The Isenheim Altar
This year for Holy Week, I want to share with you four of my favorite paintings of Christ’s crucifixion. It is my hope that as you meditate on these paintings you will come to a deeper understanding of and faith in Jesus.
The Isenheim Altar – Matthias Grünewald, 1515
Scripture: Isaiah 53: 2-4
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. The following commentary comes from the Web Galary of Art.
Background. The following commentary comes from the Web Galary of Art.
“Like a preacher at Passiontide, Grünewald left nothing undone to bring home to us the horrors of this scene of suffering: Christ’s dying body is distorted by the torture of the cross; the thorns of the scourges stick in the festering wounds which cover the whole figure. The dark red blood forms a glaring contrast to the sickly green of the flesh. By His features and the impressive gesture of His hands, the Man of Sorrows speaks to us of the meaning of His Calvary.
“His suffering is reflected in the traditional group of Mary, in the garb of a widow, fainting in the arms of St John the Evangelist, to whose care the Lord has commended her, and in the smaller figure of St Mary Magdalene with her vessel of ointments, wringing her hands in sorrow. On the other side of the Cross, there stands the powerful figure of St John the Baptist with the ancient symbol of the lamb carrying the cross and pouring out its blood into the chalice of the Holy Communion. With a stern and commanding gesture he points towards the Saviour, and over him are written the words that he speaks (according to the gospel of St John iii. 30): ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
“There is little doubt that the artist wanted the beholder of the altar to meditate on these words, which he emphasized so strongly by the pointing hand of St John the Baptist. Perhaps he even wanted us to see how Christ must grow and we diminish. For in this picture, in which reality seems to be depicted in all its unmitigated horror, there is one unreal and fantastic trait: the figures differ greatly in size. It is clear that in these matters Grünewald rejected the rules of modern art as it had developed since the Renaissance, and that he deliberately returned to the principles of medieval and primitive painters, who varied the size of their figures according to their importance in the picture.” (from Web Gallery of Art, “Commentary on the Isenheim Altarpiece”, https://www.wga.hu/index1.html )
Grünewald painted this piece for a hospital treating patients with the “St. Anthony’s Fire,” a disease caused by a fungus in rye that caused great pain, disfigurement and manic psychosis. The scabrous wounds on Jesus’ arms, legs and torso may suggest the wounds from St. Anthony’s Fire. Perhaps the patients took comfort that this Jesus knew what their suffering was like. I cannot look at his painting without being reminded of the scripture quoted at the beginning of this post.