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Good Friday Sermon - The Isenheim Altarpiece

The Isenheim altarpiece was painted by the artist Matthias Grünewald between the years 1512 and 1516. It is displayed in the Unterlinden Museum in the city of Colmar in Alsace in France. If you look at our website, where the service sheet can be downloaded, you will see a picture of it. Do call it up or search for it because we’re going to be looking at it. It was originally painted for the monastery of St Antony in the village of Isenheim, close to Colmar. The monks there offered hospital care. They especially cared for those with a disease called ergotism, often known by its more popular name of St Antony’s fire. It was a nasty disease caused by consuming a particular fungus which is infects rye crops. It causes gangrene, convulsions, spasms, and eventually death. The ‘fire’ refers to burning sensations it causes in limbs. There were many outbreaks across Europe from the ninth and tenth century onwards. This continued for many centuries, only beginning to disappear with the wider cultivation of wheat in the nineteenth century.

Being an altarpiece, this artwork is fairly complicated. It can be opened and closed, and different scenes are painted on the front and back, as well as the different wings. I would like us to concentrate on the crucifixion scene, so hopefully you will have now found the image on the website to have a look at it. We can see the figure of Jesus on the cross. To Jesus’ right, there is Mary, the mother of Jesus, in white, being held by John, the beloved disciples. Mary Magdalene is kneeling on the ground, her hands stretching upwards. To Jesus’ left, there is John the Baptist. His is a slightly odd appearance, given he had his head chopped off by Herod long before the crucifixion. He is probably there because in his own ministry, he pointed the way to Jesus as Messiah. In the wings to either side are St Sebastian and St Antony, both saints associated with healing. Underneath, there is Jesus’ burial.

Let’s turn our attention to the figure of Christ. What is especially notable here is the absolute agony of Christ. His body is marked all over with thorn wounds, showing the extent of his beating. Look at his extraordinarily contorted limbs, all the sinews twisted and taut in unimaginable pain. Look at his stomach strangely compressed, his chest and ribs sticking out absurdly. Maybe this is a last attempt to gasp for breath, only breathing his last. His head isn’t held up and proud, but completely flopped to one side.

The crown of thorns isn’t resting on his head, but is rammed on forcibly. His expression is a grotesque grimace of unspeakable torment. Whenever I look at this painting, my eyes are drawn inexorably towards Jesus’ hands. I find them utterly compelling, mind-blowingly expressive. Palms turned upwards, fingers stretching outwards, upwards, contorting his arms as he does so. Those hands are the physical embodiment of Jesus’ final, gut-wrenching cry: ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ You don’t need the words – you can see it. The whole painting has a green tinge, reminiscent of rotting, gangrenous flesh. It conveys a vivid, uncompromisingly brutal image of decay and death. As you look down at the burial scene below, there is no doubt that this is a dead body. It is ravaged. It is a spent life. There is nothing left.

Grünewald’s altarpiece is rightly thought of as a masterpiece. The macabre reality of the suffering shown is highly unusual for art of its time. It is a very difficult masterpiece because what it shows is so grisly. Seeing it is an awe-inspiring experience, but it is also disturbing and overwhelming. There is nothing easy to look at here. It is not beautiful. We might think that being in the monks’ hospital in Isenheim and seeing it on a daily basis might have been a bit much, reminding patients of the hideous reality of their own disease. But oddly, it’s widely believed that this altarpiece may well have been placed there to be comforting. This is because patients, who were themselves suffering, could look at the picture and clearly see that Jesus, with his wounds, and bleeding sores, and greenish flesh, suffered just as they did. In those hours between his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and his death, Jesus experienced the very extremes of agony, writhing in pain, wracked with doubt. Knowing that Jesus had to endure such torment was a comfort because it showed them that they were not alone and that God understood their predicament.

There are so many wonderfully beautiful depictions of the crucifixion. Yet for me, Grünewald’s tormented scene is the one that gets closest to the truth. It gets to the unbearable authenticity of what execution on the cross was like. A drawn-out, ghastly death. It also gets to a theological authenticity. There are many, many ways in which the crucifixion has been interpreted. But to me, the cross cannot make any sense if Jesus does not bear the pain, the suffering, the isolation, the anguish of what it can so often mean to be a human. Somehow, if he really knew that it was all going to be alright in the end, that he was going to miraculously pop out of the tomb, the weight of cross Jesus carried and was nailed to would not be the same. With God’s Son on the cross, God finally understands what it means to be like us. This such a critical aspect to the story of Good Friday. It is a shift that means that God is no longer distant. God is really with us, really one of us, really as us.

This, of course, leads us to reflect on humanity’s present plight with the ravages of the novel coronavirus. Thousands of people are dying with nobody around them, other than perhaps a stranger to hold their hands. All of us are isolated in our homes, unable to do the things we would like to do or see the people we would like to see. The most vulnerable in our society are at considerably heightened risk: not just those with underlying health conditions, but also those who live in abusive relationships, those with mental illness, those who jobs mean that they are much more exposed. The cross of Good Friday shows us that God is experiencing this with us, walking alongside us. God is learning from us, from what is happening to us now, feeling all those blows which affect us – the grief, the loneliness, the fear, the anxiety, the unknown.

Returning to that Grünewald picture – we learn that God is that tortured figure of Christ on the cross. God does not stand apart from us, but in profound solidarity with us. This has to be the meaning of the cross to which Good Friday draws us.

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