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
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. (...) 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.
Loading more stuff…
Hmm…it looks like things are taking a while to load. Try again?