Daily Dose of Europe: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

This altarpiece was painted for a medieval hospital, which specialized in patients suffering from horrible skin diseases. Before the age of painkillers, suffering patients could gaze on this great work of art and feel that Jesus understood their distress.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

The outer panel of the altarpiece was an image of Jesus, in agony, being crucified, flanked by a pale Mary and a grieving John the Evangelist. The artist, Matthias Grünewald, created a dark, gruesome, troubling Crucifixion that could not be more bleak. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The patients lying in this hospital needed some hope that their suffering had a purpose. A tiny seam running down the middle of the painting reminded everyone that there was a better world lying beyond. And on feast days, the priest opened the Crucifixion up at the seam, to reveal the panels on the inside of the polyptych.

Wow! We’re not in medieval Kansas anymore. The darkness parts, and Grünewald shows a more expansive, more colorful, and cheerier world. These inner panels put Christ’s seemingly tragic death in the wider context of his blessed birth and radiant resurrection.

In the Annunciation panel (left), a brilliantly dressed angel flutters in to tell a humble Mary she will give birth to a Savior. In the central scene, Mary beams as she looks down on her baby boy, while a celestial band of angels serenades them. Jesus has come down into the world — the real world — as seen by the castle in the background. His joyous mission is to defeat death, just as God the Father is doing in the shower of light.
Though Jesus came to be crucified, he overcame death. And that’s what we see in the Resurrection panel on the right. Jesus rockets out of the tomb, as this once-mortal man is now transformed into God.

Grünewald’s depiction of this popular Bible scene is unique in art history. Grünewald was a mysterious loner who had no master, no students, and left behind few paintings. But with his genius, he reinvented the Resurrection. Christ — the self-proclaimed “Light of the World” — is radiant. His once-plain burial shroud is now the colors of the rainbow (painted, legend says, by Grünewald’s assistant, Roy G. Biv). Jesus has undergone the “resurrection of the flesh,” and now look at his skin: His perfect white epidermis would have offered hope to all the patients who meditated on the scene. They had hope that the suffering they now endured was all part of God’s grand plan, and a loving God would reward them in the hereafter. Grünewald’s happy finale is a psychedelic explosion of Resurrection joy.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.