Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

From Tullian Tchividjian’s forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free (October 2012), page 189:

If you’ve taken an art history class, you’ve probably come across Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Or at least the panel depicting the crucifixion.

Completed in 1515, just before the Protestant Reformation blasted off, the altarpiece was commissioned for the church hospital of St. Anthony in Colmar, France, which specialized in comforting those dying with skin diseases. Grünewald took a radical approach to his subject. While most of his contemporaries were still depicting Calvary with post-Renaissance delicacy, Grünewald’s version was dark and borderline horrific: especially Christ’s smashed feet, His contorted arms, and His twisted hands. The cross is bowed to demonstrate Jesus bearing the sins of the world.

The most shocking part of the piece, however, is that Jesus Himself has a skin disease; His loincloth is the same as the wrappings worn by the hospital’s patients. The altarpiece is a creation of such shocking intensity that many initially — and even today — found it repulsive. Yet the graphic nature served masterfully to define and illustrate the Antonite brothers’ powerful understanding of Christian ministry. Apparently patients were brought before the piece in order to meditate on it as they died. The brothers were a quiet order, so no explanations were provided. There was no awkward chatter, no halfhearted attempts to piously let God off the hook. There was just silence.

Isaiah 53:5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; / he was crushed for our iniquities; / upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, / and with his wounds we are healed.

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