The Isenheim Altarpiece is among the most celebrated depictions of the crucifixion, and it serves as a thematic overview of the event seen by the Gospel writers as the fulfilment of Psalm 22.
For all those depicted, ‘trouble is near and there is none to help’ (Psalm 22:11). The emaciated and diseased body of the Lord and the agonizing contortion of his hands convey the brutality and intense suffering of the Lord’s chosen. To his left stands John the Baptist, himself a martyr, perhaps representing all of the Old Testament saints (as in Dante, where he sits at the head of those who looked upon Christ in faith as still to come, Paradiso 33.19–33). He performs his characteristic task: pointing to the Lamb of God. There is something ironic in his gesture, and in the quotation of his famous words: ‘He must increase but I must decrease’ (John 3:30, here in Latin), for in this moment the Baptist may look something of a fool and his pointing seem to be in line with the mockers. But this is the very moment to which he came to witness, to a Baptism greater than that in water. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29); but not as you expected.
To Jesus’s right stands his mother, collapsing into the arms of the Apostle John, with Mary Magdalene on her knees in supplication. These three are New Testament saints, but, as they have not yet experienced the resurrection of Christ, they have not yet become a people of hope. The moment of crucifixion, which will work life and hope for so many, is to them still an inexplicable failure.
Saint Sebastian on the viewer’s left and Saint Anthony on the viewer’s right witness that the life of the follower of Christ is also one of suffering and death: Anthony tormented by a demon, and Sebastian bound and pierced by arrows. Trouble is indeed near, and there is none to help.
22My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3Yet thou art holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In thee our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5To thee they cried, and were saved;
in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
6But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me,
they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
8“He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
9Yet thou art he who took me from the womb;
thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts.
10Upon thee was I cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.
11Be not far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is none to help.
12Many bulls encompass me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax,
it is melted within my breast;
15my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
thou dost lay me in the dust of death.
16Yea, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18they divide my garments among them,
and for my raiment they cast lots.
19But thou, O Lord, be not far off!
O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
20Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
21Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
22I will tell of thy name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:
23You who fear the Lord, praise him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
24For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live for ever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and he who cannot keep himself alive.
30Posterity shall serve him;
men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation,
31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.