It was still dark when we got to Gare de L’Est in Paris to take a super fast train to Colmar, a small city near the Rhine River in eastern France. We had been in France for several weeks and now we were headed to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, one of the great works of northern European art.
The altarpiece was created around 1514 for the church of the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, a town a few miles south of Colmar.
The monastic brothers there cared for people who were sick, especially those with skin diseases such as the terrible St. Anthony’s fire. A common disease in the Middle Ages caused by eating bread made with rye grain infected with a fungus, it often led to a painful death. The brothers treated the disease with good quality bread and herbal ointments and brought patients to view the altarpiece for spiritual comfort.
We don’t know much about the artist, Matthias Grunewald. His real name is believed to be Mathis Gothart, and he lived and worked in western Germany from around 1475 to 1528. He received important commissions from several archbishops, but only a few paintings and drawings still exist. The Isenheim Altarpiece is his greatest work.
The altarpiece is now displayed in the chapel of a former Dominican convent in Colmar, a picturesque Alsatian city owing much to its German heritage.
At the convent, now a museum, we walked through a quiet cloister, and paused to look through its pointed Gothic arches to an enclosed garden, shining bright green in the morning sun.
From the cloister we stepped into the chapel and stopped. The impact of the high, Gothic chapel, the quiet, and the size of the altarpiece are overwhelming. Light streams down on panels 11 feet tall and 19 feet wide, taking our breath away.
altarpiece was a polyptych with many wooden panels that once opened like cabinet doors to create additional painted scenes. Today it’s been taken apart so all its scenes from the life of Christ can be viewed. The panels stretch the length of the chapel, and people wander among them or sit quietly on benches set in front of each large grouping.
Other northern artists, such as Albrecht Durer, had traveled south to study Renaissance ideas, but Grunewald continued to paint in the Medieval tradition, with off-center compositions and strong emotional appeal. The Isenheim crucifixion and resurrection are among the most creative and powerful in all western art. I hope to write a post about them around Easter.
But for this post I will concentrate on the Annunciation and what is called the Christmas Picture.
The Annunciation is set, as many were at that time, in a Gothic chapel, not unlike the present one and perhaps like the chapel of the Antonite monastery. A red curtain has been pulled back to reveal a stunning scene. Mary, dressed in somber colors, is kneeling and reading her Bible, traditionally open to Isaiah 7:14 telling that a virgin will give birth to the Messiah.
On the right Gabriel comes in a whirlwind of gold and magenta to greet Mary and announce that she will bear God’s son.
A white dove hovers over Mary to represent the coming of the Holy Spirit upon her.
Grunewald has captured the intense drama and wonder of Jesus’ miraculous conception.
Now separated, but once on the right of the Annunciation panel, is the Christmas Picture. In it angels sing and play music to welcome the Christ child. Behind Mary light streams down from heaven, while on a distant hill, angels announce the baby’s birth to the shepherds.
In this panel what captures your attention is the warm and appealing scene of Mary and the baby Jesus. They aren’t centered, but Mary’s red gown and blue mantle make sure you don’t miss them. Mary has just bathed Jesus in the wooden tub and now holds him and cradles his head as must be done for all young babies. Jesus gazes back at his mother while his hands hold a coral necklace, thought at this time to ward off diseases.
Grunewald has captured Jesus’ humanity in this scene of tender love between mother and child.
In the Isenheim Annunciation and Christmas Picture Grunewald weaves the miraculous into and around the everyday, balancing Jesus’ humanity with His divinity. Let us do the same—running to Jesus with all our concerns, knowing He shares our humanity and sympathizes with our weaknesses, and worshiping Him as our God and Savior.
I pray that you and your family will have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the miracle of Jesus coming to earth to live with us—Immanuel—God with us!
And please pray for the French people right now. We recently spent many days in Paris and around the country, meeting lots of hospitable, helpful people, and are now concerned as they experience a time of great turmoil. Pray that people on all sides will be able to work out satisfactory ways to end the violence and provide help to those in need.
Here at the end of 2018, I want to thank all of you who follow my blog. Please join me in the New Year for a series of posts about Monet’s cathedral and haystack paintings, (also from my recent trip to France). Each post will have lots of pictures, related activities, and pictures of Molly showing off her new French interests!
All photos in this post were taken by the author.