The Isenheim Altarpiece; Closed altarpiece: Saint Sebastian, the Crucifixion; Saint Anthony the Great; Predella, the Lamentation on the Body of Christ by Matthias Grünewald

Matthias Grünewald

The Isenheim Altarpiece; Closed altarpiece: Saint Sebastian, the Crucifixion; Saint Anthony the Great; Predella, the Lamentation on the Body of Christ, 1512–16, Tempera and oil on wood, 376 x 534 cm (closed), Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, 88RP139, © Musée d’Unterlinden, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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The Loneliness of Desolation

Commentary by

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 the Psalm.

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.