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The Isenheim Altarpiece and The Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald


The Temptation of St. Anthony

From The Isenheim Altarpiece

Oil on panel. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France.

by Matthias Grünewald (c.1470/1480 – 1528)

This fine piece is but a small part of a magnificent, large, complex and multi-facted altar piece by Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece, thought to have been created during the period 1512-1516.

Wonderful art, almost reminiscent of Bosch!

The Isenheim Altarpiece is a supreme masterpiece created by the German artist Matthias Grünewald between 1512 and 1516.

It is currently on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace – once part of Germany but now in France.

St Anthony Visiting St Paul the Hermit in the Desert (left), The Temptation of St. Anthony (right). Central part consists of carved figures of St. August, St. Anthony, St. Jerome; bottom part Jesus with 12 Apostles.

Sculptures by Nicolas de Haguenau (active in Strasbourg around 1490).

Oil on panel. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France. (1510-1515)

by Matthias Grünewald (c.1470/1480 – 1528)



This is by far Grünewald’s greatest, as well as his largest work.

It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar (then in Germany), which specialized in hospital work. The Antonine monks of the monastery were noted for their treatment of sufferers of skin disease, such as ergotism, symptoms of which are displayed by figures including the crucified Christ in the altarpiece.

The altarpiece has two sets of wings, displaying three configurations.

The Isenheim Altarpiece – First View

The first view – above – shows a Crucifixion scene, flanked by images of Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian. There is a predella with a Lamentation of Christ, which remains in the second view also – see below.


The Isenheim Altarpiece – Second View

When the outermost wings are opened, the second view shows scenes of the Annunciation, the original subject of Mary bathing Jesus to the accompaniment of an Angelic choir (or various other titles), and the Resurrection.

The Isenheim Altarpiece – Third View

The innermost view shows the Temptation of Saint Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and the Hermit Paul to the sides, and a pre-existing carved gilt-wood altarpiece by Nicolas Hagenau of about 1490.

Now the altarpiece has been dis-assembled (and sawn through) so that all the views can be seen separately, except that the original sculpted altarpiece is no longer flanked by the panels of the third view, which are instead shown together.

Carved wood elements at the top and bottom of the composition were lost in the French Revolution, when the whole painting survived nearly being destroyed.

The iconography of the altarpiece has several unusual elements, many derived from closely following the acounts left by Saint Bridget of Sweden of her mystical visions.

These had long had a significant influence on art, especially on depictions of the Nativity of Christ, a scene not included here.

Oddly, the crucifixion includes Saint John the Baptist, long dead by Gospel chronology.

the altar piece in situ



Grünewald is another of our favourite artists, creator of magnificent powerful and beautiful works.
Mathis Neithart or Nithart (he later called himself Gothart, and erroneously his name was changed to Grünewald) was a German painter, born between 1470 -80 supposedly in Würzburg.

Grünewald was a very important German Renaissance painter of religious works, who ignored Renaissance classicism to continue the expressive and intense style of late medieval Central European art into the 16th century.

Sady, only ten paintings (several consisting of many panels) and thirty-five drawings survive, all religious, although many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty.

His reputation was obscured until the late nineteenth century, and many of his paintings were attributed to Albrecht Dürer, who is now seen as his stylistic antithesis.

His largest and most famous work is the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, Alsace – as shown above.

The details of his life are unusually unclear for a painter of his significance at this date, despite the fact that his commissions show that he had reasonable recognition in his own lifetime.

His real name remains uncertain, but was definitely not Grünewald; this was a mistake by the 17th-century writer, Joachim von Sandrart, who confused him with another artist. He is documented as “Master Mathis” or “Mathis the Painter” (Mathis der Maler), and as using as surname both Gothart and Neithardt – this last may have been his surname, or more likely that of his wife.

He was probably born in Würzburg in the 1470s. It is possible he was a pupil of Hans Holbein the Elder. From about 1500 he seems to have lived at Seligenstadt, when not working elsewhere.

His first dated painting is probably in Munich, dated 1503 on a much later note which apparently records an older inscription.

John the Evangelist by Grünewald (long thought to be a self portrait)

From about 1509 to 1525 he served in the Rhineland as court painter, architect (or at least supervisor of building works) and hydraulic engineer to two successive Prince-Archbishops of Mainz, Uriel von Gemmingen and Albert of Brandenburg (whose face he used for a St Erasmus in Munich). He left this post possibly because of sympathies either with the Peasants’ War, in which Seligenstadt was particularly caught up, or Lutheranism (he had some Lutheran pamphlets and papers at his death).

In 1509, Grünewald became court painter to archbishop Uriel von Gemmingen at Aschaffenburg, and supervised the rebuilding of the palace there.

In 1516, he started on a fixed income at the court of the elector Albrecht von Brandenburg, where he worked as a painter and architect and also as a designer of fountains. In turbulent religious times, he had to leave the post in 1520 probably because of his Lutheran convictions.

Grünewald died in Halle, probably in 1528, or perhaps 1531.

His major works include the Isenheim Altar (previously long believed to have been painted by Dürer!); The Mocking of Christ (c.1503) and The Meeting of St. Erasmus and St. Maurice (c.1520-1524) .

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November 19, 2008 Posted by | Matthias Grünewald, _ART, _RELIGION | Leave a comment