It must be 30 years since I first saw it but over 500 years since it was unveiled to the world for the first time. Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim is one of the masterpieces of Renaissance Art and a wonderful example of the Northern Renaissance. Painted just before Luther pinned his 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, thus igniting a fire that in many ways continues to burn. I don’t particularly want to get into the causes of the Reformation, but the idealism of a German Augustinian monk meeting the political opportunism of the factions within the Holy Roman Empire would set Europe and the world on a course from which it would be marked forever.
The altarpiece was created for very different purposes. The monks of St Anthony commissioned it for the hospital where they cared for the victims of plague. The image of the Christ figure’s tortured body was intended to allow an identification between the contemporary suffering of the late medieval world with those of the Messiah. The soteriology of the image is clear. Grünewald is setting before the viewer the image of a tortured and dying Christ but the presence of John the Baptist, the small lamb in the foreground and the caption ‘illum oportet crescere me autem minui’ John 3:30 (he must increase, I must decrease) point to the redemptive act of suffering and its place in the economy of salvation for Christians.
John the Baptist is an imposter in the painting. He was long dead by the time Jesus was crucified but his presence serves to illustrate the theological significance of the event; pointing not to Good Friday and death but to Easter Sunday and resurrection. The lamb is symbolic of the paschal narrative of the escape from Egypt, celebrated in Passover by the Jewish faith. This iconography would not have been lost on the original audience even if some of the references have become a tad more obscure in the 21st century.
But the Isenheim altarpiece has a more recent and modern relevance. In the early 1930s Wilhelm Furtwängler was looking to Paul Hindemith to produce a new work which he could take on a tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. Hindemith went on to incorporate the symphony he wrote for Furtwängler into an opera about the life of Matthias Grünewald: Mathis der Maler.
This is all well and good but the significance is that, while the music was well received by audiences, Furtwängelr came in for severe criticism from the political party active in Germany in 1934. Nazi criticism extended to Hindemith and the work of both men was condemned as degenerate. It seems that the substance of Grünewald’s work was better appreciated for its soteriology by the medieval world than by the Nazi party.
The essence of Isenheim is not so much to do with suffering as you might think. In Christian theology, the suffering Christ echoes the suffering servant of Yahweh in Isaiah. The servant is innocent but accepts the consequences of the actions of others, the better to reconcile the world with its creator.
In so far as the messianic suffering is significant, it is so only because the victim is innocent and transforms the relationship with the world through resurrection. It is the transformative power of forgiveness that releases others from a condition of anger or reluctance. It is the redemptive act that is available to us all which allows others to live more fully. It is ironic that Hindemith’s work was so tragically rejected but symptomatic of the myopia of ideologies that are self-serving.
The essence of Isenheim is accessible to all faiths and none; to those who celebrate Easter when it comes and those who may not. So very much at odds with society’s blame culture, the essence of Isenheim is the redemptive and life-giving call to forgive and to be forgiven. This is the real message of Easter and of Grünewald’s work. It is one that travels through the centuries and it is accessible to us all because of the simple conviction that it is life affirming and ultimately freeing.
I hope you and your families have a wonderful and peace filled Easter when it comes.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)