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The Meanings Put into the Isenheim Altar
To the reader: the pictures of the Isenheim Altar, as indeed the Gospels they are based on, are a representation of you, your inner life and inner work. They are not historic representations of events for some 2000 years ago. What takes place in the Isenheim Altar can only take place now, in the present moment; not in the past and not in the future. Moreover, what takes place now, can only take place in you, not in the pictures.
So let the pictures enter and work in yourself!
Essence and PersonalityOn the first opening of the Altar we have a picture of St. Sebastian on the left and St. Anthony on the right. St. Sebastian represents the Essence in us and St. Anthony stands for our Personality.
St Sebastian on the left, A.D. 283 - after having cured many people Sebastian was given over to some archers to be shot by arrows to death (the archers did not manage to kill him, but he was later beaten to death with cudgels; the cudgel was a club used as an instrument of punishment or as a weapon) - the story is most likely a legend without historic background
St Anthony on the right - one of the first Christian monks; established the Christian Monasticism - in Egypt. Saint Anthony was born in Egypt in 251 and died there in 356. The story of his life told by Athanasius is generally considered to be based on some historic facts (but that is beside the point).
Essence and Intentional SufferingBeelzebub's Tales: "the-whole-of-us and the whole of our essence, are, and must be, already in our foundation, only suffering." (page 372)
General note: the first scene on the altar represents our situation at the time we come in contact with a teaching, with a school, or alternatively when we have a realisation without any 'helper instructors' (though not those who have only had the popular 'american enlightenment'). The beginning, what we are, does not start with the birth of Christ - this comes only later in our life. After the 'awakening' there is first the death and only then something can be born.
Essence is what we are born with. Although there are other pictures about it in the Altar, the one of St. Sebastian pictures this early aspect of our Essence.
Sebastian is standing on a slab, which is supported by organic plants, he has a connection to the outside, not only to the natural world, but also the the higher levels - this is shown by the open window.
St. Sebastian is like the little boy that I have got to know in myself; vulnerable, unable to protect himself. Yet he is, and generally our Essence is, connected to the principle 'Intentional Suffering'. Suffering is necessary, without it there is no growth. Like the arrows hit Sebastian, I am constantly hit from the outside in the form of criticism, negativity, opinions. These are the things I can work with and transform into personal growth when I do not blindly react to them, when the arrows have become those of Amor (who actually is carrying a big bunch of them in the window).
The arrows that have hit me when I was young and unable to protect myself (with the help of Personality) have left behind some deep wounds. To take them out is a painful process. It hurts so much that it is hardly possible for me on my own. I need help from one who knows.
Personality and Conscious Labor
Personality is what is not our own. It protects us against life. To become our own adult, father and mother, is important for the protection of our Essence. However, as St. Anthony shows by his conscious act of revealing his great wound, which is in the Essence, Personality can be food for the growth of Essence. Gurdjieff called it 'Conscious Labor'.
Unlike Sebastian, Anthony wears a cap (he is not directly in contact with above, he is not in Unity), has plenty of clothing around himself (he is not a product of nature, like our Essence), has a double (dual) beard. He has no direct contact with nature - the window is covered with glass. On the other side of the window is the 'big bad world', in the painting this is represented by a demonic figure.
Without the help I get from Personality it would not be possible for my Essence to be healed; the wounds need to be shown so that they can be attended to. The many buffers that keep me from experiencing my wounds are in the Personality, which helps me to survive in the hostile world.
Other Aspects of the Being
The other aspects of my Being (apart from Essence and Personality) are pictured in the figures of Virgin Mary, St John (the Evangelist), St Maria Magdalena, Jesus and St John the Baptist.
Let us be reminded once again that the pictures do not have any historic meaning; they relate to the Being of the onlooker, you and me. This takes place now. (John the Baptist was beheaded well before the crucifixion and John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel over 100 years after the Birth of Christ is said to have taken place. It is clear that what is presented is not an historic event.)
The Structure of Our Inner Life
The message of the Christian teaching is clothed into the form of various persons; all the meanings are put into these different characters. When we realize (see) that these characters represent our different parts, the whole picture can become alive in us; it is something that is taking place inside us, like a film, but real.
The Witness - John the Babtist - the Observing I
John the Baptist is the 'forerunner' of Christ, the Witness, the Observing 'I'. On the painting of the Altar he is shown in this objective role: he is not emotionally involved in the crucifixion, unlike the four other persons.
Pointing at the dead body of Jesus he is at the same time seeing the other parts, the other actors inside us; this process has different names - in the New Testament the greek word used in the original is metanoia, which has often been translated repent. It means to turn.
Where are we to turn to and where from?
Our attention is quite of its own nature continuously either fascinated or irritated by something. The idea of metanoia is to turn our look inside, to see and to observe, to become the witness. As we are, without any effort, we are not witnesses at all!
John the Baptist was beheaded. The meaning of the 'beheading' is to be cut off from the dominance of the head, from our concepts.
Jesus Dead On the Cross
When I relate myself to this picture and take it as representing something in me it becomes clear that it represents the godly part of myself and has at the same time something to do with the human in me.
What is this picture really about? If the Isenheim Altar makes sense, and I am sure it does (and not only by logic), this painting of Jesus represents me as I am, as a mechanical, ordinary man, who has not yet totally died and been "reborn". It is the man asleep.
The part of the picture that represents what is awake in me is painted into the figure of St. John the Babtist, the observer who sees what is happening.
What is the suffering in this picture? What is suffering in me? Is it the human part that suffers, goes on in dreams and illusions about what life is? Or is it the Godly part?
The trinity contains the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Active force, the Son is the Passive force and the Holy Spirit is the Reconciling force.
Active is male, passive is female. It is the female that suffers in creation. It is also the female, the passive, that has to go through the transformation and to bring on the earth a new life. In this process the male can only initiate the process and then watch and see how this miracle is taking place!
This is not the pretty picture of myself that I find in my daydreams; in fact, it is very ugly! To see it is a shock and at the same time the only way out.
As I am, I am nailed in my actions - I can not do. There is a crown of thorns on my head signifying the "thoughts" that are criss crossing continuously in my head. I am dead.
Why Crucifixion Before the Birth?
In "In Search of the Miraculous" Gurdjieff quotes twice from "a book of aphorisms" (p. 217) which he says has never been published:
Jesus, St. Sebastian and the Lamb
There is a remarkable similarity between these three figures. They represent a passive side of us in some of its different aspects.
Jesus is the human nature in me in general and St. Sebastian represents my essence.
What is the lamb?
The lamb represents the natural in us, our animal nature, a part that is highly necessary and without which we can not exist. This, as it is shown in the picture, needs to be sacrificed for the higher in us.
It is this part in us that "justifies", which is a remnant of the animals fight and defence of its area, the survival instict.
The energy, in the picture in the form of blood running into the chalice, can be used by what is higher in us.
St. Sebastian and the lamb show intentional suffering, a sacrifice for something higher in me.