The Isenheim Altarpiece
by Matthias GRÜNEWALD

The Isenheim Altarpiece was executed for the hospital chapel of Saint Anthony's Monastery in Isenheim in Alsace, which explains the presence of the plague saint, St Sebastian, and the patrons of the more austere and solitary forms of monasticism, St Anthony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit. The altarpiece is now at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, a nearby town.

The Isenheim Altar is a complicated structure with four layers of painted surfaces - that is, two sets of folding wings, like a double cupboard, enclosing the final altarpiece, which consists of three carved wood statues of saints. There are also two side panels and a predella. In form, therefore, it harks back to the type of Burgundian and German carved altar of which the Broederlam at Dijon is a classic example.

There are three views of the altarpiece. The first, with the wings closed, is a Crucifixion showing a harrowingly detailed, twisted, and bloody figure of Christ on the cross in the center flanked, on the left, by the mourning Madonna being comforted by John the Apostle, and Mary Magdalene kneeling with hands clasped in prayer, and, on the right, by a standing John the Baptist pointing to the dying Saviour. At the feet of the Baptist is a lamb holding a cross, symbol of the "Lamb of God" slaughtered for man's sins. In the second view, when the wings are opened, three scenes of celebration are revealed: the Annunciation, the Angel Concert for Madonna and Child, and the Resurrection. The third view with wings opened again discloses on either side of the carved innermost shrine two panels, Sts Paul and Anthony in the Desert and a Temptation of St Anthony.

The Crucifixion is sombre and livid; inside, all is a magic glory of brilliant colour and light, and the final scenes of the Desert Saints are again lurid and eerie, with, in the Temptation, the kind of devil-haunted imagery that permeated Bosch's visions of sin.

The work of Grünewald expresses the torment of the early sixteenth century more fully than that of any other artist. Dürer was too steeped in Italian culture to have much use for the tortured Gothic forms which Grünewald twisted to suit his expressive purposes in his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altar, of about 1515. This was painted before Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, but it is painted by a man who, like Bosch, used his great technical powers to express a simple, unmistakable message of emotional intensity and terrible realism. These visions are entirely in the spirit of St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations were one of the most popular devotional books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; they would have been repugnant to all but a very small number of Italians, of whom Savonarola would certainly have been one, and Botticelli might well have been another.

This altarpiece inspired Paul Hindemith, one of the most significant German composers of the 20th century, to create his opera and symphony entitled "Mathis the Painter".

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 10 minutes):
Paul Hindemith: Mathis the Painter, Scene 6, Mathis' vision

Summary of paintings by Matthias Grünewald
1501-10 | 1511-20 | 1521-28
Isenheim Altarpiece | drawings