Matthias Grünewald’s Gruesome Good Friday

Nits and fleas bedeviled the viscous skin of the 14th-century German Dominican mystic Henry Suso, who, slick with puss and piss, filth and shit, hadn’t bathed for a quarter century. In his sleep, he wore a leather glove covered in sharp, iron tacks, so that when he inevitably scratched himself, any relief from the incessant itching would at least be attended by the ripping and bloodying of his flesh. 

“There is just now in my soul a bitter complaint that Thy Passion does not at all times thoroughly penetrate my heart,” Suso wrote in a prayer to Christ, “and that I do not meditate on it so affectionately as in reason I ought to do.” In response to this failing, Suso practiced a form of corporal mortification that was extreme by even the standards of Medieval clergy. In addition to his rejection of hygiene, the monk also carved Christ’s abbreviated Latin name, “IHS,” into his chest. He would only drink water once his tongue had become engorged and cracked, and he slept on a cross studded in nails, the better to focus his mind on the agony that the Son of God experienced before his death. Jesus, however, was only on the cross for three hours, whereas Suso elected to remain there for nearly three decades. Grotesque, primitive, superstitious, horrific, the seeming relic of a barbarous time — and yet Suso’s example has something to tell us about finitude and life, about suffering and death. Such sentiments were mainstays of macabre German Christianity in the late Middle Ages where Suso’s example isn’t rare, only extreme. 

In those mystic tendrils, where gothic faith was thick as fog and dark as midnight in the Black Forest on Walpurgisnacht, Suso’s doxology of the suffering body could be seen in a momentous work painted a century and a half after the mystic’s death. Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c. 1509–15) is, as Peter Fingesten wrote in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1984), the “most tragic, lacerated, and distorted crucifixion ever painted.” Made for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Alsace, variously in Germany or France, depending on the time period, Grünewald’s altarpiece was composed over a period of approximately four years and likely completed in 1516, the year before that other death-obsessed German, Martin Luther, would inaugurate the Reformation. 

Now displayed in the Unterlinden Museum in Alsace, Grünewald’s altar was intended as a devotional object for the patients convalescing at the Benedictine monastery, all of whom were afflicted by the convulsive and gangrenous ergot poisoning known as St. Anthony’s Fire. It was an altar as gruesome as the disease: When the wings of the massive triptych are closed, they depict Christ’s crucifixion in striking, horrific, sickening detail — the most disturbing representation in art history of an already violent execution. The dead Christ hangs limply from a rough-hewn cross hastily assembled from green wood, slack-jawed, mouth agape. His ashen, corpuscular body is pinpricked with dozens of splinters, and his empurpled flesh is covered in grotesque plague sores opened and oozing like so many tiny, toothless, and bloodied mouths. His legs are hobbled and buckled, his nailed hands splayed into broken directions. One can envision those ailing and suffering patients in reverence before this disfigured creature covered in pustules and sores. Grünewald painted a picture of a corpse — grisly, hideous, and debased. But it’s also a portrait of God. 

Grünewald’s was a corpus of corpses: The grotesquerie of his depictions is the most salient feature of his vanishingly few extant compositions of 10 paintings and a couple dozen sketches. James Snyder comments on the “narrow range of [his] subject matter” in Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575 (1985), describing the painter as a “true mystic” who “preferred themes expressing the extremes of religious emotions.” In addition to Isenheim, he revisited the crucifixion in three other surviving compositions, which evidence subtle distinctions. Kunstmuseum Basel’s slipshod painting from approximately 1515 portrays a paler, gaunter messiah; the Christ of the Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece at the State Art Gallery in Karlsruhe, Germany, likely completed sometime between 1523 and ‘25, appears to be in the earliest stages of decomposition; and the Jesus in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, painted around the 1510s, seems to sag off the cross, burdened by the weight of his sacrifice. 

Not limited to just the cross, Grünewald painted other aspects of Christ’s passion as well. His “The Mocking of Christ” (1503–05), in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, depicts a blindfolded, rabbinic Jesus bound in rope and pulled by an assemblage of the mocking crowd who appear nothing so much like the respectable German burghers of the painter’s day. And in “Christ Bearing the Cross” (c. 1523–25) two decades later, also from the Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece, a purple-robed messiah stumbles on the Via Dolorosa, a look of stricken terror on his face in the seconds before he’s hit by a lash. 

Even his less ostensibly gruesome compositions have about them a disquieting aura. His “Stuppach Madonna” (c. 1514–16), with its beautiful, if preternaturally pale, Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, is framed by a lush, colorful, rainbow-infused background, psychedelic in its uncanniness. It may lack the sheer grotesquerie of the Isenheim altarpiece, but it’s not out of place in the oeuvre of an artist attracted to the morbid. But because of his peripheral presence in art history — biographers disagree even on whether he died a Catholic or Lutheran — his body of work didn’t receive the attention it deserved until the 20th century, when German expressionists like Otto Dix and George Grosz became conversant with their countrymen’s unromantic and unidealized portrayals of death and violence. 

Though firmly a Renaissance painter in regard to technical acumen, Grünewald was Medieval in his vision, an inheritor of the 14th and 15th centuries’ comfort with the horrors of embodiment. In Germany, in particular, there existed then a form of devotion that took succor precisely in visualizing the sort of gruesome tableaux that Grünewald expertly painted, especially as regards the paradox of an almighty God himself suffering and dying. “Be assured of this,” wrote Suso’s contemporary, the mystic Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418–27), “that you must live a dying life.” The so-called Imitatio, whereby the penitent would imagine the degradations of the passion, was common in Medieval Catholicism, and reinvigorated by the Ignatian exercises of the Jesuits centuries later.

As such, nothing is philosophically novel in the Isenheim altarpiece, with its Christ who appears slick with the clammy sweat of death, stinking with the putrification of the sepulcher. But to see something so ugly so perfectly depicted remains shocking five centuries later. A passage in the book of Isaiah was often taken by Christians to prefigure the crucifixion: Christ “had no form of majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” The Isenheim altarpiece takes such a passage seriously. 

Today, bourgeoise mainline Protestants and suburban evangelicals alike prefer a closed-casket Good Friday. Even some contemporary Catholics seem perturbed by imagery of the day of Christ’s crucifixion. What Grünewald offered five centuries ago was something different: a sober and realistic picture of just what such violence looks like, of the realities of our bodies pushed to breaking, of the horrors of suffering and death. In that essay in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fingesten extols Grünewald’s “genius to depict graphically the extent of human suffering,” but claims that Isenheim doesn’t qualify as a grotesque work, because “the self-sacrifice of Christ is not a grotesque concept.” He’s got it precisely backward. Isenheim remains so visceral because the crucifixion is grotesque; furthermore, the violent and horrific murder of God is not just grotesque, but scandalous. Therein precisely lies its power and significance. 

Grünewald understood the force of the horrifying. The Isenheim altarpiece, with its graying corpse hanging from a tree, appears as if it would smell as putrid as Suso’s mortified flesh. Indeed, Suso’s mysticism centered on visualizing the violence and pain of Christ’s execution, much as Grünewald would later. Laying on the jagged, nail-covered plank he chose for his bed, Suso would have dreamt of Christ’s scouring at the hand of his jailers, imagining how a splayed cat-o-nine-tails arcing through the air would pierce flesh and fling forward blood; how the twisted thorns pressed as a crown onto Jesus’ forehead would force his blood to trickle down his sweaty, dirty face; the feeling of arms being stretched out upon the plank and the excruciating splaying of wrist bones as a mallet hammered him to the cross, followed by the swooning vertigo of that implement being pulled vertical upon Golgotha. 

Grunewald Isenheim2
Detail of Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c. 1509–15), oil on panel, 105 9/10 inches x 10 feet, held at the Unterlinden Museum, Alsace (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Grunewald Isenheim3
Detail of Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c. 1509–15), oil on panel, 105 9/10 inches x 10 feet, held at the Unterlinden Museum, Alsace (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Grunewald Isenheim4
Detail of Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c. 1509–15), oil on panel, 105 9/10 inches x 10 feet, held at the Unterlinden Museum, Alsace (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Grunewald Isenheim5
Detail of Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c. 1509–15), oil on panel, 105 9/10 inches x 10 feet, held at the Unterlinden Museum, Alsace (image via Wikimedia Commons)

“And the picture was some times so vividly present to his mind that it seemed to him as if he were in body walking at Christ’s side,” Suso wrote in a third-person perspective of his spiritual confession of 1361, for as he “stood there all covered with blood, and looked at himself, the spectacle which he presented was a most miserable one… he resembled in some degree Christ.” This was the purpose of the Isenheim Altarpiece as well: to demonstrate to those assembled afflicted of St. Anthony’s, whose necrotic flesh stunk and whose sores oozed, that they in some degree resembled Christ. Maybe more importantly, that in some degree, Christ resembled them. 

As believers in the incarnation, Suso, Kempis, and Grünewald would have seen in Isenheim an intimation of Christ’s embodiment, of the word made flesh and the paradox of a lowly and dead God triumphant in his abasement. We need not be Christians ourselves, however, to see something powerful in Grünewald’s crucifixion, a memento mori concerning death, and especially violence, in a world and age permeated with pain but strangely sanitized of its proper representation. 

Indeed, Michael Schubert in The Isenheim Altarpiece: History – Interpretation – Background (2018) hypothesizes that the healing function of this tortured visage “has taken hold again in our ‘modern’ times,” as seen in “the steadily growing numbers of visitors” to the Unterlinden Museum. What Isenheim confronts us with is the reality of suffering, the existence of violence, the certainty of death. It is a reminder of these truths in a century where violence is ironically both omnipresent and obscured. When we are content to look away, to change the channel or swipe upward, Isenheim fixes the mind onto the bloody realities of the world. Within the borders of the altarpiece we can see so much, if we only look carefully: the murdered children of Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Uvalde; the mass graves of the COVID-19 pandemic on Hart’s Island; the Palestinians killed in Gaza and Israelis killed in Hamas’s October 7 attack; those massacred Ukrainians at Bucha and Izyum. Isenheim is not romantic or idealized, allegorical or didactic. We desire the myth of Sunday, when Christ was resurrected, but the altar supplies the truth of Friday, when he died. We are content to close our eyes, but Grünewald won’t let us. 

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