Sister Wendy had this to say about the Crucifixion Panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece “In this noble veracity, Gothic art reached an electrifying greatness.”
Matthias Grünewald, a German Gothic painter, lived during the time of the High Renaissance but chose to ignore that artistic revolution. A contemporary of Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Durer, all Renaissance masters, Grünewald followed his own path and we see in his works the last great flowering of Gothic Art.
Many of Gruenwald’s works have not survived, but what we have is powerful. He paints with a free imagination and truthfulness that was unique in his time. Soon the Reformation and Counter-Reformation would bring restrictions on religious art, demanding that artist conform to the dictates of the church. Within those confines Gruenwald’s expressionistic portrayals would have become difficult.
Centuries before expressionism is a movement, Grünewald, is painting with a terrible emotionalism that exposes the horror of suffering. At the same time, his work demonstrates an unwavering conviction of salvation. As an artist, he is truly a unique talent and one who is often overlooked.
Gothic art is often concerned with suffering, particularly as it relates to sin. German meditation practices leaned toward dwelling on and exaggerating Christ’s suffering, which was necessary due to our sins. This creates a context for unusually graphic and disturbing crucifixion paintings. Grünewald takes that to a whole new level in this work.
Grünewald’s disturbing image of Christ had a model in the plague crosses. In the 1340’s the Bubonic Plague had swept across Europe and Asia. Estimates now are that 50-60% of the population died in a 4 year period. It would take 200 years for Europe’s population numbers to recover. Smaller outbreaks of the plague continued for centuries.
A catastrophe of that magnitude, particularly when doctors and leaders couldn’t understand the transmission or treatment of the devastating disease, left a scar on the collective psyche of a continent. In response many people took to carrying crosses where Christ physical and emotional torment is clear. These images seemed to give hope and comfort to people that Christ really did understand their ordeal, could empathize with their weaknesses.
The Crucifixion that we are looking at is one of many paintings on a complicated altarpiece commissioned for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim. Physically, the Altarpiece has multiple moving parts, and can be difficult to picture in the mind’s eye.
In one of my video’s we examine Peter Paul Rubens’ Triptych of the raising of the cross. That triptych had hinged panels on each side that could be folded in, a fairly simple concept.
What Grünewald has created is a poly-triptych, layers of hinged panels that can be opened to reveal three levels of images. Complicating the piece further is that this is a multimedia piece combining Grünewald’s paintings with the sculptures of Nicolaus of Haguenau (Nikolaus Hagenauer). The following are the three views of the altarpiece.
The Isenheim Altarpiece Crucifixion painting is the one that shows when the altar is closed. This is the image that anyone viewing the altar during the week would see.
When opened on Sundays and other feast days the paintings in the next level are full of light and God’s glory, showing the Annunciation, Christ birth, and his resurrection. The light of this series contrast sharply with the darkness of the crucifixion scene.
The final level is revealed when those paintings are folded back and groups of statues are uncovered. The central and largest is St. Anthony, and he is flanked by St. Augustine and St. Jerome. There are smaller carvings of Guy Guers, who commissioned the work, two bearers of offerings, and in the predella at the bottom we find Christ and the twelve disciples.
It might help to think of it as a layered cabinet with multiple doors. The altar was only fully opened to reveal the statues on St. Anthony’s Feast Day and other High Holy days the priest would deem appropriate.
However, the Crucifixion is the image that most of those in the monastery would see on a regular basis.
The Antonite monastery was attached to a hospital. The hospital treated peasants with no one else to care for them who had skin conditions, primarily St. Anthony’s fire. Today we call the disease ergotism, and it is caused by a fungus that can grow on grains like rye. The fungus causes an outbreak of convulsive symptoms along with gangrene and skin lesions. Oddly, the fungus is the source of LSD which makes sense when we consider the hallucinations the disease brings on. In the case of ergotism the patient has been exposed, or poisoned by the fungus over a period of time.
The hospital also treated patients with leprosy and plague, as they too were considered skin diseases. It was a place of intense suffering for its patients, and a difficult place to work.
The altarpiece was meant to support the patients in their suffering and to remind the hospital staff that ‘in serving the least of these’ they serve Christ. Painting Christ skin with the afflictions common to the patients encouraged both groups whose lives revolved around the hospital.
Grünewald not only had the patients in mind as he painted, he actually did the painting in the hospital. For the 6 years he worked on the painting he saw first hand the suffering and based much of his imagery on the torments he witnessed the patients suffering.
This altarpiece is a retable, meaning it is freestanding and sits on the altar. The base of the altarpiece elevates it above the altar which is necessary so that the opening wings are up high enough so that they don’t knock over the elements, candles, or other items that might be placed on the altar. The base of an altarpiece is often referred to as a predella in Italian, but in German the base was called a sarg.
Sarg is short for sarcophagus, a fitting name in this case as Grünewald has painted Christ’s sarcophagus there. Often a lamentation over Christ is painted in a sarg, as we see here.
While we won’t spend time on the other paintings in this altarpiece, each of them deserves their own post, I do want to note the two saints pictured on either side of the crucifixion. The one on the left is St. Sebastian, the one on the right is St. Anthony. Both saints were known as healers, so appropriate for a hospital.
St. Anthony was believed to be able to cure ergotism, that is how the disease came to be known as St. Anthony’s fire. If we look at the skin of Saint Sebastian, particularly around his waist we will see that his wounds have begun to blacken with gangrene, much like the wounds of patients in the hospital.
The Symbolism of the Center Panel
When we view this painting we must face the truth of the cross. Grünewald gives us no room to gloss over the ugliness of the event. As horrific as all crucifixion paintings are they often also contain elements of beauty, here in the figure of Christ there is only ugliness.
J.K. Huysman, a novelist and art critic, described the painting this way. “A kind of typhoon of unrestrained art, which carries you as it passes…you leave it in a state of lasting hallucination.”
The Isenheim Altarpiece crucifixion is a highly symbolic work.
This presentation is not meant to be a dramatic re-enactment of the scene, like Rubens’ raising of the cross is. Here instead we have a highly symbolic piece, a meditation on suffering. In many ways the painting is a metaphor for the degradation and horror that humanity is capable of. But with all that, the painting is not without hope. We are meant to contrast the repulsive, brutalized Christ with the supreme mercy that Christ has extended to us through his suffering. The lamb at the foot of the cross reminds us that there is divine purpose and grace at work here.
On the right we have John the Baptist, he appears stoic and unmoved by the scene before him as he points to Christ.. The Baptist’s presence in this painting reinforces the idea that the portrayal is symbolic. John was not present at the crucifixion; he had already been martyred. Therefore, we know that his inclusion has nothing to do with a literal, historical representation of this moment. We must look elsewhere for the message Grunewald is sending.
John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ, preparing the way for the work Jesus would do.
In our painting, John stands barefoot, a sign that this horrific scene is also holy ground. He wears the skins of animals to remind the viewer of his own time in the wilderness. John is carrying a Bible, another nod to the symbolic nature of the work, as the New Testament had not been written yet. Presumably, the Bible is opened to the part of the gospel that contains the words that are painted above him. The Latin reads, “He will increase while I decrease.” To emphasize this message we see that Grünewald has used hieratic scale and painted John significantly smaller than the Christ figure. This was a common device used in Gothic art to clue the viewer in to the relative importance of each figure. A shrinking John the Baptist makes visual the writing above him.
The Lamb of God
John and the lamb at his feet, are included to balance the message of the painting. They bring in elements of redemption, creating a visual representation of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.
The Agnus Dei, or the Lamb of God, is often pictured with John the Baptist who, upon seeing Christ declared, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
The lamb holds the cross, uniting the imagery of the Passover lamb with the sacrificial Christ. The lamb has a chalice at its chest, and blood flows freely into the cup, a very direct reference to the communion wine. The lamb’s blood and Christ blood dripping from his feet are deliberately placed in close proximity.
Combination of Sap and Blood
Trees are a symbol used throughout the Bible, most significantly we have the Tree of Knowledge, which Adam and Eve partook of which sent humankind from the Garden of Eden, The Tree of Life which appears in both Genesis and Revelation, and the “tree” on which Christ was crucified. Around this enduring symbol writings grew up which were referred to as the Spiritual Woods, one of these was a book by Father Fridolin. Bryda argues that Grunewald was familiar with Fridolin’s writings and wove the ideas of the Spiritual Woods throughout the images in the altarpiece.
Simplifying the idea, the sap or resins from wood was used in healing, particularly in the healing of those with skin conditions like Saint Anthony’s fire. The Antonine monks would have been very familiar with the processes of creating and using the resins in their work.
The sap of the tree was physically healing just as the blood of Christ is spiritually healing. In both instances the outer layer (bark or skin) must be pierced to release the liquid within.
Visually, we can see this idea of the connection between Christ/tree and blood/sap most clearly in a close up of Christ feet in the crucifixion panel. Here his feet are inexplicitly not resting on the support below them. Instead they hang just above, and the nail that is driven through his feet also pierces the wood of the cross. At that juncture it appears that the cross itself is bleeding. In fact, at that point Grünewald creates two colors of paint, one resembling blood and the other a darker resin. He painted this impasto, or with physical shape to it, as it streams down the wood in two streams. In the same way the lamb who bleeds into the communion cup bleeds from its chest at the juncture with the cross, linking the two.
In the Resurrection painting of the altarpiece there is a tree stump that further expands on these ideas. While a tree’s bark must be pierced to obtain it’s resins, just as Christ skin must be pierced to access his blood, that is not the end. The tree had to be chopped down to create the cross that Christ would hang on, sacrificing its entire body. In the same way, Christ had to do more than bleed on the Cross, he had to die, his body a sacrifice.
Gregory C. Bryda, The Exuding Wood of the Cross at Isenheim, expands on these ideas.
The Body of Christ in the Isenheim Altarpiece Crucifixion
Christ is hideous, intensely disfigured; his emaciated body contorted in death. We can see by his blue lips that he is thankfully dead, the pain of the past day now behind him. His skin in particular is marred and swollen with thorns, many of the wounds already infected and blackening. The work truly is a vision of hell on earth.
The crossbeam on which Christ hangs is bending under his weight, his arms elongated and disjointed as they have given in to the weight of his body. As we gaze at that beam we are drawn to the excruciating detail of Christ’s hand, it has been described as a physical scream. That small part of Christ body summing up the suffering of the night.
Even Christ’s loincloth is torn, lacerated, and twisted as if mimicking what has happened to the body of Christ. His feet are contorted, unnatural with their blood dripping off of the wooden projection under them and onto the ground.
Alone in his torment, forsaken by his disciples, and then God the Father, this is the darkest hour of Christ’s passion. Grünewald has intensified this message by the immensity of the darkness that forms the background. The blackness envelops the eerie landscape barely glimpsed in the lower third of the painting.
Using dissonant colors and stark lighting Grünewald has created a terrifying vision that was actually meant to comfort those who viewed it with the knowledge that they had a savior who understood their suffering.
The opposite side of the painting contains the grief and mourning of the apostle John and the two Mary’s. The Virgin Mary swoons in the arms of a young John, both with expressions of grief as they mourn Christ’s death. Mary’s veil strongly resembles a shroud, showing her willingness to identify with the death of Christ. Her hands are lifted, in grief or in prayer.
At her feet is Mary Magdalene, identified by her long flowing hair and jar of ointment. While the woman who interrupted Simon’s feast and anointed Christ feet with expensive oil, washing them with her tears, and drying them with her hair was not identified as Mary Magdalene, tradition holds them to be the same woman. Tradition also holds that after that event Mary never cut her hair again, and she is always painted with long, flowing hair.
Her hands raised in grief echo Christ’s, with the contorted, painful positioning of the fingers. Mary Magdalene was a very popular saint, largely because people related to her. She was both a great sinner, and greatly beloved of Christ. In a time parishioners were taught to fear for their salvation, and to believe they would be sent to purgatory for a time commensurate with their debt, even believers were frightened of dying.
Therefore, Mary, in her imperfection but beloved state was an encouragement. She was also an encouragement to a third group of viewers of this work. Family would have visited patients at the hospital, they would have understood grief. Most who came into this hospital had terminal diseases and were soon to die. John and the two Mary’s, deep in mourning, are figures they can relate to emotionally.
The Isenheim Altarpiece Crucifixion was created as a meditation piece for a specific set of people, monks who tended the sick, the patients themselves, and their families. In each case the painting shows that Christ understands their afflictions, their challenges, and their pain. Whether that pain is physical, emotional, or spiritual, the blood of Christ offers a solution.
When I look at this picture, and cringe, I’m reminded of the verse in Isaiah that says, ‘by His wounds we are healed.”
The believers in Isenheim believed that Christ was pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. The message of the cross is inescapable here. Humanity is guilty and in need of hope and healing. Christ is the great physician and offers health to the broken, but healing comes at a great price. The message of the cross was meant to convey the great love of God, willing to suffer to save his creation.
Additional resources on the Isenheim Altarpiece
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.