By Alan Altany
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured,
While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted.
In the chapel of the monastery’s hospital,
the pure stench of boiling & erupting skin,
going black gangrenous by the moment,
rose up with a cacophony of suffered moans
from the peasant patients grimly enduring
St. Anthony’s fire, leprosy and plague
as the monks cared for them and brought
their brutally fouled bodies and afflicted souls
before the painted Christ altarpiece, before
the magnificent ugliness of a crucified Jesus
who mirrored and consumed their own wounds,
compelling their death-draining eyes towards
this tortured, contorted figure perfectly abandoned,
perfectly and savagely killed in frozen writhing:
common people with commonly searing pustules,
seizures, crunching spasms and hallucinations
facing this night-drenched painting, this Christ.
Grunewald painted in the hospital
for years, daily seeing the stricken-
down in their fatally drenched beds,
stretching faith beyond breaking.
His Christ: greyish–green flesh,
gaping mouth, grave-blue lips,
screaming hands, legions of sores
heavy with death, a dead Jesus.
This God of excess died like no other
in dreadful beauty & unrestrained love,
unrestricted, eternal empathy
for His sin-corpsed, absurd humans,
God now knowing their desolation and
the terminal loneliness of their pain.
Mother Mary, right of Jesus on the panel,
collapses in John’s arms next to
Mary Magdalene praying, begging;
a decreasing John the Baptist to the left
points fiercely to Jesus to increase.
The whole chapel is a visceral scene
gravitating everyone towards
a gruesome, hideous Christ:
eyes shut, head awfully dropped;
a 16th-century painting intending
miracles of body and faith
by the execution of
a mystical transfiguration
of their poor dyings
into acts of worship
to the God who knew them
with a mothering intimacy,
seeing He sought them more deeply
than their abysses, so deeply
that hope found a way out of hell
into hearts bowing before the infinite
sacrifice of God, where He agonized
in love for them and died so that
they could finally become soulful fire
ascending to be with the risen Christ
in their new spirited-skin bodies.
Jesus’s darkest night ever of any soul:
a high point of art
marked by the healing of tormented hearts
of pushed down-and-out believers
through a polyptych painting
by a man whose name was
not even Grunewald, but who
had been touched by the reflected
heat of St. Anthony’s fire and by the
God of miracle-making who envisioned
the painted panel itself into a miracle
of a dramatically hidden resurrection,
healing through immersion in death.
Alan Altany, Ph.D., is a septuagenarian college professor of religious studies. He’s been a factory worker, swineherd on a farm, hotel clerk, lawn maintenance worker, small magazine of poetry editor, director of religious education for churches, truck driver, novelist, etc. He published a book of poetry in 2022 entitled A Beautiful Absurdity: Christian Poetry of the Sacred. His website is at https://www.alanaltany.com/.
'Grunewald's Crucifixion' first appeared in A Beautiful Absurdity: Christian Poetry of the Sacred. It has been republished here with the author's permission.
Related work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St Peter (Fiction, August 2022)
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