The Isenheim Altarpiece: a tormented, mystical and ecstatic crucifixion in a nauseatingly cute town

It’s Good Friday and I’m thinking about the pilgrimage we made to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, the bizarre crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald in Colmar, France.  This is a perfect example of an artwork I couldn’t comprehend until I saw it in person. The altarpiece was created in 1512-1515 for a hospital that treated patients suffering from skin diseases, and has a complicated structure–it’s a sort of double cupboard.  Different wings would be open for viewing depending on the time in the liturgical year.  (The Unterlinden Museum has the alter disassembled so all parts can be seen.)  In addition to the crucifixion, Grunewald depicts a concert of angels, an annunciation, a pregnant Mary, a Madonna and Child, a resurrection and dramtic scenes from the lives of saints Anthony and Paul.

Experiencing this artwork is visceral.  It is simultaneously disgusting, exultant, cheesy, weird and mystical.  It has a sense of the artist struggling, in a way like the Sistine chapel, full of inconsistencies.  I could feel Grunewald striving, pushing his abilities, working out the magic.  So much art about the passion of Christ is gory, as if lots of blood is the best way to convey the sacrifice of Jesus.  This work is more empathetic:  Jesus is covered with sores just like the patients at the hospital, who mostly were treated for skin diseases, so he share the burden of their suffering.  The combination of fantasy creatures, tripped-out mysticism and homey details (there’s a chamber pot–really!) is unsettling, and this inconsistency of style is not what I expect to see in a great work of art.  Before seeing it in person, I would refer to the Isenheim altar as “My favorite work of art I’ve never seen.”  Now that I’ve seen it, it is no longer my favorite artwork.  “One of the most compelling works of art I’ve ever seen” would now be more accurate.

HOB and I found the town of Colmar, where we saw the altar, somewhat nauseating in it’s attempt at cuteness.  The town is stunning, with it’s well preserved half-timber buildings and medieval layout.  Too bad they called in Thomas Kinkade to decorate.  Every available surface area seemed to be pimped out with Ye Olde Cutee Christmas Quaintess.  Visit Colmar for a first hand experience with Grunewald’s fascinating Isenheim Altarpiece, then escape quickly before you get a sweet tooth.

How we got to Colmar: train from Zurich.

Where we slept: Hotel ibis budget Colmar.  Price: €48 for a double.  Recommended: yes.



The altarpiece in situ in the Unterlinden Museum.


First view of the altar (all the pictures except for the blurry one of me and HOB are from Wikipedia).


I think this is a good representation my experience with the altar.


Second view of the altar.


Third view.



Have you ever seen anything more livid?


Seriously–did William Blake paint this resurrection?


Concert of angels.  This section is really weird in person.  What’s up with the feathered musician and the creepy-haloed baby heads?


Trippy details from the temptation of St. Anthony section.


I adore this charming Virgin and Child.


HOB in Colmar: town of unrelenting Christmas twee.









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