There are few scenes of the crucified Christ that convey the emotion seen in the center panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece. But emotion is simply the beginning of this sorrowful depiction of Jesus on the Cross; the multi-paneled altarpiece was and is an invitation to journey with Christ in a narrative that concludes in hope.
Matthias Grunewald’s altarpiece was created for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany around the year 1512. It is a polyptych: a set of images hinged in such a way as to be a visual catechism able to be set in various configurations. Multiple saints appear in the panels, especially St. Anthony of the Desert, one of the hermits who established lives of asceticism in the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. Among its numerous panels, there are many signature elements of visual design that place it in the realm of Northern Renaissance image-making. These include a focused attention on intimate details, exaggerations of form and proportions, and a mystical sense—portraying supernatural experiences outside of natural time and space.
The altarpiece was designed to help the suffering patients of "St. Anthony's Fire" to understand that they were not alone. Grunewald accomplished that by creating the image of Jesus suffering as these patients did themselves—with sores and lesions covering his tortured body. In doing so, Grunewald gives to us a vision of Jesus unlike any other—one which we may contemplate as we suffer, either with daily frustrations or a debilitating condition caused by illness or infirmity.