In preparing to officiate at the Morning Office this morning I turned to the standard book for observing the commemoration of saints: Lesser Feasts and Fasts. There were no saints listed for today so I then turned to Holy Women, Holy Men an alternative book which was developed for trial use and contains an expanded number of saints to commemerate. Today the commemoration was for Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grunewald, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, all of whom were artists whose work dealt primarily with Christian subjects. The three works shown above each represent a work from each these artists.
The first is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer which depicts Saint Jerome in his study. While Durer created exquisite, lifelike paintings, he is best known for his woodcuts, The woodcuts could be then be used to make a number of prints of each work thereby lowering the price. This was an early form of the “mass production” technique used so deftly by Henry Ford and other industrialists to manufacture consumer goods in later times. Holy Women, Holy Men says Druer’s production was a sign of a shift in early modern society , especially in Pritestant areas, from chruch to thehome as the center of life and religion.
The second work may be familiar to some. It was introduced to me some years back by a very kind priest who kept a reproduction of the piece in her office at our cathedral. I say a reproduction as opposed to a print as the Isenheim Altarpiece is three-dimensional piece with a number of panels. It was created largely through the work of Matthias Grunewald. It was created to hang in the chapel of a hospital run by monks from the Order of Saint Anthony to treat persons suffering from a disease called ergotism. Ergotism comes from a fungus called ergot which when eaten by humans induces a psychedelic effect similar to that caused by LSD (lysergic acid dyethylamide) once popular as a pshycotropic drug by countercultrualists referred to as “hippies” . One reference described the plight of those who ingested it saying ” Those who ingested it suffered the sensation of being burned alive then their hands and feet fell off and they died.” If you look closely you can see that Grunewald has shown some of the markings of ergotism on the corpus of Christ. The idea here was to give suffers a sense of comfort in knowing that their Lord suffered in the same way they suffered. As it says in the biography on Holy Women, Holy Men “Gruenwald was a deeply religious man who was particularly fascinated by the crucifixtion as witnessed by the combination of raw physicality and mysticisim that can be oberserved in the Isenheim altarpeice.”
The third work is a portrait of Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. After moving to Vienna and moving in “humanist” circles Cranach moved to Wittenberg to become the court painter for Frederick III who was Martin Luther’s protector. Thus he became best remembered for his several portraits of Luther and for exquisite woodcuts he provided for his German New Testament in 1522.
Well, the Saints were out in force this morning, or as my friend Ray is fond of saying “I led the prayers for a cloud of witnesses”. This is our code for” we were the only ones there”. But, as we all know we were not really alone but in the midst of the “communion of saints”. If you don’t believe me look at this picture of Seibels Chapel below. When I first observed this happening I was somewhat fearful and realized that I was feeling what the ancient Hebrews must have felt when they experienced what the Bible refers to as the “Glory of the Lord” or the cloud in which Yaweh moved and appeared to the Hebrew people. Perhaps I am too ready to believe but that day I truly felt a presence.
Art and religion seem to go hand and hand. Art provides a channel through which we can experience God and experience that which sometimes can only be felt.