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And all was Revealed to Him

And all was Revealed to Him

Full of surprises: a routine cleaning of a 16th century painting revealed this representation of Christ with breasts

Scraping away layers of paint from an old convent artwork, the restorer could not believe his eyes. John Miller had a look for himself

from The Bulletin December 21st 2000

Toward the end of the 16th century, a group of nuns -Augustine sisters of charity -commissioned a painting of Christ. They loved him, they told God and each other, because he gave the world life like a mother gives her baby milk. And so they asked the artist to provide their Jesus with a woman’s hips and breasts.

The painting, Lamentations around the body of Christ, was hung in the nuns’ hospital-convent, Notre-Dame a la Rose in Lessines, now a splendid museum 100 kilometres west of Brussels. But the breasts, concealed under a further coat of paint in the 19th century, remained a secret until 1993. Then the town of Lessines commissioned Ghent art restorer Bart Verbeek to clean the hospital’s collection of paintings.

“Everything seemed normal at first,” says Verbeek, 46, a practising Catholic who had done work for Ghent’s cathedral and museums. “Jesus looked like an ordinary man until I removed the layer of more recent paint. At first, I was afraid it was a hoax. But subsequent tests confirmed that the painting was genuine.”

According to art and theology experts, theories about Christ’s “womanliness” were relatively common during the Middle Ages. The Lamentations, however, is a unique manifestation of this idea in art.

The painting, by an unidentified artist, is one of many interesting works at Notre-Dame a la Rose hospital, which is open to the public in summer and by appointment during the rest of the year.

Since being saved by local activists after it closed as a hospital in 1980, the museum has undergone an 85-million-BF facelift funded by the Walloon Region and the town of Lessines.

It is one of the country’s oldest hospitals, having existed in some form or another since 1242.

“We’ve kept art and artefacts from its entire existence,” says caretaker Marc Vuidar, a former language teacher who started volunteering three years ago and loved it so much he made it his full-time job. “Unlike other places that were pillaged or burned, this institution was never touched.”

The museum’s furniture, art, chalices and other artefacts are worth hundreds of millions of BE But Notre-Dame’s real interest is the insights it affords into the history of medicine: from healing through God and the Church to modern treatments

The buildings, erected in the 16th and 17th centuries, have the air of a large farmhouse. Gardens and grounds - built to give the nuns self-sufficiency - are well-maintained. Inside, the rooms have been restored to tell the hospital’s story.

In the 13th century, medicine was a pretty basic affair. Half of all women died during childbirth. Anyone who was ill in body or mind was sent to nuns and priests - only the rich could afford doctors. But a succession of small epidemics in cities around 1200 motivated noblemen and merchants to finance religious establishments for the poor and sick.

Noblewoman Alix de Rosoit founded the hotel-Dieu of Lessines in 1242, with money inherited from her husband who died in battle. It was built to “welcome those so poor and weak that they were not even able to beg door to door”. And like most medieval hospitals, it was run by Augustine sisters, who lived in the convent-hospital, preached charity and cared for the sick.

Their patients had first to confess and take holy communion. Then they’d be led to the sick room, faithfully reproduced at Notre-Dame a la Rose. It is decorated with crucifixes, relic boxes and biblical paintings. The ceiling is high because the experts associated sickness with air that was hot, damp and stuffy, while a healthy atmosphere was cold, dry and airy. So no heating either.

The patients were put two or three to a bunk - a luxury in the days when entire families often shared one bed. The sheets were red to obscure traces of blood. The nuns might burn eucalyptus leaves to neutralise the smells and disinfect the air. Every day, two wide doors would open into the chapel, where mass would be conducted for everyone. And so on until you were cured.

Over the years, treatment methods came and went. Bleeding, for example, was a popular cure until the beginning of the 19th century. Illness, doctors believed, was caused by bad blood, and purges would generate new, healthy blood. As well as bleeding knives, the hospital has an intimidating collection of enemas which look like oversized syringes. The idea was that illness was caused by bad “humours”, which had to be ejected from the body.

Trepanning - drilling a hole in the skull to deflate blood clots and congestion -was pioneered at Notre-Dame a la Rose. The hospital has a set of drills for that. “This had an 85 percent success rate,” says Vuidar, who adds that for all these practices, “they knew what they were doing”.

If a wound was infected, the surgeon would saw off (eight kinds of saw on display) the affected limb. There was naturally no anaesthetic. “They would just give you as much alcohol to drink as possible,” says Vuidar. In the 19th century, if you had a psychological, or “nervous” disorder, the medic would use two nodes attached to electric wires and hooked up to a pedal-powered electricity wheel, the patient was then treated with a primitive form of electric shock therapy.

By the 19th century, modern ideas of hygiene meant that each patient had his own bed. The French Revolution had eliminated religious images from the sick room, and the nuns were referred to as “citizens”. Welfare services took over funding from the church. Around 1900, the hospital was turned into an old person’s home and hospital, which it remained until 1980.

The most emblematic figure in the hospital’s history has to be Sister Marie-Rose Carouy, for whom the institution was renamed after her death in 1923. A tough businesswoman, she invented a “miracle” healing cream called Helkiase, which was sold until 1945.

Sister Marie-Rose ran one of the world’s first modern advertising campaigns, hanging signs for the product in railway stations, streets and shops. Peddling Helkiase from India to the United States, she also obtained highly-publicised endorsements from doctors. “It is a disinfectant based on mercury salt,” says Vuidar. “We still don’t know the exact composition.”

Vuidar saves the Lamentations around the body of Christ for the last part of his guided tour. It hangs in a first-floor “bishop’s guest room”, a lavishly-decorated bedroom. In the painting, angels surround Jesus as his fingers close around his left nipple, as if he were lactating. “For the nuns, it made Christ easier to identify with,” says Vuidar. “This is an androgynous Christ who incarnates the virtues of man and woman.”

To a layman, the work might appear heretical but, say theologians, it’s not meant to be taken literally. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote, “There is neither male, nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” “There was much written in the Middle Ages about Jesus’ womanly qualities,” says William Collinge, author of The Dictionary of Catholicism. “There just aren’t many physical manifestations of this.”

A nun in the Middle Ages was supposed to have two kinds of relationships with Christ. She was to be his faithful (and chaste) bride, and she was to imitate him, in all ways possible. There are even stories of nuns wearing false beards and men’s clothes. In that light, an androgynous Christ appears less surprising.

In this painting, Christ may have been depicted with breasts, but many works, like a well-known Man of Sorrows, focussed on his sexual vitality.

Still, it is reasonable to assume that medieval painters and sculptors produced dozens of androgynous Christs that were later mutilated or overpainted. Thanks to modern restoration techniques, the one in Lessines survived.

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