A Devastating Work of Art for Holy Week

The unexpected always seems to happen when you least expect it. Deep, huh?

There I was, slogging (and whining) through my civic duty, when I met a new friend who just happened to be a curator for my favorite museum in Tulsa. I was fortunate to not only make a new art acquaintance, but also one who is a follower of Jesus. She and I talked about lots of art during our breaks, and continually showed each other different works on our phones. I was clearly out of my league in terms of art history and criticism in these conversations, but she tolerated me nonetheless. Without a doubt, I benefited from our exchanges far more than she.

As we talked about some of our favorite religious pieces, my new friend introduced me to the Isenheim altarpiece, a triptych best known for its central panel depiction of “The Crucifixion,” painted by Matthias Grunewald in 1515.

This is one of the most haunting works of art I have ever seen. The images by themselves are truly hard to look at under any circumstances. When my new museum/jury duty friend explained to me the story behind why Grunewald painted these reprehensible images, their offensiveness became powerfully poignant. 

1200px-chapel_of_unterlinden_museum_with_isenheim_altarpiece.jpg
The Isenheim Altarpiece was built by Niclaus of Haguenau and painted Matthias Grünewald between 1512–1516. It is currently housed at Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, France. In the central panel, described more below, there is not only the crucified Jesus but also Jesus’ mother with John the Evangelist, and John the Baptist pointing to Jesus while presenting the Scripture from John 3:30 – “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

THE HOSPITAL MONASTERY AT ISENHEIM

The altarpiece was constructed for the monastic Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim, located just on the French side of their border with Germany, in the early sixteenth century. The monks of St. Anthony, known as “Antonites,” were a hospital order who found themselves surrounded by people who were suffering from a vicious sickness known as ergotism. 

Ergotism was a terrible skin disease that was not only deadly, but also extremely painful. Those who faced its worst effects would not only have horrible breakouts and open wounds, but also suffered different types of convulsions and even disfiguration of their extremities.  

Many patients who came to the monastery at Isenheim were not only in severe pain, but they also knew they were likely to die from their disease. The monks sought a way to bring spiritual hope to their patients whose lives and peace seemed to be waning. So they commissioned Matthias Grunewald to paint one of the most unique images of Jesus ever depicted. 

MATTHIAS GRUNEWALD’S “THE CRUCIFIXION”

[BE WARNED: THE IMAGES BELOW ARE GRAPHIC)

Consider this Scripture first: 

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

The mosaic of images below show various close-up views of the Isenheim altarpiece’s central panel image of the crucifixion. In Grunewald’s painting, Jesus truly takes on the affliction, pain, sickness, and evil faced by the people of Isenheim. 

In Grunewald’s rendering, Jesus’ skin is ravaged with discoloration and open sores. He is not only facing the pain and suffering of the cross as described in the Scriptures. His blood flow is clearly disrupted, his fingers are deformed, and his toenails and feet bear the marks of ergotism. He almost looks twisted into knots. It is not merely the pain of the beatings, the exhaustion of the sojourn towards Golgotha, His crown of thorns, or the agony of impalement that is displayed in His suffering. Jesus looks sick. He looks like He has been sick for some time. He looks like a diseased person from Isenheim. 

I cannot even begin to fathom what a person suffering from such a terrible, plague-like illness might have felt. I believe, however, that turning one’s eyes towards Jesus and seeing Him bearing the same marks, symptoms, and pains of one’s own affliction must makes a profound impact. Surely the Antonite monks also read Scriptures like Isaiah 53, 2 Peter 2, Romans 3 and 5, and endless passages from the Gospels to their patients who viewed the altarpiece. I imagine they also comforted they dying with their own hands while singing songs, sharing poems, and potentially utilizing every available medium of the arts. 

The Jesus of Grunewald’s crucifixion has taken not only their sin, but also their sickness and suffering. He hears their prayers. He bears their wounds. By His stripes, they are healed. If not in this life, in the life to come through their trust in Him.  

A THEOLOGICAL COMMENT

To be sure, the Grunewald interpretation of Jesus is not a biblical one. Well, at least not in the sense that it depicts Jesus with complete historical accuracy in terms of His actual crucifixion. Like any artist, musician, theologian, or historian for that matter, the best one can hope for is an accurate portrayal of Jesus as described in the Scriptures; both in terms of His real life and what His death and resurrection mean in the big picture of God’s covenant and redemptive love.

Grunewald captured this. He has captured the “already, not yet” view of the Kingdom in which Christ has not only taken away the sting of physical death and the condemnation of eternal death, but also has redeemed our lives on this earth from the pit. The pain Jesus shares with us is not only in the life to come, but also in this life because He suffered just as we do during His lifetime (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:13-16). 

Grunewald also illustrated powerfully why cheapening or compromising the message of Christ’s death is a deplorable act. Through God’s covenant love and grace, He allowed Christ to become our scapegoat and our advocate. He took our sin and our pain.

He takes our worst pains – whether self-inflicted or life-inflicted – and He places them on Himself. Anything less than a full view of Christ’s atonement is a heinous affront to the fullness of God’s grace, forgiveness, and the wholistic healing offered through Jesus Himself.

This is devastatingly Good News. 

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