Today I want to present some pictures from the Isenheim Altarpiece, by the German painter Mathis Grunewald, which I consider to be one of the true Masterpieces of art in the world. I was introduced to the Altarpiece by Anne Tennant, during a lecture she gave before the opening of Hindemith’s opera “Mathis der Maler” in the Royal Opera House of London.
Isenheim is a small town near Colmar, in Alsace. The Altarpiece was commissioned by Saint Anthony’s Monastery, which was a hospital” treating “St Anthony’s fire”, a sickness modern science now knows as ergotism, caused by eating rye bread infected by a parasitic fungus. The horrific appearance of Christ’s flesh on the altarpiece is not pure fantasy, but portrays symptoms the monks were trying to alleviate.” (remark by Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 12 December 2007)
The Altarpiece was painted from 1513 to 1515.
Although Isenheim and Colmar are today in France, in the early 16th century they were decidedly German, and in a way the Isenheim Altarpiece is Germany’s Sistine Chapel.
Today the Altarpiece is in the Unterlinden Museum of Colmar. It was moved to Colmar after the French Revolution.
The four panels that comprise it are:
- Nativity and the Party of Angels
- The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Saint Anthony visiting Saint Paul the Hermite
- Announciation and Resurrection
This post will focus on the Crucifixion, which is one of the most powerful and moving depiction of human drama and suffering I have seen.
On the left Mary in white is supported by John the Evangelist, while Mary Magdalene (a much smaller figure) is on her knees parying. On the right John the Baptist is pointing at a scripture. There is no respect for analogies in this painting. There is no respect for pespective. Darkness, pain, suffering, the almost absolute cenrtainty of death dominate the picture.
Christ is dying an agonizing, slow, horrifying death. He is bloody, discolored, punctured all over, horrific marks covering his body.
Christ is dying and there is not redeeming feature in the painting for this horrible death! Although there are figures surrounding the cross, Christ is alone, in this empty terrain where death is the only certainty.
The twisted fingers have inspired many artists to depict the agony of death.
and the nailed feet dripping blood… forming a solid river of pain
Mary’s white garment and pale face contrast with the dark background.
Gospel of St John iii. 30: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
In the next post I will present the Resurrection panel of the alterpiece.