Like Notre Dame the Isenheim Altarpiece has been through many dangerous times since its creation in the 1500s, but it has survived to remind us of Christ’s death and resurrection!
On Good Friday and Easter we remember and celebrate that, “ . . .the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28.
In Grunewald’s crucifixion panel, darkness is the backdrop for one of the most moving crucifixions in all of Western Art. “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’” John 19:30. He then committed His spirit to His Father and died.
On the left Mary, who in the Christmas Picture, looked with such love on her baby, now looks with anguish at her dead son. John and Mary Magdalen show the intense grief and shock that all the disciples must have felt. Is there any hope?
Yet, even in this darkest hour, Grunewald gives his viewers hope. On the right the artist has shown John the Baptist with a lamb at his feet and holding an open Bible as he points to Jesus.
Long before, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God had them choose a lamb to bring into their homes for 4 days.
Look at these parallels
- John heralded Jesus’ coming when he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” John, John 1:29. Jesus then preached and ministered among the Israelites for 3 or 4 years.
- He entered Jerusalem on the day the Passover lambs were chosen, (Palm Sunday) and was crucified 4 days later.
On that original Passover the Israelites killed the lambs after the 4 days and put their blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes so that when the angel of death passed through the land that night, he would Pass Over any home with the blood of a lamb over its doorway.
Each year Jewish people were to look back and reenact that event that freed them from earthly slavery, but God also meant for Passover to look ahead to Christ’s coming, when He, as the perfect Lamb of God, would give Himself for us, shedding His blood on the cross, so we can be freed from an even worse slavery–slavery to sin, and fear of death.
So John holds a Bible and points to Jesus to show that Jesus came to die according to God’s wise and loving plan. To further emphasize this truth, the lamb at his feet holds a cross. Jesus gave Himself as the perfect and once and for all sacrifice for our sins, so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”
- O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.
- What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
- What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee
lyrics in public domain
Next we look under the crucifixion to a small scene showing the disciples preparing Jesus’ body for burial in a white shroud. There is no life in Him, and at the end of the day on Friday, His disciples buried Him. Again there seems to be no hope.
Then comes Sunday, Easter, and
In Grunewald’s final panel, we see a most beautiful and amazing resurrection scene. Jesus has risen in power and glory from the grave; the guards have fallen in fear and awe. They and the stone could not hold Him, and neither could death. His body, once so pale and marred by death, is now alive with warmth though His wounds still show.
The cold, white shroud of death has turned to warm reds, oranges, and yellows as Jesus rises from the grave. He has defeated Satan and death so that we can be saved to live forever with God.
Put down your burdens of sins, of regrets, of striving to be good enough, and accept the free gift of forgiveness and salvation that God longs to give you when you humble yourself to accept Christ. Hallelujah, He is risen!
The two photos of paintings from the Isenheim Altarpiece were taken by the author.
The next kathythepicturelady post will be devotional to go along with my series on Monet’s cathedrals and haystacks.