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Grünewald Confronts Us with the Reality of Crucifixion

By Canon Ian Morter

As we enter the most solemn time of Holy Week with its focus on the passion and cross of Christ, I thought I would share with you this very visceral depiction of the Crucifixion. Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is perhaps one of the most famous pieces of Religious Northern Renaissance Art. 

It was commissioned for the for the hospital chapel of Saint Anthony’s Monastery at Isenheim, (near Alsace) that specialized in hospital work. The Antonine monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases. Grünewald’s altarpiece was painted just a few years before Luther nailed his Protestant theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517.

Christ is painted life size on the cross at Golgotha, on the left is St Mary, comforted by St John, and at the foot of the cross the kneeling St Mary Magdalen. To the right we see St John the Baptist, the forerunner, he is pointing towards our redeemer, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

The image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-type sores, showing the patients of the hospital that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. The veracity of this work’s depiction of medical conditions is unusual in the history of European art. But what draws me to this portrayal of the Crucifixion and yet also makes it so challenging, is the very fact that it shows us some of the most horrific physical truths of this Roman death sentence. The hands of Christ show us the sheer pain and agony of crucifixion as does his face, contorted in anguish. This is not the idealised depiction of our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross that we so often see in religious art – especially of the baroque period. Grünewald’s visceral style in the Isenheim Altarpiece is something that would not be seen again until the twentieth century, from artists such as Lovis Corinth or Nikolai Ge.

Collect for Good Friday:

Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.