The head is drooping and encased in a vicious tangle of thorns, the trunk emaciated and pierced with tiny feathered barbs, the feet twisted out of shape by fractured metatarsals, the fingers gangrenous and tautly outstretched, as if pleading for a merciful coup de grâce.
Of all the paintings I have seen of Christ’s crucifixion, none of them has had the impact of Matthias Grünewald’s masterpiece at the Unterlinden Museum in the French village of Colmar.
It was painted around 1512 for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim. The Antonine monks specialised in the treatment of Saint Anthony’s Fire (a crippling, gangrene-inducing disease caused by the consumption of infected rye) and regularly brought their patients before the painting, hoping that Grünewald’s vision of Christ ‘in extremis’ would bring comfort to their suffering charges.
I had been meaning to see this painting for many years, but for one reason or another never got round to doing so.
About ten days ago, however, I found myself at Strasbourg, not far from the village of Colmar. I had been invited to Strasbourg University to give a talk about Gibraltar and its problematic border – and speaking to one of the other delegates one afternoon, I learned that you could reach Colmar from the Gare de Strasbourg-Ville, the main railway station in the city, in just under thirty minutes by train.
The next morning, I got up early and took the first train to Colmar. On reaching the Place Unterlinden, the square immediately adjacent to the museum of the same name, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of tourists and tour guides speaking into their megaphones, the entire area awash in a sea of selfie-sticks and miniature flag-poles.
With a sinking heart, I zigzagged my way through the masses and walked into the museum, assuming that the building would already be crawling with visitors.
But when I bought my ticket and moments later entered the apse-like chamber where the altarpiece is kept, I discovered, to my surprise and relief, that I was the only person in that part of the building!
For about forty minutes I sat on the wooden bench in front of the main Crucifixion panel, carefully studying Grünewald’s artistic elongations and distortions, touched by the thought that I was gazing at a canvas that must have been gazed upon by hundreds, if not thousands of mortally sick men and women at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
‘The British writer John Berger was right,’ I thought in the end, rising to my feet. ‘If you want to experience human vulnerability in all its rawness – what Berger himself describes as ‘the FELT anatomy of pain’ – then there is no better painting to behold than Grünewald’s haunting and profoundly moving depiction of Christ’s crucifixion.’
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.