Art therapists today help their patients cope with anxiety, addiction, illness, or pain. Therapists might encourage clients to explore their emotions by drawing, for example, or to reflect on a difficult experience through painting. Art is used to help people express themselves and explore their emotions.
In past centuries, however, art therapy took a substantially different form. Maybe it’s time to bring this practice of the past into the present—as a way to move into the future.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is a 16th-century sculpted and painted work housed in an old convent-turned-museum in the medieval city of Colmar, France—a city with wood-framed houses and winding footpaths that appear to have changed little in 500 years.
Altarpieces have long been used to decorate churches and to tell stories, but the Isenheim Altarpiece offered an additional therapeutic function. The religious order that cared for the sick, the Antonites, “prescribed” viewing the altarpiece to those in their hospitals. They led the sick to the choir area of the Isenheim church, where they provided them with fresh bread and saint vinage, an herb-infused wine. In this quiet space, patients could meditate on the paintings that comprised the altarpiece.
The Isenheim Altarpiece’s central panel displayed a plague-infected crucified Christ. For Europeans in the Middle Ages, religious art held a particular power over the social imagination: Patients sick with bubonic plague would have derived great consolation from the image of Christ similarly afflicted. The painting told them Christ’s body was ruined like theirs, that he understood their suffering, and that they were not alone. It silently relieved some of the deepest anxieties of the sick and dying: decay of the body, pain, isolation.
Over the centuries, the Isenheim Altarpiece has continued to impress artists and writers. American novelist Francine Prose was particularly astonished by its use as art therapy. She described viewing the altarpiece as life-changing and said she was surprised to discover, “at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a small miracle of comfort and consolation.”
Could art still accomplish a miracle of comfort and consolation today? Could it remind people of their mortality while also mitigating fear? Could it foreshadow the inevitable while also instilling hope?
When the Antonites prescribed viewing the Isenheim Altarpiece, it was meant to be life-changing. The sick ate bread, drank wine, and metaphorically consumed the painting. And that consumption allowed for personal transformation. Patients opened themselves up to the image of the dying Christ and received comfort through solidarity.
Today, we also consume art. Indeed, the Isenheim Altarpiece now sits in a world-class museum on display for those who can pay. But do we let art transform us? Do we allow art to remind us of our finitude and comfort us in our brokenness? Or do we see it merely as pay-for-view works of creative expression—or, worse still, its possession as a symbol of social status? Do we own art, but refuse to let it shape us?
I was of the persuasion that art had perhaps been irredeemably commodified, along with the rest of what is good, true, and beautiful in life. And then I went to France to see the altarpiece for myself.
Space does not permit its adequate description. The altarpiece’s multiple layers, stories, sculpture, and painting are all so rich. What I saw in France confirmed for me that the masterpiece continues to exert its life-changing influence. Art can still perform miracles of comfort and consolation.
I spent my day in Colmar scrutinizing the Isenheim Altarpiece from all angles. I had prepared in advance, and I drew on my research to take in its every feature.
At the end of the day, I went up to the balcony overlooking the work. I had examined its detail. Now I wanted to take it all in at once. But from my view above, it wasn’t the painting that captured my attention.
The hour was late, and the museum was nearly empty. Only two people remained. A thin middle-aged man who walked with a cane shuffled slowly from panel to panel. It was as if he were loath to leave and was trying to squeeze every last drop out of his medicine. On a bench sat a tiny elderly lady with loose white curls who was meditating on the disfigured Christ. The two of them were captivated, and I was captivated by their captivation. Broken and aged as they were, they were drinking in the beauty of art and receiving consolation of a different dimension.
This post was originally published in Spirituality & Health.