Art and ‘strangeness’: the Isenheim altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum

I went to Colmar looking for something else but found the Isenheim altarpiece.

Planning a visit to Colmar, a small town in France’s Alsace region a few miles outside the border with Germany, I came across a guide to the Unterlinden Museum where the altarpiece is on show. It jogged a memory: I remembered reading somewhere that the Isenheim altarpiece is widely regarded as one of the most important works of Western art.

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

Despite this, few appear to have heard of it and fewer have seen it. Colmar is not central to the conventional tourist trail, except perhaps during December, where it gives itself entirely to Christmas celebration. In a quiet corner away from the colourful markets, the processions and performances, is a beautiful museum, of which the altarpiece is the jewel in the crown.

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The altarpiece, thought to be the work of Matthias Grünewald and painted between 1506 and 1515. It is tied to the history of the Antonite Monks and particularly to Saint Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, an often fatal disease caused by poisoning. There are several accounts of the altarpiece, including elaborate praise from J.K. Huysman. The altarpiece was once a series of panels that were configured according to the Christian calendar. The following model shows how those panels were once assembled.

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The paintings are some of the most striking I have ever seen. Upon entering the long room where the altarpiece is kept, one meets the remarkable ‘crucifixion’ first panel.

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

I was left with the feeling that the paintings were ‘strange’ and that I was witnessing something outside of my experience of art (such as it is). I meant this both as a way of describing the effect they had on me – the are awe-inspiring, as well as quite unsettling. But it also captures their provenance and their reputation: they appear to have been created outside of the normal limits of the human imagination, outside of arts history almost, especially the resurrection panel.

I thought, too,  how right Harold Bloom was when he said that the defining principle of the greatest works of art is that they could be considered ‘strange’. Bloom, writing about literature in his notorious Western Canon, had Dante and Shakespare in mind, but I think it equally appropriate for the Isenheim altarpiece:

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.

I will ‘never altogether assimilate’ the strangeness of effect, form and history that I found in the altarpiece.

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