Objective Art



Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) by Grünewald

Altarpiece - Panels Closed


Center Panel - The Crucifixion Scene

Altarpiece - Panels Opened


The creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece (Retable) was Mathis Nithardt-Gothardt, usually known today as Grünewald. He was born in the 1470s and died in 1528 and may have ended his life as a Lutheran. Most of his life was spent in the service of the Archbishop of Mainz who later became Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz.  Grünewald's masterwork is the Isenheim Retable (oil paint on wood panels).  It was completed in about 1515 and was painted just two years before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517.

The Isenheim Altar is a complicated structure with two sets of wings, like a double cupboard, enclosing the final altarpiece, which consists of three carved wood statues of saints. There are also two side panels and a predella. It was painted for the hospital chapel of Saint Anthony's Monastery in Isenheim in Alsace,  The hospital was a lazar-house, i.e., a hospital for persons with infectious diseases, especially leprosy.  The side panels include depictions of the plague saint, St. Sebastian, and the patron saints of the most austere forms of monasticism, St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit.  Today the Isenheim Altarpiece is on display at the Musée d'Unterlinden, in Colmar, Alsace, France.


Art Historian's Interpretation:

A standard interpretation of the altarpiece is one given by the art historians Peter and Linda Murray in their well known book entitled The Art of the Renaissance, at pages 216-217:

On the outside is the Crucifixion, not seen as an event, but as a meditation on the most frightful aspects of suffering, with the theological significance stressed by the Baptist, whose stabbing finger points to the tortured body of Christ, while below the Cross stands the Lamb of Sacrifice. The wings open to disclose an Annunciation, a Nativity, and an Ascension; and these open again to disclose on either side of the carved innermost shrine two panels, Saints Paul and Anthony in the Desert and a Temptation of St. Anthony. The Crucifixion is somber and livid; inside, all is a magic glory of brilliant color and light, and the final scenes of the Desert Saints are again lurid and eerie, with, in the Temptation, the kind of devil— haunted imagery that permeated Bosch’s visions of sin.

This is a sixteenth century picture, but the imagery harks back to the expressive violence of Romanesque, and in his portrayal of the ghastly wounds, the agonized feet and hands, the dying face, here and in the smaller Crucifixion in Washington. Grünewald stands at the absolute extreme pole from the elegiac serenity of the High Renaissance, which at this moment was in its final stage in Rome.


R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz's Interpretation:

The twentieth century alchemist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz in his book entitled Sacred Science (pages 120-125), makes the following observations concerning the Isenheim Altarpiece as an example of "symbolique" art:

This definition can be illustrated in many ways by Pharaonic images and figurations, stories and legends, but might be more comprehensible at first if exemplified by a work based on the teachings of the Gospels. The purely symbolic Isenheim altarpiece, now in the Museum of Colmar in Alsace, is a splendid example, and a unique and affecting work. The painting is attributed to Matthias Grünewald,’ but it is the adept who inspired this painting, probably Guido Guerci, preceptor of the Antonins of Isenheim, who here commands our deep respect.

When a painter faithfully represents a scene or gesture described in the Holy Scriptures, this is but a transcription and not a symbol, even if the moment is rendered according to the artist’s personal interpretations (as with a descent from the cross by Rembrandt, for example).

The Isenheim altarpiece shows the crucifixion surrounded by scenes and gestures which make sense individually but are purposely anachronistic or illogical in their function and in relation to normal tradition. Thus it is John the Baptist, historically long dead by the time of the crucifixion, who points at Christ on the cross. Mary Magdalene, the sinner, is posed as a supplicant before the crucified man whom she prepared for burial by anointing him with precious unguent; yet the vase or crucible still containing this precious balm is placed in front of the cross. This ointment is, in fact, the central and essential object of this entire symbolique. The painter has not neglected to give the sinner golden hair and a robe of reddish gold, an unusual color which only an adept can be supposed to have inspired. At the feet of John the Baptist, a lamb holds a small short cross in its right front leg, an anomaly because this cross, symbol of John the Baptist, is usually raised on a high staff and held by the left foot. Moreover, from the lamb’s left (heart) side, a stream of blood flows into a chalice, an image of very specific symbolic value.

Next to Mary Magdalene, this masterpiece depicts Mary, mother of Jesus, collapsing in anguish, pale and dressed in dazzling white. She is supported by John, Christ’s favorite disciple, curiously garbed in bright red: the red supporting the white, reminiscent of the white Pharaonic crown placed in front of the red crown.

The crucified Christ, of abnormally large size in relation to the other personages, has a body marked by that hideous disease, unknown in our time, which was known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” or “Mal des Ardents” which the Antonins of Isenheim knew how to cure. The Charitable Order of the Antonins claimed the protection of Saint Anthony, fourth-century hermit of the Egyptian desert. This Order was widespread in Europe and had houses in Alsace, at Isenheim and Strasbourg.

Two accents should be noted which stress the significance of the images of Saint Anthony: The left panel of the painting shows the saint, very richly dressed, holding the symbol of the Tau in place of a cross; this is the Tau of Saint Paul, it is the Coptic Tau. Saint Anthony’s Tau is exactly the cross of life, the Pharaonic ankh without its female oval. Saint Anthony pays no heed whatsoever to the poisonous breath of the monster who spreads the disease with a breath that penetrates the window by shattering it. On the right panel, Saint Sebastian is represented as pierced with arrows, a symbolic reference to a particular date.

Everywhere the emphasis is placed on the opulence of Saint Anthony, on the color red by means of his outfit (coat and cap), and through the monsters, all red, which assail the saint in order to tempt him.

The extraordinary colors and some particularities of this painting are striking enough for this work to serve as an example of symbolique. The many anomalies depicted guide us in seeking a significance, an enigma such as perhaps can be put in parallel with certain Hermetic texts, for example, the writings of Count Bernardus Trevisanus (1406-1490) who refers to “Babylonian dragons” obviously familiar to everyone (?)...or to a singular passage from the hieroglyphic figures of Nicolas Flamel (1330-1417).

This is good and true symbolique as is the Christic Passion in genera! when the Lord says: "Hitherto. . , have I spoken unto you in proverbs; but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father," and that marks the beginning of the Passion.

We have already found the principle of the Passion in the legend of Osiris. Transcribed by the myth, its two great phases are separated: the Passion properly so called, with Osiris, and the resurrection with Horus. The “practical” meaning unfolds through the behavior of the various Neters who enter into play: It concerns a teaching that aims at attaining liberation for the immortal being trapped in a mortal body.

In Christian symbolique, the aim is different: God is humanized, and for resurrection through death, the teaching of the Gospels demands this display of the human body on the cross, this body incarnating all human suffering as an example. In truth, it pertains to man crucified in space, cosmic man, the anthropocosmos filling the four orientations of the world and fixed on this cross by the three manifested principles (the three nails). The crucified Christ of this altarpiece bears the stigmata of the terrible "Mal des Ardents." The meaning of this can only be that He also cures this disease. Intended here is not a symbol of resignation that would lead one to believe the Lord accepted death from this sickness. The incarnation of the divine Word is offered to a fallen world in order to show the way to redemption. But who has “erred” and been condemned to mortal life? Was it the first man? Or is it man in general when he enters the road of return? Is not error immanent in creation itself? If there were no division into Adam and Eve, there would be no “fault” or double way.

In this symbolique there is a deeper intention, inexpressible by mere words because it pertains to the law of genesis in general. This symbolique speaks both of knowledge concerning the royal opus and of the process of the human being becoming suprahuman. The particular in the universal also includes universality in the particular, and this reversal, real as it may be, is unimaginable.

Indeed, the beginning, the very first manifestation, is in essence divisible into two aspects. These are complementary but they are also opposed, as are male and female, creating the “fault” which must be expiated by death in order to resuscitate immortality within unity. But this is a possibility only, not a necessity. “Male and female created He them” (androgynous), says the Mosaic Genesis in speaking of Adamic man. Hence, if this Adamic state did not undergo division, man would be king of the world “in the image of God.”

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