One painting grounds my spirit every time I see it. I have bookmarked the image on all my devices. I have written about it, researched it, and given lectures about it, but I have yet to put my finger on exactly why the Isenheim Altarpiece, an early Northern Renaissance image created by Matthias Grünewald, has the ability to move me.
The artwork is currently displayed in a museum in Colmar, France. Sometimes, it is studied in silent Art History classrooms, distilled with soft light. I wonder if these spaces are too controlled and quiet? When I look at the artwork, and the emotional agility it provides, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to scream? I ask myself why I so easily put on a shelf my own emotions, try to contain them in a quiet space? Why do I place such a high value on being comfortable when I am created to learn to suffer well? Let me show you a painting that puts a full frontal on rich, deep emotion, that teaches me to be accessible to dark and vast spaces. Paintings like the one Grünewald made provide vehicles that understand and make space for visceral feelings I tend to bury until I can no longer bottle them up.
The painting is the first panel in a series of altar pieces, and it is of Christ’s crucifixion. The scene would be familiar to anyone who has taken an art history class, or studied church history. But the way Grünewald paints the familiar scene transforms the image. He uses distortions and expression to illustrate Jesus in his suit of flesh. They are extensive and intentional. The palette used for the skin is a pale greenish blue that gives the appearance of flesh peeling and falling away from the bone. The cross is bowed from the weight of the body, creating an implied curvilinear movement in the artwork. With this design feature, Grünewald masterfully compresses the viewer’s focus onto the face, elongated arms, exposed rib cage, and twisted hands and feet of the Christ. The panel is set in a dark and ominous landscape. It harkens to the unknowable, the mysterious. It is also unflinchingly gruesome.
In the sixteenth century Europe was deep into diseases, including the plague and leprosy. Ergotism—a lesser-known ailment—was also common, a disease that created painful skin lesions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often leading to the amputation of arms, hands, and feet. The disease also attacked the central nervous system, causing convulsions and seizures. It changed the structure of the brain, leading to psychosis and hallucinations. The disease would then progress to a slow and painful death. Grünewald’s patrons were monks who took care of those suffering from this disease. Patients with ergotism would have been in extreme physical and emotional pain. Grünewald saw his work as a way to alleviate their suffering. His work had to be an accurate reflection of their experience.
The painting, crafted to alleviate the suffering of those broken and dying hundreds of years ago, continues to connect me with the wounds I struggle to become fully aware of, much less take the time to put to rest. My mom died very young. She died in a long, slow, and painful way. I find this tragic. Her memory and unresolved life haunt me. Even more, I am often filled with fear that this cycle will continue. I struggle with the inevitability of my own mortality. I fear I will die young and leave my children without a mother. Grünewald’s painting is honest about the kinds of horror that exist in this world—and for that honesty I am grateful. Because until I unpack my emotions, I feel distorted. My insides swirl like unattached planets moving across the universe. If I am honest, I have to admit I bury feelings without even realizing I do. Often I carry a load of emotion into my day that gets in the way of feeling free. But look at the Christ Grünewald painted. Experience the invitation to contemplate sorrow, demonstrated. God, I’ve felt that way in my heart. I’ve felt that my whole life.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is a metaphor for the admission of my own powerlessness. Emotions run deeper in me than I am comfortable with. Grünewald created a painting that does not allow me to carry on with platitudes. The painting pries them out of my hands, even as I wrestle to hold on to them.
I am convinced that life is a terrible math equation. I can tangibly measure proportions in design, but God is full of the intangible. God, a horrible expression of the empirical. I cannot offer answers or solutions. I can only make space for questions. I’m not sure why motherless daughters are in this world, or why a Jewish rabbi who lived and died centuries ago has given strength and life to so many. It’s a mystery. I’ve decided to not try to resolve that mystery, but to sit with it and let the mystery change me. I find this experience with the painting mysterious. Somehow, it gives me glimpses of the wild beauty and love that animate each moment. Even amid experiencing fears so powerful I fear they will end my life, I can sense the peace that comes through expression. Peace that slips into time, right alongside me.
It gives me an emotional gap that becomes a doorway to process the notion of a God who does not want me to walk through life alone. A God who is near. A God who is the ground I walk on itself. Never any less grand than the expansion of the universe, and close as my own skin. Grünewald connects me to deep sadness and grief, but he doesn’t stop there. He reminds me I have a soul that lives and breathes in the here and imperfect now. Just knowing this helps me continue; it connects me with the possibility of joy. Even to my hope and search to reclaim the notion that all is not lost. Something about Grünewald’s Altarpiece, the distortions, the lamination, helps put a face on God—and for now, that is enough.