It’s odd, but the painting that I consider the best one I’ve ever “seen” is one that I never really saw. I’ve seen many images of the Isenheim Altarpiece painting, completed by Mathias Grünewald in 1515 (the sculptural surround was made by Nicolaus Haganauer), but I’ve never seen it “in the pigment”—in person.
But even in reproduction I’ve never seen a painting as moving as this one. Or rather, a series of paintings, because the altarpiece comprises a group of movable panels that creates three distinct views, including two complete triptychs. The original is in a museum in Colmar, Alsace, but the piece was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which had a hospital for mostly terminal cases. The artwork was intended for contemplation by the sick and dying: to share Christ’s suffering and to contemplate their salvation—or damnation. Here’s the piece in its current location:
And yes, it’s religious, portraying Christ’s crucifixion, the mourners, and a marvelous Resurrection, but that doesn’t matter to atheistic me. The contortions of the crucified Christ, the mesmerizing atom-bomb like scene when he bursts from the tomb, and the soldiers swoon, and the bizarre beasts tormenting St. Anthony in one panel, as weird as those in a Bosch painting, combine to make a utterly moving piece of art. As author Francine Prose wrote in a recent New York Times piece about her trip to Alsace:
. . . But what I recall most vividly from our trip is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Our friend was right.
. . . what I found thrilling — and yes, life-changing — is the evidence that, at some point in our history, a society thought that this was what art could do: that art might possibly accomplish something like a small miracle of comfort and consolation. It seemed enormously inspiring for anyone who makes, or who cares about, art.
I’m not sure that that is what I find life-changing or thrilling: what moves me is the sheer agony of the crucified Christ, the grief of the mourners, and the otherworldly and affecting—even modern—depiction of the Resurrection. I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but there’s no reason that one can’t be moved by depiction of a myth. And so, when I think of art, this piece is never far from my mind.
The New York Times presented an interactive view of one of the three aspects of the painting, and you can see that here. But I’ll put up all three views. The Wikipedia article I linked to above will explain what you’re seeing. And some day I’ll make it to Colmar and see it myself.
I’ll ask readers (and perhaps I’ve done this before) to note their favorite painting in the comments. Some of you might say, “But there are too many—I can’t pick just one.” Well, try. And if you can’t do that, tell us which painting you would pick if you could own one painting, and only one, to have in your home for the rest of your life.