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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)
Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)
Artist / Origin Mathis Gothart Neithart (Matthias Grünewald) (German, 1480–1528)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1515
Material Oil on wood panel
Medium: Painting
Dimensions (Central Panel) H: 8 ft. 9 5/8 in. (2.69 m.), W: 10 ft. (3.07 m.); (Wings) H: 7 ft. 6 5/8 in. (2.32 m.), W: 29 ½ in. (75 cm.) (each); (Predella) H: 29 7/8 in. (76 cm.), W: 133 7/8 in. (340 cm.)
Location Musee d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Credit Courtesy of Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)

» Mathis Gothart Neithart (Matthias Grünewald) (German, 1480–1528)

expert perspective

Larry Silver Larry Silver Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Altarpieces are really a form of interior decoration of churches. In the time before Vatican II in the 1960s, the mass was celebrated by a priest who turned his back to the congregation and lifted up the chalice and the consecrated wafer of the mass. So to give people something to look at, as much as anything else, many different kinds of objects were designed to be on the altar, some of them were elaborate golden reliquaries to keep precious relics of the church before the faithful. But some of them increasingly became storytelling images, whether carved or painted, and that was an object of devotion in the process of experiencing the mass for most congregants. The altarpiece in a Catholic church behind the priest is a way of celebrating, in particular, the physical sacrifice of Jesus. Now most of the time, therefore, something related to Jesus is the subject of an altarpiece and the body of Christ is usually celebrated one way or the other. Either the body of the infant Christ, with scenes from the nativity or the events that followed, or the literal sacrifice on the cross of his body as an adult, and the events that either preceded or followed that.

In the Isenheim Altarpiece we have probably the most physically wrenching of all the images of the dead Christ. And it’s important to notice in this picture that the body of Christ is actually much bigger than any of the other bodies in the picture. Its importance on a spiritual level is conveyed by its sheer size on the physical level. But that size is so tormented—the number of wounds, the visible greenish tint, as well as blood-hued tint of all the surfaces of skin, the distortion that come to the feet and the hands of this tormented figure on the cross can only elicit our deepest human compassion and pity. Like tragedy, which is pity and fear, we bring very powerful and deep emotions of both pity and fear to this image. The figures who are alongside are the traditional religious figures of John and Mary, and Mary is fainting at the physical and mental anguish of the event. But the figure of Christ so dominates and also the trappings of the crucifixion are so reduced, with the dark and impenetrable blackness that envelopes the figure, that that, too, adds a layer of gloom, an almost irreducible despair to this figure that is unparalleled in art. The only image on some level that gives the viewer guidance is the remaining figure below, the figure of John the Baptist, who points and has a kind of cartoon balloon statement: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’ So it’s a call to the viewer to be increasingly humbled before this suffering. And at that point, it’s an important thing to know what scholars have discovered—that this was a hospital treatment and the people who came before the altarpiece actually were praying for cures. So when they saw an even greater suffering than their own, they could perhaps hope both for a better life in the next life and for a cure in this life through an intervention through holy figures.

The Christian religion teaches that Christ offered up his body and his premature death for the salvation of all who would believe in him, so the image of Christ’s own suffering becomes a source of comfort and hope, as well as a bonding, a kind of emotional attachment for Christians. It’s interesting that the crucifix itself was never made in a large scale sculpture much before the year 1,000. And increasingly, Christians in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance came to feel that that image—Christ on the cross—was an image of martyrdom, of heroism, of sacrifice with a religious purpose that enabled them, in some ways, to relate to the human side of Christ as a way of getting at the more complicated theological purpose. So the man of sorrow, the suffering Christ, sometimes also the Christ who shows all of his wounds after the resurrection, but portrays himself as suffering, is something that encapsulates the whole message of the Christian religion.” 

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