Only about 20 works by the Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald survive, the most famous being the Isenheim Altarpiece, with an agonizing crucifixion scene at the center of the nine-panel work.
It was painted for the Monastery of Saint Anthony, located in Colmar, near France’s border with Germany. At the time the monastery served as a hospital where the monks cared for victims of a skin disease known as Saint Anthony’s fire, which – as the name indicates – was intensely painful. The crucified figure has scourging wounds, which resemble plague-like sores covering his body. Some critics speculate that the artist used the corpses in the hospital mortuary as models for painting Christ.
For the patients at the monastery-hospital, the image of Christ’s ravaged body would have been comforting as well as horrifying, argued the French art critic J.K. Huysmans: “They must surely have found consolation in the thought that this God they invoked had suffered the same torments as themselves, and had become flesh in a form as repulsive as their own; and they must have felt less forsaken, less contemptible.”
For modern viewers, the painting can have an equally strong impact, said Dr. Christopher Atkins of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
“The scene is powerful — and why? It is deeply emotional. We can empathize with someone’s suffering, regardless of the specific causes,” said Atkins, who is the Agnes and Jack Mulroney Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture.
Everyone understands pain, regardless of the cause – and everyone can understand the pain of seeing a loved one suffer, he said, noting the anguish of Mary, who is pictured Christ’s at right side.
Grünewald created his work at a time when religious art could serve an instructional, as well as a devotional, purpose, often with figures from the Old and New Testaments sharing the canvas. Especially in Medieval painting, the crucifixion scene is often filled with symbol and allegory. The skull at the base of the cross in many paintings, for example, is both an allusion to Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” and also a representation of Adam’s actual skull, reflecting the Medieval thinking — with its love of symmetry and order — that Christ’s cross was hewed from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and that the site of the crucifixion was Adam’s burial place.
But crucifixion, a shameful and torturous way to die, was not a frequent subject in art in the early years of Christianity. The first images of Jesus are believed to be those that depict him as a shepherd. The Resurrection was an even later development in the history of Christian art, partly because the Gospel accounts are limited to the discovery of the empty tomb and Christ’s appearances.
Images of Jesus as shepherd and resurrected clearly convey comfort and hope. Yet, speaking to pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square on March 18, Pope Francis said it is through the image of Christ crucified that the mystery of Jesus’ death “as a supreme act of love, source of life and salvation for humanity in every age is revealed.”
With its simple intersecting lines, the crucifix conveys a world filled with both violence and sacrifice, love and cruelty – and the challenge facing each individual in deciding how to live in such a world.
Hysmans, the French art critic mentioned above, was also a novelist and at one time embraced the pessimistic thinking of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Hysmans’ most famous book, published in 1884, was “Against the Grain” (A Rebours), which the New Yorker magazine in a 2015 article referred to a “handbook of decadence.”
Returning to the novel 20 years after its 1884 publication, Hysmans recalled that of all the readers who were shocked by it or praised it, one critic alone, Barbey d’Aurevilly, “saw clear” when he wrote: “After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.”
“The choice has been made,” wrote Hysmans — who, by that time, had returned to the Catholic Church and become a Benedictine oblate.
Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.