Lenten Journey with Art #1
I’ve created a twelve part series of Lenten meditations based upon classic pieces of art. The first is below. If you are interested in getting the others as weekly emails you can sign up at this link: https://mailchi.mp/3490068acf73/artlent
Mattias Gruenewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1515
Surely Mattias Gruenewald’s depiction of the crucifixion is one of the most visceral and shockingly graphic presentations of that event in all of art. These days we have tended to de-emphasize the brutality of what took place at the cross. The crosses which hang in our sanctuaries or as jewelry around our necks are a far cry from the instrument of capital punishment reserved for those whom the Roman Empire wanted to put to death with the utmost suffering and shame. Gruenewald’s painting is completely lacking in sentimentality, and he takes us into the full horror of what Jesus experienced. Like Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the focus here is upon the physical pain and suffering that Jesus experienced. The horizontal bar to which Christ’s hands are fastened bows under the weight of His body, and His fingers are splayed in agony at the point where the nails have pierced his palms. His head slumps forward, as blood from the crown of thorns runs down His face. His body is covered with grotesque open scars and hideous discoloration. John the Baptist, on the right side of the composition with a lamb at his feet, points to the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, as Mary swoons in horror at the sight of her beloved Son undergoing such agony, her fingers interlocking as an expression of her grief. It is a somber image, one from which we might be tempted to turn away. This painting was originally part of an altarpiece designed by Gruenewald in the late fifteenth century for the chapel of a hospital in Isenheim, Germany, which specialized in treating those who suffered from St. Anthony’s fire (ergotism). It was a disease that manifest in festering sores all over the body and ended in a gruesome and inevitable death. Little could be done to treat it except to alleviate the pain as much as possible and sequester its victims away for treatment. It was this hopeless and helpless setting for which this painting was commissioned, and it was placed at the altar where the patients would come to pray. Consider for a moment how this image might have affected them. This suffering Christ was covered in hideous scars not unlike those which covered their bodies. Surely, He must have experienced the same torments and shame that they felt. His festering body as repulsive as their own. This was never meant to be an image to grace the walls of a cathedral, where it might have been considered off-putting and ugly. But it was the perfect image for this space—a reminder to those in great pain that Jesus came to bring healing for their souls. He could fully identify with their suffering and shame. As Isaiah writes of the coming Suffering Servant: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Looking up from where they knelt, these patients would feel the empathetic love of God flowing in their direction.
Terry Glaspey is the author of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know