Nestled in a tiny hamlet near the French-German border is a monastery that is home to one of art’s oddest treasures.
The Antonites of Isenheim were an order of medieval monks who devoted themselves to the care of the sick and dying. In their hospital chapel is a giant oil-on-wood altarpiece depicting the crucifixion, commissioned by the monks and completed by the German painter Matthias Grünewald around 1515.
The Isenheim altarpiece is famous for its ugliness.
The typical Renaissance depiction of Christ’s passion shows a symmetrical Christ with defined muscles, smooth skin and a serene look on his face. By contrast, Grünewald’s Christ is nightmarish.
His sagging figure is twisted in agony, with unnaturally distorted limbs, mangled hands and dislocated fingers pointing in all directions. Jesus’s body is scarred with plague-type sores and flayed skin.
The bottom panel shows Christ taken down from the cross, with greenish, putrefied flesh and gnarled feet.
At a time when most artists were obsessed with the beauty of the human form and just proportions, this work stands out. It shocks the senses.
Sometimes our broken world presents us with images almost too horrible to look at.
Each year, I dread the anniversary of Sept. 11. I try to isolate myself from media, but it is hard to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage. It never gets easier to see people jumping to their deaths from a burning building or clouds of debris swallowing entire city blocks.
It never gets easier to hear the transmissions from the cockpits, desperate 911 calls and final phone messages to loved ones. Each time is a fresh assault that brings back all the emotions of that day — shock, fear, and rage.
In the wake of 9/11, a national slogan developed: “Never forget.” These sights and sounds, though profoundly disturbing, help us “never forget.” Turning away is not really an option.
Solving the problem of terrorism is a complicated task, and I do not mean to oversimplify it here. Nevertheless, when we seek to confront the horrors of any age, I think the cross is a good place to start.
The Isenheim crucifix, like our annual 9/11 commemorations, is a paean to human suffering. We should not become numb to the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was itself an act of violent extremism, a deliberately gruesome form of terrorism.
This symbol of our faith, which we display in our homes and churches, shows humanity at its ugliest. We must never forget.
The cross is a reminder that evil is real. It is a reminder that death is imminent. It is a reminder that there is hope in the midst of suffering.
Ritual helps us to remember. Each time we celebrate Mass, we encounter the Eucharistic Prayer’s words of anamnesis — literally “non-forgetting” — in which we recall the Last Supper, passion and death of Christ.
To remember Christ means to remember his suffering. The crucifix calls us to meditate on something at once revolting and strangely beautiful, frightening and yet hopeful.
Many of the visitors to the Isenheim chapel were suffering terribly. In its unique artwork, perhaps they found the strength to confront the worst things of this world and unite their suffering to Christ.
In our modern age, may we too find that inspiration in the cross.