Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Lent and Easter

The Death and Resurrection of Jesus by Matthias Grunewald

 

 

 

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 This painting of the crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald (1470 - 1528) was part of a complex altarpiece in the hospital chapel at the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace. His aim was to provide a sermon in pictures. He seeks to bring home to us the horrors of the suffering of the crucified Christ.

It has four figures beside the cross. To the left is the almost fainting figure of the mother of Jesus, in the white dress of a widow, her arms outstretched towards her Son in grief and in prayer. She is supported by the beloved disciple John to whose care Jesus had entrusted her. Beneath them is the figure of Mary Magdalene, kneeling and wringing her hands in sorrow, with her vessel of ointment beside her. To the right of the cross is John the Baptist, pointing to the suffering Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and at his feet the symbol of the lamb pouring out its blood into the chalice.

And there in the centre, standing out over all these is the larger-than-life figure of Christ crucified. His body is distorted by the torture of the cross and it hangs down heavily seeming to pull down the arms of the cross itself. Thorns stick in the wounds which cover the whole figure. His fingers are stretched out and bent, frozen in death; his feet are pierced by a huge nail down which his blood flows freely. His head, tortured with the crown of jagged thorns, has sunk on his breast. His lips appear open, bloodless and rigid. This is, for sure, the man of sorrows wrapped in grief.

Some would complain that this is too much - even Christ's suffering can be exaggerated. This sort of representation can lead too easily to a morbid form of emotionalism. It is not called for.

But for whom had Grunewald painted this picture? Who were the people who prayed before it? They were primarily the lepers housed in the isolation hospital attached to the Monastery of Isenheim. These were people whose own bodies were terribly deformed, whose faces and fingers were like those of the suffering Christ. These people, locked in isolation, imprisoned in a living death, looked with faith on this image of their Lord who has shared their suffering completely.

 

 

With what consolation and hope would these same people have gazed upon another panel of the altarpiece with the picture which portrayed the risen and glorified Lord! We can only imagine what this image must have meant to the lepers of Isenheim.

 

Most paintings of the resurrection present Jesus looking as though he has simply "come back to life", sometimes even as though he is climbing out of the tomb. Here is something altogether different.

 

 

 

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If Grunewald has painted the most painful representation of Christ’s death, his altarpiece also has the most sensational image of resurrection. He takes us into another world, conveying the transfiguration of the body of Christ. We see Christ soaring out from the tomb and already ascending to the heights of heaven. The white linen shroud in which his body had been wrapped is drawn upwards and changes colour as it rises with him, ending in a glorious blaze of sun-fired red and yellow.

The figure is clearly that of Christ, with the marks of the wounds reminding us of his death by crucifixion. Yet the body of Christ is already transformed, with his face shining like the sun, being absorbed as it were into the glory of God. And from that shining and smiling face his eyes look out at us with love.

 

Here is an indication in painting of the mystery of the resurrection - Jesus died and risen; the same Jesus, yet different. The body of the transfigured Christ remains clearly visible - he bears still the wounds of his passion. Yet this is a spiritualised body, changed and not readily recognised by those to whom he showed himself. They thought they were seeing a ghost, but Jesus assured them: "It is I".

Yes, it is the Lord. Clearly he has not simply come back to life, but has entered a new existence, a new life, a life beyond our experience or imagination. It is the glorious life of total union with God - the life for which we too are destined. How the miserable lepers must have gazed in wonder and in hope on this transformation. What has happened to Christ can happen to them – and to us.