It’s a scene straight out of a picture book. A man dressed in festive robes lays his hand lovingly on the shoulder of the equally well-dressed wife who is breastfeeding the youngest child. Three more wonderful specimens of their offspring are playing at the feet of the couple. He rides a hobby horse. What looks like an exception from the daily life of a happy family, and represents it exactly, is part of the magnificent altar offered by the Lubeck “Gertrude Bearer Brotherhood”.
Currently, it is in the Museum of St. Anne in the Hanseatic city and is just one of the many remarkable altars that, as testimonies of faith that lived there, give more or less faithful visitors an insight into the religious practice of earlier centuries. The message conveyed by the image is not as mundane as it seems. In fact, St. Gertrude, the patron of the Society, visible in the center of the altar, is flanked by members of the holy clan, close and distant relatives of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the young woman who gave birth to Jesus Christ. Pictures of families give the impression of humanity, completely normal everyday life. This is what they should do. The Christian altar is the mystery of the Incarnation. At the same time, of course, it is also about a divine mystery and a sacrifice that changes the world. Multiple themes for a single piece of equipment in the space of spiritual experience. No wonder then that altars throughout history have assumed so many different forms of expression and are still standing today.
Elijah and the priests of Baal
Let’s take a step back, a fairly large to be exact. We are in the land of Israel on Mount Carmel. It was there that the prophet Elijah invited the priests of Baal to a great event. The audience was plentiful. The stimulating scent of the sensation is in the air. What Elijah is up to sounds completely insane. Because he challenges the priests of this god, to whom most of his people now belong, and whose confidence has grown enormously for this very reason. The focal point of the decision between Yahweh and Baal is the altar that Elijah built on the mountain. The priests of Baal are to sacrifice meat and wood on it. And then they should pray. As powerful as their God is in their views and the views of many people of Israel, it should not be a problem for him to kindle the sacrifice so that it may arise for him as a pleasant fragrance to his delight.
The priests of Baal accept the challenge. They sing and dance around the altar. They scream and scream. Then they start to get restless. Because the first ones grunt when noon approaches, and there is still no fire coming from the sky. Elijah does not miss a chance and moderates the event. “Shout a little louder,” he encourages his opponents. “After all, this is the God you call upon. Maybe he’s busy, maybe he’s asleep, maybe he hasn’t heard you yet. The priests of Baal go mad, cut their skin, scream and scream, but nothing happens and they go away in disgrace. The turning point is that Elijah very quickly reverses the situation, despite pouring water over his sacrifice and wood for effect, and his god allowing fire to fall from heaven. The story recorded in the Book of Kings in the Old Testament shows three things: the altar is about sacrifice, it is about transformation, and it is about something inaccessible, or rather inaccessible, God who made heaven and earth, in whom we are approaching the altar and over whom we have no authority.
Altars are places of sacrifice
The fact that the altars are places of sacrifice is an idea that has been forgotten for the last several decades. Because the altars of magnificent buildings, erected between heaven and earth, which show the connection between God and man, and thus constitute a kind of meeting center, have been turned into dining tables around which the faithful gather in merry company, gradually losing sight of God. Instead, we are now focusing on joint celebrations. And that’s not always an advantage. Since the perspective of eternity, infinity is now missing for both the individual and the community. Their members are now more and more chained to each other and, as can be seen from the present state of the churches, it does not always end well.
So let’s go back to the Museum of St. Anne in Lübeck and let’s take a look at the altars there. The altar of Gertrude shows the saint in the center. Gertrude, whom believers know she got exactly where they want in heavenly glory, is a reliable companion for them. He knows where to go. He knows what to look for when you want to come. And he knows what obstacles stand in your way and how to overcome them. that the saints of the Reformation, initially in Protestant and still largely in Catholic communities today, be explained as redundant helpers in the direct encounter with God, which is possible at any moment for a self-sufficient individual, to be initially marginalized and then completely forgotten one of the great losses in Christianity.
We need saints
For, in fact, as the Second Vatican Council rightly emphasized, we humans need communion, a community of believers. But it is about our spiritual ancestors, especially those who are familiar with how a successful, inspiring, and life-changing relationship with God works. They, like us, are completely different. And that’s good. That is why medieval altars represent such a wide variety of different saints, whose different personalities can accompany equally different people praying in front of these altars.
But, of course, the theme of the altars involves much more than just portraying those people who can be described as exemplary in Christ’s discipleship. As the visit to the exhibition at the Museum of St. Anna, there are also basic threads related to humanity. An example is an altar showing the virtues nailing Christ to the cross. virtues? Some people will now ask, annoyed, thinking it must be a misprint. no way. For the desperate words of the believer standing under the cross, who recognizes the connection between his own evil and the death of Jesus: “Ah, our sins have struck you”, speak of this separation, this separation from God that contains sin, which are rooted in defective spiritual attitudes which are called virtues.
milestones of spirituality
Medieval altars, as can be seen from these two and many other examples, are more than just interesting exhibits where you can discover a dog biting the little bishop’s chasuble for fun. They are milestones in the spirituality of our ancestors, they are a field for spiritual life and mean focusing on this luminous reality that is able to effectively illuminate our earthly darkness. Your line of sight must be correct for this setting to work. One should not focus on the self-proclaimed solo artist who took his place behind the altar to the delight of the audience. Rather, everyone should look together at the One who was pierced for us and whose open heart became the source of light and life and is present on every altar for our salvation. It is a vision of faith from which the artists of the past and, hopefully, the present, create altars. Understanding them is essential if you want to access their formal language, but above all their meaning and purpose.
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