The Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, housed in an old Dominican convent, contains one of the most dramatic and spectacular altarpieces of the Renaissance, The Isenheim Altarpiece painted in 1512 - 1516 by the mysterious painter, Mathias Grünewald on the eve of the Reformation. It is a cycle of huge paintings full of agony and exhilaration.
This huge multi-paneled altarpiece hung in the chapel attached to the hospital ward of the Monastery of St. Anthony in the village of Isenheim, about 15 miles south of Colmar. The painting is large so that it could be seen by patients from their beds in the hospital ward, a long hall lined with beds.
large altarpiece by Rogier Van Der Weyden, also intended to be seen by the bedridden patients. The ward of the Isenheim monastery was probably not as nice as this 19th century restoration. It was certainly messier and a lot more crowded with cots in the middle of the floor and sometimes 2 patients to a bed.
The Antonite monastery at Isenheim specialized in treating serious skin afflictions including bubonic plague and ergotism. Ergotism today is a rare disease, but in 16th century Europe it was fairly common. It is caused by eating bread made from grain contaminated by a fungus. Rye is especially vulnerable to the fungus that causes ergotism, and rye bread was then and is now a staple of central Europe. Ergotism was once known as "St. Anthony's Fire." It causes convulsions, vivid hallucinations, psychotic episodes, fiery pains in the limbs, and can cause gangrene in the feet and hands because of its effects on blood circulation.
The monks at Isenheim were among the first to describe the disease and its symptoms. They had a certain measure of success in treating the disease, or at least its symptoms, attracting patients and pilgrims from all over the region.
Most treatment took place in the ward in front of this altarpiece. Treatments ranged from applying medicinal herbs which seem to have relieved pain and some symptoms, to prayer, to concoctions of sacramental wine with the relics of Saint Anthony, to amputations of gangrenous hands and feet.
The people who first gazed upon this painting were the patients in the hospital, many in excruciating pain.
This is how the painting looked most days of the week; its panels closed. The Crucifixion occupies the center 2 panels. Beneath it is a Pieta scene. On the right is Saint Sebastian (a plague saint), and on the left is Saint Anthony.
The crucifixion painted on the center 2 panels is probably among the most luridly violent depictions of this subject ever painted.
A huge tormented figure of the crucified Christ hangs from the cross covered in wounds and sores against a blackened sky. His limbs are all stretched out and disjointed. His hands contort in pain. His twisted feet are blackened with gangrene. The beam of the cross bends under the weight and strain. Christ is far and away the largest figure in the painting, a giant in torment. The artist makes no attempt at anything like realistic scale. Grünewald wants emotional impact above all else.
The second largest figure is John the Baptist on the right. He was long dead by the time the events of the Crucifixion took place in the Gospel narratives. His presence announces that this painting is far more than an illustration of a narrative. At his feet is the Lamb of God bleeding into a chalice, a heavy-handed reference to the Eucharist on the altar. John points to the dying Christ and says in Latin, "I must decrease that He might increase."
On the left, the Virgin Mary faints in the arms of John. The smallest figure, Mary Magdalene, wails in grief.
The body of Christ in this painting is painful to look at. He suffers so much violence that the pain becomes unbearable on close inspection. On the left of His head, you can see the join between the two panels. Opening the panels means separating His right arm from His body, perhaps a reference to the amputations suffered by some patients in the ward in front of this painting. There is a similar join in the Pieta panel in the Predella that separates his lower legs; possibly another amputation reference.
This painting sends two messages to the suffering and dying patients who first gazed upon it. You are lying there dying in great pain because you are a sinful mortal. Also, Christ fully shares in your suffering and bears all the pain in the world upon his body.
There is special attention to the flesh throughout the altarpiece, but our first experience is with the flesh in great pain and so riven with injuries, sores, and bruises that it threatens to come off his body.
The feet of the crucified Christ in Grünewald's painting
Grünewald had plenty of precedents for this kind of an image in central Europe. The art historian James Snyder believes that the primary source for much of this imagery in all its extremity is from the Revelations to Saint Bridget, a very popular book in the 14th century in the years after the Black Death.
Another likely source for the artist is the abundance of extreme imagery carved in wood from the the decades after the Black Death such as this pestkreuz or plague cross:
Plague Crucifix from about 1390 in the Church of Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne
As in Grünewald's painting, the body of Christ is emaciated and covered with bloody sores. Like Grünewald's crucifixion, this is an unapologetically sensational image, of a piece with the emotional preaching of the day, and with extreme devotional practices that became commonplace after the Black Death such as flagellant societies. The cross of this crucifix may be a reference to the mystical Tree of Life (whose wood formed the Cross according to some pious legends). Such images are part of the peculiar preoccupation with diseased and decaying flesh that we see in art for two centuries after the Black Death, during repeated visitations of the plague.
The suffering flesh appears in the flanking saints of the outside of the altarpiece.
The wounds of Saint Sebastian are blackened and bleeding like the sores of plague victims. Since the bubonic plague can raise painful black swellings on the skin, sufferers mindful of his wounds frequently invoked Saint Sebastian in their prayers.
So many patients in the hospital at Isenheim also suffered in mind as well as body, as the figure of Saint Anthony reminds us.
Here is a striking detail of a hissing demon breaking the glass to reach Saint Anthony in his panel on the altarpiece. The demons of the desert that constantly tormented Anthony are the creatures of diseased and disordered minds. Anthony became a saint invoked in the treatment of madness and mental illness.
The interior of the altarpiece was opened on Sundays and high holy days, and is as deliriously joyful as the outer panels are tormented.
On the left panel is the Annunciation. In the center is the Incarnation. And on the right panel is the Resurrection. These three panels are also about the flesh, but now the flesh sanctified, washed, and made whole again.
The Annunciation is a common subject on altars. It is about the Word made Flesh, not only a reference to the Incarnation, but to the mystery of real presence of Christ that takes place on the altar. This one is set in a Gothic chapel with a ghostly Holy Spirit conjuring itself out of ectoplasm in midair above Mary. On the upper left is a strange figure who may or may not be a statue; the prophet Isaiah, author of the passage Mary is reading, "And a virgin shall conceive and bear a son..."
The flesh is a continuous theme in this altarpiece, and the Annunciation begins a very different and more complicated meditation on the flesh and spirit in the interior.
The Incarnation panels in the center are the most mysterious in the altarpiece.
Like the outside panels, they are a continuous scene across two panels. But, in these, the scenes in each panel differ sharply from each other. They are only joined together by the wooden tub at the bottom broken by the join between the panels, one of the few clues that this is a single scene.
The open altarpiece is full of brilliant colors in wild combinations, and glowing light effects.
The right hand panel shows a smiling, almost laughing, Virgin Mary with the Christ child. God sits enthroned in golden light with the heavenly host high up on a mountain in the landscape behind her, perhaps a reference to Mount Sinai. She sits amidst traditional Marian symbolism; the enclosed garden, the rose bush without thorns, etc. On the bottom left across the join linking the two very different scenes is a small wooden bathtub. She has just bathed the Child and is drying him off with a tattered cloth, probably a reminder of the torn loincloth on the crucified Christ on the outside of the altarpiece and a reminder of what awaits him. The Christ child after a bath is also a reference to a couple of other things that would have meant a lot to the patients who saw this. One is the diseased flesh washed clean; another is Baptism, that initiation ritual of a bath in which a convert dies to her former life and is born into a new life. To get to the radiantly beautiful place of cleanliness and health that this painting points to, the patient is reminded that she must pass through the portals of death.
The Christ child holds a coral bead string, once considered an amulet against the Evil Eye and other spiritual perils. He looks into the eyes of his joyous mother.
Here is a detail of the distant mountain. The colors and their transitions from warm to cool, hot to cold, are amazing and used to great effect.
The left panel of the center is usually known as "The Angel Concert," but what it really is is anyone's guess as far as I'm concerned. It shows a fantastic and fanciful Gothic tabernacle filled with very strange looking angels playing musical instruments. James Snyder says that their fingering indicates that they are all playing high notes (though other musicians I know find all the angels' fingering of these instruments to be very strange).
The glowing young woman on the right crowned with flames and standing in the entrance to the pavilion is an ongoing source of controversy among scholars. They cannot agree on who she is or what she represents. Snyder argues that she is the Virgin Mary in the mind of God, and he refers to St. Bridget and other once popular mystical writers of the time. I've read other scholars who argue that it is based on St. Ambrose's commentary on Ezekiel's vision of the closed door as a symbol of perpetual virginity, or Mary as the portal of God's Incarnation and human salvation.
What I find odd is that this glowing woman, whoever she is, appears to be on her knees facing the Virgin and Child on the other panel across the join. This seems to me inconsistent with an image of Mary in heaven.
Here is a detail of the amazing Gothic tabernacle in Grünewald's painting.
Here are the very strange angel musicians with their strange instruments and even stranger colors; hot pinks and oranges abruptly turning to blazing golden yellows or ice cold blues.
Another detail of the angel musicians in the Incarnation panels with their weird colors that glow like phosphorous; greens, reds, oranges, yellows, blues all shining in unexpected combinations. These angels are so strange and so outside the conventional imagery of the time that some people speculate that these very otherworldly creatures began in some kind of hallucinatory experience by the artist, perhaps a hallucination suffered during ergotism. It is also entirely possible that he made these images up with out the aid of any hallucinations.
The right wing panel of the altarpiece interior shows the Resurrection. Christ flies up out of his tomb, his flesh glowing against the night sky in a radiant nimbus of color.
The once torn and bruised flesh of Christ now rises restored and glowing with light that spreads out into a golden orange nimbus with a bright blue rim that glows like an aurora borealis. The shroud flies up with the rising Christ and seems to become chemically altered upon contact with his body. The white cloth first turns blue and then a blazing scarlet as it rises up with Christ.
The face of Christ in the Resurrection panel almost vanishes in the light produced by his radiant body.
The soldiers charged with guarding the tomb tumble in startled surprise at the glowing apparition rising up out of the tomb.
The innermost part of the altarpiece was opened only for feast days of Saint Anthony and the Antonite order. In the center is a gilded limewood sculpture of Saint Anthony flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome. They are carved by Nicolaus Hagenau who also carved the elaborate shrinework and the figures of Christ and the Apostles in the predella below.
The wings are painted by Grünewald showing the Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit in the Desert on the left; and on the right, the Temptation of Saint Anthony.
The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Hermit in the Desert is a very striking painting, especially the landscape. Grünewald never traveled in a desert before, and so imagined a wilderness, in this case a strange swampy landscape of dying trees covered in moss. A deer joins the two saints. It is remarkable that deer in many cultures indicate a kind of holy hermitage. The Buddha's enlightenment took place in a deer park, and the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan feature tame deer.
Here is a detail of the very bizarre and alien looking landscape. According to pious legend, a raven delivered a loaf of bread to St. Paul the Hermit daily. On the day of Saint Anthony's visit, the raven brought two loaves.
Here is another detail of the painting of the meeting of the two saints with all the medicinal herbs identified. There are medicinal references throughout the altarpiece.
On the right is the panel of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Devils and demons assail the saint from all angles trying to force him to abandon his faith to despair. Saint Anthony of Egypt was a founder of Western monasticism who went alone into the desert west of Alexandria. Soon, he had a community of followers in the desert with him. According to his biographer, St. Athanasius, the devil saw Anthony's devotion and became so angry that he sent demons to beat him unmercifully. This is probably the episode that we see in this painting.
It is not hard to imagine that after several weeks of living alone in the desert hungry and thirsty all the time that a person would begin to see things; things that look a lot like the demons in this painting. Much of central Europe in the 16th century was still primeval forest. These are the creatures that some people might imagine made inexplicable noises in the pitch black of a forest at night. Creatures like these are probably older in human imagination than religion.
The art historian James Snyder sees St. Anthony in this painting calling for help with a demon biting his hand and others pulling his hair. I had a professor years ago (Dr. Lawrence Steefel) who had a very different understanding of the saint in this picture. He saw Anthony as laughing at the demons, defying them to do their worst. I tend to agree with my old prof.
The demons in this painting are horrific deformations of nature, and a little ridiculous at the same time.
Another bone of contention among scholars of this altarpiece is the figure in the lower left corner. Whoever he is, he is clearly very sick and covered with boils and sores. His flesh is a gangrenous green. His belly is grotesquely distended. Snyder argues that he is a stand-in for the patients in the hospital. His pose echoes that of the saint as he clings to Anthony's prayer book. Dr. Steefels pointed out the large webbed feet on this figure and argued that he is no patient, that he is one of the demons afflicted with disease, getting a taste of his own medicine as he tries to steal the prayer book.
The sculptures by Nicolaus Hagenau form the innermost part of the huge elaborate altarpiece. Saint Anthony sits enthroned in the center. On the left is Saint Augustine. On the right is Saint Jerome. Beneath in the predella is Christ with the 12 Apostles.
This is the oldest part of the altarpiece predating the paintings. It was completed about 1505. The small figure kneeling in front of Saint Augustine is one of the two patrons of the altarpiece. He is either the first wealthy benefactor and head of the monastery, Jean d'Orliac who first ordered a new altarpiece for the recently rebuilt hospital chapel; or, he is his successor, the also very wealthy Sicilian Guido Guersi who probably commissioned Grünewald's work on the altar.
The name Mathias Grünewald doesn't appear anywhere until the 17th century in the writings of the artist Joachim Von Sandrart in his book The German Academy of the Noble Arts of Architecture and Painting (Teutsche Academie der Elden Bau-, Bild-, und Mahlerey-Künste). Scholars in the late 19th century identified him as Mathis Gothardt or Nithardt, born around 1470 - 1474 in Würzburg and active in the town of Seligenstadt. He served as court painter to two successive Archbishops of Mainz. He died in 1528, apparently staying loyal to the Catholic Church in the midst of the Reformation upheavals. Unlike his famous contemporary Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg, Grünewald remains a shadowy character.
The Isenheim Altarpiece remained hidden away in the hospital monastery for most of its history. While the painting was well-known and celebrated locally in the region, few people would willingly travel to so horrific and potentially dangerous a place as a plague hospital to see it. In 1792, the French Revolution closed the monastery and removed the painting to a local library. The monastery buildings were later torn down. In 1852, the Unterlinden Museum was founded in Colmar in an old Dominican convent, and authorities moved the altarpiece there in the same year where it became the chief treasure. The region of Alsace-Lorraine that includes Colmar became part of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was then that the painting's wider fame began. It came to the attention of German scholars, and later to German artists of the early 20th century who traveled to Colmar just to see this altarpiece.
The Isenheim Altarpiece was never meant to be looked at and discussed dispassionately as an aesthetic object. The monks and the artist made it to speak directly to people suffering in extreme pain and facing almost certain death. The painting was supposed to prepare people to bear their sufferings and to meet their end with their faith intact. Grünewald painted the Isenheim Altarpiece in an age when belief in the spirit realm was so strong that it seemed palpable to most people. Angels and demons roamed the country lanes and the city streets in the imaginations of most people of that time.
The Isenheim Altarpiece shows a way of thinking about disease that is completely alien to us. Disease in our age is the predations of bacteria and viruses upon our bodies, or the effects of toxins like those from the fungus that causes ergotism. The microbes that make us sick are our predators. We see disease in the light of a larger mechanistic vision of the world that successfully explains its workings, and provides us with means of fighting or controlling most of our tiny predators. If disease has a religious understanding in our day, then it is as an inevitable part of of the mortal things of the world that must pass away by definition. Pain and death are evils to be fought and overcome in the name of life.
At the time of the Isenheim Altarpiece, disease was the consequence of sin; not just any particular sin, but the sin inherited from Adam. Disease almost always ended in death. Full recoveries from serious illness were comparatively rare. People entered hospitals like the one at Isenheim hoping for a cure, but realistically expecting to die. People lived in dread that the pains and agonies of their ends might tempt them at the last moment to despair of their faith. They believed their souls to be at stake, not just their bodies. The monks at Isenheim likewise hoped for cures, but realistically expected their patients to die. They worked to relieve the pain and suffering of their patients and to make them comfortable as best as they could. If anyone was cured (and there may have been some), then it was the miraculous work of God and His saints.
Meditation on the Crown of Thorns from a 15th century Swiss woodblock print
The Isenheim Altarpiece comes out of that very personal and deeply emotional piety that appeared in the 14th century, especially in the wake of the Black Death of 1348. Instead of the deductive reasoning of the earlier Scholastics or the radiant visions of Universal salvation of the Platonic thinkers, we have very personal devotions like the Meditation on the Crown of Thorns illustrated above. Instead of the intellectual meditations upon the meaning of Salvation or upon the Heavenly Hierarchies, we have emotional empathy; the worshipper is encouraged to somehow share in Christ's pain and suffering on his behalf.
Likewise, the Isenheim Altarpiece is an expansion upon the very dramatic and emotional late Gothic art of the 14th and 15th centuries in northern Europe. The Isenheim Altarpiece differs so sharply in its visionary emotionalism from the work of the great pioneer of the Renaissance in Germany Albrecht Dürer (though Dürer's work has its emotional and visionary side).
It is almost too sensational for my taste. I love this altarpiece, but the inside panels with their wild phosphorescent colors are more to my taste than the grisly exterior crucifixion.
The Isenheim Altarpiece meant a lot to early modern German painters who made the trek to Colmar to see it. Grünewald's work echoes down through the first three decades of the 20th century in German painting.
Emil Nolde, Crucifixion, 1912
Two artists who survived the worst of the First World War found the agony in the Isenheim Altarpiece instructive for bearing witness to their own experiences in the first great catastrophe of the 20th century.
Max Beckmann, Descent From the Cross, 1917
Otto Dix, The War, 1924
A little footnote: After all these years, I finally found the "embiggen" button for my blog images.