This is the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was painted by the German artist, Matthias Grunewald in the early Sixteenth Century. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
What do you make of it?
I’ve been told by an amateur art historian that it’s one of the most graphic depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. She may be right. I’m not the man to ask. But you knew that already, didn’t you!
But what does it provoke in you?
Does it elicit deep sympathy for a man treated so horrendously by his captors?
Does it make you wince as you think about the painful torture?
Does it make you embarassed that man is capable of such brutality to man?
Does it make you angry as you think about the injustice of it all?
Images like this were peppered around the church building in which I grew up. But though I grew up around church, I didn’t grow up a Christian. I couldn’t understand why Christians got so excited about a half naked man hanging pathetically on a cross, rejected by almost everyone that mattered. I thought he was weak. Images like this didn’t help. They led me to despise Jesus Christ not worship him. This wasn’t the version of manhood I aspired to. I played rugby and wanetd to join the Royal Navy. This wasn’t a man to be admired but to be scorned. It was humiliating; he epitomised everything that Idespised in weak men. I could see why people outside church mocked both Him and those who adored him. But Christians worshipped him, they still do. I found this depiction embarassing but they gloried in it. What had I missed?
The answer didn’t sink in until I was 19. One summer’s evening on a beach in Bournemouth, an old school friend finally put the pieces together. For the first time that I could remember I understood the cross. I finally understood what Jesus was doing as he hung there. Here was a bloke willing to take the hit so that I wouldn’t have to. This was a man willing to bear my sin and the punishment it deserved. Whatever it was, it wasn’t weakness. Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice was, and remains, overwhelmingly wonderful.
I have no idea what you make of this image, or of the man depicted in it. I just want you to know that until you adore this man, as I now do, you can’t have really understood what he was doing on that first Good Friday.