The Isenheim Altarpiece,

Origin of a masterpiece

 

The Isenheim Altarpiece is one of the most extraordinary creations in the history of Western art.

Dating from the 16th century, it was regarded as a masterpiece from the outset, and was venerated and protected over the centuries.

 

 

Taking its name from the Alsatian village of Isenheim, for which it was made, it has now become the highlight of the Musée Unterlinden’s collections.

The monumental polyptych was created between 1512 and 1516 by the painter Grünewald (c. 1475, 1480 - 1528) and the sculptor Niclaus of Haguenau (active in Strasbourg from 1428 to 1526). It adorned the high altar of the Antonite monastic hospital complex in Isenheim, which was dedicated to caring for sufferers of the disease known as St Anthony’s fire.

The saint was venerated for his healing power but also feared, as popular beliefs attributed the origin of the disease to St Anthony. In fact, St Anthony’s fire, which was nothing short of a plague in the Middle Ages, was caused by the ingestion of ergot, a parasitic fungus affecting cereal crops. When consumed in poor-quality bread, it caused hallucinations, often verging on insanity, as well as necrosis of the extremities, accompanied by suppurating sores.

In addition to providing sufferers with healthy food and good everyday hygiene, the Antonites administered the “saint vinage”, a beverage based on wine and plants in which the relics of St Anthony were soaked, as well as the healing ointment known as St Anthony’s balm, made from plants with curative properties.

The Isenheim monastic complex was also highly regarded for performing amputations of gangrenous limbs, which were carried out by lay surgeons.

Eglise d'Issenheim au 19e siècle
Issenheim's church in 19th century
 

 

 

 

What was the role of the altarpiece in healing the sick?

 

The altarpiece was commissioned by Guy Guers, the preceptor at Isenheim from 1490 to 1516, and was intended to contribute to the patients’ recovery as a source of comfort. Grünewald was the first artist to paint Christ’s suffering in such a radical way, and his work must have provided the patients with the opportunity to gather together and compare themselves to Christ in his dying agony.

It also offered them consolation and even the hope of a cure, suggested by the scene of the Resurrection, with its luminous colours, as well as the scene in which God offers help to St Anthony during his torments.

 

Détail du panneau de la Crucifixion
Détails du panneau de la Crucifixion

Détail du panneau de la Crucifixion

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