Artatomical: Matthias Grünewald's Diseased Christ


'Deposition in the Sepulcher,' detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece. DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Isenheim Altarpiece of German Renissance painter Matthias Grünewald (1470 - 1528) is a powerful work of religious art. It's also about as morbid and apocalyptic a vision of the Christian faith as you could ask for, thoroughly grounding our fleshly world as a place of suffering, madness and death.

The Temptation of St Anthony.
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There's a lot of fixate on here, such as the monstrous demons tempting Saint Anthony in the panel to the right. But even its depiction of Jesus Christ goes above and beyond the typical violence and nastiness one finds in imagery of Golgotha.

We're accustomed to seeing the pierced, flagellated and crucified Christ, but Grünewald depicts his tormented body as riddled with sores -- and his corpse (seen above) is in a visible state of decay.

Even Christ's hands and feet display a level of twisted torment rarely seen in artistic depictions. To understand why, we have consider the environment in which it was created, as well as a certain toxic fungus.

Ergotism and Christ

Grünewald created the Isenheim Altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, near Colmar in modern day France (where it resides today).

(DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Here, the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony treated victims of plague, skin diseases and especially that condition known as Saint Anthony's Fire or Ergot poisoning.

As discussed in"The Psychedelic Nightmare of Ergotism," ergot is a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) containing toxic compounds similar to LSD. When it infests grains, it sometimes winds up in contaminated bread. Imagine everyone in a village frequenting the same singular bakery and you'll see how it managed to ravage entire towns.

Humans suffer from two varieties of ergotism and here are the associated symptoms, according to "A Brief History of Ergotism" by Vincas Lapinskas:

Gangrenous ergotism: (AKA ignis sacer or holy fire) nausea, limb pain pain. Extremities may turn black and mummified, causing infected limbs to spontaneously break off at the joints.

Convulsive ergotism: Painful seizures, spasms, convulsions. Hallucinations, mania or psychosis may occur.

These were the horrors faced by the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony. This was their challenge.

(DeAgostini/Getty Images)

And so Grünewald not only depicted ergotism in the temptation of third-century Saint Anthony (the patron saint of lepers), but also in the physical body of the tormented Christ.

Historians believe the artist actually used patients as his subjects, capturing clinical examples of their "abnormal postures simulating focal and generalized dystonia" [source: García de Yébenes].

But of course it wasn't all about equating the suffering of ignis sacer with the suffering of Christ. It was also about the hope of, if not physical release, then at least spiritual release after death. And so we behold the risen Christ as featured on the Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald envisions an alien and refreshingly feminine aspect of the Christian savior. The pearly white skin shines free of disease and his stigmatic wounds glow with yonic power.

You'd be hard pressed to find a more cosmic vision of Christ:

The Resurrection of Christ
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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.