Sunday, 14 September 2008

Faith in the Frame

Is this, the Isenheim altarpiece, "the most harrowing depiction of suffering in the history of western art", as claimed by a panelist on Faith in the Frame, a new ITV discussion series on Christian art? Looking at it certainly chills me.

This was painted by Matthias Grunewald for the monastery of St Antony in Isenheim near Colmar where the monks ran a hospital for those suffering from the skin disease ergotism. Patients were placed in front of it in the hope of a miracle cure. As the programme points out, the patients might well have been able to identify their suffering with that of the crucified Christ as his skin is covered in lesions and discoloured. Their gaze would have then moved to the Deposition, directly below the centrepiece and just above the altar itself reminding them that they were about to receive the body of Our Lord at Communion. And then, the right hand panel depicting the resurrection would provide hope that they might one day be cured, or at least freed from their suffering.

I would highly recommend watching the whole programme which is available for a month on the ITV website. The discussion is chaired by Melvyn Bragg and the panelists are Sarah Dunant, a novelist and broadcaster and Jackie Wullschlager, art critic for the Financial Times, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who reminds us "if we have the crucifixion as a central tenet of the faith, this is what it's about" and not the more cosmetic representations dismissed by one contributor as "Catholic interior design".

This evening's episode features the Wenhaston Doom and a full list of featured works can be found here. It is unfortunately, but not surprisingly, on at 12.15 am.

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