Matthias Grünewald‘s Resurrection painting on the Isenheim Altarpiece is one of Europe’s greatest works of art. Painted between 1512 and 1516, this Altarpiece is unique. The creation of a deeply religious imagination, Grünewald has painted one of the most excruciating crucifixion scenes ever, and then gone on to paint a truly glorious resurrection. Along with the other panels in this altar, centuries of Christians have marveled at the message of hope Grünewald so beautifully conveys.
Who is Grünewald
Matthias Grünewald, a German Gothic painter, lived during the time of the High Renaissance but chose to ignore that artistic revolution. A contemporary of Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Durer, all Renaissance masters, Grünewald followed his own path and we see in his works the last great flowering of Gothic Art.
Many of Grünewald’s works have not survived, but what we have is powerful. He paints with a free imagination and truthfulness that was unique in his time. Soon the Reformation and Counter-Reformation would bring restrictions on religious art, demanding that artists conform to the dictates of the church. Within those confines Grünewald’s expressionistic portrayals would have become difficult.
Centuries before expressionism is a movement, Grünewald is painting with a terrible emotionalism that exposes the horror of suffering. At the same time, his work demonstrates an unwavering conviction of salvation. As an artist, he is truly a unique talent and one who is often overlooked.
The Isenheim Altarpiece
The Isenheim altarpiece is a complicated work that was commissioned for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim. Physically, the Altarpiece has multiple moving parts, and can be difficult to picture in the mind’s eye.
What Grünewald has created is a poly-triptych, layers of hinged panels that can be opened to reveal three levels of images. Complicating the piece further is that this is a multimedia piece combining Grünewald’s paintings with the sculptures of Nicolaus of Haguenau (Nikolaus Hagenauer).
It might help to think of it as a layered cabinet with multiple doors. The altar was only fully opened to reveal the statues on St. Anthony’s Feast Day and other High Holy days the priest would deem appropriate.
The Antonite monastery, for whom the altarpiece was created, was attached to a hospital. The hospital treated peasants with no one else to care for them who had skin conditions, primarily St. Anthony’s fire. Today we call the disease ergotism, and it is caused by a fungus that can grow on grains like rye. The fungus causes an outbreak of convulsive symptoms along with gangrene and skin lesions.
The hospital also treated patients with leprosy and plague, as they too were considered skin diseases. It was a place of intense suffering for its patients, and a difficult place to work.
The altarpiece was meant to support the patients in their suffering and to remind the hospital staff that “in serving the least of these” they serve Christ. Painting Christ’s skin with the afflictions common to the patients encouraged both groups whose lives revolved around the hospital.
Grünewald not only had the patients in mind as he painted, he actually did the painting in the hospital. For the 6 years he worked on the altarpiece he saw first hand the suffering and based much of his imagery on the torments he witnessed.
The outside of this altarpiece is a crucifixion scene. I’ve done an extensive analysis of this altar, and particularly the crucifixion here. To appreciate the Resurrection scene, one needs to consider the crucifixion panel which is one of the most gruesome ever painted. It is an ugly, violent depiction of this horrific moment, Christ is repulsive, his body and skin reflecting the torture he has endured. This painting is on the outside of the altarpiece, and since the panels were closed, except on special days, the crucifixion was nearly always on display. Taking a moment to consider the darkness and suffering portrayed in this painting makes the movement to the Resurrection panel all the more striking.
The details of Christ’s suffering were especially evident on his skin. Grünewald incorporated many of the symptoms of St. Anthony’s fire into his portrayal of Christ’s suffering. The gangrene, bruising, and discoloration of the skin was meant to help patients and healers identify with the suffering of the patients in the hospital. In their illness, suffering, and impending deaths they could draw hope and comfort from the fact that they had a redeemer who identified with them.
In sharp contrast to the darkness and suffering of the crucifixion painting, Grunewald’s Resurrection panel is a burst of color, light, and joy. An intriguing combination of the Transfiguration, Resurrection and Ascension, Grunewald has given us a vision of the victorious Christ that radiates his glory.
Grunewald’s faith is not an easy one, his vision of the crucifixion is violent and extreme. His understanding and portrayal of these events is jarring. Many see Grunewald as a precursor to modern expressionism, and it is true that the Isenheim Altarpiece inspired many modern artists, but as Gregory Bryda states here, Gruenwald was not so much ahead of his time, as he was deeply in his time. Grunewald expresses the Medieval understanding of Christ’s nature and mission with unrestrained clarity.
“And yet the reason this masterpiece looks so modern is precisely that it is so deeply religious. Grünewald is not a Christian artist who sees beyond his time, but a spiritual thinker who meditates, in a way at once revolting, shocking, and strangely beautiful, on the most terrible mysteries of his faith. In doing so, he creates a work of art that shakes you to your very being – even, or especially, if you believe in nothing.”
The figure of Christ is bright, painted with vivid colors that appear to glow. Christ’s skin is luminous, miraculously healed from the wounds, gangrene, and bruises so prominent in the crucifixion and lamentation paintings. Here Christ is fully healed, the perfection of his skin being the most marked transformation.
Even the wounds from the nails have been transformed into glowing jewels with light exploding out of them. The horrific wounds are now sources of beauty and light.
Christ’s feet and hands were grotesquely contorted to convey his suffering in the crucifixion, and here they are healed, graceful, and whole.
Christ’s face (and his wounds) appear to be the only source of light in the painting. As we can see in the close up, Grünewald has transformed the tortured Christ of the crucifixion into a loving, even happy, portrayal of Christ. His facial features are clear, but the rest of his head and hair are lost in the bright light surrounding him. His face, like his body, no longer bears the wounds we’ve seen in his death.
Christ rises from the coffin, that could not hold him, floating in the air. While his new body declares he is healed, his position above the earth declares that he is more than a man, and is no longer tied to the earthly realm. The shroud that had been anointed with oils and used to wrap Christ’s body, now swirls up with him making a column of light that explodes off of the canvas.
Resurrection, Transfiguration, and Ascension
While the soldiers and coffin tie this image to the resurrection story, if we were to remove these elements, Grünewald‘s Resurrection would likely have been understood differently. Traditionally, in Christian resurrection art, Christ is portrayed standing in the garden, or stepping from the tomb. These portrayals are certainly of a glorified Christ, but he still appears human. Grünewald‘s risen Christ is more consistent with paintings of Christ’s Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is an episode from the gospels where Christ reveals his divinity to a chosen few of his disciples. Christ becomes radiant, shining with bright rays of light, and is joined by Moses and Elijah. Grünewald‘s risen Christ fits this description beautifully, his divinity is on full display here.
Additionally, at the end of the gospels, Christ ascends into heaven with his followers looking on. Paintings of the Ascension show Christ rising into the clouds, in much the same manner Christ is portrayed here with his shroud billowing behind him.
The crucifixion and lamentation paintings have stressed Christ’s humanity with a relentless focus on the broken, lifeless body of Christ. In combining the images of the resurrection, transfiguration, and ascension Grünewald paints the three moments in Christ life that clearly demonstrate his divinity. The contrast is striking.
We are used to spectacular special effects in movies. I feel like this image would have had a similar impact on the viewers in Grünewald‘s day. Christ bursting out of the tomb in a corona of light that bowls over the guards in front of the grave. The soldier in the forefront has fallen to the ground and is using his arm to shield his face, as his foot is still raised in the air from his fall.
The guard on the other side of the tomb appears to be kneeling in a position that resembles bowing to a king. This rendering of the guard reminds me of these verses in the New Testament book of Philippians which reads:
“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.”
It’s as if the soldier has been forced to his knees in acknowledgement of who Christ is, and finds himself bowing to his true king.
Often paintings of Christ’s resurrection include a cave as the sepulcher, here Grunewald has painted a stone coffin. The rock in the background, however, resembles a cave, and so, includes the traditional imagery.
As I was writing this post I came to a part of Grünewald‘s Resurrection that I couldn’t adequately explain, the tree stump in the bottom right corner. It’s a detail that could easily be missed, but for Northern artist’s details are important, and always add to the meaning of the painting. In Grünewald‘s case he used flora and trees in symbolic ways and I was sure the tree stump had a story.
After a day of searching I came across an article by Gregory C. Bryda, The Exuding Wood of the Cross at Isenheim, which offered a fascinating perspective, not just on the stump, but on the altarpiece as a whole.
Trees are a symbol used throughout the Bible, most significantly we have the Tree of Knowledge, which Adam and Eve partook of which sent humankind from the Garden of Eden, The Tree of Life which appears in both Genesis and Revelation, and the “tree” on which Christ was crucified. Around this enduring symbol writings grew up which were referred to as the Spiritual Woods, one of these was a book by Father Fridolin. Bryda argues that Grunewald was familiar with Fridolin’s writings and wove the ideas of the Spiritual Woods throughout the images in the altarpiece.
Simplifying the idea, the sap or resins from wood was used in healing, particularly in the healing of those with skin conditions like Saint Anthony’s fire. The Antonine monks would have been very familiar with the processes of creating and using the resins in their work.
The sap of the tree was physically healing just as the blood of Christ is spiritually healing. In both instances the outer layer (bark or skin) must be pierced to release the liquid within.
The tree stump at the base of this panel points toward Christ, and reminds us, that in this instance, more than just the sap was needed from the tree, it had to be chopped down to create the cross that Christ would hang on, sacrificing its entire body. In the same way, Christ had to do more than bleed on the Cross, he had to die, his body a sacrifice.
Visually, we can see this idea of the connection between Christ/tree and blood/sap most clearly in a close up of Christ feet in the crucifixion panel. Here his feet are inexplicitly not resting on the support below them. Instead they hang just above, and the nail that is driven through his feet also pierces the wood of the cross. At that juncture it appears that the cross itself is bleeding. In fact, at that point Grünewald creates two colors of paint, one resembling blood and the other a darker resin. He painted this impasto, or with physical shape to it, as it streams down the wood in two streams. In the same way the lamb who bleeds into the communion cup bleeds from its chest at the juncture with the cross, linking the two.
There are many other connections in the altarpiece between trees, Christ, redemption, and the work of the hospital that you can read about in the article I’ve included below.
Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece continues to inspire artists
Many modern artists have been inspired by Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. Painting during and after the First World War, Otto Dix and George Grosz borrowed the disfigured, twisting images to show the suffering of war. The surrealist Max Ernst appears to be inspired by the demons and monsters in the panel that shows Saint Anthony, and Pablo Picasso painted an entire series based on the altarpiece.
The altarpiece has been undergoing an extensive restoration and I’ve included an article on that below as well.
If you wish to explore more of the Isenheim Altarpiece you can go to these other resources I’ve created.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.