Mysteries of a Masterpiece

The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's Medicine and the Painter's Vision

by Andrée Hayum
Princeton University Press, 199 pp., $29.95

The Devil at Isenheim: Reflections of Popular Belief in Grünewald's Altarpiece I/University of California Press

by Ruth Mellinkoff
California Studies in the History of Art, Discovery Series, 109 pp., $39.95

In February 1793 the revolutionary government of France closed down the convent of the order of Saint Anthony at Isenheim in upper Alsatia. The commissioners of the French Republic charged with confiscating the monastery’s furniture decided that the paintings and carvings from the high altar in the church should be conserved as outstanding works of art and transferred to nearby Colmar, the capital of the newly founded Department of the “Haut-Rhin.” This decision, far from usual in those days of Jacobin iconoclasm, saved one of the greatest, and the most mysterious, works of German art, an altarpiece painted on the eve of the Reformation.

The fame of the Isenheim altarpiece came late, not until the end of the nineteenth century with the vogue for symbolism and expressionism. Even the name of the astonishing artist who painted the eight panels of the altar had by then been forgotten and turned into a kind of legend. Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688), the German Vasari, called him Grünewald and as such he survives in the pantheon of art history. In contemporary documents he is called Master Mathis. An inventory established after his death identified him as “Meister Mathis Maler Nithart oder Gothart,” and “Master Mathis painter Nithart or Gothart.” But the mystery surrounding the artist, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most occentric genius of Renaissance Germany, is practically insoluble because of the lack of documentary evidence of his life and career.

We can do no more than conjecture that Mathis was born in Würzburg between 1475 and 1480, some five to ten years later than Dürer. We don’t know where and by whom he was trained. A number of documents mention him but we have no letters or other writings from his own hand. Between 1505 and 1525 we know that Grünewald was active as a painter for churches at Aschaffenburg, Tauberbischofsheim, and Halle, and for the Dominicans in Frankfurt, and particularly active for the cathedral at Mainz. From what survives, his work seems to have been exclusively religious. His patrons were ecclesiastics, often canons of Saint Peter and Saint Alexander at Aschaffenburg. The most prominent among them was Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490–1545), Cardinal and Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, a pompous prince of the Church and a lavish patron.

Notwithstanding such achievements, Grünewald appears to have had a curiously erratic character. He seems never to have really settled anywhere or to have had a real workshop. Nobody has discovered traces of a Grünewald school. He is said to have engaged in many activities besides painting, and it may suit our image of the universal Renaissance artist that this visionary religious painter also worked as a hydraulic engineer, made technical drawings, and constructed a chimney in the archbishop’s castle at Aschaffenburg. But Master Mathis was not a northern Leonardo. He sold colors and at one point earned his living as a soapboiler. He died in 1528, the same year as Dürer. During the last years of his life he stopped painting altogether,…

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