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Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

By Dr. Sally Hickson
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, view in the chapel of the Hospital of Saint Anthony, Isenheim, c. 1510–15, oil on wood, 9' 9 1/2" x 10' 9" (Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France) (photo: vincent desjardins, CC BY 2.0)
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, view in the chapel of the Hospital of Saint Anthony, Isenheim, c. 1510–15, oil on wood, 9' 9 1/2" x 10' 9" (Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France) (photo: vincent desjardins, CC BY 2.0)

Object of devotion

If one were to compile a list of the most fantastically weird artistic productions of Renaissance Christianity, top honors might well go to Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.
Constructed and painted between 1512 and 1516, the enormous moveable altarpiece, essentially a box of statues covered by folding wings, was created to serve as the central object of devotion in an Isenheim hospital built by the Brothers of St. Anthony. St. Anthony was a patron saint of those suffering from skin diseases. The pig who usually accompanies him in art is a reference to the use of pork fat to heal skin infections, but it also led to Anthony’s adoption as a patron saint of swineherds, totally unrelated to his reputation for healing and as the patron of basket-weavers, brush-makers, and gravediggers (he first lived as an anchorite, a type of religious hermit, in an empty sepulcher).
At the Isenheim hospital, the Antonine monks devoted themselves to the care of sick and dying peasants, many of them suffering from the effects of ergotism, a disease caused by consuming rye grain infected with fungus. Ergotism, popularly known as St. Anthony’s fire, caused hallucinations and skin infection, and attacked the central nervous system, eventually leading to death. It is perhaps not incidental to Grünewald’s vision for his altarpiece that the hallucinogen LSD was eventually isolated from the same strain of fungus.
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (fully open position, sculptures by Nicolas of Hagenau), 1510–15
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (fully open position, sculptures by Nicolas of Hagenau), 1510–15

Sculpted altar

Sculpted wooden altars were popular in Germany at the time. At the heart of the altarpiece, Nicolas of Hagenau’s central carved and gilded ensemble consists of rather staid, solid and unimaginative representations of three saints important to the Antonine order; a bearded and enthroned St. Anthony flanked by standing figures of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. Below, in the carved predella, usually covered by a painted panel, a carved Christ stands at the center of seated apostles, six to each side, grouped in separate groups of three. Hagenau’s interior ensemble is therefore symmetrical, rational, mathematical and replete with numerical perfections—one, three, four and twelve.
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed), 1510–15
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed), 1510–15

Painted panels

Grünewald’s painted panels come from a different world; visions of hell on earth, in which the physical and psychological torments that afflicted Christ and a host of saints are rendered as visions wrought in dissonant psychedelic color, and played out by distorted figures—men, women, angels and demons—lit by streaking strident light and placed in eerie other-worldly landscapes. The painted panels fold out to reveal three distinct ensembles. In its common, closed position the central panels close to depict a horrific, night-time Crucifixion.
Crucifixion (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15
Crucifixion (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15
The macabre and distorted Christ is splayed on the cross, his hands writhing in agony, his body marked with livid spots of pox. The Virgin swoons into the waiting arms of the young St. John the Evangelist while John the Baptist, on the other side (not commonly depicted at the Crucifixion), gestures towards the suffering body at the center and holds a scroll which reads “he must increase, but I must decrease.” The emphatic physical suffering was intended to be thaumaturgic (miracle performing), a point of identification for the denizens of the hospital. The flanking panels depict St. Sebastian, long known as a plague saint because of his body pocked by arrows, and St. Anthony Abbot.
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (second position), 1510–15
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (second position), 1510–15
The second position emphasizes this promise of resurrection. Its panels depict the Annunciation, the Virgin and Child with a host of musical angels, and the Resurrection. The progression from left to right is a highlight reel of Christ’s life.
Crucifixion (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15
Crucifixion (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15
In the predella panel is a Lamentation, the sprawling and horrifyingly punctured dead body of Christ is presented as an invitation to contemplate mortality and resurrection.
Virgin and child (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Gzen92, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Virgin and child (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Gzen92, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Idiosyncratic visions

All three scenes are, however, highly idiosyncratic and personal visions of Biblical exegesis; the musical angels, in their Gothic bandstand, are lit by an eerie orange-yellow light while the adjacent Madonna of Humility sits in a twilight landscape lit by flickering, fiery atmospheric clouds.
Resurrection and Annunciation panels , Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Edelseider, CC BY 2.0)
Resurrection and Annunciation panels , Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Edelseider, CC BY 2.0)
The Resurrection panel is the strangest of these inner visions. Christ is wreathed in orange, red and yellow body halos and rises like a streaking fireball, hovering over the sepulcher and the bodies of the sleeping soldiers, a combination of Transfiguration, Resurrection and Ascension.
Far left and far right panels seen when altarpiece is fully open (here illustrated sided-by-side). The Temptations of Saint Anthony (left), Anthony visited by Saint Paul (right), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Gzen92, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Far left and far right panels seen when altarpiece is fully open (here illustrated sided-by-side). The Temptations of Saint Anthony (left), Anthony visited by Saint Paul (right), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Gzen92, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hybrid demons

Grünewald saves his most esoteric visions for the fully open position of the altar, in the two inner panels that flank the central sculptures. On the left, St. Anthony is visited in the blasted-out wilderness by St. Paul (the first hermit of the desert)— the two are about to be fed by the raven in the tree above, and Anthony will later be called upon to bury St. Paul. The meeting cured St. Anthony of the misperception that he was the first desert hermit, and was therefore a lesson in humility.
Temptations of Saint Anthony panel (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Edelseider, CC BY 2.0)
Temptations of Saint Anthony panel (detail), Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510–15 (photo: Edelseider, CC BY 2.0)
In the final panel, Grünewald lets his imagination run riot in the depiction of St. Anthony’s temptations in the desert; sublime hybrid demons, like Daliesque dreams, torment Anthony’s waking and sleeping hours, bringing to life the saint’s torment and mirroring the physical and psychic suffering of the hospital patients.
Grünewald’s mastery of medieval monstrosity echoes and evokes Hieronymus Bosch and has inspired artists ever since. The entire altarpiece is a paean to human suffering and an essay on faith and the hope for heaven in the troubled years before the Reformation.

Additional resources:
Khan Academy video wrapper
Ann Stieglitz, "The Reproduction of Agony: Toward a Reception-History of Grünewald's Isenheim Altar after the First World War" in Oxford Art Journal vol. 12, no. 2, 1989 (Oxford University Press)

Essay by Dr. Sally Hickson

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user old_english_wolfe
    How was Grunewald's art viewed in his day? Did his fellow Christians view these works as ludicrous monstrosities, or sacred and powerful visions of Gospel truths, or unimportant artifacts of an eccentric? Or something else entirely? This work just seems so...odd...I find it counter-intuitive that it survived the storm of iconoclasm and heresy-hunting.
    (16 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Izzi Mata
      You're totally right, this piece does look really really odd, but one huge clue as to why it has survived is because the people of the day disagreed with your thoughts along the lines of heresy.
      One of the reasons why this piece was so well received was because the people for whom it was made, the patients in the hospital, could identify visually with Christ. Due to the diseases they were suffering from, the people in the hospital would have looked similarly pock-marked and disfigured as well as oddly colored. Having a devotional image of Christ that looked like they did would have spoke to them on a personal spiritual level that the day's typical depictions of Christ would have never been able to. This is continued in the depiction of Christ resurrected, where his figure is arguably barely discernible. Rather than seeing a "perfect" man, the viewer sees something dazzling like the heavenly figures described in the visions of people like Daniel in the Bible. This inability to see a "perfect" figure would have allowed the patients to continue to identify with Christ in a way that other images of Him didn't
      (21 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user nehap0707
    How is the altarpiece organized? There are three different scenery positions, but I thought that altarpieces can only have an open and closed position? What does the second position imply?
    (4 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Dennis Hamer
      Altarpieces can have three positions (I don't think there's an altarpiece with four): the first position can be seen on weekdays, the second on sundays, and the third on feastdays. Watch the video on the Pacher altarpiece for example. In the Isenheimer altarpiece the third position would probably be visible on St. Anthonisday (june 13th, the day Anthony of Padua died) or St. Antoniusday (januari 17th, the nameday of Antonius of Egypt).
      (3 votes)
  • primosaur tree style avatar for user Cecilia Huang
    Was it typical in the Northern Renaissance art that artists usually painted the Christ in a more afflicted way than those in Italy? Why was that?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user KMoustakis
    Why does the altarpiece open like that?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user krishanp312
    How did Grünewald let his imagination run riot?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      As noted in the final two paragraphs of the article, "...Grünewald lets his imagination run riot in the depiction of St. Anthony’s temptations in the desert..." He dipicts; sublime hybrid demons..." and "...(brings) to life the saint’s torment and mirroring the physical and psychic suffering of the hospital patients."
      That's quite a bit of imagination, and it runs wildly through the life of St. Anthony.
      (4 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    I've never seen an alterpiece open in this way before. Not with a second set of panels. Is this the first one made like this?
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Is there supposed to be sound to the video?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user chloemdillon
    Is there any evidence that Grunewald also identified with his depiction of Christ. It's said he led a gloomy life and was unhappily married, could that have influenced his work as well?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user anna miller
    What is another work of art from this location?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user taitutagalevao
    when does this build building?
    (0 votes)
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