Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald
Analysis and Meaning of Expressionist Polyptych Panel Paintings

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Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald
Isenheim Altarpiece (detail)
By Matthias Grunewald.
An emotionally intense
work of Christian art, it
is regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515)


Interpretation of Isenheim Altarpiece
Other Paintings By Grunewald
Famous German Renaissance Altarpieces


Artist: Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528)
Medium: Oil painting on panel
Genre: Altarpiece
Movement: German Renaissance art
Location: Unterlinden Museum, Colmar.

For more masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Analysis
To evaluate paintings by
German painters such as
Matthias Grunewald, see
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Interpretation of Isenheim Altarpiece

One of the greatest Renaissance paintings of the 16th-century, this complex polyptych altarpiece was created by the German artist we now know as Matthias Grunewald, about the same time that Raphael was decorating the Vatican in Rome. Painted for the hospital chapel of Saint Anthony's Monastery at Isenheim, near Alsace, it is among the most famous religious paintings of the Northern Renaissance (1430-1580) and resides in the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, in France. A combination of Gothic art, powerful expressionism flavoured with Hieronymus Bosch-type imagery, and the latest Renaissance painting techniques, it was painted five years before Luther nailed his Protestant theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, yet it perfectly captures the torment of the early 16th century. Grunewald's intensely realistic imagery and iconography were no doubt inspired by the revelations of St Bridget of Sweden, published in a best-selling devotional book during the 14th and 15th centuries. Although popular in the more down-to-earth north of Europe, they were less acceptable to the mainstream of the Roman Church in Italy, with the exception of austere fanatics like Savonarola (1452-98). In this sense, Grunewald's tortured masterpiece is the polar opposite of contemporary Italian High Renaissance works such as Raphael's graceful and harmonious Sistine Madonna (1513-14).



The Commission

The set of panel paintings known as The Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned by the preceptor Guido Guersi for the main altar of the Antonite Monastery near Colmar. The monastery specialized in the care of plague sufferers as well as the treatment of skin diseases like ergotism (St Anthony's fire) - an intensely painful burning sensation in the arms and legs, caused by eating cereals contaminated by ergot. This accounts for the presence in the painting of both St Sebastian (patron saint of plague victims) and St Anthony Abbot (the patron saint of the hospital's order), as well as the ravaged body of the crucified Christ. The latter image, deliberately pitted with plague-type sores, was designed to provide solace to hospital patients by showing that Jesus understood and shared their painful afflictions.


The Isenheim Altarpiece has a fairly complex construction. It is an old sculpted altar, made by Niklaus Hagenauer (1445-1538) and consisting of three carved wood statues of saints, to which six wings (painted by Grunewald) have been attached - three on each side. Four of these wings are hinged and painted on both sides; the other two are static and painted on one side only. All this allows you to change the displayed image according to the day. If you close all the hinged wings, you see a Crucifixion, flanked by Saints Anthony Abbott and Sebastian at the edges; if you open up one pair of wings you see an Annunciation, a Nativity, and a Resurrection; open up another pair and you get Hagenauer's polychrome sculptures of St Anthony, St Jerome and St Augustine, a picture of St Anthony with St Paul the Hermit, and one of St Anthony Being Assaulted by Demons. While the Crucifixion is sombre though livid, the other panels are marked by Grunewald's vivid Renaissance colour palette, as well as his extraordinary devil-imagery.

The Isenheim Altarpiece Crucifixion

In this monumental work of Biblical art, Grunewald's dark and harrowing portrayal of the Crucifixion shows a horribly wounded, twisted Christ, nailed to the cross. As one critic describes it: it is the most beautiful painting of ugliness in the history of art. Christ's flesh bristles with jagged splinters, as well as the developing sepsis and necrosis. Paradoxically, his nail-pierced hands seem to acquire movement through rigor mortis. Jesus is flanked, on the left, by a kneeling Mary Magdalene and a grieving Virgin Mary being comforted by St John the Evangelist, and on the right, by John the Baptist. At the feet of John the Baptist is a lamb bearing a cross, whose blood flows into a goblet, symbolizing the union between the Old and New Testament as well as the redemption of mankind. (Compare Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, c.1432.) Below the Crucifixion panel, a predella represents The Lamentation.

Saint Anthony Abbott Assaulted by Demons

This panel depicts the story of St Anthony who was attacked and so badly beaten by demons that his servant assumed he was dead and was about to bury him. But St Anthony regained consciousness and ordered his servant to take him back to his attackers so that he might receive more punishment. In the painting, he lies on the ground overwelmed by the ferocity of the devils, who are tearing his flesh with their teeth, claws and horns, until a brilliant light appears along with an angel sent by the Lord, to scatter his assailants and ease his pain. Inspired by the grotesque images of the earlier Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) and the Colmar engraver and painter Martin Schongauer (c.1440-91), Grunewald illustrated his story with numerous examples of bizarre monsters, including one or two decidedly humorous examples, showing that even angst-ridden German religious painters had their lighter moments.

The Isenheim Altarpiece Today

Now displayed at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, one of the best art museums in France outside of Paris, the altarpiece has been dis-assembled so that all the panels can be viewed independently. Some wood carving is missing from the top and bottom of the work, due to vandalism which occurred during the French Revolution, when the entire painting was nearly destroyed. The Unterlinden Museum is also home to an important collection of Upper Rhenish medieval and early religious art, created by a number of artists including, most notably, Martin Schongauer, who is represented by several altarpieces and numerous drawings, woodcuts and engravings.



Other Paintings By Matthias Grunewald

Little is known about the painter of The Isenheim Altarpiece, except that his surname was not Grunewald. Recent search indicates he used the two surnames Gothardt and Nithart - sometimes on their own, sometimes together. No one knows why he became known as Grunewald, but the name wasn't used before 1600, some 70 years after his death. If his name sank into oblivion, so did his reputation as one of the great Northern Renaissance artists. In fact, it was not until the emergence of the expressionism movement in the late 19th century that his work aroused any great interest. Since then, however, his reputation has soared, and he is seen as one of the best history painters, if not one of the best artists of all time. Other major paintings by Matthias Grunewald include: The Small Crucifixion (1511-20, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), Virgin and Child (1518, Stuppach Church, Wurzburg), Christ Carrying the Cross (c.1523, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe), and Lamentation (c.1523, Stiftkirche, Aschaffenburg).

Famous German/Austrian Renaissance Altarpieces

Here is a short selected list of the most famous triptychs and polyptychs of the German Renaissance.

Three Kings Altarpiece (1440) by Stefan Lochner.
St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81) by Michael Pacher.
Church Fathers Altarpiece (1483) by Michael Pacher.
The Death of the Virgin/St Mary Altarpiece (1477-89) by Veit Stoss.
Altarpiece of Wittenberg (1496-7) by Albrecht Durer.
Holy Blood Altar (1499-1504) by Tilman Riemenschneider.
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508) by Albrecht Durer.
The Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515) by Matthias Grunewald.

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