The Isenheim Altarpiece

A few months ago, I posted on an article on simplicity by Douglas Burton-Christie. He has a similarly themed piece in the March/April Weavings on the Isenheim Altarpiece. Many years ago, as a student, Burton-Christie traveled to the French town of Colmar, near the German border, to see the famous altarpiece and found Matthias Grünewald’s sixteenth century masterpiece “too dark, too heavy, too sad.” And, indeed, as he quotes Nikolaus Pevsner on its depiction of the Crucifixion, “Horror could not be painted more ruthlessly.” Burton-Christie then directs our attention to three tortured figures that are central to the altarpiece.

The crucified Christ is a profoundly disturbing sight, with dislocated shoulders and dark toenails. Mark Mossa, SJ, has posted an excerpt from Fr Robert Barron on Grünewald’s Christ, “What is, for me, most disturbing are the shut eyes and the gaping mouth: this Christ is no longer seeing or speaking; he is simply lost in the terror of the moment.” Burton-Christie also points us to a side panel, where we see a diseased man in agony, covered in sores. And we see St Antony suffering in the desert. “He is depicted as enduring his own torment, being pummeled, clawed, and torn at by a host of gruesome, demonic beings.”

The question is obvious: Why would anyone want to look at these paintings? This is not easy to answer. We must remember not to glorify suffering. Fr Alexander Schmemann warned us about this for the beginning of Lent, “There is the idea that if we suffer enough, if we feel the hunger enough, if we try by all kinds of strong or light ascetical tools, mainly to “suffer” and be “tortured,” so to speak, it would help us to “pay” for our absolution.” This, Fr Schmemann said, is not our faith. So, why the Isenheim Altarpiece? Professor Burton-Christie reminds us of two important contexts:

First, the altarpiece was commissioned by the Antonite order and could be seen within a hospital complex for those suffering from St Antony’s Fire. Today, St Antony’s Fire is either ergot poisoning or erysipelas. But here is a frightening medieval description of the disease from Sigebert de Gembloux: “The intestines [are] eaten up by the force of St Antony’s Fire, with ravaged limbs, blackened like charcoal; [victims] either die miserably, or they live more miserably seeing their feet and hands develop gangrene and separate from the rest of the body; and they suffer muscular spasms that deform them.” The diseased man in the Isenheim Altarpiece suffers from this.

Second, the portrayal of a tormented St Antony is consistent with the St Antony of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The St Antony of the Sayings, after all, is no plaster saint: he is uncertain, continually tempted, groans at the “snare that the enemy spreads out over the world,” and experiences anxiety and grief over death and the injustice of the world, even coming close to despair.

There is something disturbingly real about the Isenheim Altarpiece. Professor Burton-Christie tells us that gazing at the Isenheim Altarpiece forces us to struggle with our own vulnerabilities and emptiness, the pain and loss that we so often desperately try to deny or ignore. For, as he asks, “Is hope possible apart from an honest reckoning with one’s own deepest vulnerability?”

I’d like to end with a longer excerpt from Burton-Christie, who here writes after a more recent visit to Colmar. Please note the very last line.

I will not attempt to describe here my feelings upon finally turning the last corner and finding myself gazing up at Grünewald’s altarpiece; I am still absorbing the experience. But I will say this: I stood there in silence for a long time, stunned by its potency, which far exceeded anything that I had expected. That potency, I have begun to realize, has something to do with the darkness that is at the very heart of the painting. It is the darkness of death and of all the sadness and fear and hopelessness that gather around it. To face this darkness, our own as well as the darkness that afflicts others and that hovers continuously over our world, is perhaps our greatest challenge. It may well be the only path toward redemption.

Grünewald discovered and gave expression to a dark, wounded, all-but-defeated Christ who has been plunged into the most abysmal human suffering. The portrait of Antony that emerges in the Isenheim Altarpiece reflects and embodies this awful struggle. This saint is not so much a heroic as a sympathetic figure, intimately connected both to the crucified Christ and to the lonely, anonymous figure suffering from the terrible fire.

“Through fire everything changes,” says Gaston Bachelard. “When we want everything to be changed we call on fire.” This observation suggests one way of understanding the enduring power of the suffering figures in the Isenheim altarpiece. In the ancient monastic tradition, fire meant ecstasy, purification, judgment – all significant images of transformation. By the time this altarpiece was painted, fire had come to mean affliction, desolation, loss. But here is Antony, together with Christ and the nameless victim of disease, descending into the inferno. The fire that ravaged the bodies and perhaps the very souls of countless victims of that terrible disease also burned in the saint and in the Redeemer. Abba Sisoes once said: “If I had one of Antony’s thoughts, I should become all aflame.” A thousand years later, we see Antony himself aflame, and with him the suffering Christ, joined with all those anonymous souls destined to die an early, painful death. It is a haunting image of redemptive love – much of whose power comes from its refusal to evade or look away from the harsh realities of suffering and loss.

UPDATE: In the comments, Susan mentioned the Resurrection. I probably should have mentioned it above. Andrée Hayum’s The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision reminded me that the Temptation of Saint Anthony actually folds over the Resurrection. Professor Hayum notes “the quotation of poses occurring in the supine Saint Anthony and the sleeping soldier in the foreground of the Resurrection, the one bearing witness to bodily torture, the other attendant to bodily transcendence.” She continues, “The patients who viewed this altarpiece must have been urged to experience their own suffering as the necessary step toward spiritual ascendance.” Let me thank Susan.

For a bit more on the Isenheim Altarpiece, particularly the reactions of the theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, there is an interesting article by Roy A. Harrisville from the 2004 Currents in Theology and Mission online here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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