Rorate Caeli

The Isenheim Atarpiece, Part I

by Rorate Contributor
Maureen Mullarkey

Can the work of Protestant artists speak to pious Catholics?

It is an odd question, one that surfaces from time to time in regard to visual art only while leaving music to itself. We listen to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Handel’s Messiah with no concern that both composers were devout Lutherans. Yet a recent article in Aleteia asked: “Protestant Art, Catholic Setting: Is This Kosher?”

The headline brought to mind the Master Mathis, commonly called Matthias Grünewald. His sublime Isenheim Altarpiece, a nine-piece polyptych, is now housed in the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, Alsace. One of the glories of sixteenth century European art—to me, the most profound—it is largely overlooked by Catholics on pilgrimage to more familiar names.

[Crucifixion panel on the opposite side.]
Lutherans commemorate Grünewald—together with Albrecht Dürer and Lukas Cranach the Elder—as artist and hallowed soul on April 6th. Episcipal readings that draw on the Church of England’s Revised Common Lectionary do the same on August 5th. If our own liturgical calendar made room for artists, it would list Raphael, Michelangelo, and others of the Italian High Renaissance, letting slip the Germans.

Yet if the Church were left, in some dystopian future, with only one work of art from which to retell the Christian story, reignite awe and reverence for it, the Isenheim Altarpiece would serve better than a host of Renaissance Madonnas, Nativities, and wind-swept Resurrections. Better, even, than the Sistine Chapel. The splendor of the chapel en toto proclaims an ascendant papacy and the grandeur of the human form before it suggests the stunning mystery at the heart of Christian faith. 

                                                                               [Resurrection side, wings open]
Popular disinterest in this genius of the German Renaissance likely owes less to his Lutheran sympathies than his creative disregard for Italian classicism. Grünewald’s distance from the classical ideal places him outside canons of beauty fixed in Renaissance self-confidence and its preference for Greece and Rome over inheritance from the Middle Ages. Born cross the Alps in the same year as Michelangelo, Grünewald pressed visual reality to the service of mythic symbolism and medieval spiritualty. His expressionist, even poetic, decision raised a Northern European stylistic approach to breathtaking heights.

In Grünewald’s hands, line bows to light and color. His work relies more on emotive, atmospheric effects to create space. He did not share prevailing ardor for the rational calm of linear perspective. Mass and volume, though present, matter less than the ecstatic component in Christian mystical tradition. If Grünewald can be called—as some do— an artist of two dimensions, he exalted his chosen boundaries. His realism is not of this world.

                                                                                [Incarnation panel]
The great winged altarpiece was commissioned between 1510 and 1516 for the high altar in the chapel of a monastery and hospital run by the monks of St. Anthony in Isenheim, south of Colmar. While the Antonines nursed lepers and victims of plague, they specialized in treating those afflicted by a dreaded scourge known then as "Saint Anthony's fire."

Recurring epidemics of the disease, caused by a fungus that attacks rye grain, were frequent during the Middle Ages. Saint Anthony's Fire set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, decomposition causing loss of toes and fingers. Eruptions brought  excruciating pain, and often convulsions or delirium. Death was common.

The Antonines consoled the sick by leading those who could walk into the church where, in front of the altar they could greet a Christ who suffered as themselves. There is no mistaking the horror of the Isenheim Crucifixion. Here, the Cross is a nightmare instrument of torture. It is a world away from the elegant image of transcendent politesse that greets visitors to Raphael’s Crucifixion in the National Gallery, London.  

                                            [Raphael Crucifixion]
The panel does not disguise the agony of the Cross. The corpus is ghastly in death. Christ is reduced to a cadaver racked and stretched across a patibulum bent under dead weight. At the same time, the transcendent dimension is fulfilled. In Grünewald’s art, as in life, the herald of transcendence is in the figure of John the Baptist. Beheaded years before, he stands here in living witness to the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.

                            [Detail of the Baptist from the Crucifixion panel]
Nineteenth century novelist J.K. Huysmans commented on the figure of the Baptist with a passion equal to the marrow of the scene:

He has risen from the dead, and in order to explain the emphatic, dogmatic gesture of the long, curling forefinger pointed at the Redeemer, the following inscription has been set beside his arm: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui. 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'

He who decreased to make way for the Messiah, who in turn died to ensure the predominance of the Word in the world, is alive here, while He who was alive .  .  .  is dead. It seems as if, in coming to life again, he is foreshadowing the triumph of the Resurrection, and that after proclaiming the Nativity before Jesus was born on earth, he is now proclaiming that Christ is born in Heaven, and heralding Easter. He has come back to bear witness to the accomplishment of the prophecies, to reveal the truth of the Scriptures; he has come back to ratify, as it were, the exactness of those words of his which will later be recorded in the Gospel of that other St. John whose place he has taken on the left of Calvary--St. John the Apostle, who does not listen to him now, who does not even see him, so engrossed is he with the Mother of Christ, as if numbed and paralysed by the manchineel of sorrow that is the cross.

So, alone in the midst of the sobbing and the awful spasms of the sacrifice, this witness of the past and the future, standing stolidly upright, neither weeps nor laments: he certifies and promulgates, impassive and resolute. And at his feet is the Lamb of the World that he baptized, carrying a cross, with a stream of blood pouring into a chalice from its wounded breast.

In the work, it matters nothing to what degree the painter was influenced by pre-Reformation trends and Lutheran ideas. What counts is Grünewald’s remarkable gift for infusing traditional Christian iconography with an unearthly sense of theological insight and of the sacred. The altarpiece in its entirety is an act of prayer.