History, Theology & religion, Visual art

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part VI – Grünewald’s masterpiece

This is the fifth part in a series of seven posts entitled The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, which attempts to identify and justify some changes in crucifixion depictions throughout history.  Read the first, second, third, fourth and fifth parts to catch up.

  1. Introduction
  2. Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church
  3. Social and cultural developments in the Western Church
  4. The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows
  5. The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows
  6. Grünewalds masterpiece
  7. Conclusion


Grünewalds masterpiece

Few places can we see the usage of the graphically violent imagery ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif in the Late Middle Ages more justifiably than in the crucifixion scene found in the Isenheim Altarpiece, which was commissioned sometime between 1508 and 1516.1  In analyzing the altarpiece we will be making use of the work of renowned Professor Emeritus of Art History at Fordham University, Andreé Hayum, who has done extensive study of the historical context of the Isenheim Altarpiece.  We know that this piece was originally commissioned for a monastery that included a hospital at Isenheim (French: Issenheim) in what is now north-eastern France.  We also know that this monastery was of the Antonite Order, which underwent a series of reforms in 1478 (which will eventually come into play in our study).2  While there could be (and have been) extensive volumes written on the man, Matthias Grünewald, and the numerous symbols in each position (the Isenheim Altarpiece was designed to be used in three positions: open, middle and closed – see diagram below)3 we will primarily be focusing on the violent crucifixion scene found in the closed position of the altarpiece.4

The piece itself is massive—Christ’s stature is life-sized.  The background is black and foreboding, highlighting the red of Christ’s blood.5  His body is notably gaunt, which is especially apparent beneath his ribcage.  His head has fallen, unable to support its own weight plus that of the intricate crown of thorns and he possesses a facial countenance of agony—eyes closed and mouth open as in death.  His hands and feet are among the more disturbing aspects of this crucifixion scene, mangled and broken by three nails affixing his broken body to the cross.  Key people typically associated with a crucifixion scene are on the left: the Virgin Mary, St John, and Mary Magdalene.  Among these features we see explicit connections to the motif of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ that we have already explored: the slumped head, the face of agony, the weighing down and contortion of the body, the three-nail crucifixion, the crown of thorns and the grief of Mary (who is fainting) and John.  But we also find something further removed from the history, something I have intentionally refrained from mentioning: Christ stricken with a condition that has left his body covered in boils – St Anthony’s Fire.

St Anthony’s Fire was caused by something as easily ‘isolated as ergot or poisoned rye’.6  In 1098, Sigebert de Gembloux wrote regarding those stricken,

The intestines eaten up by the force of Saint Anthony’s Fire, with ravaged limbs, blackened like charcoal; either they died miserably, or they lived seeing their feet and hands develop gangrene and separate from the rest of the body; and they suffered muscular spasms that deformed them.7

The hospital at Isenheim specialized in the care of St Anthony’s Fire, thus making this depiction of Christ very pertinent to the patients experiencing this agonising ailment.  In addition to this, the Antonite reforms of 1478 that were alluded to earlier call for the ‘actual assembling of patients before the holy objects of [the] monastery.’8  This meant that the patients at Isenheim would encounter the altarpiece regularly.9  This encounter was an invitation, by Grünewald and by God, to enter into the community of the empathetic Christ, eliminating the socially exilic affects of their illness and pain.10

As we have already looked at the left-hand side of the crucifixion scene, now we must draw our attention to the right side of the crucifixion in order to be faced with and answer more questions.  We see a non-historical depiction of the historical scene with St John the Baptist (who was deceased by the time Christ’s death) and a lamb with a staff representing Christ (who is the Lamb), shedding its blood into a chalice – the Eucharist.  John is holding an open Bible and near his mouth are written the words, ‘ILLVM OPORTET CRESCERE ME AVTEM MINVI,’ quoting John 3:30 in the Vulgate, ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’  Behind John and the Lamb is a body of water, which alludes to the baptism, an event that explicitly conveys Christ’s divinity.11  With the inclusion of this right-hand side of the crucifixion, Grünewald is inviting the viewer to partake in the Baptism of Christ, though such a baptism is also a baptism ‘into his death’ (Romans 6:3).  The hope for the observer of this single position of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that in these sufferings of Christ, the sufferings of the gracious Son of Man who tasted the utmost bitterness of our sufferings, one might eventually experience the resurrection, ‘just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life’, in the present and in the eventual resurrection of all things (6:3-4).

In our next and final section we will pull together the insights we’ve explored throughout the series and attempt to draw some valuable conclusions.


1 Andreé Hayum, ‘The Meaning and Function of the Isenheim Altarpiece: The Hospital Context Revisited,’ Art Bulletin 59, no. 4 (December 1977), 501.
2 Ibid, 501, 3.
3 Most notably the presence of Sts Sebastian and Anthony in the closed position (saints associated with healing and warding off disease, respectively), the medicinal function of plants present throughout the positions of the altarpiece, the depictions of the Annunciation, Angelic Concert, the Madonna and Child, and the Resurrection in the middle position, the Lamentation (found in both the middle and closed positions), the compelling depiction of the Temptation of St Anthony in the open position and countless other significant symbols and motifs employed.  For more discussion see Hayum, Art Bulletin, 501-517.  Image from Ruth Mellinkoff, The Devil at Isenheim: Reflections of Popular Belief In Grünewald’s Altarpiece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 7.
4 Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1508-1516, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar.  Web Gallery of Art, ‘First View of the Isenheim Altarpiece’; Available from http://www. wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/g/grunewal/2isenhei/1view/; Internet; accessed 4 May 2011.
5 The blood from Christ’s wounds as well as the more explicit image of the lamb shedding its blood into the chalice is a blatant metaphor for the Eucharist. See Andreé Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 70.
6 Hayum, Art Bulletin, 507.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid, 505.
9 Ibid.  ‘May each patient be required for every canonical hour to say twelve Our Fathers and as many Ave Marias, and in the Church if it is possible.’
10 Ibid, 506.
11 Ibid, 510.


About Elijah

My name is Elijah and I am a proud Angeleño-Glaswegian. I serve as Minister of Queen's Park Govanhill Parish Church. My other interests include life in active community, writing, performing and partaking of music, collecting vinyl records, hiking/outdoors, urban exploration, Celtic FC and the Detroit Tigers.


8 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part VI – Grünewald’s masterpiece

  1. Just a thought and a question. Being that I am from a Hussite background and decidedly Baptist (Particular), do you not think, that to truly capture the essence of the crucifixion, the artist should realize his original hatred for Christ? I love Grunewald’s depiction, because it is so exquisitely painful. The anguish on mother Mary’s face. The tragic sympathy of the apostle John. The pleading supplication in the kneeling Mary M., even the aloofness of John the Baptist pointing to the Savior!
    Do you not think, that the love factor is what has sanitized the paintings of the subject? Like the traditional translation of Bernard’s O Sacred Head, Now Wounded: “O sacred head, what glory, What bliss till now was thine! Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call thee mine.” Sanitized to “How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn. How does the visage languish that once was bright as morn.”
    I should think, that the depiction of our hate is why we would love CHRIST so much the more for HE FIRST LOVED US when we never loved Him to begin with. Mark D. Budka BA History University of Nebraska-Lincoln 1991

    Posted by Marek Tmavýpotok Budka | 6 February 2012, 3:02 PM


  1. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part I – Introduction « Things & Stuff - 4 May 2011

  2. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part IV – The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows’ « Things & Stuff - 4 May 2011

  3. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part II – Theological & ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church « Things & Stuff - 4 May 2011

  4. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part V – The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’ « Things & Stuff - 4 May 2011

  5. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part III – Social & cultural developments in the Western Church « Things & Stuff - 4 May 2011

  6. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part VII – Conclusion « Things & Stuff - 5 May 2011

  7. Pingback: The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art « Transpositions - 19 May 2011

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