Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar 1
Associate Professor of Art History
New London, CT 06320
Note: This essay was written in the early 1990s, revised for publication in Sacred Heart University Review, XX, 1-2, Fall 1999-Spring 2000, pp. 79-91, and revised in 2005 with an expanded discussion of color , light, and landscape, and a new section on sickness as Imitatio Christi.
Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar
As is often noted, Mathias Grünewald was indifferent to much of the Renaissance humanist aesthetic introduced to Northern art by Dürer around 1500. His art avoids the subjects and aesthetic principles of classical antiquity and of the Italian Renaissance. Instead of the beautiful bodies, measured spaces, and serene human intellect found in Dürer’s Adam and Eve or St. Jerome in his Study, Grünewald displays sharp oppositions, mystical yearnings, supernatural eruptions, visionary color, symbolic scale (where important figures are larger), distorted anatomies, and irrational spaces. In some important sense, all of that was grounded in a late medieval German spirituality continuing into the sixteenth century.
Nonetheless, Grünewald formulated these traditional values with a monumental, dramatic naturalism carefully studied from nature and artfully composed through the use of preparatory drawings. In this, he was a typical artist of the High Renaissance. Like contemporary Italian artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, his art also showed a rhetorical command over expressive human forms and landscape elements. So too, his coloristic space rivaled that of his more humanist contemporary, Titian. Thus he expressed, or rather, transformed late-medieval values with the powerful, visionary natural rhetoric and terrestrial forms of a sixteenth-century Renaissance style. For all his ties to the middle ages, he remained modern in ways which distinguish him from the late Gothic world of courtly sweetness and delicate forms seen in fifteenth-century German artists such as Meister Francke, Schongauer, and Stefan Lochner. Compare Grünewald’s Stuppach Madonna (1517-20) to Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Garden (1448) or Grünewald’s Passion images to Master Franke’s Man of Sorrows (c. 1430).
Grünewald’s greatest work was the Isenheim altar (1510-15), an unfolding altarpiece with three levels painted for the chapel of an Antonite monastery in Isenheim and now in a museum in Colmar south of Strasbourg. The exterior featured a Crucifixion flanked by two patron saints of healing, St. Anthony and St. Sebastian, with an Entombment below. The middle register depicted an Annunciation, Madonna and Child, and Resurrection. The innermost register offered a sculpture of the Last Supper flanked by two painted scenes from the life of Anthony: The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit in the Wilderness.
Three Institutional Contexts: Sacraments, Hospital, Monastery
Three institutional contexts informed this altarpiece. First, there was the liturgical imagery found in every altarpiece, painted or sculpted, from 1200 on. In the Isenheim altar, this included at least six elements: the Body of Christ in the Crucifixion and Lamentation, the eucharistic blood at the bottom of the Crucifixion where a sacrificial lamb bleeds into a chalice, the sacramental lowering of Christ in the Lamentation and the raising of His body in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the ecclesiastical setting of the Annunciation, the baptismal bath awaiting the infant Christ in the Madonna and Child, and the Last Supper, sculpted by a different artist for the innermost register.
Second, the altarpiece related to the mission of the Antonites as a hospital order and to the painting’s location in a hospital chapel at the monastery in Isenheim. Monastic medical care informed the spiritual dynamic of the altarpiece as it unfolded, moving from suffering and death to salvational hope and consolation and a celestial world beyond bodily pain. The hospital context also informed one of the two paintings on the innermost level: The Temptation of St. Anthony, where the saint struggles without apparent victory against an overpowering horde of devils, their infected bodies figuring the “demons” of disease and death. Echoing the grim struggle of Christ on the cross, the plight of St. Anthony deepened the torment of the Passion and, in turn, borrowed from its example. St. Anthony reappeared as the patron saint on the exterior, this time ignoring the demon behind him. St. More than a patron saint for the sick, St. Anthony was also important for the dying as his victory over demons gave him special value in combating the demons which collected around the deathbed and fought angels for possession of the soul at the moment of death. (As such, St. Anthony appeared as a consoling, protecting figure in the popular late fifteenth-century manual on how to die well, the Ars Moriendi. 2 )
Finally, monastic retreat, solitude, and victory over worldly temptation were important in the two paintings of the saints on the innermost level. The discussion below addresses only the first two contexts, the altarpiece’s liturgical and salvational meaning and its therapeutic meaning in a hospital chapel.
The Paradoxical Meaning of the Passion
The exterior Crucifixion makes Christ's suffering overwhelmingly brutal and seemingly devoid of hope. The body is savagely beaten and lacerated from the mangled feet rudely forced around a single nail to the tips of the twisted fingers which cry into the darkness, echoing the terrible moment when Christ calls out, apparently forsaken. Conceived on a gigantic scale overshadowing the lesser figures below, Christ’s body reaches from the earth to the heavens as if in a cosmic embrace. Spanning the composition vertically, it dominates the picture space physically and emotionally. The huge body hangs down with a terrible, dead weight, a fleshy heaviness bending the roughly-hewn wood as if Christ had been brutally stretched on the “rack” of the cross. The cross also resembles a giant cross-bow bent down with a tremendous tension which heightens the sense of torment even after death. The cross-bow shape also hints at the upward release of the body shown inside in the Resurrection while suggesting for some viewers the popular metaphor of the cross as a bow shooting Christ the arrow at the devil. 3 With its precise observation of torn, purplish flesh studied from life and its relentless projection of violence over the entire body, Grünewald’s painting forces the viewer to share viscerally in Christ's anguish and death. As visitors to Colmar know, most of this impact is lost in reproductions. The emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic meaning of the altarpiece emerges only when one visits the painting face to face.
Grünewald made the spectacle of Christ’s suffering all the more powerful by setting the broken body against the mysterious darkness which marked the moment of his death. As noted in Scripture, Christ died in broad daylight, his death marked by calamities including earthquakes and a mysterious darkness. While other artists had depicted this darkness since the fourteenth century – one notable example being the Limbourg Brothers in 1416 – it was always an overall shadowing of the entire space, obscuring the sacred forms in an eerie dimness. By leaving the sacred figures brightly lit against a much darker background, Grünewald endowed Scriptural darkness with deeper sense of fear and mystery even as the sharp opposition of light and dark heightened Christ’s anguish and physical presence. The result was a dramatizing of the supernatural in fleshy, material form and the transfiguration of vivid bodily presence with a sophisticated visionary seeing.
At a time when most Italian artists and patrons either ignored the Crucifixion or understood the Passion as a glorious triumph achieved by an athletic hero, as seen in Michelangelo, Titian and Tintoretto, some Northern Renaissance artists like Grünewald continued a late medieval spiritual tradition rhetorically elaborating the defeat, shame, and ugliness of Christ’s death. Grünewald did this with a sixteenth-century artistic vocabulary, expanding the emotional impact of the Passion. Rough parallels might be made to Northern devotional manuals which by the sixteenth century expanded the Bible's brief account of the Passion to four hundred page narratives. To increase the reader's emotional involvement, whole episodes of torment were invented, some of which meant to shock and disgust. 4 Though some of this description seems perverse and sadistic today, it continued a late medieval devotional tradition using graphic accounts of brutality to heighten the emotional impact of the Passion while recalling Old Testament prophecies. As Ludolph of Saxony wrote in his popular Life of Christ,
Contemplate attentively thy Lord and Saviour, gaze on Him, and from the sole of His Foot to the top of His Head thou shalt not find soundness in Him, but everywhere pain and blood. For there is not in Him any Limb or sense of the Body, which did not feel its own affliction and weakness or suffering. 5
In the end, the brutal language of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Northern Passion narratives was a self-conscious rhetorical exercise, each text striving to surpass its predecessors in the invention of cruel specifics. To read German Passion literature this way alerts us to Grünewald's equally rhetorical performance in paint: his artistic mastery over the emotionally expressive, human body and his spiritual rhetoric of light, darkness and color.
Once we recognize the naturalism of Grünewald’s composition as a carefully-staged, rhetorical tour de force, we can better understand how his four crucifixions painted between 1500 and 1526 – Basel – Washington – Colmar – and Karlsruhe – each developed an increasingly monumental and bleak handling. Though the rhetorical laceration of the body and its compositional grandeur reached new levels in the Isenheim Crucifixion, the last Crucifixion painted ten years later and now in Kalrsuhe is in many ways even more grandiose and terrifying. It will not do, then, to describe Grünewald as an artist of the late middle ages, living on like the Gothic architectural sensibility, well into the sixteenth century. Without neglecting his important medieval roots, one should emphasize the originality, flexibility, and power of Grünewald's artistry and its ties to the grand, heroic, self-conscious rhetoric of High Renaissance naturalism.
The deliberate manipulation of visual reality is clear in other aspects of the Isenheim Crucifixion. On the left Mary, John, and the penitent Magdalen respond to Christ's humanity with various shades of grief and lamentation. 6 On the right, John the Baptist assumes his Biblical role as a contemporary prophet heralding the Messiah while underscoring the late medieval connection between Christ’s blood and the cleaning water of baptism. 7 Since John was dead by the Crucifixion, his appearance here works as a foil to the human mourners at left and as a witness standing outside natural time and space whose miraculous appearance invites a deeper understanding. With a tranquil though serious demeanor, he points out the hidden divinity of Christ with the inscription, "He shall increase, but I will decrease". Late medieval devotional handbooks like the Pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ (still widely known in the sixteenth century) made similar distinctions between Christ’s divinity and his suffering humanity.
And to make yourself more deeply compassionate and nourish yourself at the same time, turn your eyes away from His divinity for a little while and consider Him purely as a man. You will see a fine youth, most noble and most innocent and most lovable, cruelly beaten and covered with blood and wounds…8
In Grünewald’s painting, the presence of John heightened the contrast between Christ’s humanity and his divinity, inviting viewers to leap in faith beyond their bodily sight to ponder Christ’s hidden divinity. This, too, was a commonplace in popular devotional literature, as seen in Ludolph of Saxony who quoted the influential Bernard of Clauirvaux.
St. Bernard speaks thus of the centurion: “That centurion was an uncircumcised Gentile, yet by one sentence of Jesus dying he recognized under so many tokens of weakness the Lord of Majesty. He did not despise what he saw, because he believed what he did not see. …” 9
Rupturing the historical narrative, Grünewald’s unperturbed John also invited viewers to set anguish and death into the larger salvational drama of the impending Resurrection seen inside.
Once viewers “see” Christ’s hidden divinity, they can more readily recognize and respond to other signs of hope in the Crucifixion. In particular, there is the striking liturgical meaning of the exterior as a whole which took on explicit form in the sacrificial lamb bleeding into a chalice near Christ’s feet. By placing the lamb alongside the most horrifying section of the painting, Grünewald transformed a moment of sadistic brutality into an image of sacramental healing and redemption. (The Lamb of God most frequently appeared in heavenly scenes tied to Apocalypse as seen in van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece.) That the Corpus Christi was ritually presented by the real priest below the altarpiece only strengthened the Crucifixion's larger meaning of hope and redemption just as the extraordinary suffering of the painted Christ deepened the spiritual and emotional impact of the sacrament itself. Once we recognize the eucharistic dimension to the lacerated flesh, hope and salvational promise fuse with tragedy and sorrow, or rather, hide within them as mysteries of faith.
The opening of the altarpiece fulfilled all of the salvational hopes veiled in the anguish, death, and defeat of the Crucifixion. Darkness was suddenly and miraculously reversed by three mystical scenes of radiant light encompassing the whole of Christ's human life: Annunciation, Madonna and Child, and Resurrection.
With a whirling, dramatic airy arrival worthy of an Annunciation by Titian or Tintoretto, Grünewald’s Angel Gabriel burst into the Madonna’s space, overpowering her with his sudden presence. Here the Virgin’s traditional humility as the handmaiden of the Lord became a more human recoiling in the face of a miraculous power bursting through all natural boundaries. For all the differences, Mary’s yielding to the sacred shares one quality with St. Anthony’s ascetic surrender to the demonic assault shown on the innermost register. In both paintings, human figures experienced the supernatural as an overpowering force, whether benevolent or malign. Here we see Grünewald’s medieval heritage operating within a Renaissance naturalist aesthetic and strengthening the latter’s visionary power.
The Humanism of the Madonna and Child
Like dozens of fifteenth-century Northern paintings, Grünewald's Annunciation took place in a Gothic church. Here viewers would have the recognized Mary as Ecclesia with all of its implications for the institutionally-framed hope, prayer and sacramental healing already announced in the Crucifixion. If the equation of Mary with Ecclesia was conventional, the humanizing of Christ and Mary broke new ground in the nearby Madonna and Child.
Although the humanizing of the sacred had emerged as a consistent trend in European spirituality since the twelfth century, the Madonna and Child did not take off as an artistic theme until the mid-fifteenth century when artists began cranking out thousands of smaller Madonnas for the home. More than any other theme, the Madonna and Child announced in Christian terms the new optimism of Renaissance humanism in contrast to the late Medieval preoccupation with the triumph of Death, the Last Judgment, the Apocalpyse, and the suffering Christ. When Dürer issued a new edition of his woodcut Apocalypse in 1511, it was no accident that he created a new, hope-filled frontispiece to his terrifying images of 1498. The 1511 edition began with a radiant Apocalyptic Madonna looking down lovingly at John the Evangelist.
In contrast to fifteenth-century German Nativities and Madonnas, Grünewald painted something much closer to a new-born Christ, complete with awkward though lively movements and a wobbly head in need of support. Studied from life, Grünewald’s Christ took on a deeper and more authentic humanity, his infantile vulnerability foreshadowing his weakness on the cross. Equally novel was Grünewald’s Madonna who appeared with the joy of a new mother holding her child to her adoring gaze. 10
By painting the entire scene with a transfiguring color at once natural and mystical, Grünewald extended Mary’s feeling to the landscape as a whole and to the nearby musical angels who smile as they play musical instruments which are themselves transformed with smiling facial features and colored light. Although late Medieval devotional writers frequently described the world rejoicing at the birth of Christ, no artist had ever translated this universal jubilation into visual terms immediately shared by the beholder. 11 By visualizing sacred love as a transfiguring colorism in his two paintings of the pastoral Madonna. Grünewald deepened the beholder’s emotional experience by spiritualizing the act of seeing. To witness the Incarnation here was to participate in a joyous "radiance" suffusing an idyllic pastoral landscape no less than it descended from the celestial heights. To gaze into this colored space was to share visually and emotionally in its felt joy.
Here Grünewald both diverged from his more humanist contemporaries in Italy even as he create a more visionary parallel to their new, High Renaissance aesthetic. In Italian Renaissance art, one point perspective had traditionally grounded artistic seeing in humanist reason. To be sure, Leonardo moved beyond the rigid perspective boxes of the Early Renaissance by making human drama, emotion and mysterious atmosphere central to the High Renaissance style. The Venetians extended this trend by developing the sensual and emotional expressive potential of rich color and glowing light. Nonetheless Italian sixteenth-century art continued to observe a relative moderation, balance, order, and classicizing idealism of form which preserved the intellectual core of the earlier style.
In contrast to the Italian Renaissance humanist aesthetic which anchored seeing in human reason, Grünewald used color and light to fashion a visual universe grounded more in feeling and to develop an emotional world more unbounded and transcendent than that seen in Raphael, Michelangelo, or Titian. At times, with subjects like the Passion and the Temptation of St. Anthony, Grünewald’s emotional world was admittedly more Late Medieval in tone, even if his aesthetic sophistication was modern. But applied to a fully Renaissance subject like the pastoral Madonna, Grünewald realized a more consistent humanist aesthetic of overflowing feeling, deep landscape spaces, and visionary yet humanized color.
That the same artist who could imagine a Crucifixion of unprecedented savagery could also invent a Madonna and Child informed with such delicate, tender, and profound humanity shows Grünewald’s spiritual and emotional range and his artistic command over expressive figures, landscape elements, and pictorial elements. That these extremes of human experience were combined in a single work only magnified their spiritual power. By looking human tragedy in the face, Grünewald deepened the tenderness and love created in the Nativity, giving it a new authenticity far from the angelic sweetness of fifteenth-century German Madonnas by Lochner and the Master of the Love Garden, or the courtly delicate suffering of the Master Francke’s Ecce Homo.
From Late Medieval Enclosed Garden to Renaissance Pastoral
The humanism of Grünewald’s Madonnas is clarified when we look at his use of landscape imagery. Like dozens of fifteenth-century Northern artists, Grünewald underscored Mary’s humanity by setting her in an enclosed garden, emblematic at once of Mary’s chastity, spiritual (or courtly) refinement, and miraculous fertility. A newly popular theme in the Early Renaissance (1400-1500), the Madonna in an Enclosed Garden fused late Medieval monastic chastity and heavenly references with a new Renaissance naturalism and sacred fertility. Most of these paintings removed the enclosed garden from any larger landscape, using a flat gold background and multiple angels to image the otherworldly garden of Paradise. Breaking decisively with this tame and delicate theme, Grünewald lowered and crumbled the walls of his garden and subordinated it to a much larger landscape with fertile woods and pastoral meadows where angels greet the shepherds and majestic mountains soaring into the heavens. 12 In turning his back on the late Medieval enclosed garden, Grünewald may have followed the lead of Dürer who executed four prints of the Madonna in a Pastoral Landscape between 1494 and 1511 and a number of paintings and drawings. 13 On the other hand, the triumph of High Renaissance pastoral over the Early Renaissance enclosed garden was a hallmark of painting all over Europe with Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, d Carpaccio leading the way in Italy.
Relocated in a much larger and wilder landscape, Grünewald’s garden was no longer a separate space of chastity marked off from the sinful world as seen in fifteenth-century Northern art. Appearing in a divinely fertile cosmos transfigured with maternal joy and new life, Grünewald’s garden was now just another expression of nature’s larger fertility. As with Titian’s early pastoral interpretations of the Holy Family, Grünewald’s Mary became a kind of Christianized Mother Earth, her fecundity humanized in new, Renaissance terms even as it remained a traditional miracle beyond natural law. 14
Without neglecting the supernatural radiance of Grünewald’s Madonna and the nearby figures such as the musical angels, the smiling instruments, or the glowing, triumphantly crowned figure of Ecclesia – another ahistorical witness 15- one can compare this Madonna with contemporary humanist images such as Dürer’s Madonna of the Animals (1502) or Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow (1510). While both of these works developed a more humanist Madonna set in a more natural landscape, they help clarify the essential humanism of Grünewald’s Isenheim Madonna and that of his later, Stuppach Madonna (1519) where Mary’s cosmic fertility and love appeared more grandly in a solar halo circumscribed by a cosmic rainbow. With its Renaissance landscape imagery and cosmic rainbow, the Stuppach Madonna has much in common with Raphael’s Madonna del Foligno (1512).
The radiance and joy of the second register of the Isenheim altar culminated in the sublime luminosity of the Resurrection. With its heavy, material tomb and soldiers set within a three-dimensional, perspectival world in the lower half of the composition, the Resurrection rises from the same bodily realm seen in the terrible Crucifixion. Yet all such bodily qualities disappear as the eye ascends. At the summit, Christ's head dissolves into a flattening blaze of golden light. All traces of bodily suffering have vanished, or rather, been vanquished. Even Christ's wounds, the final remnants of his earthly torment, have become glorious jewels emanating a healing light. Seen against the Resurrection, the suffering displayed in the Crucifixion loses most of its sadism and suggests a love beyond comprehension which assumes the greatest torment and miraculously triumphs over it.
The Hospital Context and the Consolation of Christ's Death
All this takes on greater poignancy when we remember Grünewald's primary audience were humble patients, too poor to afford medical care in their own homes, spending their final weeks or months in a monastic hospital. In an age without effective medicines or painkillers, hospitals were more like hospices for the poor. Wealthy Christians generally died in their palaces and townhouses though some joined monasteries in their final days in pursuit of salvation. Rather than healing, the primary purpose of sixteenth-century hospitals was to relieve suffering, isolation, and dying by setting them in a meaningful framework of consolation and hope.
Restored to a hospital chapel and surrounded by patients struggling with physical, psychological and spiritual pain, Grünewald's Crucifixion shows modern viewers what we cannot easily see: how hope and consolation could shine forth, paradoxically, amidst darkness, despair, anguish and defeat. For the dying patient, the crucified Christ transformed the worst torment into a sacramental image of redemption. Although hidden by Christ’s terrifying death, his divinity shone forth paradoxically through its own concealment. A decaying corpse yet hinted at a miraculous resurrection. A crucified God abandoned to death without comfort gave succor to those undergoing their own struggles. The torturous death on the Cross became the exemplary Good Death, as recommended in the popular handbooks on The Art of Dying where patients kept their eyes on the crucifixion at the very end.
The consoling nature of Christ’s suffering is more easily understood when we remember the larger meaning of sickness and suffering in late Medieval and Renaissance piety. If mortality was the punishment for sin and the terrible burden shouldered by an incarnate deity, late Medieval monastic spirituality, penitential confraternities, and popular devotional literature all urged the devout Christian to participate in Christ’s suffering. The Imitatio Christi was largely penitential in this regard, with an emphasis on holy suffering. Thus the explosion of Passion imagery in the fifteenth century and especially the emotionally charged themes of the Crucifixion, Pieta, Man of Sorrows, and Lamentation. In this larger field of holy suffering, sickness and dying stood out as universal opportunities to learn new humility, to free oneself from the grip of temporal goods, to receive the charity of one’s fellow human beings, to reach an inner quietude in which death could be endured with dignity, tranquility, and hope.
By confining violence and despair to the exterior of his altarpiece, Grünewald made the viewer's experience of the multi-layered altarpiece into a healing journey away from suffering and death. Here the human and spiritual depth of the Madonna and Child comes to the fore. By enfolding the Christ Child in the joyous embrace of a radiant, loving Madonna alongside an ecclesiastical Annunciation, Grünewald also allowed viewers to see their own protection and salvational embrace by the Mother-Church. To underscore this institutional message, he gave a set of rosary beads to the infant Christ as if he were dutifully saying his prayers to his own mother. Grünewald also included a large church in the pastoral landscape above the large red roses in the foreground. (In the Stuppach Madonna, he greatly magnified the cathedral and decorated it with a statue of the Madonna and Child to underscore its Marian significance.) In the Isenheim Madonna, he also arranged the vertical form of Mary’s body to flow into the mountain behind her. The viewer’s eye follows Mary’s head through the verdant foothills which turn golden, echoing her hair, before breaking through this horizon line into the celestial blue of the distant mountains. The viewer’s gaze then sweeps up the soaring mountain to the celestial light emanating from an enthroned God (most of which points to the Madonna). Finally, Grünewald extended the theme of hope by clustering a half-dozen white sheep around the head of the Christ child, thereby turning him into an infant Good Shepherd.
The Resurrection extended the larger dynamic of spiritual consolation by setting Christ's victory over torment against the same darkness seen in the Crucifixion. In the Resurrection, the patient could glimpse radiant hope amidst darkness and death, each confirming and deepening the authenticity of the other. In contrast to the seemingly hopeless gloom marking Christ's death in the Crucifixion, the darkness in the Resurrection glowed with the familiar twinkle of the night sky. In Grünewald’s Resurrection, even darkness and death were now transfigured with a celestial glimmer of consoling hope.
Grünewald's Visionary Naturalism as High Renaissance
In its striking and carefully-crafted antithesis to the lacerated body of the Crucifixion, the spotless, glowing body of the Resurrection shows Grünewald's rhetorical command over the expressive human form. This flexible naturalism appears within the Resurrection itself with its terrestrial lower section and its celestial upper zone. None of this was artistically possible in the late Middle Ages, or even in the Early Renaissance as we see in a late-fifteenth century painting of the Resurrection by a follower of Martin Schongauer. 16
In the end, Grünewald's medieval roots should not obscure his High Renaissance forms and self-conscious artistry. Even in the upper zone of the Resurrection or the figure of Ecclesia in the Madonna and Child, we see less a true medieval flatness than an atmospheric, dramatic, visionary space typical of the sixteenth century. Medieval gold leaf gives way to flowing, coloristic spaces and forms which, for all their differences, share important Renaissance values with works by Titian or with Raphael's Transfiguration (1519). Particularly startling is the way Grünewald preserved three-dimensional, human faces even amidst the golden radiance.
However flattening the celestial light around Christ's head and shoulders, it also works in strikingly naturalistic terms as a rising sun burning mystically against a night sky twinkling with stars. Here, in a nocturnal setting which reverses the bleak, supernatural darkness of the Crucifixion just as it reverses the earthbound, suffering materiality of Christ’s body, day and night suddenly coexist in a glorious, visionary moment overcoming nature's law and vanquishing all death. That Grünewald used natural forms to image miracles beyond nature only confirms his identity as a Renaissance artist.
1 Recent literature includes Andrée Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision, Princeton, 1989 and Ruth Mellinkoff, The Devil at Isenheim, Berkeley, 1998, and the review by Joseph Leo Koerner, "The Master's Secret", The New Republic, Nov. 26, 1990, 42-46. Most of what appears in this essay comes from the work leading up to my 1983 PhD. dissertation on paradox, mystery, and visionary naturalism in Northern Renaissance and Baroque religious art.
2 In chapter two of the ASrs Moriendi
, God says, “Every man should follow Saint Antony to whom the devil said: Antony, thou hast overcome me; for when I would have thee up by pride, thou keptest thyself a-down by meekness; and when I would draw thee down by desperation, thou keptest thyself up by hope. Thus should every man do, sick and whole, and then is the devil overcome
.” See The Book of the Craft of Dying and Other Early English Tracts Concerning Death
, now done into modern spelling by Frances Comper, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917, p, 19. St. Anthony also appears alongside of the demon-infested deathbed in the eighth engraving of the Ars Moriendi
3 In his handbook on the Life of Christ, Ludolph of Saxony popularized this metaphor which originated in patristic writing. “The cord of this bow is made out of His Body, the wooden part out of the Cross. This bow struck the robber, death, and wounded the enemy, the old serpent.” See Ludolph of Saxony, The Hours of the Passion Taken from The Life of Christ, London: Burns and Oates, 1887, p. 439.
4 One text has Christ’s tormentors force his mouth open as they cough up phlegm and spit into His mouth until he chokes. For this and similar texts, many tied to Old Testament prophecies, see James Marrow
, Passion Iconography in Northern Art of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance
, Kortrijk, 1979.
5 The passage continues as follows.
See what he underwent in every sense, in every part: in His  Head thorns, in His Ears reproaches, in His Eyes weeping, in His Mouth gall and vinegar, in His Face blows and spittle, on His Neck buffers, in His Nostrils a foul smell, for He was crucified in a place rendered corrupt by corpses, in His Hands and Feet nails, on His Back scourges, in His Breast a lance. For since the human race was full of the wounds of their sins, according to those words of Isaias: “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is sad. From the sole of the foot unto the top of the head there is no soundness therein,” therefore Jesus received wounds in every part of His Body, that by His bruises we might be entirely healed.
See Ludolph, op. cit., p. 394. For the Old Testament background, see Marrow, op. cit.
6 Since the late middle ages
, the Magdalen was shown wailing, while the Madonna grieved moderately and decorously. The Pseudo-Bonaventure puts it thus. “Oh, if you could see the Lady weeping between these words, but moderately and softly, and the Magdalen frantic about her Master and crying with deep sobs, perhaps you too would not restrain your tears.” See Isa Ragusa and Roselie Green, eds., Meditations on the Life of Christ
, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 309)
7 Drawing on the blood and water which poured from Christ’s side at the Crucifixion, late medieval writers developed a rich theology of Holy Blood as cleansing water and nourishing food, found, among other places, in Catherine of Siena’s A Treatise of Prayer
from her Dialogue
(trans. Algar Thorold, London, 1907.)
I wished you to see the secret of the Heart, showing it to
you open, so that you might see how much more I loved than I could show you by finite pain. I poured from it Blood and Water, to show you the baptism of water, which is received in virtue of the Blood. I also showed the baptism of love in two ways, first in those who are baptized in their blood, shed for Me, which has virtue through My Blood …
Northern Renaissance artists depicted the crucified Christ bleeding into a cleansing pool filled with swimming sinners, thereby combining the Christian Fountain of Life with the secular, courtly theme of the Fountain of Youth. For more on blood as water and baptism, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood. Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. John the Baptist occasionally appears in other allegorized images of the Crucifixion including Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion with Saints in the chapel at the Dominican monastery of San. Marco in Florence (1430s).
8 Ragusa and Green, p. 330. This distinction is repeatedly stressed in Ludolph of Saxony, for example, in his account of Longinus. Also see pp. 213
9 Ludolph of Saxony, op. cit., p. 361
10 Grünewald’s Isenheim Madonna compares to the Madonnas of Raphael and to Correggio’s Uffizi Madonna where the Child Child also appears as a new-born.
11 Although Dürer’s watercolor, Madonna in a Landscape, does not used the visually transfiguring rhetoric of colored light seen in Grünewald, it creates a similarly joyous, humanist affirmation of this world through landscape, floral, and animal imagery.
12 There is, perhaps, a hint of the coming Resurrection in this mountain.
13 Dürer executed four prints depicting Mary in a pastoral landscape before the Isenheim altar: Madonna with Grasshopper
, 1494; Madonna with Rabbits
, 1498; Madonna with a Monkey
, 1499; Madonna with a Pear
, 1511. He also painted two large Madonnas in a pastoral setting
, the Madonna Siskin
(1506) and the Madonna of the Rose Garland
(1506), along with the extraordinary watercolor, Mary in a Landscape with Animals
14 Renaissance art and literature revived numerous classical texts on Mother Earth and related figues of nature’s cosmic sexuality and fertility (Venus, Ceres, nymphs, etc.) in fashioning new images on this theme such as Giorgione’s Tempesta and Sleeping Venus, the hundreds of landscapes with naked goddesses and nymphs, and numerous paintings and prints of satyr and centaur families.
15 This figure has been correctly identified in Ruth Mellinkoff, The Devil at Isenheim, University of Los Angeles Press, 1989.
16 This painting is now in the same museum with the Isenheim altarpiece.