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?