Blessed be the Lord my God, who teacheth my hands to fight, and my fingers to war. Ps.143.1
St. Anthony's Fire -- Ergotism
PARIS, October, 2000 -- This reporter had the good fortune recently to visit the French village of Lavardin (population 200 plus or minus a few souls) in the valley of the little Loir River. Forty minutes from Paris by the bullet TGV train, this tiny village has a church, Saint Jenest, that dates from the 12th century. The church is in a simple romanesque style and contains extraordinary frescoes and stone carvings. One of the frescoes depicts St. Anthony and sufferers from St. Anthony's fire.
The History of Saint Anthony's Fire
On 15 August 1951 one in twenty of the 4000 inhabitants of another village in France called Pont Saint Esprit (Bridge of the Holy Spirit) went mad. They had hallucinations, writhed in agony in their beds, vomited, ran crazily in the streets and suffered terrible burning sensations in their limbs.
The madness was quickly diagnosed. They were suffering from St Anthony's Fire, a dreaded illness that was common in the Middle Ages. The cause was poisoning from a fungus (ergot) that grows on rye grass. The fungus contaminated the rye flour used in making bread.
Ergot contains a chemical that makes the sufferers go berserk and causes gangrene of the hands and feet due to constriction of blood supply to the extremities. If it is not treated (and this was not possible in the Middle Ages), victims had the sensation of being burned at the stake, before their fingers, toes, hands and feet dropped off.
A Masterpiece Born of Saint Anthony's Fire
Matthias Grunewald's 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece glorified suffering and offered comfort to those afflicted with a dread disease.
In the French town of Colmar near the German border sits one of the wonders of Western art -- a 16th-century polyptych (multipanelled altarpiece) created by an enigmatic figure for a hospital that treated victims of Saint Anthony's fire. The Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as a "sublime artistic creation," and its creator, Matthias Grunewald, have fascinated artists and scholars since the work was first moved to Colmar some 200 years ago.
Commissioned by Antonite monks, the altarpiece was created between 1512 and 1516 for the chapel of a hospital at the order's monastery in Isenheim, 15 miles south of Colmar. There, the monks ministered to patients suffering from the painful and often fatal disease, named (as were the monks themselves) for a figure who himself had known great suffering. The man chosen to execute the commission was a German artist and engineer - contemporary of Albrecht Durer's - whose very name long eluded scholars. A biographer declared him Matthias Grunewald in 1675, and since then - though it has subsequently been determined that his name was either Mathis Godhardt or Mathis Godhardt Neithardt - scholars have continued the tradition of using the misnomer.
The altarpiece Grunewald created is a many-faceted collection of disturbing and uplifting images that unfold as the wings open to reveal a series of scenes. As in most Christian art, the Savior plays a central role, appearing in a terrifying Crucifixion panel and a powerful Resurrection. But in this work, the tortured Saint Anthony is also prominently featured. The two figures seem meant to give hope and consolation to the ill, conveying the message that pain, also, brings one close to God. Source
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