Search Term Friday: The Isenheim Altarpiece

I get a lot of traffic each week on the blog with people searching for the "isenheim altarpiece." I've written a lot about the Isenheim Altarpiece, sharing many of the things I've learned from my colleague Dan in our Art Department at ACU.

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 more 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. Few churches have a Crucifixion scene this difficult as the focal point of worship.

To come to grips with the Grünewald Crucifixion one needs to see aspects of the painting close up. 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:

These are difficult images. So difficult that we might 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, my colleague Dan at ACU has pointed out to me 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 his 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:

I don't understand a lot about what happened at Golgotha. But what I think about the most is how, in the crucifixion, God participated in the horror of the human condition and stood beside--eternally--the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken. Like the congregation of amputees at the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.

Some thoughts on this perspective from Jurgen Moltmann's 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...Christian identification with the crucified necessarily brings him into solidarity with the alienated of this world, with the dehumanized and the inhuman.
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.
But for the crucified Christ, the principle 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...

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: The Isenheim Altarpiece”

  1. Beautiful!

    One day while channel surfing I came across a religious station playing soft music accompanied by videos of breath taking scenes of nature. Which, to a degree, is fine and enjoyable. But it hit me that unless we can see God in a crow eating out of a trash can in a dark, dirty city alleyway as well as we can in an eagle soaring above the mountain tops, then we will simply present Christianity as something too clean and fresh, and not worth the trust, for the very ones it is supposed to pick up and caress.

  2. Around the time he was writing his Romans -- i.e., at the time God was eschatologically invading his space and blowing his mind -- Karl Barth developed an intense interest in Grünewald (my old art professor referred to his style as proto-psychedelic), and above all in the crucifixion scene of the Isenheim Altarpiece. In fact, from that time on, a copy of it hung over the desk in his study. In addition to its profound pictorial theologia crucis, the painting spoke to Barth of -- and he often used it as an illustration of -- the vocation of a theologian: namely, to point to Christ as the the figure of John the Baptist, with his preternaturally long finger, resolutely points to the Crucified One.

  3. The crucified Christ was Paul's dominant image for discussing discipleship (Gal. 2:20. etc.). What he experienced by his overwhelming confrontation with Jesus, whom he was crucifying, was surely multifacited and all-consuming. Paul's personal identification with Christ's death placed him cognatively and emotionally, not to mention spiritually, in solidarity with those to whom your art illustration so profoundly points.

    Thus, the implications are overwhelming for us who make the claim to "follow Jesus." When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride." So we are Icompelled to servant ministry to all people, especially the little, the wounded, the damaged, the nobodies, the offscouring of the world. "He considered being diety not a thing to be grasped but turned it loose and humbled himself..... (Phil. 2). "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." Only by His act, His power power, is this kind of love remotely possible. Triumphalism has no place among such as wear His name. Thank you, Richard.

  4. Patrick, thank you so much for quoting "When I Survey the wondrous Cross". I am a progressive who loves the old hymns, especially the ones that deal with the cross. Because I see in these hymns the poetry that still speaks to the burdens, wounds and pains we carry. My favorite, "Nearer My God to Thee", with the words, "E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me", sings, to me, of how I am moved to reach beyond myself, vertically and horizontally, by the weight I am called to carry. Sometimes it becomes necessary to read Job along with the Gospels; but I think Jesus would have approved.

  5. i imagine christ for the rest of us...
    is a fellowship with
    and solidarity with christ
    who is different,
    who is alien and has been made different.
    i imagine he works amongst people who suffer in this society.
    i imagine The church of the crucified
    is the church of the oppressed and insulted,
    the poor and wretched.
    i imagine God participates in the horror of the human condition and stands beside--eternally--the ugly, cursed, and god-forsaken.
    a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined--
    i imagine christ for the rest of us...

  6. For
    those who enjoy macabre depictions of the “ptoma” to simulate their
    faith, I’ve always been intrigued by Hans Holbein’s - “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” ca.1521. Apparently Holbein’s
    father took him to see the Isenheim Alterpiece as a boy, which no doubt made a
    profound impression. Potentially conceived as a “Predella” to a Resurrection commission,
    this piece remains somewhat enigmatic. Supposedly the model for the piece was
    fished out of the Rhine.

Leave a Reply