The Isenheim Altarpiece

How the altarpiece was configured

Projet de reconstitution du couronnement du retable d'Issenheim, Théophile Klem, 1905

 

The altarpiece created by Grünewald and Niclaus of Haguenau belongs to the category of double-winged Germanic polyptychs, a design that allowed for three successive presentations. This is very different to the way it is now displayed in the museum’s chapel, which offers an almost simultaneous view.

The current presentation in the choir of the Unterlinden convent church is incomplete. The altarpiece, with its panels measuring 2.92 m in height and 1.60 m in width, was contained within a corpus, which in turn was crowned by a sculptural structure composed of decorative elements and adorned with sculptures, which must have doubled its height.

In the midst of the French Revolution, the painted panels and the sculptures were removed and kept safe from vandalism in Colmar. The corpus and the sculpted upper section, which were left in situ in Isenheim, were destroyed.

 

 

 

 

The altarpiece provided pilgrims and patients with a reading of Christ’s Passion, from the Annunciation to the Last Judgement, combined with episodes from the life of St Anthony. The wings were opened or closed according to the liturgical timetable. When it adorned the high altar of the Antonite church in Isenheim, the closed position was the most common, and the one displayed to worshippers and patients outside of religious feast days.

 

Altarpiece closed

When closed, the altarpiece offered pilgrims and patients a terrifying vision of the Crucifixion flanked by panels depicting the two saints evoked for protection against epidemics: St Anthony and St Sebastian.

With its exceptional intensity, this Crucifixion is one of the most moving and heart-rending produced in the history of Western art. Not content simply to present worshippers with the tragic moment of Christ’s death on the cross, Grünewald emphasised the expression of suffering, using numerous devices to increase the viewer’s emotional involvement.

 

First opening

The first opening displayed the luminous panels of the Annunciation, the Concert of Angels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, all of which express symbols of joy and hope. These panels were visible during the major liturgical festivals (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi).

 

Second opening

When the altarpiece was fully opened, it revealed the majestic sculpture of St Anthony, flanked by the painted panels of St Anthony Tormented by Demons and The Visit of St Anthony to St Paul. 

So all the images visible when the altarpiece was opened enabled the pilgrims and patients to venerate their patron saint, who was a protective figure with the ability to cure St Anthony’s fire, but also capable of transmitting the disease as punishment.

 

 

Musée Unterlinden - Place Unterlinden F-68000 Colmar - +33 (0)3 89 20 15 50