church.
The central portion seems significant artistically when we compare it with the paintings of the two wings. These wings were painted later. The original of this altar-piece was this carving. That this center piece is carved seems to me significant, as in carving, the nature of substance has to be wrestled with, just as with the Last Supper.
In order now to continue this third panel consideration I would like to go back to the first panel. It is there that I spoke of the crucifixion scene as a balance of the left and right between Lucifer and Ahriman. I described two illnesses. The one illness depicted there is ecstasy or visionariness, the illness of St. Sebastian the martyr. The other illness is connected with the problems with pedantry, with earthliness, with the temptations connected with Ahriman.
Visionariness and pedantry are two illnesses.Visionariness is psycho-spiritual related and pedantry is social-behavioral related. Here illnesses are seen from a spiritual point of view. It is Lucifer who leads man into states of ecstasy, to visions. It is Ahriman who leads man into pedantry. By and large we do not consider these illnesses, but from Rudolf Steiner’s indications we can see the two tendencies working into the soul of man, or working in his organism. These are actually the illnesses that have to be dealt with in psychiatric and social therapeutic efforts. By and large we are not very familiar with these matters except from a spiritual point of view. It is in our considerations with St. Theresa and Raimund that we have begun to consider these illnesses. We have been concerned with the ecstatic visionary – bliss experiences of St. Theresa. She was an exceptional soul who was continually healed through her devoted work – her deeds. Ferdinand Raimond we have also considered. He was metabolically earth bound . Sociopathic behavior was very much a part of his life – pedantic-compulsive in the process. Through his artistic creativeness he was continually healed. These two major trends we know from the psychiatric illnesses of our day – from the socially disruptive behavior of many souls. This view of illness – this classification of illness according to the activity of Lucifer or Ahriman, this is quite new to our time. The Isenheim Altar, this work of art can help us in this new approach .
Now let us return to the third panel. I would like to suggest that we here have two further expressions of illness. In the painting of the left wing we see St. Anthony in the wilderness with St. Paul. St. Paul looks youthful, St.Anthony old with age. Here we have an expression of aging, sclerosis. The problem is how to bring new youth and life to this age. We see the youthing element with the aged Paul. I pointed to this Anthony as the Anthony of the wilderness, the Anthony of Egypt, who lived in the fourth century. Here we have a depiction of the aging sclerotic processes that has befallen mankind. Anthony of this painting was 80 years of age – Paul 90.
As we turn to the painting of the right wing, we see St. Anthony, the fired rhetorician. This is the Anthony of the 12th and 13th century. Here the soul is fired, is transformed by fiery infected-like visions. Here we have an example of an inflammatory like process, here we have an expression of what is called St. Anthony’s fire.
Inflammatory illness is the problem. If we take these two polar opposites, aging-sclerosis, and inflammation we have two further archetypes of illness in mankind. We now can place St. Anthony the judge of the 13th and the 14th century in the center. We can think that it is he who knows how to use the medicinal substances depicted in the left wing. It is he who knows how to use food for the well being of man as in the problem of the inflammatory process depicted on the right wing. It is this “judge” Anthony who understands the role of substances, transformations in relationship to the Last Supper. Here judging becomes one with therapeutic judgment. Substances for nourishment and for healing are needed in the case of inflammatory and sclerotic illnesses. A proper judgment is needed.
It is this “judge” Anthony who understands the role of substances, transformations in relationship to the Last Supper, who then knows how the human being can be healed from the inflammatory illness. Diet becomes important here. In the case of sclerosis, therapeutic substances are needed.
Thus we can contemplate four major tendencies in illness that are depicted in this altar-piece. The visionary and the pedant, Lucifer and Ahriman in the domain of the soul, as well as sclerosis and inflammation, Ahriman and Lucifer in the body, all are placed artistically before the observer. In this particular altar-piece it is more the Ahrimanic theme that has to be followed through. Thus we see in the pedant, St. Anthony, who has to overcome pedantry – even visionariness – struggle with sclerosis and inflammation on the path of initiation . His guide is the path of the Great World Healer. In the second panel we considered initiation – this third panel leads us to the act of healing – out of judgment.
If we start with the left wing we can note the aged St. Anthony. He is in converse with the older but youthful St. Paul. This St. Paul is St. Paul of the wilderness of the 4th century. It is held, as already noted, that Paul was ten years older than St. Anthony. In this picture he is youthful. Some suggested that this is a self-portrait of Matthias Grunewald. I think this can miss the point. If this is the case we can see that he is painting himself as an individuality who knows the secret of the elixir of life. This was the secret of the alchemist. St. Paul – or Matthias himself has come to the secret of the ether, of the growing younger in the etheric. How to use this, how to use this knowledge for healing, how to find this etheric principle in the realm of the plants, in healing substances, this is what Paul has come to. There is every reason to suspect in the paintings of this altar-piece that this man Matthais has had a deep insight into the ether world. The nature of the etheric in relationship to the physical is a central Rosicrucian theme.
Let us look further at this scene. We notice St. Anthony sitting on the left andSt. Paul sitting on the right. The youthful figure sits in a natural setting with plant and animal. The plant nature is luxurious – St. Paul is discoursing, is bring the living word to St. Anthony. On the left toward the upper part of the picture, we see the raven who brings the food, the manas, to the two sitting in the wilderness. I would like to suggest that this is a wonderful depiction of the life-giving element which can nourish man substantially through the senses via the spoken word. The dead outer nature in which St. Anthony sits is one that asks for nourishment – for renewal. Paul is renewed from within with the palm tree – the tree of life almost rising out of his head. This seems to be a definite Rosicrucian scene. In the background rises the heavenly-earthly element that is transformed.
If we examine the gaze of these two, some interesting observations can be made. Paul the mystic – living in the wilderness, does not appear mystical – inward at all. He does not look like a mystic-hermetic soul sitting in the wilderness 400 A.D., not at all. He is a very modern man of consciousness-soul. He grows through and out of his senses. He moves-breathes-wills outward. He knows the secret of nourishment of the senses, I would like to think. He knows the secret of the substances of nature and how they play their way into man via the senses. On the other hand if one looks at the eyes of the aged Anthony in the wilderness they are totally different from the gaze of Anthony of the first panel. The gaze is inward but will follow you if you stand in front of and move in the face of the original. The gaze of Anthony meets with our own eyes. This is an extremely interesting reversal. Paul’s gaze is into the world; Anthony’s gaze is into the soul. It is a wonderful reversal process here where the outer of Paul enters into the inner of Anthony and makes this alive as the viewer gazes into the eyes of this saint in the wilderness. Through the death experience of the soul, inwardly experienced there comes a new-manas principle, a new nourishment for the soul. This is a path of the individual who rises to such a degree of initiation that the soul beingness of the outer world, nourishes. This is not the stage of imagination, or inspiration, but the intuitive uniting with and being nourished in nature by the outer world.
Now let us turn to the panel on the right called the Temptation of St.Anthony. I see this very differently. Here I would suggest that we are entering not into the heights of initiation but into the astral world. It is here that St.Anthony in his blue garb holds himself as a true Luciferic being. There he meets the beings of the varying distortions of color, the beak and limb beings also of strange colors. There is one being who has a real clear color, aside from Anthony; this is an elemental being on the right with the red cap. This may be a real Ahrimanic being – while in this depiction – Anthony of the blue garment is taken hold of by Lucifer. The other beings, the bestial beings are those that we meet at the threshold of the spiritual world. It is the imaginative world that is met through nourishment and in this case the nourishment carries St.Anthony into a Luciferic state in the astral world. There he meets the demonic beings and there he also perceives the being who actually makes him ill.
Thus out of this region, out of this profound experience of the depths of insight into the astral world given to him by the world of manas or spirit-self, he is able to make a correct perception of the being who then makes man ill through food. This being is depicted in the left lower corner as a demonic-like being. This being has webbed feet. The feet are turned in opposite directions. The left hand is going left and the right foot is going right. The body, particularly the abdomen is poxed with blood. The one non-webbed hand holds on to a bag with a book and possibly food. The head of the demon hardly is able to peer upwards. If we look at this demon with a bit of imagination we can think away the face and focus on the red-pelican like-duck-billed garment. The back of the pelican-like demon is formed out of the belly of the demon. Something human can hardly arise out of this configuration. I would like to suggest that this is a depiction of a demon formed by beings of a dying culture. This residue of dead culture lives in the astral world. This being creates poisons in the plant world. In the case at hand this being creates the poisons which follow from the infestation of the rye by a fungus. The bread from this rye poisons the consumer. My sense is that our artist had a very deep insight into this astral world. The poison we might consider a Luciferic creation. The illness which resulted we might think of as an Ahrimanic reaction. Let us look at a quote from True and False Paths of Spiritual Investigation by Rudolf Steiner. He speaks to the existence of such demonic beings.
“Let us suppose that man enters with initiation knowledge into the world where the dead live in their post-mortem existence. He follows them. It is really the case that when man follows the dead in this way, he enters into a world entirely different from his own . I have given some description of it and have told you that the impression it makes is much more intensely real than that made by the world of our life between birth and death. When man enters into this world he is astonished at the other remarkable beings who exist there as well as the souls of the dead. Among the souls of those who have recently died, he perceives demoniacal figures at the very entrance to this soul-land that the dead have to traverse, and in which he can accompany them with a certain clairvoyant vision. At the entrance to this world man perceives demoniacal figures with enormous, powerful, webbed feet like the duck, or wild duck-species, or other creatures which swim. Of course when we speak of great and small it must always be in comparison with earthly conditions. These webbed feet, or fin-like formations, are in a continual state of metamorphosis. These beings have a form somewhat comparable to the form of a kangaroo, but half bird like, half mammalian. They are powerful mighty beings. Man passes through wide regions of such beings when he is able to follow the dead. It may now be asked; “What kind of beings are these?” First of all we must have a right conception of where these beings are; where we are to think of them as existing . They are always around us, for we stand within the same world as that in which the dead are dwelling. It cannot be said however, that these beings are actually in this very hall, – and here begins the path to true and exact investigation.
Suppose you are walking over a meadow where in autumn you find growing plants of the species of colchicum. autumnale, the autumn crocus. If when you are standing among these autumn crocuses you try to call forth the state of consciousness that can follow the dead, you will see, wherever an autumn crocus is growing, a being of the kind I have described, with these webbed feet, and curious kangaroo-like bodies. Such a being comes forth from every autumn crocus. And if you go somewhere else where the belladonna, the black deadly nightshade is growing, and you enter into the state of consciousness of which I have spoken, you meet there quite different beings, terrible, demoniacal beings who also belong to this world.”
Notable in this last picture is a direct expression of Ahriman. This expression is evidenced in the script written in the right lower corner of the picture. There the words express the trials and tribulations of the individual who is searching. His words ask why the godly has forsaken the searcher. “God, Why has thou forsaken me?” This question of the desertion by God, this comes out of atheism. This is the illness which was born on earth and began in the region of Assyria. The atheistic God-deserted man was born in that area of the world, in Gondhishapur, and if Iunderstand correctly, at about the time of 333 A.D. I gather the perception of this being and its connection with writing and printing is a revelation of the Ahrimanic impulse which is then understood by St.Anthony. This is depicted and understood by our artist Mattias Grunewald.
This is a very lofty acquisition by Grunewald. The individual who has taken a path, who is able to intuit the spirituality of substance, the working of the senses, the working of life forces, the nature of illness and healing, all of this is needed for an initiate to have deep insight into the astral world. Here retarded beings work and work on man to produce illness, they work in plants to create poison. My understanding is that to be able to differentiate beingness in the astral world is a mighty accomplishment. To fantasize a demon requires little – to perceive and judge in the world of the demonic is another affair. The ability to perceive these beings and then see how they stand in relationship to the hierarchical world as noted with the heavenly godly being in the heights, as in this picture, all of this is no small feat. Involved is a war and struggle in the spiritual world between the demonic and the spiritual.This has to be struggled through step by step. This has always been depicted as the battle of Michael, the battle in the astral world, the world that borders the physical. It is there that Michael battled, battles the elemental beings and casts them into man so that man can battle with them for the salvation of his own soul, for the salvation of earth and for the redemption of spiritual beings.
The striving with Michael is the path here depicted where man can as initiate work at the mystery of the will as a healer. In this wing I believe we can behold this process.
In conclusion we followed a possible path of initiation. We followed a path through the seasons. We began with Epiphany and moved to Easter. In the second panel we took up Christmas to Mid-summer. And now in this final panel we take up a possible approach to Michael. We take up the barren nature element of Fall. We can consider the last picture in relation to Michael. Man on an initiation path meets with the Michaelic battle. Man comes to the beasts at the threshold. The comprehension of these beasts and how they work to create the illness is then part of knowledge process but also part of the process of comprehending how illness then permits man to go through exactly the events that occurred to this initiate, St. Anthony, or perhaps better said, Matthias Grunewald.
We have followed St. Anthony who is raised to spiritual heights. He is then able to judge in the world of the senses and the loftiest spiritual world grasped by intuition. He comes to nourishment via the senses. He is able to distinguish how man is nourished by what he consumes. In this way Anthony (the initiate) can comprehend illnesses from the two sides. This permits him to be able to deal with the senses, healing by substance, and by word. The judgment as what to use therapeutically I believe is well-depicted by the enthroning of St. Anthony.
Today we have to pass through the four seasons to find our connection with the seasons pointed to in this masterpiece so that we can try to find our way to a true judgment in therapeutics. We also have to find real courage, a Throne-activity, to bring healing to our fellow man .
In conclusion, I would like to suggest again that we consider the four illness types depicted here. At least, this has been my thesis. We might then turn towards the artistic creation by Rudolf Steiner in the Group. In the latter we find a similar effort in carving. In the latter we find no direct depiction of elemental beings but we have expressions of, or an effort to depict the two possible workings for both Lucifer and Ahriman. In the Group we can try to tie these two beings to illness. It seems to be that the Isenheim Altar is a good starting point in the world of art to contemplate illness in the light of Lucifer and Ahriman. We can as well contemplate the working of the archangels and the working of the World Healer. Perhaps this can help us on the way to the “Group” by Rudolf Steiner.