Crucifixion in The Isenheim Altarpiece

By Stiven Peter

In his “Conversations with Picasso,” Hungarian photographer Brassai claims that Grunewald’s Crucifixion  awakened Picasso’s creative impulses. Specifically, he attributes Picasso’s extremes, “his amorously irreverent pastiches, his verve, his humor, his cruelty,” to the grotesque impulse generated by Grunewald. Picasso remarked to Brassai, “Do you know the Crucifixion of Mathias Grunewald, the central panel of the altar of Isenheim? I love this painting and I have tried to interpret it…but I have scarcely begun to draw it, when something entirely different results.”[1]

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Karl Barth, Swiss Theologian

But this painting’s significance is not merely restricted to Art History, Walter Benjamin considered the painting the greatest among the paintings in the Basel Museum. In fact, his long-time friend and editor, Gershom Scholem, claims that a copy hung in Benjamin’s for years. Theologian Paul Tillich proclaims the work’s significance by claiming that “it is the greatest German picture ever painted, and it shows you that expressionism is by no means a modern invention.”[2] This claim, whether or not you agree with it,  solidifies the Crucifixion’s importance to German philosophy and theology. But I want to suggest that this work is important to not just a student of art or German philosophy, but to all us today. In fact, the work may speak to us more clearly and urgently today than it did in the 20th Century.

Painted in 1515, the Crucifixion was commissioned by the Antonites, a hospital order of Medieval monks dedicated to caring for those struck by illnesses. Of particular note was Antonite’s care for ergotism, a skin disease caused by rye fungus that caused painful seizures as well as visible pustules and open wounds. Mattias Grunewald was invited to a monastery and was asked to create an altarpiece for the Abbey Church. Patients would meditate on this altarpiece, looking to Christ’s suffering on the cross as a reason for hope in the midst of illness.

Standing 9 feet high and 16 feet wide, the work is the largest crucifixion ever painted in Germany. There is an absent light source, immediately symbolizing the divine presence in the darkness of the cross. The work consists of five figures: Mary the mother of Jesus, John the disciple, The Lamb of God, John the Baptist, and the crucified Christ. The work reads counter clockwise, beginning with Mary and John the Disciple to John the Baptist and the crucified Christ.

At the top left is Mary, mother of Jesus, dressed not in the clothing of 2nd Temple Judaism but in the clothing of the nurses and nuns who would care in the Antonite monastery. She is fainting but is caught by John the Disciple (John 19:26). Mary evokes lifelessness from her eyes emotional exhaustion from her fainting. Next to Mary is Mary Magdalene, visually, being inverse of Mary, showing agonized despair and sorrow in contrast to the mother’s lifeless expression. Their contrast is enforced by the contrast between Mary’s straight lines and Magdalene’s wavy lines around their hands and clothing.

Across from Mary Magdalene is the lamb with the cross, which represents Jesus as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). The lamb with the cross and the chalice invoke the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, in which Christ’s shed blood is poured out for the sins of man. The lamb’s side is pierced, just as Christ’s is, and the blood is collected into the chalice to be drunk for Holy Communion. Next to the lamb is John the Baptist and behind him is the Latin text of John 3:30, “He must increase but I must decrease.” The Baptist embodies this message in his disjointed pointing to the cross, emphasizing Christ as the object of his message.

Finally, Christ dominates the painting physically, towering over the other subjections and the observer. However, it is off-center, generating discomfort. The wood is strained and bends under its weight because Christ carries the sins of the world. Christ himself is a grayish green, reflecting the skin disease common to patients at the abbey. Moreover, his body is covered with same plague-type sores the patients had. Christ’s head is crowned with thorns, his limbs are twisted, and his hands and feet are distorted. These positions also recall the convulsive seizures and spasms of the sick onlookers.

Therefore, Christ carrying the sins of the world is not an image of triumph but humiliation, not hope but despair, not strength but weakness. But, this wretched, crucified man is the starting place for Christology. Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, referencing this grotesque picture, remarks, “wretched, crucified, dead man . . . is the place of Christology [the study of Christ[. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery . . . It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this” (CD I/2, 125). Strikingly, Barth asserts that humanity can only know God through His work, the pinnacle of which is the ugly, wretched cross. The surrounding characters of Mary, John the Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the lamb, and John the Baptist are not aesthetic additions but complete the work in articulating the response to God’s revelation on the cross.

While visually the inverse of each other, both Mary characters posture themselves in adoration of the crucified Christ by folding their hands and directing them towards him. At the foot of the cross, both cry out pleading with God to intervene in their despair. Mary pleads on the side of the caretakers emotionally exhausted trying to heal the world Magdalene pleads on the side of the sick, despairing, and sorrowful.

John the Baptist completes this witness by offering the symbolic interpretation to the Mary’s emotions. He proclaims: the man crucified is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, in accordance to the prophecy of the Scriptures. In turn, the anguish of the Marys gains meaning from its redemptive character in the midst of darkness. Barth comments on John’s posture as emblematic for Christians and the Church:  “this is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognizes God in Christ . . .  It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself . . . John the Baptist too, in Grunewald’s Crucifixion, can only point” (CD I/1, 125).

Speech about God can only be said to be from God insofar as it points to Jesus Christ. By connecting the glory of God to the suffering of the lamb, Barth describes knowledge of God as an encounter that happens precisely at the point of suffering and divine absence. God is known in the particular sufferings of Christ. This God, as opposed to the lifeless God of the philosophers, knows and takes on concrete human suffering. In response, Christians can only humbly point to this divine mystery, as just that, a mystery not comprehended rationally but received in faith. The moment of divine abandonment and human despair is precisely the moment of divine reconciliation and mercy.

At this juncture, Grunewald’s significance for us emerges clearly. Like the original onlookers, we come to the foot of cross sick and in need of healing. While this sickness might include the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s symbolic of a deeper existential sickness that grips us. We see this sickness in our broken political systems, in our polarized social divisions, in our culture of offense and victimhood without forgiveness, in our age of simultaneous narcissism and crippling anxiety. The most simple terms of this sickness is a forgetting of God’s concrete providence and care for us. God is not concerned with abstract speculations  but with the particularities of our suffering. His care for us is specific and demands to be so, embracing all our ugliness, horror, and brutality not as judge but as Father first. “It was for the direct nearness between God and man as between Father and child, and child and Father, that Jesus Christ was born a man and crucified” (CD III/3, 269). Like John the Baptist, I simply point to this crucified Christ, whom I confess, is really God who knows our suffering more intimately than we know it, who resolves to not be absent but near to us, and who demands to restore us and make us whole.

While this is a reality that is only grasped in faith, I believe that no other foundation provides the confidence to wake up and face tomorrow. This faith does need to be great, but only authentic. It confesses humbly: “In the death of Jesus Christ God has humiliated Himself and rendered Himself up, in order to accomplish His law upon sinful man by taking his place and thus once for all removing from him to Himself the curse that affects him.” (Dogmatics in Outline, 111). Grunewald’s Crucifixion confronts us with this truth and demands our decision. Either, this brutalized, afflicted, and ugly man on the cross is truly God and truly with us  or He isn’t. Regardless of where you fall on this question, now or in the future, one thing Grunewald’s establishes universally, is that there is no other God worth believing in than the one that draws near to us and meets us where we are.

 

[1] Brassai, Conversations avec Picasso (NRF: Gallimard, 1964), 36.

[2]Paul Tillich, On Art and Architecture, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 99.

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