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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, possibly as a consequence of the religious crisis in the 1520s. In contrast with his more urbane contemporaries such as Dürer in Nuremberg, Holbein in Basel, Baldung in Strasbourg, or Burgkmair in Augsburg, Master Mathis, so far as we know, was never in touch with humanists such as Erasmus. The only books mentioned in the inventory of his belongings compiled after his death were writings by Luther.

These circumstances made Master Mathis the ideal candidate for a favorite modern role: that of the lonely, inexplicable genius. Grünewald has been celebrated as such by art historians, artists, poets, and even musicians. In 1891 Huysmans included a description of a crucifixion by Grünewald in his novel Là-bas:

Ah! devant ce Calvaire barbouillé de sang et brouillé des larmes, l’on était loin de ces débonnaires Golgatha que, depuis la Renaissance, l’Eglise adopte! Ce Christ au tétanos n’etait pas le Christ des Riches, l’Adonis de Galilée… Celui-là c’était le Christ vulgaire, laid, parce qu’il assuma toute la somme des péchés et qu’il revêtit, par humilité, les formes les plus abjectes. C’était le Christ des Pauvres.1

In the libretto of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler the painter, haunted by doubts about the value of his art, exclaims:

Ich plage mich einsam, suche nach Gleichnis und Lösung. Was kann ich noch tun? In aller Not, was soll ich?2

In praising this most visionary of the great artists of the Northern Renaissance, it has always been difficult to avoid inflated language and mysterious implications.

At some time between 1511 and 1516 Grünewald painted the panels for the altar in Isenheim. It is not clear why the Alsatian convent that commissioned him to do so turned to a painter from Frankfurt and not to an artist in nearby Strasbourg or Freiburg. The order of Saint Anthony was strictly centralized. The motherhouse was in southeastern France, between Valence and Grenoble. The preceptors of the house at Isenheim were Frenchmen of noble origin, and Jean d’Orlier, the man who presided over the convent between 1463 and 1490, came from Savoy. He enlarged the church and ordered that a new high altar be built with a shrine showing Saint Anthony between Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome and the kneeling figure of Jean d’Orlier as the donor. The scanty evidence we have suggests that painted extensions, or wings, may have been planned and eventually entrusted to Martin Schongauer, the most famous painter in Germany. But Schongauer died in 1490 and nothing came of it. The next preceptor, Guido Guersi, who was in office until 1516, came from the Dauphiné. He charged Grünewald with finishing the altar by adding two large central paintings and six painted wings. Guersi’s coat of arms appears beneath the figure of Saint Anthony in the desert and the Hermit’s face may conceivably show his features. It is salutary to learn that Master Mathis, the mysterious Germanic genius, was called to Isenheim by a patron who came from a noble family in France.

Anthony, orginally an Egyptian hermit of the third century, was among the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. It was believed that he could protect against and heal a terrifying disease called the Fire of Saint Anthony or Fire of Hell, which is known to modern medicine as Ergotismus, and in English as ergotism. The houses of the order of Saint Anthony were hospitals specializing in the treatment of pilgrims afflicted by this sickness. About twenty sick and crippled people lived in the monastery of Saint Anthony at Eisenheim during the fifteenth century. They had to promise obedience to the preceptor and were expected to join with the lay brothers in the prayers of the convent, saying twelve “Pater nosters” and “Ave Marias” each hour. The temptation has always been great to connect certain pecularities of Grünewald’s paintings with the Fire of Saint Anthony and the curing of the sick. Grünewald’s artistic inventiveness, his deformed figures, his gloomy colors have all been connected with the therapeutic tasks of the order. Not only Huysmans was interested in the Isenheim altarpiece but also Freud’s teacher Charcot.

Grünewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim is a so-called Wandelaltar, a winged retable, a form of altar that was frequent in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Germany and the Netherlands. The central shrine of the Wandelaltar could be opened so that a second set of images or statues became visible. At Isenheim the system is even more complex since the shrine opens not once but twice, revealing two supplementary sets of images. Grünewald’s altarpiece is the culminating point in the long development of the winged retable. The modern visitor to Colmar is tempted to interpret the three stages of the Isenheim altarpiece as the three acts of a religious drama, especially since the museum has separated the three stages and shows them succeeding one another in a single room. But the medieval winged altar was not an anticipation of the movies. In the original arrangement at Isenheim the three sets of images were seen and used very differently. Each of them was opened or closed at certain periods of the ecclesiastical year, for certain feasts, and perhaps for a special public. The images of the altar were part of the liturgical life of the convent. One of the great obstacles to our full understanding of Grünewald’s altar is that the rules for closing and opening the shrine are still unknown.

When the shutters were closed the first central panel showed Grünewald’s Crucifixion, one of the most dramatic ever painted. In the darkness of the solar eclipse John the Baptist points to the cross. “Illum oportet crescere, me autem diminui” (John 3:30). “He must increase, but I must decrease.” These are the words inscribed next to his index finger. The enormous figure of the dead Christ on the Cross, out of proportion to the other figures of the panel, may seem to grow with the Baptist’s pathetic words. On the body of Christ the wounds and injuries of the Passion are gruesomely shown. We don’t know if there exists any connection between these painful wounds and the special mission of the monastery to help sick and suffering pilgrims, but such a connection becomes evident on the two wings flanking the panel. Here we see Saint Anthony, the healer of the “fire” and Saint Sebastian, who was invoked as the protector against the most feared of all epidemics: the bubonic plague.

The images that become visible when the shrine’s shutters are first opened represent the Annunciation, a virgin in a temple, the birth of Christ, and his resurrection. As a continuous biblical narrative this sequence makes no sense, and many different symbolic schemes have been suggested to interpret it. Liturgically the images must refer to Christmas and Easter. Visually the contrast with the first panel is striking. Master Mathis displays here an exuberance in the use of opalescent colors and light effects never before seen in northern painting. The halos surrounding the head of the virgin in the temple and the figure of Christ rising from his tomb evoke an aura of mystery that defies any rational explanation. Grünewald’s resurrection was one of the icons of modern German expressionism.

When one opened the shrine to the next panel, one would have seen the gilded image of Saint Anthony, the patron and the healer. His statue appears, as already mentioned, in the center. The paintings in the wings show his temptation and his conversation with Paul, the first hermit. The theme of the Fire of Saint Anthony now becomes clearly visible. The body of the devil in the lower left corner of the temptation is covered with lesions, an open allusion to the sickness that Anthony could eventually heal. In the foreground of the landscape, where Anthony and Paul are seen in conversation, plants are growing which have been identified as medicinal herbs used for the treatment of the “fire.”

  1. 1

    Ah! Standing before this Calvary scene, blood-stained and blurred by tears, one was far from the meek figures that the Church, since the beginning of the Renaissance, has presented on Golgatha. This lock-jawed Christ was not the Christ of the Wealthy, the Adonis of Galilee…. This was a vulgar, ugly Christ, because he takes on the whole burden of sins and, out of humility, has assumed the most abject of forms. This was the Christ of the Poor.

  2. 2

    I alone torment myself, looking for images and answers. Where can I turn? In every moment of distress, what am I to do?

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