The Isenheim Crucifixion

"For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." -- Isaiah 53:2-3

Matthias Grünewald must have been thinking about these prophetic verses from Isaiah when he painted the Consummatum Est Crucifixion for the Isenheim Altarpiece. Nine painted limewood panels compose a three-layer deep polyptych that can be rearranged to reveal different iconographic programs appropriate for ordinary or solemn liturgical celebrations. The innermost scene is a sculpted gilded and polychrome group in a style typical of the North countries. While the entire retablo is impressive, the painted panels of the altarpiece executed by Grünewald between 1512 and 1516 mark a singular and serious artistic achievement, of which the remarkable Crucifixion scene will be a focus of this study. Grunewald’s complex and very demanding representation of the death of Christ is one of the most accomplished works of art commissioned for the Church. Grünewald’s work here greatly expands a reservoir of conceptual and aesthetic tropes available to artists who embark on religious themes by re-presenting struggles that tend to shatter neat rational categories precisely by shattering easy aesthetics. In and through the Consummatum Est, this German master takes on a definite and often horrific aspect of human existence - painful and diseased contingency, yet without succumbing to despair or demeaning the supernatural strata of the event he set out to portray. It is for this reason that Isenheim’s Crucifixion panel is of such great religious merit.

Grünewald’s paintings of the Crucifixion, not only for Isenheim but also the several others he delivered during his career, dislocate an overtaxed idea that commendable religious art for the sanctuary works solely by appeal to beauty. In which case, we must ask again what is the purpose of art intended for the sanctuary if it is not just to please and edify? Certainly, the idea behind this interrogation is not to ruse painters, sculptors and designers to flood churches with images of suffering or violence for the sake of eliciting a marked emotional or psychological reaction. The idea is to faithfully search for that fine line between creativity, truth, and articulation that will imbue our religious art with a more authentic substantial power of eloquence and engagement. Grünewald accomplished this in the Isenheim Crucifixion by layering several significant contextual factors together: he painted with a deep and assertive sympathy for the people who were going to pray in front of that altar, he planned the scene with the Abbott who challenged him to include details that burst open scope of the image way outside its temporal-historical moment and thus provided a greater window of possible meanings, he read and prayed relevant Scriptural texts in addition to mystical literature, and finally, he used his great artistic sensitivity to optimize the composition for communicating complex theological mysteries and existential realities.

Grünewald qualifies as a mannerist painter but the style here is a means to an end not and end in itself. It is enough to look at the Italian La Maniera artists who were his contemporaries to realize how singular Grunewald’s perception of art was, downright phenomenological. Whether one wishes to emphasize the expressiveness or the vision-like ambiance of the work – the purpose of comparisons with the Italian masters here is not to establish a hierarchy among artists, but rather to expand the horizons within which truly great artistic work can be negotiated. It is not about whether Grünewald was German, mannerist, or ahead of his time, it is more about how well he fashioned what was at hand to convey such tremendous meaning(s).


Abbott Guido Guersi hired Matthias Grünewald in 1508. His desire was to commission a set of paintings for the altarpiece that was going to be installed in a chapel adjacent to the hospital for the poor and infirm. The infirmary was managed by the Antonine Brothers of whom Abbott Guersi was the head. The sick who found themselves in St. Anthony’s Hospital were often stricken by debilitating plague-like illness that resembled leprosy. They suffered terrible physical trials and since access to effective medicine was severely limited, the sick often sought healing and solace in the chapel. Grünewald painted the Crucifixion – with a central image of Christ who has just died in unimaginable suffering - for the sake of the brothers who took care of the sick and for the sick themselves. But the program goes beyond an identification between the patient and his Redeemer.

Christ’s suffering body dominates the central axis of the panel and minimizes other figures, in and out of the frame – meaning those painted in and those who are looking / praying. In this way, Grünewald straddles the reality of a work of art with the reality of the viewer. Jesus hangs so exhausted, color of a diseased flesh with wooden splinters all over his chest and legs. He is alarming, bulbous, wounded, and disfigured. The visual weight of his tormented figure grounds the landscape behind – darkness proliferating over treeless receding hills with a very slow flowing river, alluding to the water of Baptism – which we all enter to die and be born again in spirit. Other figures, shown mostly in shades of red and white, for blood and water, almost drift compared to the heavy, sinking Christ. Their upward movement is both a cray of pain and a reaching out towards Christ. The dominant curve of the Tau transept seems to yield to his great weight. And then we notice His hands and the straining fingers – He has given absolutely everything and His open, pinned palms seem to radiate this inexplicable generosity, despite the exhausted body. He is transfigured by suffering.

The sick of the Antonine Hospital would have known the legend of a young man whose illness was the occasion for the founding of the order and its hospitals. St. Anthony the Hermit appeared in a dream to Lord Gaston early in the 11th century and told him that his son, sick with the plague will heal if he should plant a Tau cross. The cross was planted, it flowered and bore fruit that healed the young men. Here the fruit of the wood is Jesus Himself – fastened to the tree of the Tau cross. The small Easter Agnus bleeding into the chalice in the foreground, on the right side of the cross, together with the tree of life symbol make a strong allusion to the Eucharist and its healing potencies. We can have some glimpse of the mental landscape of the patients, the brother, and most especially of Grünewald when we also include important literature of the day together with the pious legends of the Antonine Order. The artist’s works especially shows familiarity with the mystical writings of St. Bridget of Sweden and Bl. John van Ruysbroeck who combine gruesome descriptions of the Passion of Christ together with strong emphasis on visions, dream-like quality of reality, and divine love.

The placement of St. John the Baptist in the Crucifixion scene might be puzzling at first sight, but he is there to extend the narrative and thus help the viewer emerge from the shock of pain and sorrow. Documentation narrating how the altarpiece was conceptualized is not available but considering Grünewald’s other works and especially the Crucifixion scenes, we can guess that St. John the Baptist was included at the request of Abbott Guersi. I feel encouraged to make this conjecture based on many years of work with priests on projects of similar scope – a request for an odd detail is always to be expected. And because these requests often defy logic but not sense, they actually help the artist in intensifying the semiotic charge of their works. This is precisely what has happened here. With St. John the Baptist, who was long dead, emphatically situated on the right side of the cross, the time has stopped and the vision we are presented becomes a mystical revelation of the reality and efficacy of physical sacrifice. John holds an open book of prophesies that foretold Jesus’ Passion. The text in red reads: “I must decrease, and He must increase.” The time of redemption is now, though it is also a time of pain and struggle to understand. John’s pointing index finger also plays a role. Like the extended fingers of Christ, it opens out of himself towards the excess of reality that extends past pain without invalidating its terrible realism. The forceful realism of the Crucified body is not all fancy and gore. Grünewald’s depiction is so accurate, it is possible to diagnose the ailment that he painted. This body is not only imagined, the artist has studied pathology of ergotism (aka St. Anthony’s fire).

On the left side of the cross, a group of three figures is arranged – those who were described as having stayed by the cross until the end: St. John the Evangelist, Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen with a stone jar – a trope from another event passed down through the Gospel; an alabaster jar from the past, like the Agnus from yet another realm, collapse disparate time-frames into a vaster reality where past and present merge – the body is contingent, subject to change and illness, but the reality that encompasses the former, the current, and the other – is a spiritualized. There is no future yet, much less any notion of triumph, because the sacrifice is infinitely effective now, at this very moment. If anyone has ever wondered whether materialist spiritualism is possible, Grünewald paints the answer in the Consummatum Est Crucifixion.

Along with the formidable suffering of Christ, Grünewald shows the spiritual martyrdom of the Virgin Mary – Our Lady of Co-Passion. My understanding of the backward bend of her posture, besides the obvious expressive, is a transferal of the death posture codified in the carved German Pietas of the Middle Ages to a painted image. The usual arrangement is that the figure of Mary is sculpted along a vertical while the body of Christ placed on her lap is either diagonal or a slightly a curved horizontal line. This kind of composition was meant to establish a more intimate encounter between the viewer and the Virgin – through cordial sympathy with her grief. In case of the Isenheim Crucifixion, the Virgin is the one who is shown dead albeit not in flesh but in spirit. She is held by the young disciple John – to whom she was entrusted by Jesus. John is holding up a martyred Mother of God - the posture of her body, closed eyes, and the pure, stark white of her mantle that recalls Jewish burial linens, point to the idea of pain to the point of death. She is inconsolable over the suffering of Christ.

Prayer and much meditation is necessary to come to any terms with Grünewald’s portrayal of the Crucifixion. Perhaps it is one of the German master’s great accomplishments – to paint an image that validates the reality of suffering and to render it terrifying and efficacious, and so even imbued with promise and a hope. Faced with the Isenheim Crucifixion, one must realize that it would have been impossible to render a scene this eloquently, unless it was with profound devotion and respect that the image was planned and painted. In this work, Grünewald persuades that art and, by analogy, God move not only in the realm of the beautiful but also in the realm of the inexplicable and the truly crushing.

The Isenheim Altarpiece survived the torrents of history until 1794 when it was taken apart and removed from the church, and consequently from its intended liturgical use. Its three separated layers are currently on display in the Unterlindedn Museum in Colmar, Alsace (France).

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