History echoes in sometimes unexpected places.
About 600 years ago, in response to a devastating plague, a singularly beautiful and emotionally moving altarpiece was created in Isenheim, Germany by Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grunewald. It is about 30 feet wide and 20 feet high, not including its substantial base. The art tells one story in three different ways, or perhaps, in terms better suited to our digital era, one story in three different image arrays. Different combinations of images are revealed by physically opening doors and wings embedded in the piece.
Watching the different frames revealed is a journey through layers of the plague’s story – from suffering to darkness to resurrection – intentionally paralleling, of course, the life of Jesus.
These photographs (above and below) barely hint at the emotional power of being in the altarpiece’s physical presence. No art is meant to be experienced in a postcard, after all. Centuries before cinema, this must have been an ecstatically transformative experience for people seeing it, of course, in person.
Now, flash-forward to nearer our present day – another time, another place, another plague.
Starting in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS cut across sub-Saharan Africa like a scythe – literally killing off entire generations, leaving towns and villages comprised entirely of old women and children in its wake.
And so, the surviving women on one such village, Hamburg, South Africa, told their own story through the creation of a piece of art, the Keiskamma Altarpiece. They built it to exactly the same dimensions as the Isenheim Altarpiece, and used the same system of hinged doors and wings, telling the story step by step – suffering, darkness, resurrection.
I had the great, once-in-a-lifetime honor of meeting one of its creators, Eunice Magwane, who walked me through each symbol and layer. And I had the even greater honor of donning white protective gloves and showing the piece to visitors at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where a part of its exhibition in North America was hosted. The meaning of this particular plague resonated deeply with our city’s own experience fighting HIV/AIDS some years before.
I touched and moved the altarpiece’s doors, spoke the creators’ messages and saw the faces – even the faces now so accustomed to movies, interactive video games and the Internet – react in absolute awe and reverence and, yes, honest-to-God emotion to the hand-made, rough-hewn depictions of horrible pain and unimaginable loss.
One of the greatest highlights of my life – not just my professional life but my entire life – was sharing that piece of art with my son’s school classmates, helping them connect the history of their hometown and its battle with HIV/AIDS, which they knew well, to the real human history of a faraway place, and seeing their common struggles and challenges. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of these supposedly jaded, urban kids when they realized the women of Hamburg had created beautiful art depicting the pain and death of their very own, now-departed, flesh-and-blood sons and daughters, telling the story of a plague through the experience of their own lives.
Much as, I assume, the creators of the Isenheim Altarpiece had done, continents away and centuries before.