Easter Sunday Reflection

12 April 2009


Easter not only marks the end of Passiontide and represents the culmination of Holy Week, but of the season it is the holiday most transparently related to its prechristian — and indeed prehistoric — antecedents. Probably even before the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution when spring festivities truly came into their own as a major event on the calendar, there was no doubt a recognition of the re-birth of the world in spring among our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors. There is almost an instinctive response to the waxing of the sun, the lengthening of the day, and then the astonishing explosion of beauty and color when the trees and flowers come into bloom. (I should note, however, that this is the perspective of the temperate climate, and that the annual cycle in arctic and tropical regions would be distinct, and would foster distinctly different traditions and institutions.)

And if we push our imagination back into the inaccessible past, attempting to inhabit the mindset of our earliest ancestors living before the present interglacial period, would not the sun and the warmth and the blooming trees have been all the more precious to the peoples of the Ice Age when humankind began its long walk out of Africa to colonize the farthest corners of the world? It would have been an overwhelming spectacle of sublime proportions to have accompanied them on their walk through the passes of a frozen world, to suddenly surmount a range and look into a green valley where no man had ever before walked. There would have been thundering herds of megafauna for the hunters, and bushes heavy with nuts and berries for the gatherers.

Our own experience of the sublime today must pale beside the sights they would have encountered in every day of that long trek to the ends of the earth. My journeys have been rather less dramatic, positively tame, in comparison, but they have had their rewards as well. And one of my more memorable experiences of the aesthetic sublime is directly related to Easter.

In traveling, I have often sought out late medieval and early renaissance works of art, and whenever possible I have tried to see works of art still located in their originally intended spaces. The Michael Pacher altar in St. Wolfgang, Austria, was a great example of this. This retable is still installed in the little church for which is was intended, and similarly for the lindenwood (limewood) altar at Kefermarkt. Several masterpieces of Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider are also viewable in their original context, and this is a real treat for the aesthetic pilgrim. But the altar that made the greatest impression on me was undoubtedly the Issenheim Altar at the Unterlinden museum in Colmar, Alsace.

While the Issenheim altar is not displayed in its original home, it is beautifully presented for viewing, and to view this work in the flesh is an experience to be savored and remembered. What struck me the most was not only one particular scene from the altar, but the ensemble taken together, and especially the dramatic (more than dramatic) contrast between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Detail of one hand of the crucified Christ from the Issenheim altar.

Detail of one hand of the crucified Christ from the Issenheim altar.

The Issenheim crucifixion scene is one of the bloodiest, horrific crucifixions in European art, and that is saying a lot, as those familiar with the tradition will know. It is painful simply to look at it. And even though it belongs to the northern renaissance tradition, there are elements of medieval schematism clearly visible. For example, the blood flowing from the wounds of Christ hanging on the cross is the same symmetrical pattern in each instance, though this symmetry never distracts from the emotional intensity of the work. Also to be noted are the hands of the dying Christ. These hands (and we note that the representation of hands was also central to the oeuvre of Riemenschneider) are as expressive as the face of Christ, if not more so. I noticed when I was in Alsace that the hands of Christ from the Issenheim altar crucifixion were used as a motif in other works of art and also in the popular media, so great is their impact.

Thus the crucifixion alone is moving, but one is moved beyond this simply by stepping to the other side of the altar and seeing the utterly radiant depiction of the risen Christ over His tomb. This work, while from the same hand as the crucifixion and other panels of the Issenheim altar, looks more like the watercolors of William Blake than anything else from the northern renaissance. Christ here is truly transformed and transfigured. To see this bright vision immediately following upon the grim crucifixion is to be moved, to experience the sublime. One cannot fully comprehend this work of art — and, by extension, the vision of the artist and his representation of the tradition — except by seeing it with one’s own eyes. The Issenheim altar alone is worth the trip to France. Go and see it, the sooner the better.


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