Editor's note: This piece takes Grunewald's Crucifixion as a spring board to a Christ-centered/Cross-centered theology of grace, over against the legalisms and performance mentality of the law, which still so permeates the church.
Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion, one of the panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece, was commissioned for the church hospital of St. Anthony in Colmar, France, which specialized in comforting those dying with skin diseases.
Grunewald kept the background of this powerful piece of religious art intentionally dark to highlight the horrific scene: especially Christ’s smashed feet, his contorted arms, and twisted hands. The cross is bowed to demonstrate Jesus bearing the sins of the world. The most shocking part of the piece, however, is that Jesus also has a skin disease, and his loincloth is the same as the wrappings worn by the hospital’s patients. Completed in 1516, the altarpiece is a creation of such shocking intensity that many initially–and still today–find it offensive and are repulsed by it. Yet the graphic nature served masterfully to define and illustrate the Antonite brothers’ powerful understanding of Christian ministry–a ministry defined by the theology of the cross.
Apparently patients were brought before the piece in order to silently meditate on it as they died, and since the Antonite brothers were a quiet order, they gave no commentary. There was no awkward chatter, no pious justifications claiming, “This is not God’s fault.” There was just silence.
Sadly many Christian ministries operate from a place that readers of this website will know as a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory believes that we can invite Jesus and his cross to be a part of our lives. This theology sees the cross, as Gehard Forde would say, as a means to an end as opposed to the end itself. In pastoral ministry this takes various deceptive shapes that have defined much of the landscape of modern Christianity.
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