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Celebrating 500 Years: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

By Susan James Created: December 18, 2012 Last Updated: December 18, 2012
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Unterlinden Museum was formerly a Dominican convent. (Susan James)

Unterlinden Museum was formerly a Dominican convent. (Susan James)

COLMAR, France—Colmar is a small town in Alsace near the border of France and Germany, but in the world of art, it has a very large footprint. On permanent exhibition in a former 13th-century Dominican convent, now the Unterlinden Museum, is the Isenheim altarpiece.

This 16th century masterwork is by German Renaissance artist Matthias Gothart Nithart (called Grünewald).

Detail of “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” (S. James)

Detail of “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” (S. James)

This year, art lovers are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the altarpiece, which was begun in 1512 and completed in 1516. This complex and challenging piece was moved to Colmar in 1852 and was originally created for the monastery and hospital of St. Anthony in Isenheim. It was meant as an inspirational visual reference for the victims of skin diseases who were the hospital’s charge.

While the vague outlines of its creator’s life are known—Grünewald was probably born in Wurzburg about 1480 and died in Halle about 1528—the details of his career have been a matter of speculation.

It is generally believed that he worked for the Archbishop of Mainz and was chief painter to Prince Albrecht von Brandenburg.

As for his painting, art historians disagree about his artistic aesthetics. They have labeled him variously a hangover of the medieval Gothic tradition, the embodiment of a northern Renaissance artist, and a precursor of German expressionism.

Like Vermeer, few of his works survive, and of these, a number of attributions have been challenged. Yet his work for St. Anthony’s proclaims him to have been a brilliant artist of profound emotional sensitivity and great technical skill.

Concert of Angels and the Nativity (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

Concert of Angels and the Nativity (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

The oil on the linden-wood altarpiece consists of 11 panels that open to reveal successive scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and St. Anthony, together with the “Crucifixion” and “Resurrection.”

At the heart of the piece is a carved shrine by Strasbourg artist Niclaus of Haguenau, Grünewald’s contemporary.

Carved inner shrine of Niclaus of Haguenau. (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

Carved inner shrine of Niclaus of Haguenau. (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

In his series of painted panels, Grünewald has deconstructed the stereotypical poses of the religious art of his time and rendered a strikingly modern approach to figures in a landscape. Unlike the work of his contemporaries in Italy, the landscape plays little part in the great drama of the “Crucifixion” that forms the outermost scene.

John the Baptist, possibly a Grünewald self-portrait, points the viewer’s eye to Jesus, who hangs lifeless on the cross, his arms elongated in exaggerated proportions that anticipate the mannerist tradition. The hands of the figures across the main panel, and its flanking side panels are clasped and twisted in empathetic anguish.

The ascendant Christ of the “Resurrection” displayed in another panel is surrounded by rainbows. The face of the resurrected Jesus dissolves into light, the darkness of his crucifixion forgotten.

“The Annunciation” (Photo: Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

“The Annunciation” (Photo: Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

This final apotheosis of the human Jesus is paired with a panel portraying his beginning, with the “Annunciation” showing the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing her selection as the mother of God. In Grünewald’s rendering of the scene, Mary turns her face away as if to say, “Not me.”

“The Temptation of St. Anthony” (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

“The Temptation of St. Anthony” (Courtesy of the Unterlinden Museum)

Sequential panels display the “Temptations of St. Anthony,” with Hieronymus Bosch-like images of tormenting demons, some suffering from the same skin diseases as the patients in the hospital where the altarpiece was hung.

The scene of the “Nativity” reveals a now-confident Mary cradling her child as angels form a celestial orchestra beside her.

Detail of the “Nativity” (S. James)

Detail of the “Nativity” (S. James)

In the museum’s display, each of the panels has been detached from the altarpiece and is exhibited separately, allowing visitors to see all facets of the piece at once. This privilege was denied Grünewald’s own audience, who were only allowed to see one picture at a time.

Displayed down the nave of the former convent’s chapel, viewers move slowly through the scenes, from “Crucifixion” to “Resurrection.” There is little traditional symmetry to Grünewald’s vision, a striking amalgamation of the real, the ideal, the delicate and the grotesque, yet everything is balanced and harmonious, crowned by the artist’s transcendent symbol of hope, a rainbow of light.



Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the United Kingdom, and Hawaii and writes about art and culture.

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