Friday, August 24, 2012

The Isenheim Altarpiece

The artist who painted this has come to be known as Matthias Grunewald.  There have been several theories about his identity, that he may have used an alias of Nithart or Gothart, or that he may have had a fugitive alter ego by those names.  His life story, sparsely recorded, includes periods as a Court Painter for archbishops and periods of abject poverty and homelessness, perhaps tending for an abandoned child.  His life story as Grunewald and the impoverished Nithart or Gothart intermingle until one or both are lost, merged.  In short, no one can seem to agree on who he was.  At the time of his death he owned a small library of Protestant writing, works by Martin Luther and portions of Calvin's "Institutes".  So, he is generally believed to have been a Calvinist himself.  Mentioned briefly by contemporary Protestant authors of his time, the 16th Century, it seems safe to assume that he was Protestant.

If a single work could represent the Reformation in art, this might be it.

The image above is the central panel which is revealed when the outer altarpiece doors are opened.  The paintings were created to protect gilded wood carvings.  Ironically, the "protective panels" have become more famous than the art they were meant to protect.  In the history of art, The Isenheim Altarpiece has an iconic stature.

Like other works made in Northern Europe during the time, it treats the Bible as both historical and symbolic.  The background is black because Grunewald treated the gospel narrative as literal fact.  Matthew 27:45, "Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land."  The figures on the left keep to this literal theme of the crucifixion events by depicting three of the people who stayed with Jesus at the cross, His mother Mary, John the disciple, and Mary Magdalen.  But on the right side there is a person who was definitely not at the cross, John the Baptist, who had died before those events.  Why is he there?  And why is a bleeding lamb at his feet?

The right hand side is the interpretive or symbolic side, with John the Baptist reiterating with pointing finger his baptismal statement, "Behold the Lamb of God" and to reinforce that symbolism there is a lamb bleeding into a communion cup.

The symbolism does not stop there.  Jesus's body is unusually twisted and covered by sores as well as wounds.  The historical interpretation of this is that Grunewald painted it for an abbey church that cared for the sick and wounded, that he probably saw wounds inflicted during The Peasants' Revolt (which was an economic and tax revolt, by the way, not so much a religious riot although it is often confused with The Protestant Reformation, a nonviolent movement).  Why cover Jesus with sores?

Two interpretations have arisen, one being that Grunewald wanted the sick to be comforted by relating to Jesus and the promise that "He bore our infirmities" as it says in Hebrews 4:15, but is also the meat of Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 53, that Christ carried our sicknesses, and sorrows, "and by His wounds are we healed" meaning that He took our sins upon Himself.  The more Reformed interpretation, then, would be that Jesus is covered in sores as He was covered in sins for our sake, a visual to get across the meaning.  After all, how do you show "sin" in a painting?  In some kind of grotesque Dorian Gray fashion?  And THAT is exactly how generations have viewed this painting, as a kind of grotesquery meant to rub the unsavory "illness" of sin into the flesh of Jesus before our very eyes.

Apparently, according to World War II era lore, the Nazis and Hitler himself thought the painting was a grotesque depiction and wanted it destroyed.  Hindemuth's symphony "Mathis der Maler" (Matthias the painter) has become indelibly associated with this, because Hindemuth was criticized by the Nazis, the debut of the symphony was delayed several years (and threatened with obliteration), and Hindemuth was accused of openly attacking Nazi ideology.  Whether the painting was ever a target of the Nazis has never been established but given the reaction to Hindemuth's symphony and Hindemuth's choice of subject to incite the Nazis' ire it seems safe to believe that indeed it is true that Hitler or a member of his inner circle, perhaps all criticized Grunewald's painting.

It speaks to the iconic power of the work.

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