Today we commemorate Christ’s crucifixion. I have found myself meditating this week on an old altarpiece from a chapel in Isenheim, Germany, painted in 1512 by Matthias Grünewald. Of the thousands of extant paintings of the crucifixion, this one most powerfully depicts suffering and death as yet unrelieved by the resurrection.
The basic composition is straightforward. The crucifix is the primary focal point, centered, and without any perspectival distortion. To the left John the Apostle comforts the Virgin, while Mary Magdalene prays to Christ. To the right John the Baptist (identified by his sheep and book) points to the Son of God. So far, it’s a relatively normal crucifixion scene. (To view a larger version in a new window while you read, click here.)
This painting is the primary image of a multi-part altarpiece, and in its primary position is flanked on either side by paintings of St. Sebastian and St. Anthony. In the second position it yields to the celebrations of the life of Christ, including the annunciation and resurrection. Most of the year the primary scene would be shown, while on Easter Sunday and certain other Church holidays it would change to the second position. Of all the paintings on this altarpiece, the crucifixion is the most compelling: its gross depiction of a dying Christ transfixes the eye and refuses to leave the mind. There are thousands of paintings of the crucifixion, but few painters as bold as Grünewald to assert the human fragility and ugliness of an embodied, dying Christ.
Look closely at Christ’s hands and feet, and note the pockmarks in his body. His feet are greenish, the skin loose and the flesh diseased. His hands convulse into claws, issuing from dislocated shoulders. His body is marked allover by small cuts and sores, bristling at times with splinters or sores. These details are not part of the standard injuries of Christ; Grünewald painted them to show a Christ that bears all suffering, especially that of the viewer.
Confused? Here’s some historical background. Many of the painting’s original viewers suffered from Ergotism. Also called ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, the disease is a slow neurological poisoning caused by ergot, a parasitic rye fungus. People who ate contaminated rye experienced hallucinations of demons (ergot produces LSD when refined), burning sensations, and developed dry gangrene in their extremities. The monks of St. Anthony specialized in treating these symptoms, so the sick were brought to this monastery, and would meditate in the chapel during their course of treatment. They arrived in a state of physical and psychological torment difficult to imagine, their skin an eruption of boils, their hands, ears, and feet decaying slowly. If treatment was unsuccessful, these body parts would fall off and the sufferer would die naturally or kill himself in a hallucinatory fit a few weeks later.
Grünewald painted Christ with the symptoms of Ergotism, reminding the viewer not only that the savior is no stranger to pain, but that He is with them in their own suffering. The anachronistic presence of John the Baptist suggests the resurrection and redemption that Christ’s pain brings, and reminds the viewer that he is one with Christ through the baptism. This is the only figure in the composition that does not visibly suffer, but while he reminds the viewer that hope is not lost, he does little to relieve the agony of the painting. St. John bears the inscription, ‘I must decrease and He must increase’–a fitting reminder of the sufferer’s proper response to his own pain. The other figures, too, suggest appropriate reactions: John the apostle catches or comforts Mary as she swoons from the pain of seeing the beloved son suffer. John at once supports her, and grieves alongside her, providing an image of Christian community. Mary Magdalen kneels, praying for or to Christ. All focus their attention on the crucifixion; all grieve, all suffer, but in their suffering do not despair.
As to the rest of the composition, it is a dark wasteland. Good Friday, and the Saturday that follows, are dark days that hang heavily until the resurrection morning. The agony is not made any less deep, less painful or less real by being eventually redeemed. This is Grünewald’s message, powerfully and viscerally conveyed: you are suffering, and Christ suffers. Your condition is not hopeless, but it is real, and excruciating, and in it you must focus on the cross, and knowing that you do not suffer alone, endure. Quietly, he reassures you– redemption and resurrection are coming. Be patient, Christian; suffer with hope. ‘