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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)

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

Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)

Isenheim Altarpiece (exterior)
Artist / Origin: Mathis Gothart Neithart (Matthias Grünewald) (German, 1480–1528)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1515
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
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

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. Pauland 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.

Expert Perspective:
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.”

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.

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