Many people are familiar with Matthias Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece — namely, its depiction of Our Lord’s crucifixion in all of its twisted darkness. However, the Crucifixion is only one scene found on the outer part of this double-winged polyptych. As the inner wings are opened — like the unfolding of the petals of a flower — one is able to contemplate other scenes in salvation history.
Contained within Grünewald’s masterwork is a meditation on Christ’s resurrection. One is caught off guard by the vivid colors that set Jesus apart from the dark backdrop of the starry night sky that echoes the sky seen in the famous crucifixion scene found in the same polyptych. The soldiers have fallen, bathed in shadow but overwhelmed by the light. They reel in confusion. This serves as a reminder that through his passion and resurrection, Jesus rises above the dark powers of the world that operate according their twisted logic of violence and suffering. Christ’s face almost seems to be made of light or of fire. For eyes used to the dark it is almost difficult to gaze upon such a face. The viewer, like the soldiers, is stunned by the brightness of the light of Christ, which has pierced through the darkness — both the darkness of the scene as well as the darkness of the human experience.
As Christ ascends from his tomb into the sky, one notices the marks of his five wounds, still present. However, like his face, these wounds are now bathed in light, which radiates out from each mark, reminding the viewer that the wounds of Jesus are wounds of salvation that rise above suffering. His skin has an almost translucent quality, which adds to the sense of weightlessness exhibited by the Lord. Christ reveals a semblance of tranquil power — of being present in the world but not affected by its sufferings.
The altarpiece was originally located in the chapel of a hospital that cared for plague victims. One can imagine those afflicted, praying in the chapel, experiencing consolation as they considered that Christ experienced suffering just as they were experiencing. One can feel their hope that Christ, who had triumphed over the darkness of suffering and pain, would bring healing and peace to their lives. We also experience this hope after the somber and muted tones of Lent give way to the joyful notes of the Easter season. The light of Christ need not stun us in the darkness of life, but it can illuminate a bright path forward toward heaven.
FATHER JUSTIN HUBER, who has studied a number of historical artistic techniques, was ordained in 2010 and serves as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Washington.