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Tina Beattie Spotlights Altarpiece in Closing Curtis Lecture

Three-part series focused on creation and creatures from a maternal perspective

Tina Beattie discusses Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.

British theologian Tina Beattie delivered her final address as the first Curtis Lecturer with an exploration of maternal reflections on the sacramentality of creation and the motherhood of the Church.

Michael W. Higgins, vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity, introduced Beattie, who is director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton in London. Her talk took place in Schine Auditorium in October, with faculty, students and community members in attendance. She conducted a separate session with a group of students as well.

Presenting under the theme “Sacramental Engenderings,” Beattie’s three-part lecture series focused on creation and creatures from a maternal perspective; human dignity, women’s rights and maternal ethics; and sacramentality and the New Creation.

In her final presentation, she offered four artworks as illustration of her theme: the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald, from 1512 to 1516; the Wittenberg Altarpiece, created in 1547 by Lucas Cranach the Elder; the War Triptych, painted by Otto Dix, from 1929 to 1932; and the Keiskamma Altarpiece, created in the past decade by women in South Africa living in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

Beattie said her series was designed as a commentary on Pope Francis’ theology and his references to the Church as the Mother, along with the way women are portrayed and how their roles have evolved over five centuries of Catholicism. The Isenheim piece, for instance, which is expressive and intense, portraying both darkness and chaos, was a medieval altar painting designed for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France. It was meant to be a comfort for sufferers of plague and skin diseases such as ergotism. Its central image is that of the crucified Christ pitted with plague-type sores, showing patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.

The work includes other panels that depict the annunciation and resurrection, with maternal images figuring prominently throughout. An enclosed garden represents Mary’s womb and is a sign of perpetual virginity, Beattie explained, and a fig tree symbolizes mother’s milk.

Pope Francis sometimes refers to the Church as a “field hospital,” noted Beattie, so it was interesting that the Isenheim piece, moved to Munich for safekeeping during the first World War, served as a source of inspiration for German soldiers wounded in the trenches. “Its survival is a miracle,” she said.

The Wittenberg work is another multi-panel piece, created for the city church in Wittenberg, Germany. Its main image shows the Wittenberg congregation listening to Martin Luther, the German friar, priest and theologian whose attack on certain Catholic practices led to the Protestant reformation. In the middle of the scene, between the congregants and Luther preaching from a pulpit, hovers a surreal image of the crucified Christ.

Rather than celebrate an array of ecclesiastical greats (apart from Luther), the piece focuses on this particular church and its congregation — including the old, young, male, female and even pregnant. Beattie described it as an all-embracing picture of community life, yet one that is stripped of rich sacramental and symbolic meanings that are woven into the vision of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Instead of art designed to draw the worshipper emotionally into the immediacy of the crucifixion, this is art in which the congregation observes itself at worship, Beattie noted.

Dix’s War Triptych mirrors the Isenheim piece, but is updated to World War I, with panels showing troops setting off at daybreak, the battlefield as a place of death, soldiers returning from the hell of battle and fallen soldiers sheltering in a claustrophobic dugout. By exploiting the full horror of Grünewald’s crucifixion without any representation of resurrection or redemption, Beattie said, the panels express something of the futility and nihilism that gripped many European intellectuals as a result of the violence and destruction of the 20th century.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is perhaps the most centric to women with regard to altarpiece artworks. It was created by 130 women from South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province — an area of the world hard-hit by AIDS — to honor the memory of people who succumbed to the disease and to stand as a symbol of the community’s determination to overcome. It, too, is modeled on Grünewald’s work but uses embroidery, beadwork, wire sculpture and photographs to offer a message of hope. It features images of the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape experiencing life in the region before and after AIDS engulfed South Africa. There are portrayals of local grandmothers and their grandchildren, mourning dead family members, but also looking to the future with hope.

Higgins called Beattie an ideal and timely speaker at this point in history. “Dr. Beattie brings to Sacred Heart her dynamic reflections, methodical scholarship and warm, experiential perspective as she crafts her response to Pope Francis’s invitation to speak to a theology of women,” he said. “And this is why we invited her. An accomplished British theologian who has written and lectured extensively on the role of women in the church, she is one of the principal voices in the global church on the myriad issues around women, ecclesial as well as secular, local as well as universal. She was an ideal choice for our inaugural Curtis Lecturer.”

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Tina Beattie, left, speaks during one of the talks as Professor Michelle Loris, director of the Catholic Studies program, looks on.