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June 17: "Insenheim's Altarpiece"

One of the most powerful Christian pieces of art I have ever come across is Isenheim’s Altarpiece (I have a large picture of this hanging in my spiritual room). This altarpiece was painted by the German artists Nikolaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald. It was painted somewhere between 1512 and 1516. Today, it is on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France. It was originally painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar, which specialized in hospital work.

Here is a link if you want to look at the altar picture. Copy the link and paste it in your search bar. If that doesn’t work, just type in “Insenheim’s Altarpiece” and you will be able to see this dramatic altar painting.

There is so much in this picture that strikes me, but the one aspect of the painting that I want to share with you today, is how Jesus’ body was portrayed. If you looks closely at Jesus hanging on the cross, you will see small green markings on his body. These can be seen more prevalently on the lower picture of Jesus, after he has been taken down from the cross. I always assumed that these marks were caused by the aging of the picture or the quality of the paint at the time. I came to find that neither of these assumptions was current.

This altar painting was done when a plague caused by “ergotism” was going through the land. Ergotism is poisoning caused (though this wasn’t known at the time) by eating food affected by ergot. If one contracted ergotism, they would show the following symptoms: blotches and or blisters on the skin (often turning green), headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and gangrene of the fingers and toes. It quite often led to a person’s death.

The Antonine monks that lived and worked in the Monastery of St. Anthony when this altar was created, were known for their care of those suffering from illness. They worked tirelessly when this particular plague struck their community. These monks put their lives on the line in order to fulfill their call from God to help the hurting and heal the suffering.

Because of this ministry, and the artists understanding that Jesus literally takes our suffering upon himself, they painted the image of the crucified Christ as pitted with plague-type sores. It was to show everyone who was suffering from ergotism that Jesus understood and shared in their afflictions.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews finds great comfort in that fact and rights: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect as been tested as we are” (Hebrews 4:14-15).

Know at this moment: Jesus is with you;

he understands your struggles and pains,

and he is literally going through them with you.

Jesus will bring us healing

Just as Jesus took our sins upon himself and healed us, by dying on the cross, we know he will continue to take upon himself our struggles and pains, and like on Easter morning, will prove himself once again, stronger than anything we face. Yes, we have a Savior who not only loves us, but is deeply and intimately connected to EVERY aspect of our lives. Jesus will bring healing to us, no matter what we may be facing.

~ God be with you all, Dan

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