In preparation for Palm Sunday, I shared A Devastating Work of Art for Holy Week. The painting I focused on is the central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grunewald in France, in the year 1515.
Grunewald was commissioned to depict Jesus in a way that was uniquely relatable to the patients of Isenheim, a hospital monastery led by the Order of St. Anthony. In the central panel which I detailed in the previous post, Jesus bears the marks of the Isenheim patients struggling with ergotism, a deadly skin disease that was also extremely painful. In Grunewald’s “Crucifixion,” Jesus is not only suffering the effects of the cross but He also looks sick. His skin is discolored with open sores, his fingers and toes are disjointed, and He looks exhausted as one who has had major convulsions.
Ah…but there is more underneath. Like many Renaissance altarpieces constructed in triptych form, the Isenheim Altarpiece can fold open and closed to reveal several more panels and images. Position two, which is seen below, is an open position in which the images of Jesus have taken a completely different tone. On these panels, images of joy, promise, and hope are depicted – the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary, Jesus on His mother’s lap as a child with angels surrounding and, finally, His resurrection. In this position, most likely opened and displayed on different days of the week, Grunewald’s paintings point not to pain and suffering, but to redemption, restoration, and resurrection. It is incredible to me that the triptych comes from the same altarpiece.
What I really want to point us to here is the image of Jesus’ resurrection, which looks almost psychedelic. In the image (below), Jesus is rising from the open grave in colors that point to His transfiguration and ascension as well as His resurrection. The soldiers are sleeping below Him, and death is being crushed in the background.
Pay particular attention, however, to Jesus’ body. In His resurrected body, His skin is no longer discolored. There are no more sores or wounds, except those from crucifixion is in hands and feet. His body shows no disfigurement, no signs of the effects of seizures, and no fatigue. He is made perfect through God’s power.
Through the cross, YES, Jesus has taken our sin and our sickness. On Good Friday He shared in our pain and suffering in this life more than ever before. As we celebrate Easter, however, Jesus’ suffering and death become only part of the story. The true story of Easter is one of hope and victory. Despite the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, we must never forget that there is so much more underneath.
I cannot imagine the kind of pain that accompanied the plague-like disease of ergotism, or its shame and fear. But I can only imagine that seeing Jesus take on their suffering and shame brought about indescribable comfort; but even more than that; seeing Jesus defeat sin, suffering, fear, shame, and death brought unshakeable Hope.
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
–A Devastating Work of Art – the Isenheim Altarpiece
–Great Khan Academy article on the Isenheim Altarpiece