“The Crucifixion” from The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald
Today is Good Friday, the day that Jesus was crucified, only to be resurrected three days later. The piece I choose today is one of the most unforgettable images.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is a series of panels created for the hospital, Brothers of St. Anthony. It was painted in 1512-1516 (just over 500 years old) and is an enormous piece. This crucifixion scene is the outside panels, the one that would be shown all the time, except for special occasions that would merit it being open.
But before we get into the art, let’s look at the text:
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” John 19:1-7
“Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: jesus of nazareth,the king of the jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
24 “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,
“They divided my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.”
So this is what the soldiers did.
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John 19:19-27
“At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” Mark 15:33-37
So Grünewald follows the text, showing Christ on the cross, with Mary Magdalene, his mother, and John the Beloved. Mary faints at seeing her son’s death, and we see John catching her before she falls, showing that he is accepting his role as her son and going to take care of her for the rest of her days.
There are a few things that are not in the text but used to create a stronger presence. We have John the Baptist, (who was actually at this point in Christ’s life already dead), reminding us that he must decrease and Jesus must increase in our life as John was just preparing the foundation.
We also see the lamb near John the Baptist, a symbol of Christ being the innocent lamb and the last sacrifice. By the lamb is a chalice which is going to catch the blood of Christ, the Holy Grail.
Grünewald creates an almost pure black background to signify the depths the Earth was plunged into when Christ took all past, present, and future sins upon him.
Now for what makes this a truly memorable piece, Grünewald’s depictions of Christ. St. Anthony is known for striving to help those afflicted with skin diseases, something that was incredibly powerful as most people who were suffering from such diseases were sent away from society. Because this was put in a hospital of people suffering a similar fate, Christ’s body is to mimic those in the hospital and show that he has encountered all that we have encountered, and that such pain is only temporary.
His body is truly a sight; full of pox, gaunt, ragged, limbs twisted (mimicking rigor mortis), skin green, and utterly in pain. It may be exaggerated in trying to sympathize with those who would be in the hospital, but it definitely makes you think about all the pain and torture he went through from being arrested to nailed on a cross.
For more Good Friday posts, go to The Death of Christ
For more crucifixion paintings, go to Elevation of the Cross
For more paintings of Jesus, go to But This is Your Hour—When Darkness Reigns