A Testimony of Grace

April 27, 2015

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990  (this edition: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990
(this edition is in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

While in Denver for a short trip a couple weeks ago, I spent a few hours at the Denver Art Museum. They have this artwork displayed in a rather odd place—a wide corridor that connects their two main buildings. You could easily miss it, except it’s a Keith Haring, and Keith Haring tends to draw attention.

Haring made nine editions of this cast-bronze sculpture shortly before his death in 1990. A firsthand account of its making, written by Sam Havadtoy, has become the primary way that this artwork is popularly understood. If you’re curious, you can find it here.

Obviously, there is lots of Christian iconography here.

The viewer is immediately drawn to the baby in the middle of the center panel, presumably an infant Jesus in the arms of Mary. But the figure that extends up is also vaguely trinitarian–the many arms suggesting the omnipotence of God. The topmost pair echo the arms of the cross, and the head seems to look down. The short lines surrounding this figure convey a sense of energy.

On the left and right panels, Haring drew four winged creatures. Havadtoy described them as an image of a fallen angel (the Fall) and the resurrection (Christ’s victory). The people crowded below seem to dance, swoon, and reach up to heaven.

So, as far as I can tell, this is usually interpreted as a reflection on—if not an affirmation of—the sacred. I get that. Haring does express Christian theology about salvation in a rather tidy and compelling image.

But, there’s another way to read this—as a personal reflection on his own impending death.

When he drew so-called “radiant babies” before, he was connoting a range of things—sometimes Jesus, but also all of humanity and even himself. The main figure–an all-powerful, loving, tender God– cradles this little baby. Could Haring have imagined himself being held by God as he prepared for his own death? Could he have been contemplating how, despite his own sin, eternal life might be possible because of God’s love for him?

I don’t know. After a protestant upbringing and an affiliation with the Jesus Movement, he spent much of his short adult life being skeptical about religion and the church. He did come back around to Christianity, apparently, so it’s conceivable that he would do such an overtly theological artwork—especially when drawing on a triptych shaped like an altarpiece—but it is less clear if he would have endeavored a personal reflection on his own salvation.

But does it really matter? Haring understood how language and symbolism work. An author/artist uses a series of words/symbols to send a message, but the receiver might hear/read a different message because they understand the words and symbols differently. Ambiguity is part of the game of communication.

So, he carves these symbols into clay and they are cast into bronze. The message is sent.

I am satisfied.


Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?

This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!

Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.

Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.

Cranach-Weimar-det2Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.

The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.

Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.

The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.

Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.

I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.

Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.


Yellow Christ

September 22, 2014


Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889

Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889 (Albright-Knox Gallery)

Back to some religious subject matter. I tend to treat Gauguin with a little skepticism, but I like this painting—perhaps because it’s just a good painting (visually speaking), perhaps because it strikes a chord.

First, the visual. Gauguin puts the cross off-center, so that it’s anchored to the top and left edges, giving the painting a strong structure. Yet, because we don’t see where it connects to the ground, the cross seems to hang rather than stand. Three women kneel on the ground in a semicircle that connects (through line and color) to the rock wall that snakes across the middleground and leads back to the village (also bluish). 

Because the body of Christ is the brightest yellow in the painting, it not only draws our attention, but it is linked to the landscape—and the rolling fields more so than the trees—and sets him apart from the women.

The subject is ahistorical, of course. The setting is Brittany, in France, in the late 19th century. In that context, these pious women would be kneeling in prayer before a crucifix, but this crucifix holds a figure of Christ that seems more real than sculpted or painted.

One explanation suggests that Gauguin painted a spiritual experience–these women are so devout that they are being given a vision of Jesus as he hung on the cross. They look down in the painting because Gauguin wanted to convey that this is a powerful interior experience. The vivid contrasting color and the rather thick outline of Christ’s body not only emphasizes that he is distinct from them (and their muted blues), but also gives the viewer a potentially powerful visual experience of the crucified Christ.

The experience of these women–as Gauguin paints it–is enviable. I hear about people who have visions or other types of intense spiritual experiences and I think, Must be nice. They receive assurances, they have personal encounters with Jesus, they get regular reminders of God’s grace! But then I remember that a life characterized by mystical experiences is probably the result of a deep and abiding faith. Right. 

In an earlier phase of life, I think you would have found me in the middle of that group of women, trying (though not very successfully) to cultivate a practice of contemplative prayer.

Now, I more often feel like the man climbing over the wall. I have no idea why Gauguin put him there, but when I see him, I see someone making a break for it. But why? Is he freaked out by their religiosity? Does he have something seemingly more important to do? Is he afraid of engaging in that kind of spiritual practice? Has he just had enough? 

I can’t answer the question for me either, but it could be any of those reasons. I’m glad that Gauguin put him in there because it’s probably good for me to reflect on such things. I’ll do that. And maybe I’ll wander back to the circle.




Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800 (Trinity College, Dublin)

Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800
(Trinity College, Dublin)
Click the image to go to a digital facsimile of the book and scroll down to folio/page 34 to see a much better image.

This is the Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, a early 9th-century book that was lavishly decorated by monks somewhere in modern-day Ireland. It’s probably one of the most famous pages of any book ever, and it’s no surprise why.

It gets its name from the Greek letters that appear rather prominently: X-P-I (pronounced Chi-Rho-Iota), which are the first letters of the sacred name, “Christ.” The page appears in the book at the moment when Jesus is first called “the Christ” in the gospels, which significant because he’s being identified as more than just a prophet or rabbi. He’s the Messiah. Other manuscripts from this time and place have Chi-Rho pictures, but this page is far-and-away more spectacular than any other.

Visually, the page is stunning because everything seems animated (it’s no wonder that it inspired the 2009 animated film, “The Secret of Kells”). The letters seem to draw themselves, with the arching lines of the Chi, the Rho which curls in on itself, and the Iota that sprouts at its top. Small circles spin inside bigger circles and they appear to move like yo-yos along the bold outlines of the letters. The rest of the interlacing (or weaved patterning) seems to weave itself into knots. The only shape that seems still is the cross form toward the bottom—the bold yellow and black lines are strong and definitive, as if the design of the whole page started and stopped right there. Ah, yes, indeed.

This is where I could get all heady and pick apart some of the iconography. Suzanne Lewis wrote an article years ago that explained it in a way that still gives me chills.* I’ll simply say that there are three bits of imagery—cats and mice, an otter and a fish, and two butterflies and a chrysalis—which all point to Christ as the Eucharistic host. They emphasize that, with the Incarnation, God was made flesh and it is that flesh that we consume—metaphorically, at the very least—when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the theological narrative, what connects the Incarnation with Salvation is, of course, the crucifixion. The cross. The Chi. Perfect, no? Chills?

All that appeals to my mind, but it is still the visual power of the page that makes my soul hum. Monks decorated the books they copied not because they had extra time on their hands, but because they were passionate about the uniqueness of the words these books contain and they conveyed that belief by painting the pages with extravagant designs. This was the Word of God, and the Word of God is dynamic, powerful, extraordinary. These intricate illuminations never let readers forget that this was no ordinary text.

That seems so right to me. At some point along the line—perhaps around the time of the first publication of the Good News Bible—we shifted from treating Bibles as intensely special books to emphasizing the Bible is common and accessible to all. Not a bad shift, to be sure! But I do think we lost something. We lost the mystery, the holiness, the wonder.

No doubt I’ve lost it too … except when I look at a book like this. Then, the page, the letters, and the text itself seem so shockingly alive, it feels like I’m looking at something powerful and mysterious. It’s the Word of God, and don’t you forget it.

*Suzanne Lewis, “Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page in the Book of Kells,” Traditio 36 (1980), pp. 139-59


This week, I’m looking at another corner of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco shows three scenes from the Old Testament story of Esther. It’s a confusing panel, but it also packs a punch.

The story of Esther is a bit like a soap opera. Being quite the beauty, Esther was picked by Xerxes, the king of Persia, to be his next wife after he executed the previous one. Not long after, Esther’s cousin Mordecai, discovered a plot to kill the king. He told Esther, Esther told the king, and the assassins were caught. Kudos to Mordecai. Things got dicey, though, when Xerxes issued a decree that everyone should bow down to a high-ranking official named Haman and Mordecai refused because he would only bow to God. That hacked Haman off and, in revenge, he convinced the king issue another decree to kill all the Jews. What Xerxes didn’t know was that Esther, his lovely queen, was a Jew herself. And so the plot thickens. Mordecai convinced Esther that she had to intervene for the sake of her people, but to do so would mean risking her own life. She did muster up her courage to approach the king, and after a long string of dramatic events, he ordered Haman to be executed. All was well.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion of Haman, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

There seems to be some uncertainty about what exactly Michelangelo has depicted here. On the far left side, Mordecai is conferring with Esther, possibly telling her about Haman’s plot. On the far right side, we see King Xerxes in bed with Esther at his side. This could show the episode when Xerxes had some restless nights during which a scribe read to him from the annals and he realized he had never properly honored Mordecai for saving his life. That sort of fits, but the way he sternly points towards the crucified man on the other side of the door suggests that he is ordering Haman’s execution instead. Esther cowers by his bedside, clearly a little nervous that she might meet the same fate as his previous wife for overstepping her bounds.

This brings us to the most important part of the panel. At the middle of the panel, in an amazing demonstration of Michelangelo’s skill with foreshortening and anatomy, we see Haman striped naked and strung up on a tree. But here’s the thing … the biblical story says he was hung on a gallows, not crucified on a tree. What gives?

As usual, Michelangelo takes some liberties with the story to make a bigger point. There are several theories about this, but I am intrigued by the idea that Michelangelo is making a connection between Haman and Christ.

On the one hand, it seems so wrong to compare an evil, conniving character like Haman to Christ, but there is at least one important parallel. Jews have long seen the death of Haman as a moment of salvation of the Jewish people, just as the death of Christ was the salvific event for all humanity. In this way, Haman is an anti-type for Christ. He is everything evil; Christ is everything good. Yet, both of their deaths meant a whole group of people received new life.

Michelangelo makes this connection between the two, but he also underscores the difference between them. He twists Haman’s body so that he appears to be squirming in pain. He is not the noble figure surrendered on the cross, like Christ is usually depicted, but a despicable criminal dying a much-deserved death. No mercy here.

While the theological messages may be interesting, at the moment I am drawn to the way Michelangelo paints Esther as she addresses Xerxes on his bed. The whites of her eyes glow as she hides behind the other guy and glances cautiously in the direction of Xerxes’s gesture. Here is a woman who is more than a little nervous. Honestly, that’s kind of nice to see in a heroine. She’s not the icon of courage and resolve, but of apprehension and even hesitation. Still, she does the right thing.

Way to go, Esther. We don’t all have to be confident or eager, but would we all be more inclined to find the courage to do the right thing anyway.

Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and the Women at the Tomb, 1438-45 (Convent of San Marco, Florence)

I’ve picked such quiet paintings for Lent this year, it seems only fitting that I pick a quiet one for Easter too. This fresco by Fra Angelico seems like the perfect thing.

Fra Angelico packs a lot into this image. The women have come on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Christ, but instead they are greeted by a “man in white”—here, depicted clearly as an angel. He imparts his message with two gestures. He points downward into the empty tomb (“Jesus is not here”) and upward toward a vision of the risen Christ (“because he is risen.”). The women, still clutching their jars of ointment, react with dismay and maybe disbelief.

Jesus appears in all his risen glory in an aureole above the women. Fra Angelico is careful to stick to scripture here. According to the biblical account, Jesus wasn’t present at this point of the story, but Fra Angelico still wants to include the reality and wonder of Christ’s resurrection even as he meditates on the very human experience of the women. So, he sets Jesus apart, giving a vision of the risen Christ only to the viewers of the fresco. Us.

And what a vision! It may not be dramatic—Fra Angelico is always understated—but Christ is still exalted. With the bright white behind him and rays of light streaming out, it looks like he’s glowing. He carries the palm branch of martyrdom in one hand and the flag of the resurrection in the other—and together those symbols tell the story. He died a martyr’s death and then rose from the grave in order to reconcile us to God and conquer death once and for all. Jesus doesn’t really play the part of a victorious hero here, but he does have a look of confidence about him.

If only the women could see the vision! One of them will meet Christ close to the tomb in a little while, but the others will have to wait. For now, all of them are reeling. And you can see why! They’ve spent the last two days mourning the death of a beloved teacher-friend-son, and now they are told he’s alive again? What!?! Um, could you repeat that? One of the women peers into the tomb as if she wants to see for herself, and he others haven’t yet dried their eyes…

They will, though. And they will become fierce witnesses to this most astonishing of all miracles. I don’t know about you, but I just love these women. Their devotion to Jesus and their strength of character inspires me. They left the tomb, went back to the house where the disciples were hiding out and, even though they knew those men would call them crazy, they were the first to proclaim, “Christ is risen!”

He is risen indeed.

And down in the corner is St. Dominic, kneeling in prayer. He models for us so that we, too, may stop to meditate on the wonder and significance of these events.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Messina, Christ Crucified, 1475
(National Gallery, London)

I remember the first time I saw this panel at the National Gallery in London almost twenty years ago. It’s a tiny painting, and it still draws me in with its stillness, quietness.

It shows the crucifixion, of course, but without all the usual trappings. There are no guards, no thieves, no crowds. It’s clear that none of that is important to the artist. This is not a history painting of an event as much as a theological meditation on the death of Christ.

The artist Messina has defined two separate worlds here by dividing the painting in half vertically. The lower half, which largely consists of warm tones, is the physical realm. It is occupied by hills and towns and everyday life. The upper half, in which Christ is suspended in an expanse of cool blue sky, is the spiritual realm. It may lie beyond our immediate apprehension, yet it is very real.

Jesus is situated rather high on a cross to completely separate him from the earthly world. He seems small and weightless, and there is little to show of the suffering he has endured, except for the wound in his side and the curl of his fingers around the nails. This is some time after his death, but he does not seem dead. Instead, it looks like he might be gazing down into that physical realm.

The two figures below are Mary (probably the mother of Jesus, but it’s unclear) and John the Younger. They sit on the ground, which ties them more physically to the earthly world. Mary seems lost in thought, but John gazes up with an open palm as if asking some big questions.

By making these two realms remarkably distinct, I think the artist is emphasizing just how difficult it is for us to understand the things of God. John looks up, wanting to understand, but we get the impression that simply he can’t access that information. Even now, from the perspective of two thousand years and with the wisdom of many scholars, the paradox of the death of God still baffles. I don’t think our human minds can really understand.

But Messina consoles us. Remember, Christ seems to look down from the cross. I imagine (and it may be just me) that he wants to say something—maybe a word of comfort, maybe a word of explanation—something to bridge the divide between the spiritual reality and the earthly reality. Can we hear his words? Maybe, maybe not.

But what does bridge the gap is the cross itself. It cuts across the horizontal line with a bold and definitive horizontal band that is then firmly rooted in the soil of the earthly realm.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this. It would be easy to conclude that the crucifixion was the ultimate divine act that broke the barrier between God and humanity. Of course. But, while that may be, I believe that no one can truly grasp the fullness of that truth, and so the spiritual realm should feel just as distant and inaccessible as ever. And there’s the paradox. Thankfully, it’s possible to live in that paradox. And I do this Easter Eve.

Lent … Being Present

February 28, 2012

Hieronymous Bosch, outside panel of The Temptation of Saint Anthony Triptych, c. 1500-05 (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga)

And so Lent begins. Today, I’ve been thinking about Christ carrying the cross on his way to Golgotha, and I dug up this Bosch image of the scene. I like Bosch because of his unique spin on things.

This painting is actually an outside panel of a winged triptych. When the triptych is open, we see three images from the temptation of Saint Anthony, complete with the crazy composite demon figures we would expect from Bosch. When the triptych is closed, however, we see two scenes from the Passion of Christ: his arrest and this panel.

The main scene above shows Christ carrying his cross up a hill to his place of execution. He has fallen to his knees. Simon of Cyrene leans forward to try to relieve him of his burden, and Veronica falls to her knees to wipe the sweat and blood from Christ’s face. Both are rebuked by the executioner carrying a sickle. He may not be the Grim Reaper himself, but he is a harvester of death.

This is a spectacle. A big crowd has formed a procession from the city out to the execution grounds, including a woman who has brought her two young children. Three others have come ahead in order to find a comfortable spot where they can get a good view of the show.

And all around, there are signs of what this place is. In the foreground, an executed man lies rotting on the ground next to the cross on which he died. In the middle ground, a severed head has been mounted on a stake. Perhaps it is his body that lies in the ditch to the left. In other places, pieces of wood protrude from the ground, leading us to surmise that they were also crosses that held criminals at one time. It’s a bleak scene. And we get a sense of just what a horrible death awaits Christ.

The two little scenes in the middle ground tell the story of the two thieves that will be executed with Christ. On the left, one thief sits close to a friar and leans in—he seems to be listening, maybe even repenting. The book on the ground suggests that his name might be written in the Book of Life after all. The thief on the right is also being counseled by a friar, but he remains bound and blindfolded—physically and also spiritually, it seems.

Of course, the panel is a morality tale. It illustrates that we are all tempted to sin (even as a Saint like Anthony was, as shown in the inside panels), but we have a choice to repent—that is, to turn to Christ and ultimately see Paradise—or be obstinate and be destined for a miserable eternity. The stakes are high, and Bosch made a career of delivering warnings in paint.

But there’s another choice here that resonates a little more deeply. How do we respond to Christ’s suffering? Do we follow Christ through Lent because of some kind of pious mob mentality? Are we interested in finding a good seat for the show? I think this is all too often the case, even among Christians, even for me. Lent is a show—a show to be watched, sure, but also a show to be acted out.

The alternative is to follow the example of Simon and Veronica. They, too, follow the procession, but out of love and concern. They, too, want to be close, but in order to offer support and care. From my spot in history, I cannot ease Christ’s burden or wipe his face, but I can be present with him. That’s my hope. Through these days of Lent, may I be present. Present.

A Fresh Look

October 23, 2011

Emil Nolde, The Life of Christ, 1911-1912 (Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Neukirchen)

Emil Nolde’s Life of Christ is a powerful group of paintings. He depicts a series of very well-known and oft-imaged scenes from the life of Jesus in ways that are surprising and poignant. In fact, this painting makes me feel sorry for all those Renaissance artists who were stuck with a set of conventions when painting these scenes (Holy Night = baby in a manger). It seems like Nolde ditches all that in the interest of creating images that speak to the humanness of the characters and the transcendence of the events at hand.

Take the Holy Night panel, for instance. This is not your typical manger scene. The only manger here is the one from which the horse is drinking. Instead, Nolde shows Mary and Joseph in a private moment, just before the shepherds arrive (we can seem them coming over the hill). This is Mary’s chance to treasure this precious baby before the visitors start streaming in. She holds up the tiny newborn, all pink and floppy, as if to get a good look at him. Isn’t he so precious? I want to take him, wrap him up in a blanket, and hold him tight to me. This, my Savior.

So then I chuckle with the next scene. Here, the Wise Men are doing exactly what I want to do! Look at those two cooing over the baby. Jesus seems to encourage their doting by giving them a little smile. Meanwhile, Mary (now all covered up) leans back with her hands on her hips. You can almost imagine her rolling her eyes or issuing a big sigh. Glad you came, now would please you go?


In the next episode, we see the 12-year-old Jesus interpreting the scriptures in the temple. Nolde shows Jesus as a toe-headed youngster bent over a bright white book or scroll. The rabbis crowd around him, but they are not peering down at the page. Instead, they look straight at him with broad smiles on their faces. They are so pleased with him! There is one at the back, however, that seems to glower, perhaps suggesting how quickly opinions will change later on. For now, though, Christ is a marvelous prodigy. What none of them seems to notice is the shaft of light behind them. It not-so-subtly implies that Jesus has these extraordinary insights precisely because he has a direct connection to God. Maybe they can’t see it, but we can.

After the tremendously dark and chaotic panel that shows Judas kissing Christ in an ironic act of betrayal, we see the crucifixion scene. Nolde uses garish colors and angular forms to convey the anguish and desolation of the event. Mary collapses into the arms of John, her face smeared and eyes swollen with grief. Nolde here repeats the profile view of Mary, with white dress and loose hair, probably to connect that first panel with this one. What a long road between lifting up her newborn babe and seeing that son lifted up on a cross. Her misery is made more poignant by the care-less attitudes of the men on the right who throw dice to see who will get to keep Christ’s clothes as a souvenir. Two responses to the death of Christ. We do not want to be counted among the latter, do we.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. The first scene on the right side is the resurrection. Nolde paints Jesus with an elongated body in front of a purple explosion, so that it seems like he is being propelled out of the tomb by the sheer power that has brought him back to life. What a contrast to the Christ that hangs on the cross. This is Christ whole and triumphant. It’s no wonder that the same guard who treated his death so lightly before now seems to be running for cover—running right out of the canvas toward us. Look out! He has risen!

In the next to panels, Nolde focuses on the human side of things. He seems to reflect on what it must have been like for the friends of Jesus—the women finding his tomb empty and the disciples trying to wrap their minds around the idea of a risen Jesus. It doesn’t make sense, yet they are asked to believe. So are we, right? And we stand there in the crowd as Jesus makes that one last leap into heaven. They look a little nervous. Me too.

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1510-15 (Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France)

A long look at Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. This is another very elaborate altarpiece with 14 panels and iconography that is both dense and difficult. This week, I’m only going to look at the panels of the closed position; even then, it’s complicated.

The center image shows the very dead body of Jesus still nailed to the cross, which bows under the weight of this heavy burden. His head hangs low, his lips have turned blue, and his skin looks as if it has already begun to putrefy. His brow and hands seem frozen in the moment of his greatest agony. Below, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, swoons and is caught by John the Younger, while Mary Magdelene kneels in grief before the cross, the burial ointment at her side. Curiously, John the Baptist stands on the other side. More on that in a minute.

The predella below shows the next episode of the story, the burial of Christ. Here again we see the two Maries and John, this time preparing the body. While the atmosphere is almost impenetrably dark in the crucifixion scene, now we can see a vast landscape with leafless trees and a distant mountain. Still desolate, but at least we can breathe.

The two wings show portraits of saints—Sebastian and Anthony—both of whom were patron saints of plague victims, which was fitting because the monastery for which the altarpiece was painted had a hospital. For the  monks and the sick who would worship in the chapel and pray before this altarpiece, seeing these saints would have encouraged their faith.

Okay, back to John the Baptist.

What is he doing here? He was long dead by the time Christ was crucified, so it’s anachronistic to have him here, at the foot of the cross. But I love it that he’s there, bearing witness. It’s like he’s saying, “See! I told you so!” The prophets foretold it, and it has happened just like they (and then I) said it would. This man, this Jesus, is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

He seems so sure of himself. Standing there, with feet so firmly planted and such forceful gestures, he exudes confidence—confidence in  himself, but no doubt more confidence in God. That’s faith, you know? With all the emotion around the brutal death of Christ (seen in the figures of Mary and Mary Magdalene), John has taken refuge in the larger Truth. The Son of God came into the world as a flesh-and-blood human being to be the once-and-for-all sacrifice. It is finished.

The contrast is so rich. The bruises and punctures and welts on the body of Christ draw us into his suffering. His pallor underscores the completeness of his death. And how easily we get wrapped up in an emotional response until we’re reeling like the Maries. But John offers a counterweight. The voice that transcends time and the narrative moment to remind us that this was foretold. You knew it was coming. This was the plan all along. What’s more, John’s calm confidence also reminds us that this suffering death is not the end of the story. Just wait. It gets better.