Renaissance

A Complex Polyptych About Pain and Passion

Magda Michalska 22 January 2019 min Read

Today’s work by Matthias Grünewald is a polyptych about pain and passion put on view. It's a complex painting consisting of several parts and sections, depending on which wing is currently opened, it narrates a totally different story.

[caption id="attachment_18497" align="aligncenter" width="1000"]Matthias Grünewald, The third view of the altarpuiece,1516, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, The third view of the Isenheim altarpiece: Hermitage and Temptations of St Anthony. St. Anthony (centre), St. Jerome (left) and St. Augustine (right), 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption] In 1512, the Antonite order at Isenheim, a village about 15 miles south of Colmar in France, commissioned two artists to make an altarpiece for their monastic complex. In four years, Niclaus of Haguenau (responsible for the sculpture) and Grünewald (in charge of the painted panels), created a complex polyptych about suffering, which decorated the high altar of the monastery hospital’s chapel until the French Revolution. [caption id="attachment_18498" align="aligncenter" width="1136"]Matthias Grünewald, The first view of the Isenheim altarpiece: St. Sebastian, The Crucifixion, St. Anthony, Entombment, 1516, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, The first view of the Isenheim altarpiece: St. Sebastian, The Crucifixion, St. Anthony, Entombment, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption] Usually, when the altarpiece was closed, it presented the common view in churches: the crucifixion. This time, however, the scene is permeated with pain and gore, with Christ's body writhing in pain. Patients looking at the piece could identify with suffering Christ and if they felt it strongly enough, maybe they had a chance to get better, since the emphatic physical pain was believed to be thaumaturgic (miracle performing). [caption id="attachment_18492" align="aligncenter" width="1350"]Matthias Grünewald, The first view of the Isenheim altarpiece: St. Sebastian, The Crucifixion, St. Anthony, Entombment, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, The first view of the Isenheim altarpiece: St. Sebastian, The Crucifixion, St. Anthony, Entombment, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption] Sixten Ringbom described in his magisterial book Icon to Narrative how painters made distant events more intimate by shedding the distancing frontal icons in favour of the much more intimate close-ups. We can see it also here, suffering Christ is very close to the viewers, his body, which seems to be covered with the signs of the skin disease, on the view of all. [caption id="attachment_18491" align="aligncenter" width="465"]Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, Temptation of St Anthony, 1516, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, Temptation of St Anthony, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption] The iconography chosen for the altarpiece is not random since St. Anthony was a patron saint of those suffering from skin diseases and the monks at the Isenheim hospital took care of sick and dying peasants. Many of them suffered from a disease called ergotism, popularly known as St. Anthony’s fire, which was caused by consuming rye grain infected with fungus. Its symptoms are hallucinations and skin infection, and the disease slowly consumes the central nervous system eventually leading to death. [caption id="attachment_18493" align="aligncenter" width="674"]Martin Schongauer, Temptation of St Anthony, 1470, polyptych about pain and passion Martin Schongauer, Temptation of St Anthony, 1470[/caption] The right panel of the third state of the altarpiece was most probably inspired by the engraving by Martin Schongauer (German, ca. 1445–1491). Although it was one of Schongauer's earliest prints, it was also his most famous one (Vasari recounted that even Michelangelo made a color drawing of the work at the age of thirteen). [caption id="attachment_18490" align="aligncenter" width="658"]Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, The Virgin Illuminated (detail from the Concert of Angels), 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, The Virgin Illuminated (detail from the Concert of Angels), 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption] The second view of the polyptych presents the story of Mary. The left panel presents the Annunciation, the left part of the central panel is a Concert of Angels shown above, while the right side shows the Birth of Jesus. The final side panel on the far right presents the Risen Christ in full glory. There is no place for pain and disease anymore, Jesus is suspended in air on the background of the rising sun which appears to be a fireball. [caption id="attachment_18563" align="aligncenter" width="364"]Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, The Resurrection of Christ, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, polyptych about pain and passion Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, The Resurrection of Christ, 1516, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France[/caption]
Learn more:

[easyazon_image align="none" height="110" identifier="0691000875" locale="US" src="https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/41A6VYC8DHL.SL110.jpg" tag="dailyartdaily-20" width="72"] [easyazon_image align="none" height="110" identifier="162148209X" locale="US" src="https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/51pFDTvANYL.SL110.jpg" tag="dailyartdaily-20" width="81"]

Recommended

Renaissance

The Unfinished Works of Leonardo da Vinci

As one of the most influential artists of the High Renaissance, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci left a prolific legacy in the realm of the arts.

Maya Tola 2 October 2021

Renaissance

The Most Pioneering Painters of The Venetian Renaissance

The Venetian School refers to the painters of the Venetian Renaissance. It developed in Venice in the late 15th century and lasted until around 1580.

Charlotte Stace 13 October 2021

Renaissance

The Marriage of the Virgin: A Comparison Between Raphael and Perugino

We remember Raphael for his art’s grace, balance, and harmony, which made him one of the great masters of the High Renaissance. His work gave...

Arianna Richetti 29 April 2021

Renaissance

Titian Revisited: Grand Old Man of the Renaissance or Dirty Old Man?

Titian’s sensuous interpretation of Classical myths of love, temptation, and punishment came together for the first time in nearly 500 years, at...

Guest Profile 13 October 2021