Ugly: Part 5, The Isenheim Altarpiece

In the last post we left with the question: Why the cross? Why is ugliness at the heart of the Christian faith?

Perhaps one answer comes to us from the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Matthias Grünewald some time between 1512 and 1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim (then in Germany). This complicated work of multiple panels depicts four biblical scenes, the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and the Resurrection. The first view of the altarpiece is of the Crucifixion (upper panels) and the Lamentation (lower panels). The Crucifixion panels are by far the most famous aspect of the altarpiece:

The Grünewald Crucifixion is considered to be one of the most horrific and painful crucifixions ever painted. Perhaps more horrific crucifixions have been painted since the Isenheim Altarpiece, but relative to the genres of its time (and even today) the Grünewald Crucifixion remains unique in the risks it took. But more than this, the fame of the Isenheim Altarpiece is largely due to the fact that this Crucifixion scene was used in a church. Rarely if ever has a scene of such graphic horror been used regularly as the central image of a worship space.

To come to grips with the Grünewald Crucifixion one needs to see aspects of the painting close up. I appreciate Dan letting me use some of the detail images he brought to our class last week. First, a close up of Jesus' body:

One can see the torn flesh with many pieces of thorns or wood embedded in the body from the scourging. Even more difficult is the sickly green coloration that is employed:

The pain and wretchedness of the Grünewald Crucifixion are particlarly notable in the twisted and unnatural position of Jesus' hands and feet:

These are very difficult images. So difficult that we must ask: How could this horrific picture be the central worship image of a church?

The answer to this question comes from noting that the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as "Saint Anthony's fire." In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony's fire described ergotism like this: "a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."

The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony's Monastery worshiped, and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined, they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

In a fascinating insight, Dan noted for us that when the Crucifixition panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece are opened we notice the following. In the upper panel, upon opening, the right arm of Jesus is separated from his body. Below the Crucifixion scene in the lower panels depicting the Lamentation the same opening separates the legs of Jesus from his body. In short, as the Isenheim Altarpiece is opened Jesus becomes an amputee, losing an arm and legs. We can only imagine the power of this imagery among a congregation of amputees.

You can see Dan's observation best in the following image. I've highlighted the division in the panels with a bold white line. Again, note how when the panel is opened the right arm (in the upper picture) and the legs (in the lower picture) become detached from the body:

In many ways the Isenheim Altarpiece is the artistic embodiment of my entire theology of ugly. The aesthetic qualities of the Grünewald Crucifixion are ugly, repulsive, and horror-filled. But when we think of this altarpiece sitting in front of the St. Anthony congregation we suddenly see it as beautiful. The painting is horrific because God has entered the horror. The painting is ugly because God became ugly and stood in solidarity with the ugly.

Jurgen Moltmann said it like this in his book The Crucified God:

"The crucified Christ became the brother of the despised, abandoned and oppressed. And this is why brotherhood with the 'least of his brethren' is a necessary part of brotherhood with Christ and identification with him. Thus Christian theology must be worked out amongst these people and with concrete terms amongst and with those who suffer in this society." (p. 24)

"Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman." (p. 25)

"The church of the crucified was at first, and basically remains, the church of the oppressed and insulted, the poor and wretched, the church of the people." (p. 52)

And my favorite quote (p. 28, emphases added): "But for the crucified Christ, the prinicple of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful... but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly..."

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5 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 5, The Isenheim Altarpiece”

  1. That is a wonderful picture. Thanks for sharing it.

    I read Moltmann's Crucified God recently and loved bits of it, especially some of the stuff on the Trinity which I hadn't really thought through properly before. But I was a bit disappointed that he didn't spend much time explicitly outlining the implications of what it therefore means to pick up our cross and follow him, to grow into Christ's image, etc (there is only so much you can do in one book, though, and I appreciate that it was published more or less at the same time as Gutteriez's Theology of Liberation, so he might've included more had he had a chance to read that first)

    Can you recommend anything he later wrote where he does pick up these themes?

    Thanks in advance!


  2. I first saw the altarpiece in Eugene Monick's Evil, Sexuality, and Disease in Grunewald's Body of Christ. It was his premise that the disease that left the depiction of Christ's body severely pocked and gangrenous was syphilis, in the image of the patients of the monastic hospital.

    I used to watch "ugly" movies (Seven, Pulp Fiction) in my quest to know that God is not always revealed in the light but also in the dark. Now I find it difficult to overwhelm my senses in such a grotesque manner. Art, however, has the ability to be powerful without being entirely repugnant.

  3. Hi Tim,
    Unfortunately, as a psychologist, my theological reading is spotty. Like you the only Moltmann book I've read is The Crucified God. I also have similar questions about praxis. For example, here is a passage I'd love to see unpacked in the life of the church:

    "Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted the proclamation that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself." (p. 19)

    I did not know about that book, thanks for mentioning it.

    Movies are a mixed resource in exploring the spirituality and morality of ugly. I'm thinking of adding a post in this series where people can recommend good media resources for theological reflection on this topic.

  4. Dr. Beck,

    As to the question, "Why the cross? Why is ugliness at the heart of the Christian faith?," let me direct you to a podcast that relates part of the answer, according to the church fathers. In this podcast, Father Thomas Hopko (Ph.D; Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Seminary), discusses the problem of the Cross. Although his talk addresses more specifically the subject of taking up one's cross, he also deals with the necessity of the Cross; that is, why was it important for Christ to die on a cross, in particular. The podcast is about 37 minutes long, but I think you will find it well worth your time.

    Go to the following page, then click to hear the podcast entitled, "Sunday of the Cross," which was added on March 29, 2008.

  5. Andree Hayum's ` The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's medicine and the painter's vision' is, inmyop the best, most comprehensive exegesis of this work......

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