Tag Archives: Isenheim Altarpiece

Good Friday and Easter Paintings of the Isenheim Altarpiece

Like Notre Dame the Isenheim Altarpiece has been through many dangerous times since its creation in the 1500s, but it has survived to remind us of Christ’s death and resurrection!

On Good Friday and Easter we remember and celebrate that, “ . . .the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28.

 

In Grunewald’s crucifixion panel, darkness is the backdrop for one of the most moving crucifixions in all of Western Art. “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’” John 19:30.  He then committed His spirit to His Father and died.

On the left Mary, who in the Christmas Picture,  looked with such love on her baby, now looks with anguish at her dead son. John and Mary Magdalen show the intense grief and shock that all the disciples must have felt. Is there any hope?

Yet, even in this darkest hour, Grunewald gives his viewers hope. On the right the artist has shown John the Baptist with a lamb at his feet and holding an open Bible as he points to Jesus.

Long before, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God had them choose a lamb to bring into their homes for 4 days.

Look at these parallels

  • John heralded Jesus’ coming when he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” John, John 1:29. Jesus then preached and ministered among the Israelites for 3 or 4 years.
  • He entered Jerusalem on the day the Passover lambs were chosen, (Palm Sunday) and was crucified 4 days later.

On that original Passover the Israelites killed the lambs after the 4 days and put their blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes so that when the angel of death passed through the land that night, he would Pass Over any home with the blood of a lamb over its doorway.

Each year Jewish people were to look back and reenact that event that freed them from earthly slavery, but God also meant for Passover to look ahead to Christ’s coming, when He, as the perfect Lamb of God, would give Himself for us, shedding His blood on the cross, so we can be freed from an even worse slavery–slavery to sin, and fear of death.

So John holds a Bible and points to Jesus to show that Jesus came to die according to God’s wise and loving plan. To further emphasize this truth, the lamb at his feet holds a cross.  Jesus gave Himself as the perfect and once and for all sacrifice for our sins, so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”

  1. O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
    Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
    O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
    Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.
  2. What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
    Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
    Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
    Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
  3. What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
    For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
    O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
    Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee

lyrics in public domain

Next we look under the crucifixion to a small scene showing the disciples preparing Jesus’ body for burial in a white shroud. There is no life in Him, and at the end of the day on Friday, His disciples buried Him. Again there seems to be no hope.

Then comes Sunday, Easter, and

In Grunewald’s final panel, we see a most beautiful and amazing resurrection scene. Jesus has risen in power and glory from the grave; the guards have fallen in fear and awe. They and the stone could not hold Him, and neither could death. His body, once so pale and marred by death, is now alive with warmth though His wounds still show.

The cold, white shroud of death has turned to warm reds, oranges, and yellows as Jesus rises from the grave. He has defeated Satan and death so that we can be saved to live forever with God.

Put down your burdens of sins, of regrets, of striving to be good enough, and accept the free gift of forgiveness and salvation that God longs to give you when you humble yourself to accept Christ. Hallelujah, He is risen! 

 

 

The two photos of paintings from the Isenheim Altarpiece were taken by the author.

The next kathythepicturelady post will be devotional to go along with my series on Monet’s cathedrals and haystacks.

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The Christmas Pictures from the Isenheim Altarpiece

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.

The

 

 

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, Matthias Grunewald, author photo

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.

Annunciation detail, author photo

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.

 

Christmas Picture, detail, author photo

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!

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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.