Cleansing Fire

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The Isenheim Altarpiece

March 28th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses or crucifixion scenes in art.

Previously here.

Click on the pictures to see larger and sharper images.

Probably the most powerful picture of the crucifixion of Christ comes to us out of the 16th century. Matthias Grünewald in 1506-1515 painted an altarpiece consisting of several different panels for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France. The monks there specialized in hospital work and were noted for their successful treatment of patients suffering from skin diseases such as ergotism. The skin of Christ in the crucifixion scene appears to exhibit the symptoms of the disease. Given the context we can assume that the altarpiece was meant to have a profound impression on the patients, inviting them to identify their sufferings with Christ’s. 

The altarpiece is thought to have been displayed in the infirmity where the patients were treated and, if so, would have been perhaps visible to them from their beds. It is a large piece that would have had a looming presence. I suppose it would have been terribly depressing except for the fact that the altarpiece consisted of many panels that opened and folded in such a way as to reveal the entire story of the Incarnation and Paschal Mysteries. Used in that way during the liturgical year it would certainly have been uplifting for the suffering patients. Three different configurations were possible.

The first view shows the Crucifixion scene flanked by images of St. Anthony of the Dessert, patron of the monks, and St. Sabastian. Below is a predella with depicts the Lamentation over the body of the Lord. The Lamentation is visible under the second configuration, as well. When the flanking panels with the saints are opened, the Crucifixion is hidden and the second view reveals scenes of the Annunciation, Mary Bathing the Christ Child, and the Resurrection. Finally, then, the innermost configuration reveals a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490 and flankinig scenes of the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the meeting of St. Anthony and Paul, the Hermit.

BTW: Some of our renovated or new churches that are so minimalistic when it comes to art in the chancel might want to consider a large multi-panel (altar)piece on the chancel wall behind the altar. Its different configurations of religious scenes could add to the meaningful experiences of the Mysteries celebrated throughout the Church year.

There is a nice write-up about the altarpiece by Nicolas Pioch for the website, WebMuseum: Paris

Also, there is a short video comment by Father Barone here.

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One Response to “The Isenheim Altarpiece”

  1. avatar Raymond Rice says:

    Very interesting/ thank you for sharing your information.


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