TORTURE AND COMPASSION
 
MATHIS GRUNEWALD, THE SMALL CRUCIFIXION,1511-20
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)
 

    When film director Martin Scorsese asked his priest what he thought of Taxi Driver, the priest replied, "Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday." Grunewald’s Small Crucifixion at the Washington National Gallery might provoke a similar reaction. Too much anguish, too much gore, too many minutely executed lacerations of the flesh. It seems like yet another exercise in sanctified sadism, a distant ancestor of the Gospel According to Mel Gibson. Part of the problem is that our knowledge of Grunewald’s art derives largely from a single, overwhelming masterpiece, a work so powerful that it eclipses his few other surviving paintings. "Grunewald is to a rare degree a one-work artist," Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in 1958. "Know the Isenheim Altarpiece, and you know his genius."1 Unfortunately, only one part of the Isenheim Altarpiece is well-known–so famous, in fact, that it has become a synecdoche for the artist’s entire oeuvre. Grunewald is the Master of the Crucifixion, creator of the most harrowing depiction of Christ on the cross in all of Western art. Less well-known is the fact that the Isenheim Crucifixion is painted on two large hinged panels that–as originally displayed–open to reveal a dazzling panorama bathed in bright, mystical light. We see an Annunciation, a concert of angels, a Nativity, a Resurrection. The center two panels of this layer are similarly designed to slide open, showing us two scenes from the life of St. Anthony, one of them a memorable demon-infested Temptation. The Isenheim Altarpiece is a work of Tolstoyan scope, massive and multifaceted. The Small Crucifixion, which scholars date to the same decade as the altarpiece, can perhaps best be thought of as an aftershock of the Isenheim earthquake, a little masterpiece thrown off by the larger one. It’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich in relation to the Isenheim War and Peace, and like the larger work, the small painting is more complex than it initially appears. It is indeed ‘only a Crucifixion,’ but when examined closely it tells both a story of unbearable pain and a more subtle counter-tale of human compassion and the possibility of hope.

    Christ is of course the focus of our attention. He hangs from the cross at the center of three interlocking triangles formed by his arms, the crossbar and the heads of all four figures. Despite the landscape background, this picture has a flattened, planar composition that looks back to the pieties of medieval art rather than forward to Mannerism or Expressionism. All of the meaning is in the lighted foreground, and it’s concentrated in the right half of that foreground (Mary and the Magdalene are relatively uninteresting figures–contrasting depictions of restrained and emotive grief, and little more). We are drawn to the figures in the strongest light: John the Evangelist, who wrote of the Word made flesh; and that flesh itself, brutalized beyond belief. John Berger compared the flesh of the Isenheim Christ, of which this image is a reduced and slightly altered replica, to that of "a bird that has had its feathers plucked."2 While I agree with this reading, I would add that such an image presents no interpretive mystery; it is in fact a perfectly orthodox though highly original symbol of Incarnation: the dove of the Holy Spirit stripped of its feathers and made flesh–and that flesh, in turn, tormented to death. There is no sense of martyristic triumph or sacrifice here, only a dark vision of suffering. This is where paint becomes pain. More than a Crucifixion, it is a death of a thousand cuts; the flesh of the entire body, from hands to feet, is torn and dripping blood. The thorns of the scourge are embedded in Christ’s flesh like needles or nails. His talon-like fingers, as spiky as the thorns on his crown, claw in anguish at the black sky. But there is no release. This is not the Jesus of John’s Gospel who bows his head and dies with a calm "It is finished."3 Rather, it is the tormented crucified man of Matthew and Mark who cries out, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"4 Starved, stretched and beaten, with a terrible constriction below the ribcage where life appears to have been literally sucked out, this Christ transcends religious doctrine and leaps out of its own age to confront us with the reality of a body under torture. For a modern viewer it seems a premonition of the twentieth century’s most salient image of inhumanity and horror: the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. I pause for a second to consider the terrible ironies of history. I wonder if one of Grunewald’s descendants died in the camps–or killed there.

    Jean Amery, a member of the Belgian resistance who was tortured by the SS before being sent to Auschwitz, has written of the experience in terms that eerily parallel the mystery of the Incarnation: "...only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that."5 In the Nazi torture chamber, a hook was attached to the manacles that held Amery’s hands behind his back, and he was lifted by this hook until he hung suspended by his backwards twisted arms. He wrote:

All your life is gathered in a single, limited area of the body, the shoulder joints, and it does not react; for it exhausts itself completely in the expenditure of energy... And now there was a crackling and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten until this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms, which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology! At the same time, the blows from the horsewhip showered down on my body, and some of them sliced cleanly through the light summer trousers that I was wearing on this twenty-third of July 1943.6

Twenty years later, Amery still remembers the exact date. The tiniest details of that day are inscribed in his flesh and cannot be forgotten. Under torture there is nothing but flesh and pain. No spirit, no soul, no release except unconsciousness or death. It is a profoundly materialistic experience of the sort one expects to find in twentieth-century works influenced by Existentialism, but which shocks us when it appears on a panel painted five hundred years ago. Grunewald takes a Christian path to the same dark conclusion reached by Amery: that we are never more fully conscious of our bodies, of flesh as flesh, than when we are in an extremity of pain. Suffering, even more than sensual pleasure, embodies us. This much of Grunewald still speaks to us. This much we can–terribly–still understand.

    But the painting also tells another story, one that is easily overlooked by viewers who understandably concentrate upon the body of Christ. Look at John’s hands, at how they are clasped and turned back toward his body at an unnatural angle. Hold your own hands like that and you will quickly feel a pain in your wrists, a straining of ligaments and cartilage. John, in his own small way, feels a fraction of the pain of Christ; he demonstrates compassion in its etymological sense of ‘to suffer with’ (from the Latin pati, also the root of ‘patient’ both as adjective and as medical noun). It is as if Christ’s pain has been physically communicated to John’s body, as if a spark has jumped the tiny dark space between the dovetail contours of Christ’s loincloth and the sleeve at John’s wrist. This gap is powerfully energized in a way reminiscent of the most famous gap in Western art, that between the forefingers of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, however, the force that leaps the gap is mortifying rather than vivifying. Bodily pain is magically communicated and a powerful image of empathy produced. In a sense, John is our idealized stand-in; he is a perfectly empathetic viewer, gazing upon the horror of Christ’s torment with an expression that is part fearful, part bereaved. His face combines emotion and restraint in a way that befits one who looks into the heart of a mystery. (This impression is only partly revised when I lean in closer and notice that John’s eyes spurt tiny, transparent tears. This is unnecessarily melodramatic, but it’s only a minor flaw.) John is our exemplar of compassion, and just as Christ’s pain has flowed into his body, so his compassion seems to flood the entire world. John has torn his robe in grief, and we should note the rhyming contours of the large lower tear, the tears in Christ’s loincloth and the jagged outcropping of background rock that glows like a warm coal against the darkness. Even nature, it seems, is in sympathy with this suffering. And the sun has closed her eyes.

    How different this image of Jesus is from those being painted and sculpted simultaneously on the other side of the Alps. This is no marbled Italian Renaissance Apollo/Christ with a classically beautiful body and a minimum number of tastefully delineated wounds. This is not Christ Victorious; it is Christ beaten and tortured like a common criminal. The hourglass shape of his torso is an even more dramatic image of pain when seen in the light of Michelangelo’s beefy he-man Jesuses. Is Grunewald reflecting the tensions that would very soon tear Christendom apart, divide it into armed and opposing Catholic and Protestant camps? Evidence suggests that the painter was a Lutheran sympathizer, and this work’s emphasis on John’s direct, personal experience of Christ’s sacrifice seems to anticipate later Protestant doctrine, but the painting’s position as an artifact of an age of social and political upheaval is not what keeps us looking. We are drawn to the suffering and the sympathy. Believers must understand this work as implying the redemption of mankind, but we are free (since heretics are no longer burned, though comic novelists still receive fatwas) to see it on a purely human level, as a depiction of a tortured man and a compassionate observer. It is a powerful image of personal identification with a victim of power. It both enacts and provokes the act of compassion.

    "Somewhere, someone is crying out under torture," Jean Amery writes. "Perhaps in this hour, this second."7 To see The Small Crucifixion today (I am writing in 2005), one must travel to George W. Bush’s Washington, a sad irony comparable to seeing Goya’s Third of May in Franco’s Madrid. For when we stand in the National Gallery and look upon this stunning image of torment and torture, we cannot forget that we are at the foot of Capitol Hill and within walking distance of a White House where arguments are made in favor of torture, where decisions are made that cause Americans and American allies to torture people in Iraq, in Afghanistan and, most secretly of all, in "undisclosed third countries" around the world. The blood spilled by Bushite fascism (a word I do not use lightly) stains this country and appalls the entire world. Bush and his cronies see themselves as Christians chosen by God and walking with Jesus, but in our current pathetic Passion Play, Bush fills the role of Pilate, giving the order to torture and then washing his hands. The only glimmer of hope in today’s darkness is the possibility of compassion, that enough decent human beings will rise up and proclaim that torture, whatever euphemism one uses to describe it, is absolutely unacceptable and that those who condone and excuse torture–Bush, Gonzales, Rumsfeld–should at the very least be forced from power and should, in a just society, be tried for their crimes. This is a faint hope, almost certainly a pipe dream. What Grunewald says to us in Washington today is that although horror has a hellish power and a human face, the decency of compassion, of fellow-feeling, remains. Resistance is more than necessary; it is our only hope.
 
 
NOTES

1. Pevsner and Meier, Grunewald, 19.

2. Berger, Selected Essays, 137.

3. John, 19:30.

4. Matthew, 27:46; Mark 15:34.

5. Amery, Mind’s Limits, 33.

6. Ibid., 32-33.

7. Ibid., 24.

 

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