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.”

For a long time Grünewald’s paintings have been little known in Anglo-Saxon countries. The great enthusiasm for Master Mathis around 1920 was a German affair, combining the affinity of the period for expressionism with the embittered nationalist sentiment that arose following the defeat in World War I. Grünewald became a Germanic prophet. This emotional approach to his work understandably had no echo in England or in the United States, and publications on Grünewald remained rare in both countries. One book on his work was published in English during the Thirties; another on Grünewald’s drawings appeared in 1948. Both these as well as subsequent books in English during the late 1950s were by art historians who were either German or educated in Germany. It is therefore a little surprising to find, by the end of the Eighties, that two ambitious books on the Isenheim altarpiece have been produced in America by American art historians. Contemporary German art from Joseph Beuys to Anselm Kiefer has lately had a wide impact internationally, and one wonders if the combination of the provocative and nostalgic one finds in much of this work may account for some of the fascination Grünewald seems to arouse in America.

Andrée Hayum’s sensitive and passionate book is not only a learned study but it is also a personal confession. The author has mastered the large bibliography on the altarpiece and she has been stimulated by many anthropological, theological, and medical writings as well. Her attraction to the altarpiece transcends mere scholarly interest. “A new and formidable companion, the Isenheim Altarpiece has seen me through professional maturation, always instigating, challenging, and responding to my evolving intellectual, aesthetic, and historical interests,” she writes in her preface. “It was also a touchstone in times of dramatic social and political change.” She gives much attention to the assumed medical or therapeutical functions of the altarpiece in her book, and she mentions the contemporary problems of AIDS and LSD in connection with them. The author has chosen a highly ambitious and broadly conceived approach to a complex and mysterious subject, writing that “the altarpiece as a type of monument became, for me, a revelatory model for the study of art as a culturally integrated system of communication.”

In the opening chapter, “Meaning and Function: The Hospital Context,” the author gives a sound survey of the earlier findings concerning the relation between Grünewald’s panels and the healing of the “fire,” and she adds some new ones. She associates Christ on the Cross with the idea of Christ the Physician, or “Verus Medicus,” as Saint Jerome called him. She thinks that the water in the background of the first panel refers to healing and to the kind of hydrotherapy used in the Vosges. She argues plausibly that certain details of the rosary in the hands of the Christ child, such as a piece of coral, could have a magical meaning in “fending off evil spirits and protecting against the evil eye.” She also draws the reader’s attention to the old tradition by which music can act as therapy for the sick, and she connects this tradition with the music-making angels on the central panel.

These suggestions are tempting if we want to underscore the setting of the altar in a monastery that functioned as a hospital. But one could also argue that music-making angels occur frequently in pictures of the Virgin and that a branch of coral would be an appropriate feature of a Christ child’s rosary. The supplementary therapeutic meanings suggested by the author present us with tricky cases of “disguised symbolism.” No one doubts that Grünewald’s panels contain allusions to Anthony’s role as a thaumaturge. The question is how much importance to give to them. The central panel has an evident Mariological message using symbols with longstanding traditional meaning. One can argue that secondary meanings are hidden within these open symbols, but the validity of such arguments will remain a matter of surmise in the absence of historical documents to back them up.

The discussion of hidden meanings, moreover, involves the entire problem of the “hospital context” of the altar, as Andrée Hayum puts it. Grünewald’s altarpiece was the high altar of the church of the Order of Saint Anthony at Isenheim. It stood in the choir east of the stalls of the clerical members of the monastery, the choir being separated from the nave by a screen. A plan of 1695 shows that four other altars were placed in the nave in front of the screen. It is very possible that the sick residents said their prayers in the nave and that they heard the masses that were celebrated at these secondary altars. In this case, Grünewald’s splendid retable with the portraits and the coats of arms of the noble preceptors would have faced the canons, not the sick people in the nave. Anthony’s role as a thaumaturge would still remain important; but he would appear in his official role as the patron of the monastery and of the entire order. That the sick may occasionally have been admitted into the choir and seen the altar is not to be excluded; but Grünewald’s altarpiece could no longer be regarded as a sort of therapeutic performance for the sufferers. It would be understood quite normally as a splendid winged retable for the choir of a rich and renowned convent that displays the principal liturgical images—the Passion, the Nativity, and the Patron Saint.

In the following chapter, “Painting and Presence: A Catholic Monument at the Threshold of the Reformation,” Hayum places the altarpiece against the background of the religious situation in Germany around 1515. She demonstrates that the doubts concerning the value of religious images that were widespread at the time seem not to have affected Grünewald when he painted the altar at Isenheim. Grünewald’s paintings have little relation to the written word. The few inscriptions emphasize the visual power of the images. Hayum wants to underscore the directness with which the images address the viewer, calling Grünewald’s panels “a space unencumbered by the scaffold of a written syntax.”

Her next chapter “Fides ex auditu: John the Baptist, Baptism, and Judgment,” in considering the figure of John the Baptist in the Crucifixion panel, offers observations on the “ritual of exorcism,” which, she says, once “motivated and determined the shape and meaning of the baptismal rite.” She writes of “Grünewald’s virtuosic conjuring of sound with a brush” in his portrayal of the choir of angels, and of the “eloquence” of the “gestural language present in the altarpiece.”

The author’s effort to construct a new anthropological interpretation of a much discussed masterpiece is nowhere more strained than on these pages. She is right to emphasize the importance of the huge figure of John the Baptist, but she would have done well to take account of a paper, not cited in her book, by Ewald M. Vetter, who explained convincingly the presence of John by his role as the last prophet and the first martyr.3 When John appears in a painting, one naturally thinks of baptism; but does the dramatic presence of the Baptist next to the cross really establish, as Hayum argues, a functional relation between the rite of baptism and the high altar in a monastic church where baptism probably never took place? One may have legitimate doubts about such a hypothesis.

Such doubts arise not only about details, but about the underlying principle of Hayum’s entire interpretation. Should we perceive Grünewald’s altar as a sort of audio-visual performance or should we read the images at Isenheim in the light of the theological and the iconographic tradition and of liturgical function? Both approaches have their risks and their shortcomings. In choosing the first approach, Hayum sums up her interpretation with a provocative question:

If the Isenheim Altarpiece addressed a congregation in extremis…might the condition of disease not be understood as a metaphor for the crisis that threatened the Catholic community at large?

Even if one could accept that at Isenheim the “painter’s vision” served as “God’s medicine,’ one would still ask if this confusingly presented question tells us more about Grünewald and the religious crisis in 1515 or about the irrational fears in Western society in 1989. The book ends with an interesting and well informed chapter on the “afterlife” of the altarpiece and its importance during this century not only for such expressionists as Beckmann and Nolde, and for writers such as Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti, but for many others as well, including Picasso and, most recently, Jasper Johns.

Ruth Mellinkoff’s book proposes a quite different but no less intriguing interpretation of the altarpiece. For her, the “hospital context” is of very little interest since she believes that the subject of the altarpiece is not the Healing of the Sick but Healing from Sin. Grünewald’s panels, she suggests, show the history of salvation and the triumph over Lucifer. This interpretation brings us back to a theological reading of the altarpiece. Ruth Mellinkoff has even succeeded in solving one of the most difficult riddles of the alterpiece: the much debated iconography of its central panel.

Everyone agrees that this panel shows the birth of Christ, and that it is an image for the feast of Christmas. But Grünewald’s nativity has peculiar features that are unique in the history of Christian iconography. On the left half of the panel one sees a temple with gilded columns, red arches, and statues of prophets. The interior of this fantastic construction is filled with angels who are either making music or gestures of adoration. On the threshold of the temple appears a beautiful kneeling female figure with a crown of flames, who turns in adoration toward a closed garden with a flowering rosebush where Our Lady is enthroned, holding the newborn Christ. Who is this enchanting figure watching the nativity of Christ from the door of the temple?

Most scholars have identified her as the Virgin Mary in her youth, serving as one of the maidens in the Jewish Temple and foreseeing in a mysterious vision her future as the mother of God. As beautiful as this idea may seem, the suggestion that the painter would present two versions of Mary in the same picture, the young visionary and the Madonna, has always seemed an odd one. Mellinkoff has a different solution. She reminds us that a number of medieval images represent Ecclesia, the personification of the Christian church, as a crowned female figure watching the Nativity of the Saviour. For Ruth Mellinkoff this is just what we see at Isenheim: Ecclesia is portrayed in a state of adoration before the greatest of all miracles, the birth of the Saviour by a Virgin. This ingenious suggestion does justice both to the symbolic character of Grünewald’s painting, even to its remarkable beauty, and it also enables us to read the panel as one coherent image, the most extraordinary representation of the nativity in the entire Northern Renaissance.

But as the title of her book indicates, Ruth Mellinkoff’s real interests lie elsewhere. She has set out to search for and to find the Devil at Isenheim. Nobody doubts the Devil’s presence in Grünewald’s paintings. Satan can be seen blowing through the broken window behind the figure of Saint Anthony, and the rendering of this event is an astonishing tour de force of diabolic illusionism. The devils who attack Saint Anthony in Grüewald’s Temptation are more terrifying than the grotesque fiends and demons in the paintings of Jerome Bosch. But for Mellinkoff the “Devil-Lucifer [as] a major actor of the great drama of Christian salvation” has to be present from the beginning, and so a hidden Lucifer has to be discovered in Grünewald’s nativity. The author claims to have found him among the members of the orchestra performing the music of the angels.

But even historians drawn to the current vogue for iconographical deconstruction should not confound heaven and hell. From Stephan Lochner to Piero della Francesca numberless Christian artists have praised the Madonna by depicting in one form or another the music of the angels, and Grünewald’s stupendous concert in the temple is only one of many examples. Admittedly Grünewald’s host of angels is of a bewildering diversity. But this diversity does not refer to any cryptic satanic presence and it has clear stylistic and iconographical explanations. With the beginning of the Renaissance the shape of angels in northern art was transformed by the sudden imitation of Italian putti, for whom the Germans used the charming expression “Welsh Kindlein” (“Children in the Italian Style”). Grünewald’s smaller angels with their blue or reddish children’s faces may seem unusual to people who have no sense of their origins, they evidently are influenced by this Italianizing fashion. They are closer to the angels of Luca della Robbia than to their Gothic ancestors.

The iconographical reasons for the diversity of the angels are even clearer. Following a longstanding tradition Grünewald shows the different classes of the angels who surround Ecclesia adoring the Saviour. In this celestial orchestra Lucifer, the fallen angel, has no place. The greenish, feathered angel playing a string instrument, whom Mellinkoff wants to identify as Lucifer, represents instead a seraph, who comes from the highest rank in the hierarchy of the angels. The seraph does not turn in the direction of the Virgin as the other musicians do; he looks up to God the Father. His gloomy look does not express the bewilderment of Lucifer, as Mellinkoff would have it, but the seraph’s intense love of God.

In his Temptation of Saint Anthony Grünewald has left us truly nightmarish portraits of the fallen angels, but they are openly characterized as monsters. The peacock feathers of the bird-devil in the Temptation are indeed appropriate to Lucifer or rather to a member of his army. The peacock feathers on the head of the seraph are a symbol of the hope of redemption and resurrection. Angel or devil? No doubt facial expression and animal symbolism are always open to ambivalent and even contradictory interpretations, but in the context of a nativity and of the celestial music of the angels their sacred meaning should not be put into question. While the author forthrightly states that “to my knowledge, my identification of this figure as Lucifer is new,” this identification still need not be accepted as true. Even a sympathetic reader of her book may regret that 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.

The new approaches to Grünewald in two books written in the late Eighties teaches us an interesting lesson. During the last two decades art history has been in crisis—perhaps even in a state of collapse—over the ability of traditional iconography to interpret works of art. But the collapse of confidence in iconography has left us with what might be called iconography’s illegitimate children: “cryptomeanings.” In a moment of wide-spread interest in the occult, in subcultures, in popular beliefs, the hunt for crypto-meanings has become a disturbing and dangerous passion. The Isenheim Altar has from Huysmans to Fraenger been only too often abused as an aesthetic elixir to nourish irrational nostalgias, and I am afraid the books of Hayum and Mellinkoff have not been unaffected by this long-standing predilection. But Grünewald’s altarpiece, a great, luminous, and also very beautiful work of art, deserves better. It is a modern misunderstanding, even an irrational degradation, to treat its paintings as if they were the icons of some mysterious occultism.

This Issue

May 30, 1991