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5.3.04

More Thoughts on the Passion

You should know by now that I like David Nishimura's Cronaca blog, so I was happy to read his take (from March 3, Gibson's Passion: documentary or devotional aid) on Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. He said quite eloquently what I was trying to communicate in my Leap Day post on the same subject (La Passion du Christ: Violence and Art History). Here is how he put it, in part:

There is a long and venerable tradition in Catholic devotion to meditation on the sufferings of Christ—meditation that made liberal use of pictorial imagery of the most graphic kind, as any number of altarpieces illustrate. . . . Mel Gibson's film would thus seem to be a modern update on a very old theme—not a documentary, but a devotional aid. We moderns tend to unthinkingly equate the quest for verisimilitude with the quest for historical accuracy, yet here it clearly is intended to serve the heart, and not the head.
When I tried to put Gibson's film at the end of a line of development including Grünewald and Caravaggio, I hoped that it would help to contextualize the movie, even for those who are not Christians or just don't have any real interest in seeing it. So I was also happy to read the reaction to my post by blogger Tom Moody, whose fun and colorful blog is also a regular read. He was especially interested in the story of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece and its gruesome crucifixion scene, and how it was created for use in a hospital. For your further edification, dear readers, here is a better and more informed version of the story, from Louise Gardner's Art Through the Ages (9th edition, 1996, as updated by Horst de La Croix, Richard Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick, pp. 724–25):Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece in closed position
In his appalling Crucifixion from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Grünewald gives us perhaps the most memorable interpretation of the theme in the history of art. . . . Painted by Grünewald between 1510 and 1515 for the monastic hospital order of St. Anthony of Isenheim, the panels show three scenes, with the Crucifixion outermost, when the altar is closed. The dreadful aspect of the painting may be due in part to its placement in a house of the sick, where it may have admonished the inmates that Another has suffered more. It also may have had a therapeutic function, in that it offered some hope to the afflicted. . . .

One of the main illnesses treated at the hospital was ergotism (called "St. Anthony's Fire"), a disease caused by ergot, a fungus that grows especially on rye. Although the cause of this disease was not discovered until about 1600, its symptoms (convulsion and gangrene) were well known. The gangrene often compelled amputation, and it has been noted in this connection that the two movable halves of the predella [base] of the altarpiece, if slid apart, make it appear as if the legs of Christ have been amputated. The same observation can be made of the two main panels. Due to the off-center placement of the cross, the opening of the left center panel would "sever" one arm from the crucified figure.

Much of this symbolism may have been dictated by his patrons, but Grünewald's own inflamed imagination produced the terrible image of the suffering Christ. Against the pall of darkness lowered on the earth, the devastated body looms—dead, the flesh already discolored by decomposition and studded with the thorns of the lash. In death, the strains of the superhuman agony twist the blackening feet, tear at the arms, wrench the head to one side, and turn the fingers into crooked spikes. . . . No other artist has produced such an image of the dreadful ugliness of pain. . . . The bright, harsh, dissonant colors—black, blood-red, acid-yellow, and the dreadful green of death—suit the flat, angular shapes. Placed in a wilderness of dark mountains, the scene is relieved by a flood of glaring light that holds the figures in a tableau of awful impact.
In fact, I have read elsewhere that some miraculous cures were ascribed to the altarpiece, which at least shows the depth of devotion to the images on it. Gardner also makes a good point about the other views of this altarpiece: in effect, if you pass through this horrifying crucifixion and open it up, "the mood changes from disaster to triumph," because in the inner panels—in bright, often almost hallucinatory colors—among other images, Christ leaps up from the tomb and blazes like the sun. If you want to see some more images and learn more about this work, look at this page on Le Retable d'Isenheim (in French only), from the institution that presently displays the work, the Musée d'Unterlinden (Colmar, France). Finally, there is a book devoted to this subject: Andrée Hayum's The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's Medicine and the Painter's Vision, from (Princeton University Press, 1993).

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