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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

Additional Resources

Chipps Smith, Jeffrey. The Northern Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 2004.

Harbison, Craig. Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Hayum, Andree. The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Mellinkoff, Ruth. The Devil at Isenheim: Reflections of Popular Belief in Grünewald’s Altarpiece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Snyder, James, Larry Silver, and Henry Luttikhuizen. Northern Renaissance Art, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)

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

The closed exterior of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece depicts the Crucifixion in the central panel.

St. Anthony is pictured on one wing, St. Sebastian on the other. On the predella, the base of the altarpiece, is an image of the Lamentation. Many triptych altarpieces in Northern Europe in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were opened up on special occasions to reveal additional scenes inside. In the case of the Isenheim Altarpiece, there are actually two interiors. The first is a set of four panels, also painted by Grünewald, depicting scenes of the Virgin and Christ. The second is a carved shrine containing a gilded and polychromed sculpture of St. Anthony, flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome, by Nicholas von Hagenau. Two more paintings by Grünewald—the Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul and the Torment of St. Anthony—appear on the wings to the left and right.

The focal point of most Christian churches, past and present, is the altar, where the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Mass, is performed. It is a central tenet of Christianity that through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross humanity was cleansed of original sin and salvation made possible. During the Eucharist, that sacrifice is reenacted through the offering of bread and wine. In the pre-Reformation period, it was undisputed Church doctrine that the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ when consecrated. The altarpiece, which formed a backdrop for this most sacred rite, often contained iconography that reinforced the meaning of the Eucharist. In the central exterior panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, for instance, we find a lamb holding a cross, a common symbol for Christ who is called “the lamb of God.” On the ground beside the sacrificial lamb, we see a chalice that would have echoed the actual cup used to hold the wine—the blood of Christ—during the Mass. Meanwhile, the crucified body of Christ, held up in offering, would have paralleled the raising of the sacramental bread or wafer.

Like other multilayered altarpieces of the period, the images comprising the Isenheim Altarpiece constituted a well-planned program that addressed not only themes appropriate to church ritual, but also those fitting the specific site for which the work was intended. The altarpiece was commissioned for the hospital chapel of Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Isenheim, Alsace (then part of Germany), where monks ministered to victims afflicted with the disfiguring skin disease known as Saint Anthony’s Fire. Monks, hospital staff, and patients at St. Anthony’s would have related in a very personal way to the ravaged body of Christ as it appears in the central Crucifixion scene of the closed altarpiece.

Set against a dark, dismal landscape, Christ’s green-hued skin appears covered in lacerations. His body is strained and taut, his limbs twisted and contorted. Literally the largest figure in the scene, Christ’s presence is at once horrifying and compelling. St. John, standing to Christ’s left, offers viewers a message by way of an inscription: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In other words, he reminds the sick and their caregivers, the physical body is only temporary. For those who keep Christ front and center, eternal life free of pain and suffering awaits. On the altarpiece’s exterior, references to St. Anthony, who survived torments by demons and devils, and St. Sebastian, who was miraculously saved after being shot through with arrows, reinforce the message of healing and spiritual salvation through faith.

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