St. Anthony's Fire -- Ergotism

DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

PARIS, October, 2000 -- This reporter had the good fortune recently to visit the French village of Lavardin (population 200 plus or minus a few souls) in the valley of the little Loir River. Forty minutes from Paris by the bullet TGV train, this tiny village has a church, Saint Jenest, that dates from the 12th century. The church is in a simple romanesque style and contains extraordinary frescoes and stone carvings. One of the frescoes depicts St. Anthony and sufferers from St. Anthony's fire.

The History of Saint Anthony's Fire

On 15 August 1951 one in twenty of the 4000 inhabitants of another village in France called Pont Saint Esprit (Bridge of the Holy Spirit) went mad. They had hallucinations, writhed in agony in their beds, vomited, ran crazily in the streets and suffered terrible burning sensations in their limbs.

The madness was quickly diagnosed. They were suffering from St Anthony's Fire, a dreaded illness that was common in the Middle Ages. The cause was poisoning from a fungus (ergot) that grows on rye grass. The fungus contaminated the rye flour used in making bread.

Ergot contains a chemical that makes the sufferers go berserk and causes gangrene of the hands and feet due to constriction of blood supply to the extremities. If it is not treated (and this was not possible in the Middle Ages), victims had the sensation of being burned at the stake, before their fingers, toes, hands and feet dropped off.

A Masterpiece Born of Saint Anthony's Fire

Matthias Grunewald's 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece glorified suffering and offered comfort to those afflicted with a dread disease.

In the French town of Colmar near the German border sits one of the wonders of Western art -- a 16th-century polyptych (multipanelled altarpiece) created by an enigmatic figure for a hospital that treated victims of Saint Anthony's fire. The Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as a "sublime artistic creation," and its creator, Matthias Grunewald, have fascinated artists and scholars since the work was first moved to Colmar some 200 years ago.

Commissioned by Antonite monks, the altarpiece was created between 1512 and 1516 for the chapel of a hospital at the order's monastery in Isenheim, 15 miles south of Colmar. There, the monks ministered to patients suffering from the painful and often fatal disease, named (as were the monks themselves) for a figure who himself had known great suffering. The man chosen to execute the commission was a German artist and engineer - contemporary of Albrecht Durer's - whose very name long eluded scholars. A biographer declared him Matthias Grunewald in 1675, and since then - though it has subsequently been determined that his name was either Mathis Godhardt or Mathis Godhardt Neithardt - scholars have continued the tradition of using the misnomer.

The altarpiece Grunewald created is a many-faceted collection of disturbing and uplifting images that unfold as the wings open to reveal a series of scenes. As in most Christian art, the Savior plays a central role, appearing in a terrifying Crucifixion panel and a powerful Resurrection. But in this work, the tortured Saint Anthony is also prominently featured. The two figures seem meant to give hope and consolation to the ill, conveying the message that pain, also, brings one close to God.

Who was Saint Anthony?

Saint Anthony (c.251-356) of Egypt was a hermit and one of the earliest monks. He is considered the founder and father of organized Christian monasticism. His rule represented one of the first attempts to codify guidelines for monastic living.

Anthony began to practice an ascetic life at the age of 20 and after 15 years withdrew for absolute solitude to a mountain by the Nile called Pispir (now Dayr al-Maymun), where he lived from about 286 to 305. During the course of this retreat, he began his legendary combat against the devil, withstanding a series of temptations famous in Christian theology and iconography. In about 305 he emerged from his retreat to instruct and organize the monastic life of the hermits who imitated him and who had established themselves nearby. When Christian persecution ended after the Edict of Milan, he moved to a mountain in the Eastern Desert, between the Nile and the Red Sea, where the monastery Dayr Mari Antonios still stands. Here he remained, receiving visitors and, on occasion, crossing the desert to Pispir. He ventured twice to Alexandria, the last time (c. 350) to preach against Arianism, a heretical doctrine teaching that Christ the Son is not of the same substance as God the Father.

The early monks who followed Anthony into the desert considered themselves the vanguard of God's army, and, by fasting and performing other ascetic practices, they attempted to attain the same state of spiritual purity and freedom from temptation that they saw realized in Anthony. Anthony's spiritual combats with what he envisioned as the forces of evil made his life one long struggle against the devil.

The devil's assault on Anthony took the form of visions, either seductive or horrible, experienced by the saint. (This is according to St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria.) For example, at times, the devil appeared to Anthony in the guise of a monk bringing bread during his fasts, or in the form of wild beasts, women, or soldiers, sometimes beating the saint and leaving him in a deathly state. Anthony endured many such attacks, and those who witnessed them were convinced they were real. Every vision conjured up by Satan was repelled by Anthony's fervid prayer and penitential acts. So exotic were the visions and so steadfast was Anthony's endurance that the subject of his temptations has often been used in literature and art, notably in the paintings not only Matthias Grunewald, as mentionned, but also of many other artists ranging from Hiƫronymus Bosch and Max Ernst.

From these psychic struggles Anthony emerged as the sane and sensible father of Christian monasticism. The rule that bears his name was compiled from writings and discourses attributed to him in the Life of St. Anthony and the Apophthegmata patrum and was still observed in the 20th century by a number of Coptic and Armenian monks.

Anthony's popularity as a saint reached its height in the Middle Ages. The Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony was founded near Grenoble, France (c. 1100). This institution became a pilgrimage center for persons suffering from the disease known as St. Anthony's fire (ergotism).

Ergotism

Ergot contains ergotamine. In moderate doses, ergotamine causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in small arteries. Ergotamine has been used to control hemorrhage (bleeding) and to promote contraction of the uterus during childbirth. It is also used to treat migraine headaches (its major use today).

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony's fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

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Last Editorial Review: 4/8/2002

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