Monday, October 15, 2007

A Purpose for the Visual Arts and the Believer

This image, The Crucifixion, by Matthis Grunewald was presented in detail to our class tonight. Dr. Halla, our professor, seemed to almost get choked up as he described for us the iconography in this altarpiece from the abbey church at Isenheim. This gorgeous work which measures 9 by 16 feet was commissioned by the church at this monastery, which seems like no big deal until you realize that this place was one of the places of hospice for the masses of terrible sick people of the early 16th century. This was where the people dying of the plague or St. Anthony's fire came to die, having no hope of recovery. It is historically understood that the caretakers at Isenheim would take the patients through to look at the altarpiece when they first arrived -- before any other medical treatment would be prescribed. Often, it was the last lovely thing you might see before you died!

There is much that can be said about the other figures in the painting -- John, Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Lamb of God and John the Baptist, in that order -- but the amazing part of the work is the centrality of Christ on the cross. From the perspective of the patients that would have been standing on the floor before the work, this is the only figure that makes sense (for instance, the perspective on Mary is looking down at her). Here they see Christ dead. Behind him, darkness has come over the land (Matthew 27:45), and his head hangs low. Look closely at his arms, which have come out of their sockets -- from the weight of the sin of the world. See how the cross is bowed? "He was bruised for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities".

I'll quote Dr. Halla to explain the significance of why Christ's body looks the way it does: "It has been argued, rather convincingly, that the discoloration and other wounds correspond to the various symptoms of the diseases represented in the convent -- in other words, it is an image of Christ infected with the plague, with St. Anthony's Fire, etc." So Grunewald created this painting for the lowliest of persons to see right before they died that they might know that Christ knows your pain and suffering, he understands your agony, and he bore the weight of your sin in his death!

I LOVE this altarpiece! I felt truly challenged by what it showed, and how artwork can truly minister to the unloveliest of the unlovable. What would this look like in our era, say, with AIDS? Could there be something similar done? I feel as though I am a changed person because I have seen The Crucifixion, and the vision it casts for the role of the visual arts when it comes to ministering to others.

Finally, I leave you with one of the inside panels of the altarpiece, which shows Christ gloriously resurrected. What a contrast! Christ here shows complete victory over sin and death -- don't you just want to sing Hallelujah?


Sarah: said...

Gretchen, this has nothing to do with your post, but I saw on Sara's blog that you asked where to find cheap kid's books. We just bought a bunch of adorable Little Golden books at St. Vincent's for super cheap. Check out your favorite thrift store!!! :-)

Anonymous said...

Gretchen -

This is the altar piece I was talking about that night at small groups. The Northern Renaissance paintings (this one in particular) have a realistic and earthy appearance to them. This altar piece clearly captures the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, which would remind the suffering ones that the One God-Man has already suffered in their place and had taken their sins and diseases. An amazing picture of the gospel!

One day while in SC, I was in the Columbia Art Museum examining a crucifix from the Venetian or Southern Renaissance. A curator (an art student from University of South Carolina) approached me and asked what I was thinking about the painting. The woman knew everything about the painting I was looking at and art history. She loved the soft tones and pastel colors, the Father smiling as his Son is dieing, the almost unrealism of the crucifix which Tintoretto had captured. This was to her the ideal picture of what happened on Golgotha.

In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I preferred the art of the North and in particular its depiction of the crucifixion as a glorious, triumphant event which came through great suffering and sacrifice. As soon as I mentioned the Northern Renaissance, she immediately said that she thought the art of that region and time period was simply too "dark" for her, and that she preferred this depiction.

It is amazing what people will use to cloud their thinking on the death of Jesus, and what they will reject in order to have their own idealized view of the events.

Thanks for posting this picture and reminding us all of the Suffering Servant.

John Meade

Gretchen said...

Sar -- thanks for the tip. Not sure where the thrift stores are here. . .

John -- I'm SO GLAD you know what painting this is! I remember you saying something about it the other night, now. You are absolutely right about the "Northern Trinity" and the accuracy in depiction of Christ's suffering, however dark and brutal. I have loved my class the past two weeks because we have just been looking at art and discussing the theology represented by the iconography! I was going to tell you that one of my text books has your favorite Rembrandt in it! And finally, have you noticed that Mark Dever's new book has snippets of the altarpiece on the cover illustration? I'll show you next time you come into the bookstore (unless you've already seen).

Anonymous said...


I have not seen the cover of the new book by Dever, so you will have to show me next time I am in the book store. Also, what size is the Rembrandt in your textbook? The picture of it in my book is a little too small, so I am a little curious if a bigger version of it can be found in an another book.

Nothing can replace the tradition of iconography which gives real objective meaning to a work of art. So how do we get Josh away from Van Gough and into the good stuff? Just kidding Josh if you are reading this :).

John Meade