A Good Friday Meditation: The Isenheim Altarpiece

As a Good Friday meditation some reflections from 2012 about 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 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 on Good Friday. 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 selections 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 them...in 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...

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5 thoughts on “A Good Friday Meditation: The Isenheim Altarpiece”

  1. Someday I hope to visit Alsace and see the full altarpiece, but in the meantime--much closer to home--I can always visit "The Small Crucifixion" by Grunewald at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. It's the only Grunewald painting in a US museum. The figures are rearranged, and John the Baptist and the lamb are dropped, but the image of Jesus is much the same. Well worth a visit to Washington!

  2. Richard,
    I appreciate this post and these meditations. I came across an earlier version when I first found your blog and was very struck by it then. I like as much the likely motivations for such an altar piece as the details of the piece as well.

    The Moltmann quote I don't remember, but it, and yesterday's discussions around portrayals of Jesus, prompts some reflections of my own.

    In the past, as a "believer," I found Jesus hard to relate to, to be honest, and for a variety of reasons: how he was portrayed, first and foremost: not just as American, not just as a white suburban American, but also as a kind of enforcer of a particular almost preppy, big man on campus mentality, and not only heteronormative and "obviously" politically conservative, but as though unquestionably disgusted by "some people's" temptations, someone who would *never* consider engaging in x, y, or z behavior.

    Even in my own readings of the gospel, I saw him as too perfect, always right, struggling, if at all, only for the benefit of the viewers back home. In short: I was not born in the genteel South nor into Northeast money, I didnt letter in the right sports in highschool, I didnt understand the American sports metaphors in the sermons, and didnt find jokes about "others" (usually gays) to be funny, ("you're too uptight brother! And too sensitive") so in his light, I was perpetually in a shadow.

    The biggest source of my alienation however, was that Jesus was a guy who had a great relationship with his father, as did, seemingly, every glib [censored] preacher who took the pulpit each week. And they all seemed to absolutely crow about how awesome and perfect their lives were. And i assumed Jesus was complicit with that and, even, that crowing was what he expected, as though it brought him glory.

    In contrast, my experience with some of those entrusted with my care as a child involved issues and lived realities I still have difficulty even naming, much less addressing. So where did all that leave me? I was at best, a blemished runt in the herd and not at all fit for the temple.

    Imagine my relief then to discover Jesus as presented in the letter to the Hebrews: one who was not only tempted, but tempted in every way; and not only in every way, but "just as I am;" and not merely as a technicality, to establish a strong shaming point by which to manipulate future believers, but who suffered when he was tempted, which I took to mean that as a human person he often wanted to do all those things with which he was tempted and resisted only at great cost to himself. Blasphemy to some, and not a belief I could share with many others, but lifesaving to me.

    As I consider reentering the very personal fray that belief is for me, the image of Jesus I find in Anabaptist and other ant-domination system writings is very helpful. That is the Jesus I needed all this time. As is the Christus Victor in your writings here. And the Moltmann quote. They return me, somehow, to the sweet incense and icons and chanting of the church community that was my one refuge in my early childhood.

    I need an altar piece that portrays Jesus as wounded on the inside, who has had significant pieces of his identity and of his emotional health mutilated, rotted out, or violently cut off.

    I find to my constant surprise and frequent chagrin that the God in whom I have so much difficulty believing keeps handing me a paint set and saying "Beautiful, I agree. Get to work. Paint it yourself." The truth, grace, beauty, and honesty I encounter on this blog and in so many of the comments provide deeply useful sketches for what is I have to do. I appreciate all of it. Happy Easter to all of you.

  3. The powerful love God when He's up there and invisible: they can claim that money is the sign of being on God's right side, while its lack is a sign of not being in God's standing. And being up there and out of sight, God can't contradict this now idiomatic dogma of the powerful.

    So what happens when the creator meets the created face to face?

    The answer is found in "Good Friday". The Powerful are scared that God has become visible and and able to contradict them rather than subsidize their robbing people of their lifetime; they crucify god and make it all look legal. And those who saw in Jesus' face the possibility that here was the real nature of god, become stunned in bewilderment.

    Two groups of people meeting the creator face to face with two different reactions: one licking their chops over their subsidy remaining intact, the other feeling their gut wrenched.

    Who is this Jesus, and why is my gut so wrenched in my time-- not theirs?

  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-IvNWAWQ08

    Don't forget the panels of saints being attacked by demons and arrows, or the demons creeping up on Mary at the Annunciation. The only panel where someone terrible isn't happening is the resurrection.

    It's a shame we don't know more about Grunewald. We at least know his theology wasn't rated G.

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