In northeastern France, near the border with Germany, lies the small village of Isenheim. In the 1500s a monastery in Isenheim named St. Anthony’s served as a hospital for victims of the plague.
One of the most common diseases found at St. Anthony’s at the time was a gruesome condition known as ergotism, which came from people eating grains that had been infected by a fungus that grew in the region.
Victims of ergotism—popularly known as St. Anthony’s fire—first reported headaches and nausea. But eventually, the disease grew into spasms, skin disease, and gangrene, culminating in death.
The monastery treated the suffering patients with dignity and love, giving them a good death and offering them the hope of everlasting life in Christ.
Inside the sanctuary of the monastery, there was a decorative altarpiece behind the table where the Eucharist was served. This work of art, known as the Isenheim Altarpiece (1516), is the magnum opus of Matthias Grünewald.
In the realm of art history, Grünewald’s masterpiece is probably the most famous, most memorable, and the most haunting painted depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
There the body of Jesus hangs on the cross. His limbs are stretched upon the beams of wood. His hands and feet are pierced. He is at the very moment of expiring death, as he bears the wrath of God and the sins of the world.
But one of the more fascinating and moving choices that Grünewald makes as an artist is to depict Christ with the very disease that was being treated in the monastery. Christ himself burns with St. Anthony’s fire. As Jesus dies on the cross, boils and sores blanket his skin. His outer limbs, and especially his feet, are gangrenous and shriveled.
Grünewald shows us that Christ not only bears the suffering of all people in general. He bears the very personal, the very localized sickness of the people in Isenheim.
On the cross, Jesus does not just suffer. He suffers with us. He suffers for us. And his suffering accomplishes our redemption.
Artist Graham Sutherland followed a similar line of thinking in his “Crucifixion” (1946).
Sutherland said that he studied horrific images of the victims of Auschwitz as he painted. In modeling his image of Christ on the cross after those who suffered the holocaust, Sutherland could convey the ancient image of the cross—in all its beauty and brutality—with a renewed sense of immediacy for a modern audience.
Our world is in a moment of great pain and brokenness. When Christians look at the insurmountable needs caused by COVID-19, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in a sense of helpless despair and say, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
It is here that I think the message of the cross rings all the truer. Who has known our frailty, our vulnerability, and our need more than the one who humbled himself to the point of death? Who has known the pain of isolation greater than the one who hung alone on a cross? Who has known the ailing agony of failing lungs than the one who died of asphyxiation by crucifixion?
With weakness and much trembling, our hope lies in knowing Christ and him crucified, knowing that suffering and death are real, yes, but redemption and resurrection are coming.
And that brings us back to the Isenheim Altarpiece.
To the right of Jesus stands the figure of John the Baptist, wearing a garment of camel’s hair. Having already been murdered himself, John the Baptist was not a witness to the crucifixion of Christ. But his whole life bore witness to the person of Christ.
John stands as the final prophet of the Old Testament era. His Bible is open and his finger is pointing toward the crucified savior. Without words, he eternally proclaims to the viewer, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
The words behind John the Baptist declare in Latin, “He must increase. I must decrease.”
In the age of our own plague and pain, we can love our neighbors. But we cannot ultimately save ourselves or the world. But we can point to the one who can. It may be all we are able to do; but it is enough.
Cover image by Allef Vinicius.