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Beat the Devil

In response to:

Mysteries of a Masterpiece from the May 30, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

I was pleased to read in your May 30, 1991 issue that Willibald Sauerländer (in his review of my book The Devil at Isenheim) concurs in my identification of the youthful woman (on the temple threshold) as Ecclesia, but I regret that he did not comprehend my arguments identifying the “green angel” as Lucifer. He wrote (page 42), “Ruth Mellinkoff has obscured her important discovery, the identification of the crowned figure in the temple as ‘Ecclesia,’ by inviting the Devil to the nativity.” But strangely this reviewer overlooked the fact that Grünewald was not the only artist or writer to have “invited the Devil to the nativity.” I mention that a demon appears in Hugo van der Goes’ Adoration of the Shepherds—identified by Robert Walker (page 30); that Lucifer and his cohorts appear at the Nativity in Das hessische Weihnachtsspiel (again page 30); and that Lucifer and other devils are present at the Nativity in other plays and texts (notes, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, page 97). And I would add Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (London, National Gallery) in which five devils are portrayed scurrying away at the bottom of the painting.

Moreover, Willibald Sauerländer completely ignored the significance of the “ransom theory,” as well as the significance of the peacock’s crest as an attribute of Lucifer-the-serpent in Garden of Eden portrayals. On the other hand, he not only did not deal with my arguments, he merely stated that this green angel is a seraph, and offered no evidence whatsoever. The identification of this angel as a seraph is one of the suggestions that has been repeatedly offered in the literature—always without any evidence—opinion without attempt at proof.

I also regret that the reviewer failed to understand the main thesis of my book—that the altarpiece incorporates the most popular beliefs of the Middle Ages (and later). My aim was to avoid occult interpretations and in fact I repeatedly emphasized the simplicity of the concept of Christian salvation that underlies the meaning of the whole altarpiece. Any occultism is in the reviewer’s mind, not mine, nor was it present in Grünewald’s mind or the minds of sixteenth-century viewers!

Recently some additional fascinating evidence has come to my attention that argues for my interpretation of Grünewald’s green angel as Lucifer—namely, a beautiful, green-feathered angel-Devil painted by Filippo Lippi for a legendary story in the life of St. Stephen (Prato Cathedral). He appears in a scene as the Devil who replaces infant St. Stephen with another child, and in color the Devil looks like the twin of the angel-Lucifer I identified in Grünewald’s panel. This scene is reproduced in color in Filippo Lippi (by Gloria Fossi) published by Scala, Florence, 1989, pp. 50 and 51. It seems that Filippo Lippi also remembered that Lucifer was as much beautiful angel (though fallen) as devil.

We all know that men of good will, including scholars, often disagree; this is reaffirmed by the reviews of my book whose opinions differ from Willibald Sauerländer’s. Your readers may find them interesting for comparison; I mention some that have appeared in the following: The New York Times; The Los Angeles Times; The San Francisco Chronicle; The Library Journal; Manuscrita; Commonweal; Revue de l’art; The Ricardian; The Theology Digest; The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism; The New Republic; Bibliothèque d’humanisme et Renaissance; The Journal of Art; and Speculum.

Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff
Los Angeles, California

Willibald Sauerländer replies:

I am delighted that Dr. Mellinkoff agrees with me that no hidden occult meaning underlies the luminous iconography of the Isenheim altarpiece. Just for this reason Grünewald did not confound angels with the devil or—may I add—introduce a chamber pot into Christ’s Nativity as a symbol of “the decay of the ruined tabernacle of David” as Dr. Mellinkoff suggested (The Devil at Isenheim, p. 61). To the impressive list of reviews of her book which Dr. Mellinkoff has offered to your readers should be added one from the Burlington Magazine (August 1990, p. 587, signed J.-M.M.) which concluded: “Grünewald may have been an innovative artist interested in typological symbolism but even his imagination had limits.” One can only agree.

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