‘Let them pray over him, anointing’
Commentary by Michael Banner
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)
According to traditional Catholic teaching (formalized at the Council of Trent, 1545–63), this verse was the apostolic authorization of a sacrament which came to be known as extreme unction—that is, the anointing with oil of one ‘in extremis’, meaning in danger of death.
As one of the seven sacraments, extreme unction was often represented in sets of images devoted to the theme, and this finely carved relief sculpture was originally made for such a series on the north side of the campanile of the Duomo in Florence.
An eagle—perhaps here symbolizing the restoration of youth or strength as in Psalm 103:5—is depicted beneath the comfortably appointed bed of an emaciated and plainly gravely ill man, wearing a close-fitting cap. Three other men—perhaps monks—attend him. At the head of the bed, one solemnly reads from the office book, while towards the foot of the bed another holds a candle. In the middle a third, who may be a priest, leans over to administer the anointing.
It was traditional to anoint the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, hands, feet, and loins, with the prayer that God would forgive the sins committed through each of them. Here the sick man seems to lie peacefully and patiently to receive the rite. His hand rests calmly on the neatly folded—and beautifully sculpted—sheet, which echoes the gently flowing lines of the robes of those ministering to him.
How should a death bed look? It is perhaps the very neatness of this bed, with its fine and orderly linen, which serves to evoke the comfort which the rite promised to the dying. In the later Middle Ages, the death bed was often conceived as a battleground, in which the devil would try the faith and patience of the sick and dying, in a bid to have them doubt or despair, and so fall away from God. John Aubrey, writing in England at the end of the seventeenth century, recalled that before the Civil War, ‘ancient people, when they heard the Clock-strike, were wont to say, “Lord grant that my last howre may be my best howre”’ (Aubrey 1972: 157).
This dying man’s last hour is a serene one.
Aubrey, John. 1972. Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme, in Three Prose Works ed. by J. Buchanan-Brown (Fontwell: Centaur Press)
‘How the Lord is compassionate and merciful’
Commentary by Michael Banner
Gideon Mendel’s photographic project A Broken Landscape sought to tell something of what the HIV epidemic meant in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the twentieth century (before the ready availability of drugs to treat the condition), by means of his photographs and the personal testimonies of those he depicted.
Violet Mwinuka is a homecare volunteer in Ndola, Zambia, and, as she explains, the task of volunteers is ‘to take care of our patients in the way that they need’ (Mendel 2001: 100).
She points out that,
sometimes when the parents are not able to we have to do everything—wash the children, sweep the floor, wash the plates, wash the clothes and cook porridge for the family. When they are very ill all we can offer is our company and support. If they are believers, we will pray with them. (ibid)
Violet holds a sick man in a pose reminiscent of popular medieval images of angels holding up the dead Christ. She supports his emaciated and half naked body with firm but gentle hands, while his own hand falls limply from his enfeebled arm. She holds him in the light, while the inky darkness behind them both could indeed be that of Christ’s tomb. Before them there is an open door, suggestive of the door from life to death through which the man must surely shortly pass. Violet peers somewhat uncertainly towards the door, while the sick man’s visage suggests a resigned yet sorrowful determination.
Though we routinely refer to those who are ill as ‘patients’, we know very well that they may not possess the virtue which James especially commends to those suffering any affliction, including, of course, sickness. And yet when James bids the sick ‘call for the elders of the church’ (v.14), and bids all ‘pray for one another’ (v.16), he recognizes that patience is not simply an individual virtue, but is or can be a ‘coproduction’, as we might say. The poignancy of this picture is just that as this woman bears this man, she does so as one who is hoping to bring to birth a true patient, in the moral and spiritual sense.
Mendel, Gideon. 2001. A Broken Landscape: HIV and Aids in Africa (London: Network Photographers)
‘We call those happy who were steadfast’
Commentary by Michael Banner
There is no scholarly consensus as to whether the writer of the Epistle of James really was James, the brother of Jesus, nor as to the identity of those to whom the letter is addressed: ‘the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad’ (1:1). But about the circumstances of the letter’s recipients there can be greater certainty: the letter is a call to the particular virtues—endurance and patience—needed to withstand trials and tribulations, including especially the injustices and oppressions perpetrated by the rich (2:6; 5:4, 6).
Caravaggio’s altarpiece depicts a small Christian community sorely in need of patience and endurance. They are gathered around the body of Lucy, who according to legend, died as a result of a dagger blow to her throat. She received the last rites and was buried on the site of her martyrdom in Syracuse—a city of which she would become patron saint. Caravaggio painted this as an altarpiece for the church built over the spot where she was interred: the Franciscan basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro.
Like the prophets to whom James appeals (5:10–11) Lucy was steadfast in suffering and patience. In gratitude for a miracle which had cured her sick mother, Lucy had consecrated herself to God and distributed what would have been her dowry to the poor, thereby offending Roman regard for the orderly disposal of both women and property, and perhaps also her betrothed. The disapproving state, which contrived Lucy’s death, is embodied in this painting by the bulky soldier in armour. He stands at far right, arms crossed, overseeing the burial.
Having given the last rites, the presiding bishop now raises a hand in blessing. His mitre is picked out by bright light, but he does not command the scene. He and the party of mourners, perhaps including some of the poor who have received Lucy’s largesse, are dwarfed by the hulking grave diggers and even more by the vast space which opens above their heads—an immensely daring stretch of mottled but otherwise quite featureless canvas, from which much of the mood and power of the picture derives. It surely represents the vast heavens which stand over this beleaguered community, and which illuminate the world below, but somewhat mysteriously. It is under this heaven that the Christian community must endure, patiently waiting like the farmer who looks for the early and later rain (James 5:7).
Maso di Banco :
Sacrament of Extreme Unction, 1337–41 , Marble and glazed tiles
Gideon Mendel :
Homecare volunteer Violet Mwinuka helps to move one of her clients who was ill with AIDS-related infections in Chipulukusu Compound, October 1999, Ndola, Zambia, from A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa (Network Photographers, 2001), October 1999 , Photograph
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
The Burial of Saint Lucy, 1608–09 , Oil on canvas
‘Establish your Heart’
Commentary by Michael Banner
There is no doubt that the sacrament of extreme unction, taking James 5:14 as its foundation charter, served to foster patience in the face of the trials and temptations of the death bed. The tidy bed in the fourteenth-century Florentine depiction of the sacrament speaks of the success of the rite in serving to help the dying overcome the disorder to our moral lives which suffering and death threaten.
And yet aspects of this scene point us towards problems with the practice of this rite and the moral economy of which it was a part. In the first place, the bed is not only neat, but rather magnificent. It is the finely appointed bed of a rich man, and by the later Middle Ages it was only the well-to-do who were likely to be able to command the services of the rite’s clerical practitioners. But in the second place, even for those who could afford the services of clerics, the professionalizing of the death bed bought what comfort it did by displacing the laity from the bedside.
In the late twentieth century it became commonplace to complain of the medicalization of death, but the three professionals hovering round this bed have clericalized death and displaced the dying man’s nearest and dearest as effectively as any modern-day hospital.
Although legend had it that Lucy received the last rites, in Caravaggio’s rendition of her martyrdom she has received them as part of a public death, not in a private ritual. Of course a martyr’s death is ideally a public one. A martyr is a witness—and, in order to be such, martyrs must themselves be witnessed, perhaps especially, as here, by those who have contrived their deaths.
But present at Lucy’s death are also the beleaguered Christian community. They stand with her under the vast and featureless vault, just as the Christians addressed by James exist under heavens which give or withhold their precious and sustaining rain in their own unfathomable time. But James does not imagine the community to which he speaks as mere bystanders, biding their time until things come right. They are to be patient to be sure, but their patience is an active not a passive project, and it is a joint not an individual one. They must ‘establish their hearts’ as a community (v.8), and doing so requires that they sustain and support one another through whatever trials they individually or collectively face. Caravaggio’s Christians form a compact phalanx, suggestive of their solidarity with each other as well as with Lucy as they abide under the trial of persecution and the laconic heavens.
AIDS threatened its victims with another sort of privacy in suffering and death—not the privacy of those wealthy enough to afford the care of professionals, but a privacy of neglect, created by fear and stigma. Gideon Mendel’s preferred medium may be the black and white photograph, but in the context of a project documenting what it means to live with AIDS, the sharp contrast of black and white suggests not only the battle between light and darkness which suffering can represent, but also the harsh moral judgements which afflicted the disease’s victims. Only an individual or community which had ‘established its heart’ (v.8) against fault-finding, fear, and intolerance, could overcome such sequestration of the sick—like the community James seeks to summon into being with his exhortation.
James is not legislating to establish a particular ritual, but is envisaging a rich social practice. The community which heeds his instructions will sustain itself and its members in difficult times by offering forgiveness, praying for healing, and hoping for the gentle rain of God’s compassion and mercy. Violet Mwinuka has raised up the dying man whom she tends, perhaps so that he may see the light which shines through the open door. But she also holds him up to us, the viewer, as the angels held up the dead and wounded Christ in the popular medieval image—not only supporting him in death until he receives new life, but asking whether we will regard his suffering and become with her a member of the community patiently and actively looking for the coming of the Lord.