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Famous Paintings: Isenheim Altarpiece

Posted by Susan Benford

How remarkable that one of the most famous paintings in Renaissance art was created by an artist who had limited output, never had a school of followers, and left only a few personal details. Such is the history of Matthias Grunewald, born Mathias Neithardt, and his renowned Isenheim Altarpiece.

Matthias Grunewald (c. 1455-1528), with his contemporary Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), were the two leading German painters of the 16th century.  That is their sole similarity.  Durer was heavily influenced by classical sources from Italian Renaissance art, while his peer was heavility influenced by Gothic religious art.  

african-mask-leprosyTo understand the historical and social context in which the Altarpiece was made, we must explore the history of ... leprosy.

The earliest description of this disease appears in an Egyptian papyrus document from approximately 1550 BC. In the ensuing centuries until the 1870s - when a Norwegian doctor determined that the disease is caused by a germ - leprosy was deemed a punishment from God, a branding by "hellfire", or a hereditary disease.  

Photo credit, left: Charles Davis. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Those afflicted were shunned and outcast.  During the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, leprosy sufferers were forced to wear bells signalling their presence, don special clothes, travel on a specified side of the road depending on wind conditions, and live in isolation as they awaited death. 

The French town of Isenheim was home to a hospice run by the monastery of St. Anthony, the patron saint of lepers.  Those at the hospital suffered primarily leprosy but also included those afflicted with syphilis or "Saint Anthony's Fire", or ergotism, a disease caused by a fungus found in rye. isenheim altarpiece crucifixion detail 

The Abbot in charge of the Isenheim hospice, Guido Guersi, commissioned an altarpiece to portray Christ's suffering and redemption, believing his life could ease the misery of those in hospice care. The Altarpiece remained in the Isenheim monastery until it was disbanded after the French Revolution.

Right: Detail. 

The Altarpiece has one set of fixed wings and two sets of movable ones so that it could adapt to public or hospice audiences and seasons in the church (this quick video of a model Altarpiece demonstrates its structure).

In all positions, the Matthias Grunewald's Altarpiece is about terminal illness, salvation and Redemption.

Isenheim Altarpiece with wings closed

isenheim altarpieceOil on wood, 9' 9 1/2" by 10'9" (center panel); 8' 2 1/2" by 3' 1/2" (each wing), 2' 5 1/2" by 11' 2" (predella).  Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.

During the week, the altarpiece was closed and showed a powerful Crucifixion emphasizing the suffering and anguish of Christ and his mother's angst. With intense colors and dramatic lighting throughout, the artist included a Lamentation in the predella and Saints Sebastian and Anthony on the fixed wings.

The figure of Christ, which dominates the closed altarpiece, is striated with lacerations evoking the sores of the sick.  On the left, Mary swoons at the sight of her son and is kept upright by St. John, whose red robe magnifies her ashen face.  Mary Magdalen, identified by her jar of ointment, kneels at their feet in grief while John the Baptist, on the right, points toward Christ saying,

"He must increase and I must decrease".

The bleeding lamb, intended to invoke the Eucharist, is bleeding into a chalice (similar to the Ghent Altarpiece).  

In the predella, a tomb is prepared for Christ.  Note that the predella slides apart just below Christ's knees, giving the appearance of amputation that often afflicted those with ergotism. Similarly, the off-center placement of the cross makes it appears as if Christ's arm is amputated.

Isenheim Altarpiece with outer wings open

isenheim altarpiece openOn Sundays and feastdays, the outer sets of moveable wings were opened and the Altarpiece was transformed into a trio of joyous scenes.  

All three panels - the Annunciation, the Madonna and Child with Angels, and The Resurrection - remind viewers of the allure and promise of heaven and redemption. 

In the Annunciation on the far left, the archangel Gabriel informs Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. The modest Gothic chapel of the Annunciation becomes an ornate tabernacle in the Madonna and Child with Angels.  There, an angel plays the cello in front of an ornate baldachino, or canopy of fabric or stone over an altar, throne or shrine in a Christian church.  Curiously, on the far left is a feathered creature - perhaps the devil - who also sings to the Virgin and Child. 

The Resurrection panel shows a lily-white Christ engulfed by a brilliant halo and floating above blinded guards.  Although it appears that his lacerations have healed and his skin is disease-free, Christ exposes his palms to reveal their stigmata.  

Isenheim Altarpiece with inner wings open

isenheim altarpiece inner wings openOil on wood, 9' 9 1/2" by 10'9" (center panel); 8' 2 1/2" by 3' 1/2" (each wing), 2' 5 1/2" by 11' 2" (predella).  Shrine carved by Nikolaus Hagenauer in 1490.  Painted and gilt limewood, 9' 9 1/2" by 10' 9". Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.

In the third view of the Altarpiece, the inner wings are opened to reveal the wooden carvings of the original isenheim altarpiece detail temptation altarpiece made by Nicolas Hagenauer in 1490. In the center is St. Anthony at whose feet nestles a pig, a symbol of the Antonite order.

Detail, right: From Temptation of St. Anthony

Surrounding St. Anthony are Saints Jerome and Augustine.  The artist added two painted panels, The Hermit Saints Anthony and Paul in the Desert and The Temptation of St. Anthony (bottom left and bottom right, respectively).

isenheim altarpiece temptation detail The Temptation of St. Anthony is a fantastical, terrifying scene of St. Anthony being mauled by an array of imaginary but frightening creatures.  At the bottom left in the foreground is a contorted man whose disfigured, maimed body shows the signs of ergotism: active boils, a shriveled arm, and a distended stomach.

It's as if Grunewald is saying that Christian redemption is possible, regardless of the sins of the flesh.

Detail.  The Temptation of St. Anthony.

The patients, nuns and monks who prayed daily in front of the Altarpiece, were presented with two stark choices based on his iconography: accepting Christian salvation, miraculous healing and redemption, or enduring a life (and afterlife) of nothing but pain, misery and suffering. 

QUESTION: Although far less known than his peer, Albrecht Durer, Grunewald's influence emil nolde crucifixionmay have been more persuasive.  

Look at this Crucifixion by the 20th century German Expressionist painter, Emil Nolde, some 400 years later.  

Anyone else see a bit of similarity to the Altarpiece? Let me know!

Emil Nolde.  Crucifixion from the Life of Christ polyptych.  Stiftung, Seebull. 




 Addendum: An astute reader and art historian let me know that Jasper Johns' Perilous Night was also inspired by this Altarpiece.  

According to the National Gallery of Art, which owns Perilous Night, "Johns revealed the source for this half of Perilous Night because even the most astute art historian would have jasper johns perilous night detailbeen hard-pressed to discover it." That source is none other than the Isenheim Altarpiece's writhing soldier thrown to the ground by Christ's blinding light, as seen in the open right outer wing.

At the left is the section of Perilous Night showing this.

Jasper Johns, Perilous Night (detail of left side), 1982, encaustic on canvas with objects, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection 1995.79.1 

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