The Isenheim altarpiece, painted sometime around 1515 by a man known now as Grünewald, is the touchstone of this work of dark fantasy and bold speculation on evil and the divine. Boils and black pustules being more evident in this multipanel painting than the conventionally depicted lacerations, Grünewald’s pestilent Christ suffers from the inside out. He thus embodies evil, and, seen this way, is a unique and powerful symbol to the syphilitic patients for whom the altarpiece was painted, and, by extension, for us today.
After establishing evil and disease as being correlative with the beauty and blessing of sensuality, Monick presents his most startling passages. He imagines potent, archetypal sexual relations between Christ and the four main figures who appear with Him in the Crucifixion panel: John the Evangelist, Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. What if Jesus lived as a man and through sexual love contracted syphilis?
“Once one is contagious, involved personally in the inexorable illness, Grünewald’s crucified Christ might be seen as I imagine the Isenheim patients might have seen that stark image dominating their chapel: a revolutionary picture of psychological reality quite aside from one’s faith in a particular religious system. Moralizing about sexual preference and behavior becomes irrelevant; the issue is sickness and death. Even the gods get sick and die, as the Isenheim Crucifixion demonstrates.”
At times irritatingly personal, this book is also expansive and imaginative, dealing, as it does, with “paradox rather than reason, [as] a guiding principle of psychological truth.” Included are interesting discussions of homeopathy and the medical establishment, Susan Sontag, Tim Rollins and KOS, and an illuminating comparison of Grünewald and Albrecht Dürer, who was his contemporary. The author opens up many doors through his meditations on this rich icon. JTW
Paperback: 189 pages