Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

by Christine Cariati

Mathias Grünewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512/15
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

I’ve been thinking lately about the transformative power of art and its relevance in our troubled world. In medieval times, through its connection to the church, art held a more central place in people’s lives, as it sought to enlighten, instruct and relieve suffering.

This brought to mind the Isenheim Altarpiece by German painter Mathias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528). The Isenheim Altarpiece embodies the human condition laid bare—from the extremes of catastrophic darkness to the rapture of resurrection and eternal life. The graceful, linear quality of the drawing and the vibrant, expressionist use of color would be enough to set this work apart—but Grünewald’s individualistic iconography and the intense emotional impact of the Isenheim Altarpiece make it completely unique.

There is also another aspect of the Isenheim Altarpiece which intensifies its powerful spiritual presence—it was commissioned by the monks of a medieval hospital in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim to help lessen the suffering of their patients afflicted with a terrible skin disease called St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism, which was caused by rye fungus. In a time before painkillers, the patients meditated on Christ’s intense suffering and resurrection to help them cope with their own agonies.

Crucifixion: Mary, John and Mary Magdalene (detail)

The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted on nine hinged panels, contains twelve images, including two sets of folding wings. It can be viewed in three ways. In its closed position—the way it would have been viewed originally on weekdays at the hospital—the central panel shows the Crucifixion, with side panels of St. Anthony and St. Sebastian. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Angelic Concert, the Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. In the third view, a pre-existing carved and gilded wooden altarpiece is flanked by Grünewald’s paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the Meeting with Anthony and Paul.

The Annunciation

Madonna and Child

Resurrection

As the panels of the altarpiece were unfolded, the enormous scope of the intense, riveting drama was revealed. Grünewald’s image of the crucified Christ is imbued with a visceral and emotional intensity. Christ, his skin a grayish green, covered with wounds—has clearly writhed in agony, his limbs twisted, his hands distorted, his head with its crown of thorns hanging painfully on his chest. This is a portrait of a brutal, solitary death—the sense of immediacy, agony and isolation is palpable. By contrast, the resurrected Christ, surrounded by light, is a triumphant image of the rapture of eternal life.

Crucifixion: Head of Christ (detail)

Resurrection: Head of Christ (detail)

Mathias Grünewald’s real name was Mathis Gothardt Neihardt—the name Grünewald was mistakenly attributed to him 150 years after his death. For a painter who was so well-thought of in his own time, remarkably little information about him has been passed down and few of his works survive—only about ten paintings (including multi-paneled altar pieces) and 35 drawings. All the work that remains is religious in nature. Unlike Albrecht Dürer and the other great German artists of the time, who excelled at woodcarving and other forms of print making, Grünewald only made paintings and drawings, which in itself is very unusual. So little was known about Grünewald, that until the 19th century, it was believed that the Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Albrecht Dürer.

Study for Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1512

What we do know is that by 1509, Grünewald was court painter to the Archbishop of Mainz, and that he was commissioned to paint the Isenheim Altarpiece around 1512-15.  Art historians disagree as to interpretations and influences—for example, one categorically states that Grünewald, because of his clear knowledge of Italian painting, must have traveled widely—another asserts he never left Germany. Personally, I don’t think the facts of Grünewald’s life can really do much to explain the expressive, luminous intensity of the work or how he pushed his artistic skill to the point where he could capture so powerfully the tension and emotion of this transformative  work.

Crucifixion: St. Sebastian (detail)

The complex and unusual iconography of the Isenheim Altarpiece is puzzling. The imagery in religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may seem mysterious to many of us today, but can be easily deciphered by art historians—the reason and background behind every element depicted can be traced, parsed and explained. Not so with Grünewald. Some of his iconography appears to be related to the work of the 14th century mystic, St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations was widely read in Germany at that time, but that does not explain all of the unusual visual references. It seems that Grünewald took an eclectic approach not only stylistically, but as regards subject matter as well.

Crucifixion: John the Baptist and the Lamb

Altarpieces were created for one purpose: to embody a specific aspect of generally recognized religious truth. In the process of spiritual meditation the barrier between the viewer and the artistic creation is broken. The Isenheim Altarpiece, in its intensity, tenderness and majesty is the power of this transformation made visible. Like Hieronymous Bosch, Grünewald infuses his work with a highly personal imagination that elicits a strong reaction from the viewer.

Monsters from the Temptation of St. Anthony panel

Grünewald clearly had a knowledge of Central European art from the late Gothic to the beginning of the 16th century, and incorporates elements from these various time periods in a highly original and independent way. There are links to Bosch and Netherlandish painting, as well as intimations of the naturalism of the Renaissance in Italy. Grünewald, on the cusp of the German Reformation, embodies aspects of both medieval and Renaissance art. Unlike the masters of the Italian Renaissance—whose work Grünewald may or may not have seen personally—Grünewald’s heavenly creatures are conjured from light, they are clearly not of this world. Painters of the Italian Renaissance incorporated spiritual beings into the known world. As an example, see the work of Michaelangelo who was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time Grünewald was painting his altarpiece. In Grünewald, the supernatural world exists outside the human realm.

The Angelic Concert

Angels of the Annunciation

Grünewald’s masterpiece, forgotten for centuries, was rediscovered by a wider public following the horrors of World War I. At the outbreak of war, the Isenheim Altarpiece was moved from the Musée d’Unterlinden and sent for safe-keeping to Munich. After the war it was restored and exhibited for a time in the Alte Pinakothek before returning to Colmar. The Expressionists, then dominating the art scene in Germany, looked to Grünewald as their forerunner and to the Isenheim Altarpiece as the confirmation of their philosophy. The world, traumatized and overwhelmed by the death and destruction of the war, turned to the Isenheim Altarpiece for solace and inspiration.

Wider Connections

The Isenheim Altar: Suffering and Salvation in the Art of Grunewald by Gottfried Richter
Mathias Grünewald
by Horst Ziermann
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

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7 Responses to “Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece”

  1. I remember when I “discovered” Grünewald on an early visit to Germany. I’ve always loved Medieval art but his was a revelation, work that was surrealistic and powerful, unlike anything I’d ever seen. The book, “Bright Earth,” refers to his interest in alchemy. It also explains the various pigments used in Medieval painting, some of which were new in Grünewald’s time.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I want to believe that art can be a transformative experience, lift you out of physical or mental anguish—and I would love to really know how the afflicted, suffering patients in that medieval hospital in Isenheim felt and experienced Grunewald’s altarpiece. I’m an admirer, not a scholar of the work, but I like to think perhaps some of the reason the iconography of the altarpiece is confusing to scholars, is because in addition to not strictly adhering to the religious iconography of his time and place, that Grunewald pushed the boundaries even further—and made some of it up. That could account for the extraordinary eclecticism and power of the work. Well, whatever the reason, something pushed him through into uncharted territory…
      Do you think art does have transformative power, is there any work in say the last 50-100 years that you think may have that power?

    • Nancy
      I loved Bright Earth, so many interesting tidbits, although I imagine it lost some readers in places where it delved deeply into the chemistry angle. Still, worth the read.

      Regarding the phantasmagoric creatures and surrealistic scenes in the paintings of Grünewald, Bruegal, Bosch and the other Northern Europeans, I wonder this: what prompted them to depict “visions of Hell” to their canvases, while the Italian painters of same era largely depicted the grandeur of “Heaven” (majestic Christ; all those putti)? Could it be that the Northern Germanic tribes, having never been conquered by the Romans, grew up under a different tradition of Christianity? It may not be as simple as that, but would make an interesting investigation. . .

  2. I guess I just always accepted that Northern European art was more grotesque and angular than Southern European art and never thought about it much. But if could be due to the fact that the influence of the classics, especially in Italy, never went away entirely. Proportion and grace remained in the work; even the most gold-laced Italian painting of a descent from the cross avoided the brutal frankness of the Northern Gothic. I also wonder if the medium had something to do with it. Woodcuts, with their angular and distorted line, were more popular in the North than in the South. I also think that you are right about religion but also, everyday life. Medieval life was not easy, no matter where you lived but it must have been easier in the South, with milder winters, a greater variety of foodstuffs and (sometimes) less plague, war and famine.
    It would be fascinating to do a parallel time line, say Flemish realism against work during the same period by in Italy.

  3. Scott Wandersee Says:

    Mattias Grunewald is an austounding artist that had a very unique and shocking style. There is no other artist to date that can capture a persons emotions as well as he was able to.

  4. paul hindemith’s “mathis der mahler” (mathias the painter) is a wonderful musical evocation of the images in the grunewald altar piece

  5. Christ is horribly disfigured, but not as he would have been disfigured by the passion. This painting was made for a hospital in which people were suffering from an illness caused by fungus in the rye grain used in the bread eaten locally. The cause was not known at the time and so the illness was incurable. The symptoms match exactly those that Christ has in the painting. This is clearly intended to offer solace to the patients to communicate to them that Christ is suffering with them and for them.
    See the article by David Clayton (http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org)

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