No depiction of the Crucifixion in all of Western art is as stark an image of abject suffering as Matthias Grünewald’s. Canons of beauty were never the object here. Its seeming modernity lies in its refusal to veil the grotesque. The corpus is appalling; it repels aestheticization. Christ does not appear to sleep or transcend the agony of his ordeal. No hint of ultimate tranquility shields us from suffering the sight of a body broken and torn by torment. It is the single, most harrowing image of the Crucifixion, one that implies an executioner who knew his trade.
Until recent times, it has also been the least visited. Few art-and-culture tourists traveled to the Unterlinden Museum, a former Dominican convent in Colmar, to see it.
Grünewald, a contemporary of Albrect Dürer, created the panels of the altarpiece from 1512 to 1516 in a chapel of a hospital and monastery run by Antonite monks in the town of Isenheim, a few miles south of Colmar. Stanley Meisler’s 1999 essay “A Masterpiece Born of St. Anthony’s Fire,” published in the September, 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, is a valuable synopsis of the shifting fortunes of the Isenheim altarpiece:
The monks took their name from Saint Anthony, whom they venerated as a healer and sufferer who pioneered the idea of monasticism in Christianity. The Antonite order operated the hospital in Isenheim largely for those afflicted by a disease known then as “Saint Anthony’s fire.”
That disease (now rare and called “ergotism”) struck down many in periodic epidemics during the Middle Ages. Saint Anthony’s fire set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions. Many victims died.
Saint Anthony’s fire came from the poison of a fungus that clung to rye and was inadvertently pounded into the flour used to make rye bread. The cause, however, was not known in Grünewald’s time. The monks treated the sick with a balm made from herbs and other plants and with prayers to Saint Anthony, who was believed to possess miraculous curing powers. The monks also tried to bolster the faith of the sick by reminding them that Christ – and Saint Anthony as well – had suffered even greater torments. Grünewald’s altarpiece played an important mystical and psychological role in the Isenheim treatment program.
All the pain of the human condition—the God-forsaken loneliness—is in the gesture of that hand. Wretched and abandoned, it is a Good Friday image like none other. It brings us to our knees. At the same time, and after long reflection, it enables us to endure our own existence.