This massive painting of the crucifixion, along with more than a dozen scenes from Jesus’ life, is at the Isenheim monastery near Colmar, Germany, where those near death came to make a full confession in preparing for a good death in pre-Reformation Europe. Photo from Wikipedia

Confronting death: Jesus’ last words open us up to our vulnerability, frailty

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  • March 27, 2021

Thinking about a horrible death doesn’t come naturally to 21st-century humans, even on Good Friday.

“We don’t want to think about death,” observes King’s University College philosophy professor John Heng in London, Ont. “We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to prepare for it. If we do think about it, we want to control it, manage it, have it on our own terms.”

Heng has meditated on the seven last words of Christ — a Good Friday spiritual practice that stretches back centuries and has inspired string quartets by Joseph Hayden, a choral masterpiece by Cesar Franck, books by Fulton Sheen, Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin and Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. It’s a practice that requires us to confront, not only Christ’s death on the cross, but our own, he said.

“In (our) cultural context, there is a cultural shift that makes it perhaps more difficult to enter into the spiritual practice of the seven last words of Christ,” said Heng. “It tends to remind us of our mortality. It’s not something that’s easy to enter into.”

In a death-denying society, dying becomes hard to imagine. In the 16th century, however, it wasn’t so hard to picture a grisly, painful death. Back then, it happened all the time and in full view, before hospitals became hubs of science that keep the dying hidden from us. In Alsace-Lorraine, sandwiched between Germany and France, people frequently died of ergotism, a disease caused by long-term consumption of rye bread that had gone bad with a purple fungus.

“People’s extremities felt like they were on fire and would ultimately fall off, or be cut off in order to spare them the pain,” explained Regis College art historian and Art Gallery of Ontario emeritus curator Katharine Lochnan.

People in the later stages of ergotism would be brought to a hospital run by Augustinian monks in Isenheim, near Colmar, Germany. Unlike modern hospitals, the monastery in Isenheim was essentially a good place to die. The monks made no pretense of being able to cure anyone. 

Patients arrived at the Isenheim monastery and made a full confession in preparation for a good death. They were given red clothes, put in beds in the chapel, surrounded by red bed hangings. From their beds they had a clear view of a massive painting of the crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald.

“It was, of course, a form of prayer or devotion to participate in and engage with,” said Lochnan.

In modern art history, the Grünewald crucifixion has generally been treated as a masterwork, “a fine example of Grünewald’s style of late medieval altar pieces and all of that,” said Lochnan.

“It is considered in the history of art to be the single grisliest crucifixion and also a very great work of art — a canonical work; the artist’s greatest masterpiece,” she said.

Lochnan hopes to publish later this year a paper on the theological significance of the work, which art historians have tended to shy away from. Her research into the Grünewald crucifixion is a kind of pilot for a new program at Regis and the Toronto School of Theology in spirituality and art history.

Painted in 1515, oil on wood, the Grunewald crucifixion is just part of an elaborate altarpiece that opened and closed to display more than a dozen paintings of scenes from the life of Christ. But the ultimate and most important painting of the series was the crucifixion, on display throughout the year in the chapel where people lay dying in excruciating pain. Uniquely, Christ is depicted covered in the kinds of sores caused by ergotism.

Thinking about how Christ died and about his seven last words came naturally in the cultural, religious and medical context of pre-Reformation Europe.

“It was believed that by meditating on the crucifixion, entering into it fully, that you could, in effect, be redeemed,” Lochnan said. “By feeling Christ’s agony and by true repentance, your sins could be forgiven and your chance at salvation would increase. That was, really, their job — to make a good death, meditating on the crucifixion.”

Patients in the Isenheim chapel weren’t just looking at the painting. They entered into it, bringing with them their pain and mortality, their lives of sin, grace and hope.

“There is this wonderful kind of exchange taking place between the sufferers, who see Christ suffering for them with their sores, taking on their burden — and in turn, they take on His,” Lochnan said. “There’s a quite marvellous exchange there of identity.”

For Heng, the seven last words are an occasion for the modern Christian to escape an overly intellectualized faith. By spiritually experiencing Christ’s death on the cross we become aware of our own vulnerability and frailty.

“The thing that strikes me is that we reflect upon these last words of Jesus not in the way that let’s say a philosopher might read the last words of Socrates in the Crito. They’re not meant to impart lessons. It’s not the content, necessarily, that we reflect upon,” he said. “It’s the words as they are embodied in the Jesus who is dying — which is the act of love. God so loved the world He sent His only Son.”

That Jesus’ experience of death is so human, common to all of us, matters tremendously to Heng.

“Really I think, from reflecting on my experiences, that people are at their most, they’re at their most fragile and at their most vulnerable,” he said. “And at their most spiritual too, I think. There’s something sacred about that final hour.”

Meditating on the last words of Christ is not a fearful experience, but a means of overcoming our fears, said Heng.

“That’s what Christ came to save us from,” he said. “To save us from a fear of being loved by God. Which is a strange thing, but I really do believe that’s at the heart of sin — that incapacity to be embraced by the Father’s love and hence being unable to love ourselves.”

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