Friday, April 3, 2015

An Altarpiece for the Suffering

“Isenheim Altarpiece,” Matthias Grünewald (painting),
and Niclaus of Haguenau (sculpture). 1512-1516.
(Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is one of the most celebrated masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance. The "Isenheim Altarpiece" is now displayed in the well-lit Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, where visitors comfortably meander among its dismantled sections cordoned off with tasteful stainless steel and glass barriers. This was not always so.

This masterpiece was neither intended for the well-heeled nor the healthy. Neither was the altarpiece destined for a cathedral, nor even a church. It was intended for a hospital of the suffering poor and terminally ill. For the dying, it was a flickering earthly vision of the sacred before death came to call.

Ergotism was among the common maladies cared for in the hospital built by the Brothers of St. Anthony. It was a nasty illness brought on by eating fungus-infected rye grain. It was a disease of the poor. The illness attacked the central nervous system and caused convulsions, hallucinations and gangrenous skin infections. It’s certain end was death. Ergotism – also known as St. Anthony’s Fire – was but one of many illnesses borne by patients of little means at the Isenheim Hospital.

This hell-hole of misery and infection was where Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece was meant to be. For that very reason, it is good to ponder the artist’s piece on this Friday we call “Good.”

One need only look at some of the alternate side panels of the altarpiece to see the fantastically-weird side of Grünewald. He pulled no punches when depicting demonic forces and their affect on the dying – including The Christ.

The crucifixion panel does not spare viewers the ugliness of a tortuous death. Christ’s head has fallen hideously to one side. His lips are blue in death. Jesus’ skin is decidedly green. Tendons have been pushed aside by spikes driven deep, contorting his splayed fingers. Feet are out of joint from bearing dead weight.
Detail of the Crucifixion panel, "Isenheim Altarpiece"

Grünewald’s vision of the suffering Lord is like no other artist’s. The viewer experiences revulsion more than pity. Nails in the hands and feet, a crown of thorns and the pierced side can all be checked off the usual list of Crucifixion must-haves, but the artist added something that certainly struck a chord with the hospital’s suffering patients: Pockmarks of an infected Man.

This is significant. It goes beyond the obvious and points, by means of analogy, to the reality of sin’s total infection. While hanging on the cross, no one would touch that dying, infected body with a ten-foot pole. Not even The Father. The Son became a carrier of our dread disease, but in dying, The King of all creation dragged sin, Satan and death to its own tomb. Even the newness of the sepulcher hints at a macabre quarantine chamber: This place is not sterile. Do not come near this one. Seal it off.

This punishment – not simply a cruel death, but one heaped with the sin of the world – Christ endured. For you. For me.

But thanks be to God that death, sin and Satan were defeated by the dead and risen Christ. The pockmarks of sin sloughed off in the tomb and stayed there. And thankfully, Grünewald saw fit to give equal play to this Resurrected Christ, whose countenance glows as a singular light of the world, shining with His promise of life everlasting.

And that is Good, indeed.

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