The Sickness Unto Death Pt. VI: Isenheim Altarpiece

7:00 AM

The Sickness Unto Death 
A Musically Guided Exploration of Artist's Struggle with Mortality
Curated by Aaron Dupuis


Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512

"Every bitter night into an empty room I plead my caseEvery night I pray that in the morning when I wake
I'll be in a familiar place and find that I'm recovered and I'm sane
and I'll remember everything
I'll remember what I was like before that bug bit me"
"The Sickness Unto Death," Typhoon 

Of all of the paintings of the crucifixion, this one hits me the hardest. Critics can talk all they want about the strides that Caravaggio made in making Christ accessible to the public at large. I won't disagree with them. However, this is the only work I have ever seen that fully reduces Christ to a human form. There is no grace. There is no dignity. There is no beauty. Instead Grünewald gives us a hanging corpse, skinny and ragged. He gives us ugliness. The true ugliness of death.

Though this particular panel depicts no sense of holiness - not even the faint halo of Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ - the other panels hidden from view in the above photo depict a scene of glorious resurrection and ascension into the blinding lights of heaven. By portraying Christ's as a deformed corpse and later as a risen angel, Grünewald conquers the fear of death, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the wretched masses who would have seen the altarpiece in the Monastery of St. Anthony. The Monastery, you see, served primarily as a hospital, and served the lepers and cripples of Isenheim, helping to alleviate their suffering and make their final days on earth as comfortable as possible.

And so the Isenheim Altarpiece's ugliness is only surface level. Beneath the grime and gore lies the beauty of compassion and human empathy. And there too lies the belief that our time on earth is what we should dread most. Death is nothing at all.

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