Isenheim Altarpiece

Isenheim Altarpiece

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The character of focus today is a familiar image. Most people, given a piece of paper and a pencil, would be able to draw the major lines that compose him: his features, his attributes, and perhaps even his martyrdom.

Jesus is often depicted in all his states, from life to death, without forgetting the resurrection. The works that represent him lead us to reflect upon human nature they inspire devotion and meditation. Sometimes the contemplation of his martyrdom can even offer comfort to believers in search of an echo to their sufferings.

There is a particular piece of work that responds to this echo and has always caught my attention: the Isenheim Altarpiece. Painted between 1512-1516 and attributed to Matthias Grünewald, it is now at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

Isenheim Altarpiece. Matthias Grünewald, 1512-1516. Detail. Musée Unterlinden, Colmar © Musée Unterlinden, Colmar.

Many are familiar with Christ having a serene, peaceful, and resolute face before his fate, but what Grünewald offers us here goes much further than just illustrating his stigmata. He invites the viewer on a hallucinatory trip to the last nightmarish hours of this famous martyr. In this crucifixion, he depicts the horror of this event by aestheticizing the unsustainable. Grünewald succeeds in making sublime a violence rarely observed in art.

Isenheim Altarpiece. Matthias Grünewald, 1512-1516. Detail. Musée Unterlinden, Colmar © Musée Unterlinden, Colmar.

What is the motivation that drives an artist to create such a work? What does it tell us about the history of its patrons? Who was this “genius savage,” as Joris-Karl Huysmans called him?

Taking advantage of the Museum’s invitation to attend this restoration, I took the opportunity to interview the director of the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, Pantxika De Paepe, and the chief restorer, Anthony Pontabry.


The Couvent Sainte-Catherine de Colmar [fr] , the convent of the Dominican sisters of Saint Catherine (French: Catherinettes) of Colmar was established in 1310. The convent's church for which the Buhl altarpiece was originally painted was completed in 1436, replacing a smaller building from 1371. The Gothic building was desecrated in 1792 and partly destroyed in the 19th century. Classified as a Monument historique since 1903, it is now used for different purposes by the municipality. [1] [2]

The colourful [3] Buhl altarpiece is the work of a group of followers of Martin Schongauer, [4] who drew their inspiration both from his woodcuts and from his paintings, especially the Altarpiece of the Dominicans, now kept in the Unterlinden Museum. [5] The Buhl painters closely followed their model's designs, but on a larger scale and in a simpler and technically cruder manner. [3] While it is not documented that the altarpiece was commissioned by the convent of Saint Catherine, the closeness to the designs of Schongauer but also, to a lesser degree, of Caspar Isenmann (the panel depicting the Flagellation of Christ is reminding of the same scene in the altarpiece of St Martin's Church) indicate without a doubt that it has been painted in Colmar furthermore, both Saint Catherine and Saint Ursula, who figure prominently in the Crucifixion scene, were particularly venerated by the Dominican sisters of Saint Catherine. [3]

It has been suggested that Schongauer's pupil Urbain Huter (1471–1501) may have been one of the authors [6] [7] but without any solid evidence. [3]

The altarpiece is recorded in Buhl since 1835. [8] The current parish church, a Neo-Romanesque building with a long and imposing nave and a short and narrow choir (in which the altarpiece is displayed) was built in three phases between 1868 and 1899. [9] The altarpiece left Buhl twice, once during World War II, when it was hidden in Périgueux and once from 1966 until 1971, when it was restored in Paris, then displayed in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. [10] A local association of the "Friends of the Buhl Altarpiece" (Amis du retable de Buhl) was founded in 1988. [11]

The altarpiece is classified as a Monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture on terms that may appear confusing. It is classified as an object (mobilier) since 1978 according to the digital database of the Ministry, [12] or since 1967 according to the Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel [fr] (General inventory of the cultural heritage) of the Ministry. [3] It is also classified since 1863 as a part of the building (immeuble) in which it is displayed, [13] regardless of the fact that the church in question has been entirely rebuilt after that date.

Originally a triptych but currently not displayed in that fashion because of a lack of space, [3] the Buhl altarpiece is composed of a central panel, 3.5 m (11 ft) wide and 1.97 m (6 ft 6 in) high, and two lateral panels, 1.75 m (5 ft 9 in) wide and 1.97 m (6 ft 6 in) high. When opened, the altarpiece thus reaches a width of 7 m (23 ft), significantly surpassing the Isenheim Altarpiece (total width 4.57 m (15.0 ft), [14] and the Ghent Altarpiece (total width 5.20 m (17.1 ft). [15]

The front side of the left wing shows the Agony in the Garden and the Flagellation of Christ. The front side of the central wing represents the Crucifixion of Jesus with Saint Catherine and Saint Ursula. These two female figures may have been painted last as they are in a more distinctly Proto-Renaissance style than the rest. The front side of the right wing represents the Crowning with thorns and the Bearing of the Cross, all from the Passion of Jesus. [3] [8]

The rear side of the left wing shows the Nativity of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary. The rear of the central panel (painted in a different style and in a lesser state of preservation than the rest of the altarpiece) shows the Last Judgment as a doom. The rear of the right panel shows the Annunciation with the Unicorn (almost a carbon copy of the same scene from the Altarpiece of the Dominicans) and the Adoration of the Magi. [3] [8] Remarkably, both the blessed in the depiction of Paradise and the damned in the depiction of Hell in the Last Judgement are almost all clerical people: popes, bishops, monks, nuns. A nun deep in the fire is shown pointing her finger at her tongue a text (in German) running next to her says "I didn't keep my mouth shut, that's why I'm deep in hell" (Darum, dass ich nit han geswiegen ich tief in der Helle liegen). [3]

The Isenheim Altarpiece

I knew an elderly Scotswoman who read the Bible each night by the light of a candle.

It had become a kind of ritual, for everyone needs a rite, including those reared in the stark Calvinist kind of worship of her homeland Kirk. While she did all of her other reading by electric light, the lamp was turned off and the candle lit for the Bible. It was by that burning taper that she could read, as all of us can, the wonderful and mysterious words: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

That contrast of light and dark is powerfully depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece now in Colmar, France. It was produced between 1512 and 1516 by the sculptor Nikolaus of Haguenau and painter Matthias Grünewald for a hospital that treated people suffering from skin diseases, and such affliction is depicted on the flesh of the Crucified Christ in what has been called "The most beautiful painting of ugliness in the history of art." The darkness of the Passion is darker for being next to the incandescent light of the Risen Christ. At the foot of the Cross, in deliberate contempt for chronology, is John the Baptist, still alive and attended by a lamb, for John had called his cousin "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). The Lamb, a symbol of Christ sacrificed on the cross, is also the Light that pre-existed all created light as we know it. "And the city has no need for sun or moon to shine on it, because the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its lamp" (Revelation 21:23).

That illuminating "glory of God" briefly broke through created light as we know it in the Transfiguration. If it is to be understood to some small degree, that will be by acknowledging the "pre-existence" of Christ: "He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (John 1:2-3).

Even in speech, the mystery of Christ's pre-existence declares itself: ". . . before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). For any human confined to chronology, saying that would be using bad grammar. One might say "I was" (Simple Past), "I was existing" (Past Continuous), "I had existed" (Past Perfect), or "I had been existing" (Past Perfect Continuous), but only Christ can defy grammar by saying that before Abraham was, "I am."

John — standing at the Jordan river, poorly dressed and even more poorly fed — employed the only grammar available to him, to declare of his younger cousin: "This is he, of whom I said: After me there comes a man who is preferred before me, because he was before me" (John 1:30).

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Father George W. Rutler. "The Isenheim Altarpiece." From the Pastor (January 19, 2020).

Isenheim Altarpiece - History

"For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." -- Isaiah 53:2-3

Grünewald’s paintings of the Crucifixion, not only for Isenheim but also the several others he delivered during his career, dislocate an overtaxed idea that commendable religious art for the sanctuary works solely by appeal to beauty. In which case, we must ask again what is the purpose of art intended for the sanctuary if it is not just to please and edify? Certainly, the idea behind this interrogation is not to ruse painters, sculptors and designers to flood churches with images of suffering or violence for the sake of eliciting a marked emotional or psychological reaction. The idea is to faithfully search for that fine line between creativity, truth, and articulation that will imbue our religious art with a more authentic substantial power of eloquence and engagement. Grünewald accomplished this in the Isenheim Crucifixion by layering several significant contextual factors together: he painted with a deep and assertive sympathy for the people who were going to pray in front of that altar, he planned the scene with the Abbott who challenged him to include details that burst open scope of the image way outside its temporal-historical moment and thus provided a greater window of possible meanings, he read and prayed relevant Scriptural texts in addition to mystical literature, and finally, he used his great artistic sensitivity to optimize the composition for communicating complex theological mysteries and existential realities.

Grünewald qualifies as a mannerist painter but the style here is a means to an end not and end in itself. It is enough to look at the Italian La Maniera artists who were his contemporaries to realize how singular Grunewald’s perception of art was, downright phenomenological. Whether one wishes to emphasize the expressiveness or the vision-like ambiance of the work – the purpose of comparisons with the Italian masters here is not to establish a hierarchy among artists, but rather to expand the horizons within which truly great artistic work can be negotiated. It is not about whether Grünewald was German, mannerist, or ahead of his time, it is more about how well he fashioned what was at hand to convey such tremendous meaning(s).

Abbott Guido Guersi hired Matthias Grünewald in 1508. His desire was to commission a set of paintings for the altarpiece that was going to be installed in a chapel adjacent to the hospital for the poor and infirm. The infirmary was managed by the Antonine Brothers of whom Abbott Guersi was the head. The sick who found themselves in St. Anthony’s Hospital were often stricken by debilitating plague-like illness that resembled leprosy. They suffered terrible physical trials and since access to effective medicine was severely limited, the sick often sought healing and solace in the chapel. Grünewald painted the Crucifixion – with a central image of Christ who has just died in unimaginable suffering - for the sake of the brothers who took care of the sick and for the sick themselves. But the program goes beyond an identification between the patient and his Redeemer.

Christ’s suffering body dominates the central axis of the panel and minimizes other figures, in and out of the frame – meaning those painted in and those who are looking / praying. In this way, Grünewald straddles the reality of a work of art with the reality of the viewer. Jesus hangs so exhausted, color of a diseased flesh with wooden splinters all over his chest and legs. He is alarming, bulbous, wounded, and disfigured. The visual weight of his tormented figure grounds the landscape behind – darkness proliferating over treeless receding hills with a very slow flowing river, alluding to the water of Baptism – which we all enter to die and be born again in spirit. Other figures, shown mostly in shades of red and white, for blood and water, almost drift compared to the heavy, sinking Christ. Their upward movement is both a cray of pain and a reaching out towards Christ. The dominant curve of the Tau transept seems to yield to his great weight. And then we notice His hands and the straining fingers – He has given absolutely everything and His open, pinned palms seem to radiate this inexplicable generosity, despite the exhausted body. He is transfigured by suffering.

The sick of the Antonine Hospital would have known the legend of a young man whose illness was the occasion for the founding of the order and its hospitals. St. Anthony the Hermit appeared in a dream to Lord Gaston early in the 11th century and told him that his son, sick with the plague will heal if he should plant a Tau cross. The cross was planted, it flowered and bore fruit that healed the young men. Here the fruit of the wood is Jesus Himself – fastened to the tree of the Tau cross. The small Easter Agnus bleeding into the chalice in the foreground, on the right side of the cross, together with the tree of life symbol make a strong allusion to the Eucharist and its healing potencies. We can have some glimpse of the mental landscape of the patients, the brother, and most especially of Grünewald when we also include important literature of the day together with the pious legends of the Antonine Order. The artist’s works especially shows familiarity with the mystical writings of St. Bridget of Sweden and Bl. John van Ruysbroeck who combine gruesome descriptions of the Passion of Christ together with strong emphasis on visions, dream-like quality of reality, and divine love.

The placement of St. John the Baptist in the Crucifixion scene might be puzzling at first sight, but he is there to extend the narrative and thus help the viewer emerge from the shock of pain and sorrow. Documentation narrating how the altarpiece was conceptualized is not available but considering Grünewald’s other works and especially the Crucifixion scenes, we can guess that St. John the Baptist was included at the request of Abbott Guersi. I feel encouraged to make this conjecture based on many years of work with priests on projects of similar scope – a request for an odd detail is always to be expected. And because these requests often defy logic but not sense, they actually help the artist in intensifying the semiotic charge of their works. This is precisely what has happened here. With St. John the Baptist, who was long dead, emphatically situated on the right side of the cross, the time has stopped and the vision we are presented becomes a mystical revelation of the reality and efficacy of physical sacrifice. John holds an open book of prophesies that foretold Jesus’ Passion. The text in red reads: “I must decrease, and He must increase.” The time of redemption is now, though it is also a time of pain and struggle to understand. John’s pointing index finger also plays a role. Like the extended fingers of Christ, it opens out of himself towards the excess of reality that extends past pain without invalidating its terrible realism. The forceful realism of the Crucified body is not all fancy and gore. Grünewald’s depiction is so accurate, it is possible to diagnose the ailment that he painted. This body is not only imagined, the artist has studied pathology of ergotism (aka St. Anthony’s fire).

On the left side of the cross, a group of three figures is arranged – those who were described as having stayed by the cross until the end: St. John the Evangelist, Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen with a stone jar – a trope from another event passed down through the Gospel an alabaster jar from the past, like the Agnus from yet another realm, collapse disparate time-frames into a vaster reality where past and present merge – the body is contingent, subject to change and illness, but the reality that encompasses the former, the current, and the other – is a spiritualized. There is no future yet, much less any notion of triumph, because the sacrifice is infinitely effective now, at this very moment. If anyone has ever wondered whether materialist spiritualism is possible, Grünewald paints the answer in the Consummatum Est Crucifixion.

Along with the formidable suffering of Christ, Grünewald shows the spiritual martyrdom of the Virgin Mary – Our Lady of Co-Passion. My understanding of the backward bend of her posture, besides the obvious expressive, is a transferal of the death posture codified in the carved German Pietas of the Middle Ages to a painted image. The usual arrangement is that the figure of Mary is sculpted along a vertical while the body of Christ placed on her lap is either diagonal or a slightly a curved horizontal line. This kind of composition was meant to establish a more intimate encounter between the viewer and the Virgin – through cordial sympathy with her grief. In case of the Isenheim Crucifixion, the Virgin is the one who is shown dead albeit not in flesh but in spirit. She is held by the young disciple John – to whom she was entrusted by Jesus. John is holding up a martyred Mother of God - the posture of her body, closed eyes, and the pure, stark white of her mantle that recalls Jewish burial linens, point to the idea of pain to the point of death. She is inconsolable over the suffering of Christ.

Prayer and much meditation is necessary to come to any terms with Grünewald’s portrayal of the Crucifixion. Perhaps it is one of the German master’s great accomplishments – to paint an image that validates the reality of suffering and to render it terrifying and efficacious, and so even imbued with promise and a hope. Faced with the Isenheim Crucifixion, one must realize that it would have been impossible to render a scene this eloquently, unless it was with profound devotion and respect that the image was planned and painted. In this work, Grünewald persuades that art and, by analogy, God move not only in the realm of the beautiful but also in the realm of the inexplicable and the truly crushing.

The Isenheim Altarpiece survived the torrents of history until 1794 when it was taken apart and removed from the church, and consequently from its intended liturgical use. Its three separated layers are currently on display in the Unterlindedn Museum in Colmar, Alsace (France).

How Renaissance Painting Smoldered with a Little Known Hallucinogen

A fungal infection known as ergotism influenced Northern Renaissance painting to an extent that a majority of art institutions have yet to grapple with. During the Renaissance ergotism was colloquially known as St. Anthony’s Fire, named for the third-century desert Father who had hallucinatory bouts with the devil.

In 1938 the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman accidentally synthesized the psychedelic drug LSD-25 for the first time from ergot fungi — the same fungus that causes the disease ergotism — while researching pharmaceuticals for postpartum bleeding. Some of the symptoms of ergotism closely resemble the effects of LSD, which makes sense given that the same or similar alkaloids are present in both the fungus that causes illness and the drug. Looking at depictions of St. Anthony in the paintings of Renaissance masters, the influence of the disease on the history of art starts to become clear.

During the time of the Renaissance, ergotism was a phantasmagoric event with an onset that was difficult to distinguish from the bubonic plague: it came on first as nausea and insomnia, then developed into sensations of being engulfed in flames while hallucinating over several days, and often ended with the amputation of one or more limbs due to gangrene, or ended in death. In some locations, the symptoms associated with ergotism were considered to be the first step towards hell.

Ergot growing on rye (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

The illness is contracted by ingesting ergot fungus, which appears on cereal grains when the growing conditions are right — most commonly on rye. The last known severe outbreak occurred in the French village of Pont-Saint-Espirit in 1951. The outbreak was documented in the British Medical Journal, which describes symptoms such as nausea, depression, agitation, insomnia, a delirium that includes feelings of self-accusation or mysticism, and hallucinations that commonly include animals and fire. A non-fiction book about the 1951 outbreak, written by American author John G. Fuller, titled, The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire, describes specific ergot-related psychotic episodes. For example, there is the afflicted man who thought he was an airplane and jumped out the asylum’s second floor window with outstretched arms expecting to fly, telescoped both his legs upon landing, and then ran 50 meters at full speed on shattered bones before being wrestled to the ground by eight other men. All in all, the accounts of symptoms from the 1951 outbreak resemble both acid causality tales hyperbolized as anti-drug propaganda, and descriptions from the LSD how-to manual coauthored by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, titled The Psychedelic Experience.

Some art historians, such as Bosch scholar Laurinda S. Dixon, have proffered for decades that the symptoms of ergotism influenced painters like Jheronimus (aka Hieronymus) Bosch and Matthias Grünewald. In looking further at depictions of Saint Anthony — from medieval folk art, a plethora of Renaissance work, to a series of paintings by surrealist artists, such as Max Ernst’s 1945, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” a pattern begins to develop in which a mimesis of visual hallucinations associated with ergotism is clearly present. For instance, Gustave Flaubert’s novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony, contains not only hallucinatory imagery congruent with the effects of ergot alkaloids, but also contains in the opening passage of the novel a clear symbol of a known cause of ergot poisoning: a description of a loaf of black bread inside the hermit saint’s cabin.

The Isenheim altarpiece closed (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

So why is St. Anthony associated with ergot? The devout will often look towards the legend of Anthony’s temptations when faced with mental or emotional anguish. This is because the devil is said to have tempted Anthony with mirages of jewels, and dressed up as seductive women to deter the hermit from his asceticism. As the devil was tormenting Anthony, the saint was said to be wandering through the Egyptian wilderness. The events of Anthony’s story as recounted by his original hagiographer, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also read as hallucinatory, with a blend of imagery, ecstasy and madness. From Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius:

For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand.

The notion that the harmful hallucinations will cease if the subject is fortified beforehand, is a reoccurring theme not only in Life of Saint Anthony, but also in the instructions for tripping on LSD given in The Psychedelic Experience:

At this time you may see visions of mating couples. You are convinced that an orgy is about to take place. Desire and anticipation seize you, You wonder what sexual performance is expected of you. When these visions occur, Remember to withhold yourself from action or attachment. Humbly exercise your faith. Float with the stream. Trust the process with great fervency. Meditation and trust in the unity of life are the keys.

This simple comparison between the texts of a third-century hermit and the megalomaniacal ‘60s drop-out prototype, Timothy Leary, is not enough to clearly demonstrate a correlation between Anthony and psychedelia. What this investigation does make clear is why the hagiography became important to those in the 17th century suffering from symptoms similar to LSD effects in the time before modern medicine first discovered the cause of ergotism.

Aside from the instructions for how to cope with hallucinations, Athanasius’s text also uses imagery that appeared in Renaissance painting, and finds a kinship with symptoms of ergot as described in the British Medical Journal and The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire. According to John G. Fuller, Zoopsie — from the French word meaning hallucinatory visions of animals — was rampant among the afflicted in Pont-Saint-Espirit, who experienced tormenting visions of serpents, tigers, giant spiders, etc. Anthony was tormented by similar visions over and over again, according to St. Athanasius:

the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves…”

The Isenheim altarpiece outer wings opened (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Bosch provides the most fertile ground for art lovers wanting to believe that hallucinogenic fungi may have a significant place in art history. This is partially because the painter has a special connection to Anthony, depicting the saint over twenty times throughout his life — one of his most famous paintings being the Anthony triptych. In the town where Bosch grew up, there was a church dedicated to the saint, which the artist almost certainly attended with his family when he was young. The painter lived at a time when knowledge of ergotism would have been near its peak before the cause of the disease was discovered. By the early 16th century (he died in 1516), there would have been at least forty major outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire across Northern Europe since the 9th century, with one 1418 outbreak in Paris killing as many as 50,000 by some estimates.

Laurinda S. Dixon presents some of the most convincing evidence to date that Bosch’s imagery was directly influenced by Saint Anthony’s Fire. In a (1984) essay titled “Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych — An Apothecary’s Apotheosis,” the author finds a common ingredient in medieval medicine used to treat ergot — mandrake root — and the distillation furnaces used to make that medicine. Examining the Bosch painting with the use of high resolution photos available on, Dixon argues that the bulbous buildings, often depicted with a stream of smoke coming out of the top, are nearly identical to the shapes found in contemporaneous schematics of apothecary furnaces.

Other notable imagery in the Anthony Triptych includes the fire raging in the background — fire is found in many Bosch paintings, and is common in other painters’ depictions of Saint Anthony as well. A pair of magi in the center panel are serving musicians a concoction made from berries and herbs — one of the magi with wide-eyes and perhaps intentionally dilated pupils. Anthony is depicted in all three panels, recognized in Bosch paintings by his blue robe and a tau cross either painted on the robe or dangling as jewelry. It’s amusing that in the center panel, Anthony has the look of a strung-out Dead Head at the end of two-day acid trip, with his raised index and middle finger looking simultaneously like a Christian hand gesture and a hippie peace sign. Just below the Grateful Dead Anthony in the center panel, there is another symbol of ergotism — an amputated foot clearly laid on a rag.

Moving on from Bosch, there are scores of paintings that contain depictions of Anthony with many of the same symbols that imply ergotism. A painting attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows Anthony in his hermit cabin, as well as flying through the sky on winged beasts. There is a common rumor that ergot alkaloids cause those under their influence to believe they can fly, both in accounts of the disease and in anti-drug propaganda. Again, as in Bosch’s triptych, we see the apothecary furnace on the left side of the painting, this time with a scared looking face peaking out the top — and of course the two fires raging in the distance.

Flemish Painter Jan Mandijn’s vision of Anthony contains a similar set of ergot indicia: apothecary tools, fire, the saint flying through the air, gangrene. Add to this an odd grass bursting through the roof of the hermit’s cabin, with dark tips that look similar to images of the fungus growing on rye.

Jan Mandijn, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (circa 1550) oil on panel, height: 61.5 cm (24.2 in). Width: 83.5 cm (32.9 in). (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Moving from the Flemish region to what was then Western Germany, sculpture and woodworker Nikolaus Hagenauer (aka Nikolaus von Hagenau) is surrounded by perhaps the most solid historical evidence that Anthony was a symbol of ergot poisoning for Northern Renaissance artists. Hagenauer’s sculpture of Anthony, carved with virtuosic dexterity in the round from a walnut log, displays subject matter that is congruent with the earliest legends of Anthony — the saint struggling with a single demon underfoot. However, when the artist’s masterwork is taken into consideration — the Isenheim altarpiece which Hagenauer was commissioned to create with painter Mathias Grünewald — the ergot narrative takes flight.

Around the year 1070 C.E., Saint Anthony’s purported remains were moved to La-Motte-Saint-Didier, a commune in southeastern France. The relics of the saint were said to have healing properties that could cure Saint Anthony’s Fire, and in 1095 the Hospital of the Brothers of Anthony was founded with the primary objective of treating those afflicted with ergot poisoning. Four centuries later, Grünewald and Hagenauer were commissioned to paint an altarpiece in nearby Isenheim for a monastery run by the Brothers of Anthony.

The Isenheim altarpiece is in an unusual position for a work of art, in that it was made with the direct intention of soothing physical ailments, as well as symptoms of psychosis. Each of the altarpiece’s nine paintings and its woodcarvings relate to an element of recovery from the symptoms of ergotism. Art historian Horst Ziermann wrote that “it is conceivable that miraculous cures or the relief of symptoms did, in fact, occur at the alter.” Critic David Levi Strauss labeled the work “therapeutic realism.” According to Ziermann, the afflicted would recite prayers in front of the altarpiece that would have been similar to the following: “Anthony, venerable Shepherd, who renders holy those who undergo horrible torments, who suffer the greatest maladies, who burn with hellfire: oh merciful Father, pray to God for us.”

The Isenheim altarpiece inner wings opened (image courtesy Wikimedia commons)

In its original setting the altarpiece would have been illuminated by candles or sunlight through stained glass windows. Unfolding theatrically in three distinct sets of paintings, the wooden frame connected with hinges, each of the three views like an act in a play — or like the three bardos of Timothy Leary’s manual. The monastery where the altarpiece was kept was a place of concentrated prayer for the suffering. The monks would have had little means to treat patients, aside maybe from offering a place to lie that was more comfortable than the street, some warm food, and ointments to sooth the burning of open wounds. The primary tool for healing from ergot related ailments would have been prayer, and relief from the worries of facing hell in the afterlife was redemption through Christ — all which are reflected in the altarpiece.

The alternating horror and mystical ecstasy found between the second and third views of the altarpiece align with accounts of ergot-related mania and psychic anguish, as they do with descriptions found in The Psychedelic

Nikolaus von Hagenau, “Untitled” (ca. 1500) made in Strasbourg, Alsace, present-day France walnut 44 1/4 × 17 1/4 × 10 3/4 in., 66 lb. (112.4 × 43.8 × 27.3 cm) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Experience. The vivacious colors in the second panel recall descriptions of the most ecstatic of those poisoned in Pont-Saint-Espirit, while also sharing elements of the brighter elements of Bosch. The third view returns to Anthony, who is as tormented as ever in the right wing. Most telling is the gangrenous person looking up at the besieged saint from below — his green skin covered in boils that ooze puss and blood, and his belly bloated due to starvation.

The counterculture use of ergot alkaloids proved to be a threat to the dominant mainstream US culture of the 1950s, causing their prohibition. Could the same have happened during the first half of the second millennium, in respect to Christian culture and ergot? Albert Hofmann contributed to an essay titled “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” which proposes that ergot alkaloids may have been present during the ancient Greek religious festival known as the Eleusinian mysteries.

Whether appearing as a drug or disease, the visual language of the Northern Renaissance was clearly influenced by the ergot fungus. Further research into this historical intersection will offer a better understanding of the way artists have responded to forces of temptation and torment with visual representation and might do so in the present day.

Altarpiece Art (c.1000-1700)

The altarpiece was one of the highpoints of Christian art during the Late Gothic, Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, and Counter-Reformation periods. This type of religious art typically consists of one or more paintings, or sculptures (stone or wood-carvings) carved in the round or in relief, or simply a screen or decorated wall. It can stand on, above or behind the altar.

Historically, most altarpieces date from about 1000 CE onwards, when the shrine was relocated to make the altar the focal point of the church. Altar panel-paintings only became common in the 15th century they were created using either oil paint or egg tempera, on wooden panels. Most altarpiece iconography is closely linked to Biblical art, typically featuring Saints and members of the Holy Family. From about the mid-sixteenth century - the time of the Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (c.1560-1700) - altarpieces made up of linked panel paintings were replaced with canvas paintings.

There are two basic types of altarpiece. (1) The reredos, a large and often elaborate construction in wood or stone, typically rising from the floor behind the altar. Examples include: St Mary, Krakow (1477-89) carved by Veit Stoss St Jakob Kirche, Rothenburg (1499-1504) carved by Tilman Riemenschneider High Altar of the Virgin Mary (1613-16), at Saint Nicholas at Uberlingen, by Jorg Zurn. (2) The retable - a simpler structure featuring relief sculpture or painted panels, standing at the back of the altar itself, or on a surface behind it. Examples include: The Dijon Altarpiece (1394-99) by Melchior Broederlam The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) Saint Bavo Cathedral, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck The Avignon Pieta (1454-6) by Enguerrand Quarton The Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-15) Monastery of St. Anthony, by Matthias Grunewald and the Pala d'Oro, Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Lastly, some altarpieces were simply religious paintings (painted on canvas or wood) fixed to the altar wall, like: Giovanni Bellini's celebrated San Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505, Church of San Zaccaria, Venice) Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1515, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) which was designed for the high altar of the Benedictine abbey church of San Sisto (St. Sixtus) in Piacenza, and his Transfiguration (1518-20) intended originally for the French Cathedral of Narbonne. The Madonna of the Harpies (1517) painted by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) for the high altar of San Francesco de'Macci in Florence, is another example, as is Titian's extraordinary Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) - arguably the greatest altarpiece of the Italian Renaissance - which can still be seen in the church of Saint Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. For more of Titian's innovations in altarpiece painting, please see Venetian altarpieces of the sixteenth century. An altarpiece might even be attached to a church pillar, as in the case of the St Matthew Altarpiece (1367-8) designed for the Florentine church of Or San Michele, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Most Retables of painted panels were either in triptych form (3-panels), or polyptych form (more than 3 panels). The 2-panel variety, known as a diptych was typically created for personal veneration, rather than public worship.

A Triptych was a popular format for altar paintings from the Middle Ages onwards (c.1000 CE). Consisting of a central panel and two hinged "wings", triptychs were installed in Eastern Orthodox as well as Western Christian churches. From the 15th century onwards, non-church triptychs were popular with Netherlandish Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch, while modern exponents have included Francis Bacon (see: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944), among others.

Famous Triptych Altarpieces

A polyptych was a hinged altarpiece with more than 3 panels. Polyptychs usually had one large central panel, to which a number of "side" panels, or "wing panels" were attached. This form of altarpiece was especially common in Early Renaissance churches and cathedrals.

Famous Polyptych Altarpieces

Maesta Altarpiece (1311) by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32) by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck.
Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-1515) by Matthias Grunewald.
Madonna della Misericordia (1445�) by Piero della Francesca.
The Last Judgment Polyptych (1446-52) by Rogier van der Weyden.
The Santo Domingo el Antiguo Altarpieces (1577-79) by El Greco.

Note: Polyptych altarpieces include: tetraptychs (4 panels) pentaptychs (5 panels) hexaptychs (6 panels) heptaptychs (7 panels) octaptychs (8 panels).

A diptych has 2 hinged panels that fold together. Diptychs have been made for personal use since Roman times, after which they served as devotional religious items during the Early Christian Art era. Such personal diptychs were also known as "travelling icons". They were popular in early Flemish painting, among artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes, for secular portraiture as well as portraits of the Holy Family and scenes from the Bible. Early examples include: the Wilton Diptych (1395-99) by unknown artists the Melun Diptych (1450-55), by Jean Fouquet. A modern example of the format is the Marilyn Diptych (1964) by Andy Warhol.

• For details of major movements of religious painting, see: History of Art.
• For more about Christian or Biblical paintings, see: Homepage.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, the Order of the Antonines.

The great St. Anthony, patron of the Antonines, the altarpiece sidebar
The order of the Antonines was founded around 1070 in Saint-Antoine-in-Vienna, a small village located between Valencia and Dauphiné Grenoble. This is an order “beggar” which aims to treat and assist patients and following the Rule of Saint Augustine.

The monks were engaged at that time to a disease that spread quickly, poisoning by ergot. This poisoning fungus attacking the cereal was causing terrible pain to patients who were assigned to what was then called the “burning sickness” or “fire of Saint Anthony” (gangrenous ergotism).

The purpose of the order of the Antonines was well taken care of many patients to bring them healing the protection of the “Grand Saint Antoine.” They also intervened when populations were decimated by epidemics of plague.

The monastery of Isenheim Antonines was located on an old Roman road leading from Germanic countries, by Basel, to the traditional places of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, Rome and Saint Jacques de Compostela: there were many pilgrims and travelers who passed.

That’s the hospital that was commissioned and built the altar. The sick were brought to the beginning of their care, and it was hoped that St. Anthony would intercede for a miracle in their favor, or at least they would find comfort and consolation in the contemplation of scenes that were represented. According to the representation of the Middle Ages, images of meditation are “virtual medicine”.

Daily Dose of Europe: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

This altarpiece was painted for a medieval hospital, which specialized in patients suffering from horrible skin diseases. Before the age of painkillers, suffering patients could gaze on this great work of art and feel that Jesus understood their distress.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

The outer panel of the altarpiece was an image of Jesus, in agony, being crucified, flanked by a pale Mary and a grieving John the Evangelist. The artist, Matthias Grünewald, created a dark, gruesome, troubling Crucifixion that could not be more bleak. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The patients lying in this hospital needed some hope that their suffering had a purpose. A tiny seam running down the middle of the painting reminded everyone that there was a better world lying beyond. And on feast days, the priest opened the Crucifixion up at the seam, to reveal the panels on the inside of the polyptych.

Wow! We’re not in medieval Kansas anymore. The darkness parts, and Grünewald shows a more expansive, more colorful, and cheerier world. These inner panels put Christ’s seemingly tragic death in the wider context of his blessed birth and radiant resurrection.

In the Annunciation panel (left), a brilliantly dressed angel flutters in to tell a humble Mary she will give birth to a Savior. In the central scene, Mary beams as she looks down on her baby boy, while a celestial band of angels serenades them. Jesus has come down into the world — the real world — as seen by the castle in the background. His joyous mission is to defeat death, just as God the Father is doing in the shower of light.
Though Jesus came to be crucified, he overcame death. And that’s what we see in the Resurrection panel on the right. Jesus rockets out of the tomb, as this once-mortal man is now transformed into God.

Grünewald’s depiction of this popular Bible scene is unique in art history. Grünewald was a mysterious loner who had no master, no students, and left behind few paintings. But with his genius, he reinvented the Resurrection. Christ — the self-proclaimed “Light of the World” — is radiant. His once-plain burial shroud is now the colors of the rainbow (painted, legend says, by Grünewald’s assistant, Roy G. Biv). Jesus has undergone the “resurrection of the flesh,” and now look at his skin: His perfect white epidermis would have offered hope to all the patients who meditated on the scene. They had hope that the suffering they now endured was all part of God’s grand plan, and a loving God would reward them in the hereafter. Grünewald’s happy finale is a psychedelic explosion of Resurrection joy.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.

The Isenheim Altarpiece

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This Western Canon classic – called “German art’s Sistine Chapel” by mega-critic Jonathan Jones – is as hyper-violent as a Quentin Tarantino movie while taking a graphic novel approach to telling the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

The altarpiece was executed between 1512 and 1516 as a commission from the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monks at the monastery cared for peasants and social pariahs suffering from diseases that affected the skin, notably plague and the condition once known as St. Anthony’s Fire. Today this condition is recognized as poisoning from a fungus known as ergot, caused by eating bread made from rye, and uncommonly other grains, contaminated due to unsanitary storage. Untreated ergot poisoning, also known as ergotism, results in one of two conditions: Convulsive ergotism and gangrenous ergotism. The former attacks the nervous system and causes limbs to convulse and painfully contort, the neck to twist, and vivid hallucinations. The latter restricts blood flow to the arms and legs leading to infections which rot and spread without amputation. Experiments by a Swiss scientist in the 1930s to find a medical application for ergot lead to the first synthesized form of LSD.

Monks at Isenheim provided palliative care to patients with ergotism. That is, they offered anti-inflammatory salves, ergot-free bread, and healthy doses of a drink called saint vinage. This last cure was a holy blend of select herbs and relics of Saint Anthony steeped in a fortified wine. The monastery’s medical mission resulted in a healthy bank account which the monks used in part to acquire many marvelous artworks. The collection became a hazard for the monastery in later years. The Isenheim altarpiece was removed from the monastery, along with many other treasures, with the outbreak of Revolution in 1792. It was removed to a local branch of the French national library to preserve it from lawless looters. Today the altarpiece is displayed at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.

The imagery and figures on the altarpiece show the mission of the monks and aid in their hippocratic efforts. The altarpiece is organized as a polyptych, which means there are at least three painted and hinged panels that open and reveal another painted panel underneath. The panels and wings are painted by Matthias Grünewald while the sculptor Nicalus of Haguenau provided wooden figures for display at the work’s heart.

The closed polyptych shows the famous view of a horrific, gangrenous, and corpse-like Christ suffering on the cross with a devastated Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Apostle John on one side and a somewhat sassy-looking John the Baptist on the other. Golden script is set above the Baptist’s head that translates as “He must increase, but I must decrease,” which is an obvious wink to the viewer that the sore-covered Christ is definitely the God we’re expecting to rise and conquer death. There’s also the cuddly lamb of the Eucharist at Christ’s feet, replete with a cartoonish spurt of Holy Blood coursing from the lamb’s chest into a goblet, further visualizing the sacrificial aspect of the Passion while reminding viewers of their own salvation. Beneath the panels is a scene of Christ’s entombment and on either side are wings that depict the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and Saint Anthony being harassed and/or tempted by a monster. Both saints were known as healers. While the connection to Saint Anthony is obvious at this point, Saint Sebastian was the big intercessor in heaven for anyone suffering from plague.

Grünewald’s Crucifixion was opened on feasts celebrating the Virgin Mary to reveal the panels and wings beneath. The middle section of the polyptych reveal a left wing and central panel which tell the story of Mary. The wing depicts the Annunciation, when the Virgin is informed that she will bear God’s Son. The panel follows that up with a symphony of angels celebrating the birth of Jesus, swaddled in Mary’s arms. At right, Jesus peaces out of the tomb to bring salvation to the world o’er.

If they were really lucky, pilgrims and those suffering ergotism might see this middle panel opened view the final scene. The final center panel is adorned with sculptures by Nicalus. Saint Anthony sits in glory at the sculpture’s center, flanked on either side by small figures providing offerings. Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome are on the left and right, respectively. These were two of the four widely recognized great theologians of the early church. Beneath the central sculptures are depictions of Christ and the Twelve Apostles imbuing the altarpiece with great spiritual authority. The final left and right panels are both by Grünewald. The left shows a meeting between Saint Anthony and the ascetic Saint Paul the Hermit. At their feet, since they’re so wise and all, grow herbs used in saint vinage. At right, Saint Anthony is tempted to disavow God by a host of Hieronymus Bosch-inspired monsters tearing him limb from limb. One of the monsters lazes about the bottom left corner of the wing, exposing a distended belly and bare arms and legs covered in lesions which mimic gangrenous ergotism. It is possible the lazy demon was used as a kind of diagnostic tool by novice or uncertain monks trying to aid new patients.

The Isenheim Altarpiece has provided inspiration to numerous thinkers and canonized artists. The philosopher Elias Canetti once tried to stay in the Unterlinden beyond closing time, writing in a memoir that, “I wished for invisibility so that I might spend the night there.” The altarpiece played a significant role in goading composer Paul Hindemith to create his opera about Grünewald. Pablo Picasso even took inspiration, creating an entire series of pen-and-ink compositions that riffed on the Crucifixion.

Watch the video: Isenheim Altarpiece demonstration (October 2022).

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