Rorate Caeli

The Isenheim Altarpiece, Part II

by Rorate Contributor
Maureen Mullarkey

Stay awhile, please, with the Isenheim Altarpiece. It has no equal in Western art. Grünewald makes palpable that mystic strain in the medieval mind that prompted Hugh of St. Victor to write: “Logic, mathematics, physics teach some truth, yet do not reach that truth wherein is the soul’s safety, without which all else is in vain.”

[Grünewald. The Resurrection wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece (1516)]

Hinged to the central Incarnation panel, the Resurrection wing is the theological capstone of the ensemble. Grünewald’s Risen One appears neither in light nor against it as routinely depicted. Here, the luminous flesh of the Eternal Word is light itself: God of God, Light of Light. Like a solar flare, the Nicene figure generates its own sudden brilliance. Phosphorescence shatters the dark. The gates of hell—death—splinter with it. Roman soldiers, keepers of the power of the world, collapse in the force of the eruption.

The mystery of this explosive moment can only be suggested. No one witnessed it. The summit of it lies beyond. Color is Grünewald’s sole agent of suggestion. He gives us the colors of a sunrise, galvanic energy bursting in to the cosmic void. Gone is the conventional white winding cloth. Just as sunlight causes certain salts to oxidize and turn color, so the light of the Resurrection transfigures the sheeting. A rainbow current—an electromagnetic spectrum—runs through it. (This, a century and a half before Newton’s experiments yielded understanding of color as a component of sunlight.)

A mandalic circle, wreathed with the flicker of distant stars, radiates from the figure and surrounds it. Christ raises his arms in that gesture, at once juridical and triumphant, so familiar in sacred art. We see it carved on the relief of Christ in Majesty on the thirteenth century frieze of the Last Judgment portal of Notre Dame and on countless mosaics.

[Christ in Majesty]
Compare Grünewald’s rendering with the Resurrection panel of Titian’s oft-imitated  Averoldi Altarpiece. Commissioned by the papal delegate to Venice, Altobello Averoldi, it is gorgeously painted but conventional in spirit. Conventional, that is, in terms of Renaissance preoccupations. Here is a thoroughly material Christ, a robust specimen of male anatomy in the age of Vesalius. The sacred theme offers pretext for a monument to male beauty. 

             [Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica (1543)]
Titian studied previous compositions of the subject, enlivening the motif with the dynamism of a figure set on a slant, its diagonal accented by outflung arms, and the billowing Crusader flag. Scrupulously realistic, the Averoldi Christ is lit as by a spotlight from above. (Note the placement of shadows on the body.) Posture and gesture appear arrested in dance. The flag is a call to arms. Where Grünewald’s eye was on the ineffable, Titian’s was on the tangible. And the temporal. (Bishop Averoldi was in Venice to muster support for Leo X’s intended crusade against the Turks.)

                                                                                                  [Titian. Averoldi Altarpiece (1522)]

A Resurrection scene was a set piece. Titian himself was more invested in the subsidiary figure of St. Sebastian created for the lower right panel of the polyptych. He rehearsed the torsion of the figure and its musculature in numerous preparatory drawings. In his own eyes, the pierced saint was the best thing he had painted so far.
[Titian. St. Sebastian panel of  the altarpiece.]
The greatness of the Titian lies in the splendor of the painter’s own hand—his drawing, pictorial intelligence, tonal mastery, all the lovely stuff of it. But it prompts admiration for artistry more than it summons a sense of the sacred.  

By contrast, the Isenheim Altarpiece, completed a scant four years before Titian began Averoldi’s commission, preserves the emphasis of medieval piety on ascent from what reason grasps—the data, logic and structure of things—to realities unknowable through reason alone. Grünewald’s Resurrection affirms the Orthodox distinction between sacred art and “religious” art, or secular art that makes use of sacred themes but is empty of a true sense of transcendence.

While not an icon, Grünewald’s Resurrection observes the icon painter’s disregard of shadow. Like an iconographer—or an artist in stained glass—he uses color, born of light, as a window on the eternal. He puts before our eyes St. John’s incandescent utterance: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

Note: To read The Isenheim Altarpiece, Part I, click here

Maureen Mullarkey is a Senior Contributor to The Federalist. She keeps the weblog Studio Matters.