One autumn decades ago, my then husband and I drove around France, hunting down art masterpieces. We were young and in no hurry to go home, on a mission to be swept off our feet. And France was very obliging that way. We should have been happy — did we not live for love and art? I’ll never know how far from happy he was, but I was unhappy in spite of being in love and in France, and that’s pretty unhappy.
We came to Colmar, an Alsatian town of such reproachful quaintness that the locals might as well have wandered about in costume. The idea was to spend the day with the Isenheim Altarpiece, housed in the Musee d’Unterlinden, a modern structure built around the ruins of a Late Gothic convent. I knew the nearly 500 year-old work the way you do from art history class — tiny figures writhing inside churchy frames on a textbook page, 35 mm slides so old they reduced all European painting to a green, amber and russet wash on the pockmarked projection screen of the lecture hall. And I had come to know the painter, Matthias Grunewald — that’s a self-portrait under the title, above right — from his drawings, which had shown me I was in for something intense. You could count on German painting for that, couldn’t you?
Ready, as always, to be overwhelmed by painting, I made my way to the big light vaulted room where the Isenheim Altarpiece had been displayed ever since it narrowly escaped destruction by a mob in the French Revolution. I was geared up for a complex and imposing work about 12 feet across and 10 feet high, oil on huge panels made into hinged wings that opened out to three different views. It could not possibly be seen all at once, art historians had written. Sometime after World War II, the hinged panels were dismantled and mounted free-standing, allowing you to walk among the three views: the Crucifixion, the Madonna and Child, the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, the concert of angels, the meeting in the desert of Paul the Anchorite and St. Anthony the Great. His demons.
Familiar territory, no? And, oh, had I not studied, believing my time with this work, though long in arriving, was as inevitable as the transit of Venus? I did not then understand that you could over-prepare for experience, grinding to powder your sense of encounter, building in a cosmic letdown as sturdy as a masonry ramp. This would not be the day I found out about that, however, for turning a corner into the big vaulted 700 year-old room in the Musee d’Unterlinden, I came face to face with an image of immeasurable suffering.
It was the Crucifixion, and it may be wrong to post a photo here, where few readers will take it to heart. For a long time, I have wanted to write for readers here about the Isenheim Altarpiece, but have stopped at two obstacles. First, while Internet photography is orders of magnitude better than any photos available to me back in the day, this work of art defies the camera like few others, defies it not like a painting but like an ocean. Second, it is not just religious painting, but passionately religious painting, and readers might be moved to dismiss it on those grounds, aided by photography that fails to draw them into that parallel world of freedom from the usual philosophical constraints.
Art is the direct language of the human condition, cutting through our stupefactions and sophistries with its matchless power to surprise. To do as I did, to go to Colmar and abide with these images, is to put yourself in the way of an infinite work of art, one that will throw you, and then haunt you, forever. It actually operates more like music — it will get you. It will show you the pain beyond naming and the love beyond love, and show you that you already know these things — and feel them, and are made of them — no matter what you think.
Although I am, despite many inhibitions, writing about the work of art that I find more powerful than any other, I am not alone in being superlatively moved by it. I am not alone, either, in appreciating the feebleness of words and photos to give an idea of it. It’s not about ideas — why would I want to give you an idea? For all I know I could be like the street ranter who — merely by quoting from it — gives you the very distinct idea not to read the Bible. There are works of art that are annihilating — blessedly so — to your powers to conjure them, and this is one of them. That annihilation can resolve to extreme curiosity about the painter. If it does, you’ll be almost on your own, out there with others who have been so curious they could find steady ground only in their imaginations. For of Matthias Grunewald — my software won’t make an umlaut over the “u,” but it doesn’t matter, because that’s not his real name — precious little is known.
Compared to Albrecht Durer, his almost exact contemporary, Mathis Gotthart or Nithart has barely a biography. There is no date of birth, and there was no teacher anyone can be sure of, although as a Rhinelander painting in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Mathis must have known of Martin Schongauer. The plot of Paul Hindemith’s opera of the mid-1930’s, Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), is counterfactual — except that it is established that Mathis was in great distress over the Peasants’ War. In the summer of 1525, when Mathis was within several years of the end of his life, 300,000 peasants rose up, from Muhlhausen in the north to Bern in the south. About 100,000 of these insurgents died, and not in battle, for, barely protesting, they were simply cut down. Order was restored, and for a long time after Mathis was known to wear a dark bandage over his face.
W. G. Sebald’s prose poem, After Nature, was published in 2003, shortly after he died, although it was written much earlier. Now, there’s a writer who can show you Mathis. In the first section of After Nature, “…As the Snow on the Alps,” Sebald enters the painter’s mind — I am convinced of it. First, he quotes Dante.
Now go, the will within us being one:
You be my guide, Lord, master from this day,
I said to him; and when he, moved, led on
I entered on the steep wild-wooded way.
It is hard not to understand his use of these lines as both an allusion to the Dantesque themes in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and an invocation of the painter. How many people have summoned the painter to be their guide on the steep wild-wooded way? They have seen the face of the painter in many presumed self-portraits, usually in St. Paul the Anchorite, below right. Alone in the Theban desert for almost 100 years, clothed and fed by a single palm tree until a raven began flying in with a daily ration of bread, Paul knew the contemplative life, and his grave was dug by lions. Adding decades to the face of the self-portrait drawing under the title, you can see the resemblance — but St. Anthony, too, below left, resembles the painter in a more courtly mode.
Sebald makes much of there being two of Mathis, one wilder than the other, one Grunewald, one Nithart. At the death of Mathis, Sebald tells what he left of wordly goods that were not paint, and then of paint, and then of luxury togs.
lead white and albus,
Paris red, cinnabar, slate green,
mountain green, alchemy green, blue
vitreous pastes and minerals
from the Orient. Clothing, too,
beautiful, item: a gold-yellow pair of hose,
tunics, cinnamon-coloured, the lapels overlaid
in purpled velvet with black stitching,
a grey atlas doublet, a red slouch hat
and much exquisite adornment besides.
The estate in truth is that of two men, but
whether Grunewald, an inventor of singular
hues, shared his departed friend’s liking
for such gaudy arrayment
we cannot presume to say.
Mathis, painter of extremes, may have sensed a doubleness in his nature — more than most artists do, that is. Much more. In his self-portraits, Durer famously played up a likeness to Christ as most contemporaries would have recognized Him, but Mathis probably gave his own face to Lucifer. If it is Lucifer, blending in — sort of — with the musical angels who serenade the Madonna, sawing away at his instrument more timorously than the others, beringed as others are not, and more extravagantly befeathered than they.
A contemporary scholar, Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff, makes that argument and supports it soundly. I believe her because, although she was writing many, many years later, her interpretation corresponds to my own thinking the day I saw the Isenheim Altarpiece, and I am under no obligation to have better reasons than that for what I hold to be true of art. Is this not the very picture of a fallen angel setting about regaining insider status? Of a painter who is both insider and exile, dandy and damned? To have painted as Mathis did, you have to have known hell — you just don’t have to have ruled over it.
You must also have seen an eclipse, Sebald writes — “a catastrophic incursion of darkness.” In October of 1502, when Mathis was around 30, “the moon’s shadow slid over Eastern Europe,” and Mathis,
who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
This then is how Mathis imagined the state of erosion, after nature, that he painted, the “ruining of life that in the end will consume even the stones.”
Mathis believed in Salvation, so it is possible to see his masterpiece as darker, even, than he can have conceived of it himself or intended it to be seen. Among those tights and doublets and rings, among those glorious colors he left behind — colors reputed to have been different from those of other painters, but they were not: he only used them differently — were found Lutheran tracts. The Isenheim Altarpiece was completed two years before the Reformation got underway, and it was painted for a special purpose. The Antonite friars at Isenheim, whose Abbot commissioned the work from Mathis, were a medical order, tending the sick for whom there were no cures. There was a plague of ergotism in the land, and those who ate milled rye could become fantastically sick, losing their minds and rotting as if with leprosy before, unswiftly, they died.
As there was no cure, so there was no prevention — anyone, at any time, could become ill like that. When they did, they were brought to the chapel at Isenheim to have before them a testament to the redemptive power of suffering. They were lain down there the better to find meaning in torment, to place hope in a distant realm, to believe that the love of God included them still and would bear them up. This is where the enormous winged altarpiece, in those days, fit in.