The “Isenheim Altarpiece” and the Two Lives We Don’t Have

“We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.”

– Tom Hiddleston

Nota bene: nobody knows who said that first, but I heard Hiddleston say it, so I’m just going to attribute it to him. *Fistbump*

Anyway, I’ve been having a glorious day today; I mean, absolutely glorious. The sun was shining, and even though it was hotter than Dante’s descriptions of hell, it was beautiful. I drove to work without any kind of caffeinated drink, called customers, sang songs and hummed merrily to the tune God had set to my life.

It all starts when you wake up in the morning. Your day depends on how you rise from sleep. For me this morning, yesterday trailed into today. I began to read and dwell on truths from 2 Corinthians, and I was excited for life.

When I say yesterday trailed into today, I mean some of what happened yesterday trailed along in my memory. I’ve been studying art for the last seven weeks through the online university I’m with, and yesterday (and all week) we have been studying the Italian and the Northern Renaissance. My personal favorite of the two is the Northern Renaissance.

The difference?

Well, the Northern Renaissance happened in places like Germany, France, Belgium, England…and the Italian Renaissance happened in…well…Italy.

The bigger, more artistic difference between the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance was the detail and attention paid to it. The Northern artists cared so much more about tiny little details, more intricate moods, darker subjects, and gruesome images. The Italian artists cared more about the beautiful, happy, and less detailed things. They were extremely detailed, I’m not saying they weren’t (don’t get me started on the Sistine Chapel). But the Northern Renaissance just detailed everything so much more intricately.

In conclusion, one of my favorite paintings yesterday was the one pictured at the top: Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. 

This, according to my smart college textbook, is a great example of Northern Renaissance master work. What I noticed first were the hands, grappling at nonexistent help, and the feet. It’s so full of emotion. There are marks all over his body. Blood gushes from his side, his mouth is open, almost as if we can hear Him crying out either “it is finished” or “Father, forgive them.” Mary the mother, on Christ’s left, has fallen into a swoon, and the apostle John is there to catch her. Mary Magdalene is at the foot of the cross in complete horror and despair.

While there is no sign of the resurrection coming, the painting focuses on the agony of Christ. His passion. His torture. His complete and utter agony.

Just look at the painting. Take a moment to just look. Observe. Ponder. Let it sink in. That is what the Northern Renaissance was all about: looking. The detail is fascinating. Oh, and see the little lamb at John the Baptist’s feet? See the blood flowing from its breast into the goblet? That’s symbolic of the blood Christ pours out for us to drink for the cleansing of our sins.

It’s so incredible, and it left so great an impact on my heart. I could accurately say it changed my life. This painting will always be in my mind, especially now that I’ve blogged about it.

What it made me realize is the complete and sometimes unintentional way Christians live life. It’s happened to all of us, and don’t say it hasn’t, or else you would be an angel or something. Which is impossible – ahem, don’t get your hopes up.

Our lives are completely indebted to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Grünewald’s altarpiece brought that alive for me again. Living in my own thoughts, my imaginary ideas, even my silly little first-world problems takes my eyes off of true purpose.

Why am I even alive?

The answer brings us back to this cross: this gory, helpless, shrunken image of a man on a cross. When our lives become so full of God’s work that we forget what we are doing is for him, let it bring us back to the cross. When the papers are due and the exams are tomorrow and we forget why we are even doing college in the first place, let it bring us back to the cross.

Let our love for this act, this tragic, painful, horrific deed that was chosen willingly be our motivation. Let our tiny human hearts surge and pulsate with love for the God who died on a tree for us.

When life takes us by both arms and throws us for a loop, let our focus turn back toward the cross.

“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.”

– Christ, to the church of Ephesus, Revelation 2:2-4

Let the work, the school, the parenting, the adulting (which is a thing now), and the struggling bring us back to the cross. Let us not forget our first love, our God, our Christ. Our Lord who died on that tree for us.

That’s what Hiddleston’s quote was all about at the beginning of this post. We only have one life. There’s so much going on in life that takes us away from the true purpose of it. We act like we have two lives, but when we realize that this one is all we have, we focus and center in on what is truly important: Christ’s sacrifice.

I encourage you to download the image of Grünewald’s painting at the top. When life gets distracting, too fast, and blinding, look at it. Just look at it. Like the artists during the Northern Renaissance. Remember Whose you are, what has been done for you, and what you are here to do. I am doing just that, and that’s what made today so special. At the front of my mind was the image of Christ’s sacrifice, and how much He did to win my heart.

And don’t go forgetting that He didn’t stay dead. Can I get an amen? I’m not from the south, but sometimes I wish I was so I could hear some voices yell back “amen, sistuh.”


Anyway, there it is, friends.

I hope you were encouraged by my bit of rambling and excitement over Jesus. He gets me excited.

I love you guys! And please, feel free to share, comment, or like this post. It means a lot.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Emily 🙂

P.S. Speaking of my art class, I have a paper on van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait,” which is due Monday night, so I had better get writing. That’s actually another one of my favorite Northern Renaissance portraits…check it out – the detail is masterful. Seriously, just zoom in and stare:

One thought on “The “Isenheim Altarpiece” and the Two Lives We Don’t Have

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.