Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Crucifixion

Isenheim Altarpiece - The Crucifixion
Matthias Grunewald

The crucifixion scene is one of the most popular religious scenes to be portrayed in art, so there are many different ways of showing it. After being introduced to Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in my art history class, I decided to take a closer look into this work, specifically with Grunewald’s The Crucifixion, located on the central panel.

When I first looked at the image, there were many things that I immediately noticed. Jesus is, quite clearly, the center and most important figure in the painting. He immediately sticks out and looks like he is in extreme pain, which is not always portrayed in crucifixion paintings. I also noticed that the other two crosses weren’t present in the background of this picture. As far as the other people in the picture go, I figured that the woman in white was Jesus’ mother Mary, but wasn’t completely sure who she was holding on to or who the woman on the ground and the man on the right were. I saw that there was text next to the man on the right and didn’t know what it said. My attention was also drawn to the lamb on the ground that was holding a cup and I wondered why the artist decided to include it in the piece.

There is some confusion surrounding the actual identity of the artist who created this work. It has been discovered that the last name Grunewald is not correct – it was accidently assigned to him by a German painter and historian in a book written in 1675. Scholars today believe that his real name is either Matthias Gothardt or Matthias Gothardt Neithardt, but his false name is continues to be used. Grunewald was born around 1480 in the German-Bavarian town of Wurzburg. He was a painter, an engineer, a manufacturer of paints and soap, and the designer of the reconstruction of the Aschaffenburg Palace in Bavaria. It can be assumed that he was a respected artist considering he was commission to paint for the Antonite order in Isenheim, which was wealthy and sought only renowned artists to decorate its chapel. Today, barely a dozen of his works are still around, and those that are can be found mostly in German churches and museums.

This image is actually part of a larger work done by Grunewald called the Isenheim Altarpiece. The Altarpiece was created from 1512-1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which is currently a part of the eastern region of France, Alsace. The monastery specialized in hospital work and the Antoinite order operated the hospital in Isenheim specifically for victims of Saint Anthony’s Fire, a disease characterized by painful skin eruptions that blackened and became infected, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions, causing many deaths. The placement of the Altarpiece of Isenheim within the chapel’s hospital was used as a sort of morale booster for the patients suffering from Saint Anthony’s Fire, as a way to show that Jesus went through even more pain and suffering. The Altarpiece consists of nine images on twelve wooden panels containing scenes of the Annunciation, Mary bathing Christ, Crucifixion, Entombment of Christ, Resurrection, Temptation of St. Anthony and saints. There are two sets of wings that make up the altarpiece, which open up to reveal the different scenes. Today the altarpiece can be found in the Musee d’Unterlinden in Colmar, Alsace, France.

There are many interesting details that make The Crucifixion different from many other crucifixion scenes. In the center of the piece is Jesus on the cross. You can see that his skin has sort of a green, sickly tinge to it, which may represent Saint Anthony’s Fire. Jesus’ body also looks a lot more stressed and he looks like he is in a great deal of pain. It’s also easy to notice the blood coming out of Jesus’ side, where he was struck with the spear and the contrast of the red color of his blood with the green color of his body. The fact that the wound from the spear is shown allows us to assume that this particular crucifixion scene is being portrayed from the Gospel of John. Something to notice also is that all of the characters in the piece are different sizes, something not common of a Renaissance era piece; this difference in size is more characteristic of medieval works. In art, commonly the size of the person is linked to the artist’s view of their importance. To the left of Jesus, there are three people. Mary, the mother of Jesus is dressed in all white and is fainting into the arms of St. John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, who is dressed in all red. On the ground, is the much smaller Mary Magdalene, who is sitting next to her vessel of ointments and is wringing her hands in sorrow. To the right of Jesus is John the Baptist, who chronologically would have been long dead by the time of the crucifixion. John is seen with his finger up in the air pointing to Jesus with the words he spoke in John 3:30 next to him, “He must increase, and I must decrease” – clearly something that the author wanted those who viewed the altarpiece to think about. On the ground below John the Baptist there is the figure of the sacrificial lamb who is pouring out its blood into the cup of communion it is holding, signifying our sins that Jesus was dying for.

This work could be seen as controversial to some because of the way that Jesus is being portrayed. Jesus is made to look very human in this piece, which has caused controversy over time. Some controversy over the piece may also lie in the fact that the chronology doesn’t make sense, due to the fact that John the Baptist was not alive at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In some way, I think that this depiction of the crucifixion is more realistic than some of the others that I have seen. The portrayal of Jesus seems more like what it would’ve been like realistically – he would appear sickly and like he was in a great deal of pain. Other elements of the painting, however, do not make it historically accurate, but do bring forth interesting questions surrounding the artist and his purpose.


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