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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Matthias Grunewald

In 1480 was born a painter named Matthias Gothardt, known to art historians as Matthias Grunewald.  By the time he was 30, he was working in the court of the archbishop of Mainz as an architect, hydraulic engineer, and painter. It sounds like a strange combination now, but during the Renaissance, it wasn't at all uncommon. There was not the split between arts and sciences then as now. Leonardo is said to have fulfilled similar divergent duties at the same time. Between 1510 and 1515 Grunewald was called upon to create an incredible religious masterpiece of oil painting that likewise had as its purpose the bridging of art and science, or in this case art, religion, and the healing sciences.

Isenheim Altarpiece (fully closed), 1512-16, Matthias Grunewald
The Isenheim Altarpiece is some 9 1/2 feet tall and over 10 feet wide.  It is mounted on a carved predella (stand) upon the front of which is depicted Mary, the mother of Jesus, and two other women preparing the body of Christ for burial. The altarpiece was painted for the hospital run by the Abbey of St. Anthony which treated primarily patients with skin diseases, plague, and leprosy. The Altarpiece commemorated the fourth century Egyptian hermit for which the Abbey was named. Part of the medical treatment of the hospital involved each patient viewing and praying at the altar, which was felt to have healing powers. On weekdays, the two folding wings of the altarpiece were closed.  Flanking them, two fixed wings depicted St. Sebastian on the left and St. Anthony on the right in a typical, Northern Renaissance style.

Isenheim Altarpiece (partially opened), 1412-16, Matthias Grunewald
What is not so typical however, upon the closed, hinged wings in the center, was painted the most horrific crucifixion imaginable to man; a scene in which the body of Christ is not only obviously dead but appears to be in the first stages of decomposition as well.

Isenheim Altarpiece (fully opened), 1512-16, Matthias Grunewald
In contrast, when opened up, the presentation is that of four separate, panels of equal size. Upon the two left panels are gloriously presented an annunciation and a liturgical reading of something called the Golden Mass celebrating the divine motherhood of the Virgin. The right center panel is painted to illustrate the heavenly and earthly realms of the Madonna and Child while the rightmost panel (perhaps the most visually impressive) is a wondrously graphic depiction of the resurrection. Overall, it is strikingly different from the Italian Renaissance (during which time it was painted) in more than just painting style. Unlike works such as Michelangelo's story of Genesis in his Sistine Ceiling, Grunewald, in his altarpiece, attempts an appeal to the heart, rather than the intellect. It was not merely narrative decoration but an integral part of the worship service. It is art, triumphant over science, and religion triumphant over all. 
Isenheim Altarpiece as seen today, disassembled
(wings removed) so that all images may be seen at once.

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