The Isenheim Altarpiece

The Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald (1515)


Many years ago I took a driving holiday in France and drove along the Alsatian wine route from Strasbourg to Colmar, where I stayed for a few days…   At this time in my life I was more interested in experiencing the joys of good weather and good wine and the thrill of discovering of new lands.   Sadly fine art was not foremost in my mind, as if it had been; I would have been able to have discovered for myself one of the greatest altarpieces known to the world – the Isenheim Altarpiece

This magnificent work of art which was painted for the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, near Colmar, can now be found displayed at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.  The Isenheim Altarpiece or retable is a polyptich composed of nine panels mounted on two sets of folding wings. The outer set consists of the Crucifixion with the Entombment below it and is flanked by St. Anthony and St. Sebastian. The inner set displays the Annunciation, the concert of Angels, the Nativity, and the Resurrection. The innermost panels, flanking a carved wooden shrine to St. Anthony, are St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Wilderness and the Temptation of St. Anthony. All three central panels are split in the middle to facilitate the changing of scenes.

This work of art is a collaboration of sculpture and painting.  The former was created by Niclaus of Hagenau and the latter, the actual paintings, were done by the German painter Matthias Grünewald.  The altarpiece was taken apart during the French revolution and is now shown as separate paintings.

For My Daily Art Display today I decided to show just one facet of the magnificent altarpiece – a realistic but horrific depiction of the Crucifixion scene.  Grünewald decided that the end justified the means in his attempt to gain the attention of spectators and move them by the unattractiveness and misshapenness of the body of Christ, with limbs twisted and hands distorted, racked in pain and writhing in agony.  The skin of the Christ figure has a grey-green tone to it and is covered with wounds.  It is a heart-rending scene and one that was rarely shown in works of art of the time.   

 On the left is the Virgin Mary being comforted by St John the Apostle while Mary Magdalene is seen kneeling in the foreground.  On the right is John the Baptist appearing to say: “Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui “(John 3:30) ‘He must become greater, I must become less’