The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald:
The Antonites ‘prescribed’ viewing the altarpiece to those in their care who were suffering from St. Anthony’s fire. . . . The altarpiece assured the sick that Christ understood their painPage 120
The American novelist Francine Prose described the Isenheim Altarpiece as ‘life changing.’ She was astonished to find that ‘at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a miracle of comfort and consolation.’Page 120
It was an essay by the nineteenth-century French art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans that moved me to see the altarpiece for myself. Huysmans writes of Grünewald:
‘There, in the old Unterlinden convent, he seizes on you the moment you go in and promptly strikes you dumb with the fearsome nightmare of a Calvary. It is as if a typhoon of art had been let loose and was sweeping you away, and you need a few minutes to recover from the impact, to surmount the impression of awful horror made by the huge crucified Christ dominating the nave of this museum.’Page 121
Chapter 6 is titled, Body. Dr. Dugdale writes about the outbreaks of “dancing plague” in the medieval Europe. She examines its possible connection with Ergot poisoning, and what medievals called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” This leads to her discussion of the Isenheim Altarpiece pictured above.
In next week’s post, we will consider Dr. Dugdale’s narration of her visit to the French town of Colmar to see the altarpiece, her description of what she saw, and her ensuing reflections. For this week’s discussion, I propose that we first consider our own impressions of the altarpiece. We might also consider the accounts of Prose and Huysmans that inclined Dr. Dugdale to make that trip.
The fact that Dr. Dugdale made the trans-Atlantic trip to see this altarpiece tells us that she was not content seeing a photo like one posted above. Looking at this photo is nothing like the experience Huysmans relates. Much is lost is this particular translation. But the photo does convey much. And we can, albeit in a limited way, form our impressions of this work of art.
Looking at this image of the crucified Christ, my eyes are drawn to his fingers. His whole body appears severely afflicted but his fingers stand out, showing the kind of intense contortion that seems to characterize “St. Anthony’s fire.” I think this image presents Christ’s bodily suffering in a powerful way, emphasizing the relationship between his Passion and the passions of those with this particular disease. I think there is a profound truth here. Jesus suffers with and for those specific people. That truth is conveyed powerfully in this altarpiece. That is not to say that other images of the crucified Christ are less true. The crucifixion of Christ is a mystery of Christian faith. It is the redemptive action (and Passion) of God for the salvation of all people. Other images convey that inexhaustible reality in different ways. But this one is extraordinary, even when we only see the photo.
The quotations Dr. Dugdale includes here use strong language to describe the experience of seeing Grünewald’s altarpiece: “life-changing,” “strikes you dumb.” Both of the authors Dr. Dugdale quotes write about the powerful impact of the altarpiece as a work of art. Prose writes about “what art can do,” and Huysmans about “a typhoon of art.” I do not question the power of the Isenheim Altarpiece as a work of art. But I very much suspect that the medieval Antonites who commissioned it and “‘prescribed’ viewing the altarpiece to those in their care” thought that the “small miracle of comfort and consolation” would be accomplished less by the artistic quality of the altarpiece and more by the crucified Christ whom it depicts.
I look forward to reading about your impressions of the Isenheim Altarpiece in your comments.