April 10, 2020 – Roger W. Lowther
Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” altarpiece sits in the front of a hospital chapel in the town of Isenheim, in the eastern part of France. It is large compared to the small size of the room. Edges reach practically to the walls. The painting commands the attention of the viewer, forcing you to look nowhere but Christ on the cross.
Christ’s emaciated body is covered in sores. His fingers contort in agony. His lips pale blue. Blood pours down his side and over his feet. On the left, Mary Magdalene falls to her knees in anguish, calling out in prayer. Jesus’ mother Mary collapses at the sight, caught by John the Apostle. On the right, John the Baptist holds open a Bible and points to Jesus. Blood flows from a lamb at his feet. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Behind him, written in blood red, is a Latin inscription. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). At the bottom, Jesus is buried in the tomb. He died with our sickness that we may be healed.
On the outside are saints of the plague. To the far left stands Saint Sebastian, a captain in the Roman army. He was a deacon in the church at a time when Christianity was illegal. When his faith became known, authorities demanded he be shot to death with arrows. Arrows also symbolize the terrors of plague and pestilence (Psalm 91:5). Miraculously, Sebastian survived. His recovery gives hope. His arrow-pierced body an ongoing prayer to God for mercy. To the far right stands Saint Anthony the Great, the first ascetic monk to live isolated and alone in the desert wilderness. Legend has it that though threatened by demons in the shape of wild beasts, he remained calm and peaceful. Though beaten almost to death, he recovered. At the time of this painting, the monsters represented the threat of the plague. His solitary confinement, a kind of quarantine. His long life, to the age of 105, hope that we too will live through the monsters of our time.
This painting was commissioned for a hospital that specialized in treating victims of the plague. We can see the sores and ravages of the disease on Christ’s body. Christ knows our pain. Christ shares our affliction.
He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases. (Matthew 8:17)
On Easter morning, the wings of this altar are open. Unseen behind these panels is a joyful representation of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Jesus conquers death. Jesus conquers suffering. But we can’t see it yet. Not even a little bit. All we see is darkness and suffering. And we see Jesus, right in the middle of the suffering. We can rest in the promise of Christ that, one day, all our sickness will be healed and all our tears will be wiped away.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:4-5)
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