The object of discussion and analysis of this research paper is the Isenheim masterpiece. This piece of art was created as an altarpiece for the monastery in Isenheim, Alsace, which is situated along France’s eastern border. It was executed by the artist Matthias Grunewald sometime between 1506 and 1515 A.D.

The whole work is divided into panels, which create three different sets of pictures and scenes. This would depend on how many “wings” were open.

When all the “flaps” were closed, the altarpiece was a chilling illustration of Christ’s Crucifixion. It pictures Jesus’ sufferings, his nailed hands and feet writhing in pain, his beaten, bruised and lashed body covered in sores.

The opening of the first pair of panels allowed the beholder to see the Nativity, Annunciation and Resurrection. The brightest and most beautiful, in my opinion, piece of art is the Resurrection. The picture is filled with hope, as Christ exits the tomb surrounded by light, and He is smiling. His body is pure white; the only exception is a small red slash on each foot and hand as well as a thin scar on Jesus’ side. In the Nativity scene, Jesus the Child and Mary His mother are sung to by a choir of angels playing viols. The scene is almost supernatural. The only realistic elements of the picture are the chamber pot and tub.

The second pair of flaps created a new set of pictures, which portrayed the difficult life of Saint Anthony, the patron of the particular monastery. This part of the altarpiece was not made solely by Grunewald. It was designed for the display of wooden figures, gilded about 25 years ago Niklaus Hagenauer. The sculptures are flanked by two painted wings, executed by Grunewald. These illustrate episodes of Saint Anthony’s life.

The various combinations of pictures would be demonstrated during different times of the year. For example, the Nativity could have been seen at Christmas, the Crucifixion might have been on exposition on Good Friday.

Formal analysis

This piece of art by Grunewald is considered by critics and scholars to be a magnificent artistic creation. Some equal its’ importance and symbolism of Western civilization to that of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa of the Renaissance.

Grunewald painted the pictures for the altarpiece on lime wood panels sized 270 x 150 cm.

The author, Grunewald, achieved many of his artistic effects partly on account of the asymmetrical balancing of the characters and elements of the paintings. The disproportion of the figures allowed the author to create pictorial equilibrium. This is particularly visible in the illustration of the Crucifixion, where the crucifix is pictured on one side of the fold, situated in the center of the panel. Also the stature of Jesus is exaggerated to create an image of great strength, but at the same time deep suffering.

A notable fact is the way the artist creates various lines. They are created in a very creative, dynamic and expressive form. For this quality, Grunewald was called a forefather of German expressionism of the twentieth century.

The author carried out his work with great skill, paying attention to the smallest detail. The clothing of Christ renders the fabric colors which change, volatized with Jesus. The scarlet red robe flows into a bright yellow shade as the fabric gets closer to the light source which is Christ’s head and neck. His garments grow ever lighter until eventually they dissolve in the gold flow of light. The Savior’s shroud is all-white, but shades create subtle changes of color, which ranges from lilac, to violet, to blue to indigo-black.

The colors are bright and distinctive, yet they appear in harmony, freely flowing from one into another, complimenting each other.

Historical interpretation

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted around the 16th century, more commonly known now as the Renaissance period. The Altarpiece depicts the crucifixion, as well as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this piece of art, the artist attempts to give the viewer a feeling and sense of pity, but at the same time serenity, peace and calmness. The amount of time and effort put into this masterpiece is somewhere around 8-9 years – an enormous amount of time, compared to the time that the Mona Lisa, the world’s greatest masterpiece, was completed in only three. The work of this artist, Grunewald, clearly expresses the utmost torment of the Christ, mainly in the early 16th century more so than any other artist of his country and even of his time. The very first section, when the wings are closed, portrays the crucifixion, depicting an ultimately utterly over twisted, highly and fully detailed and bloody figure of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross, in the very center of the flank. Above Christ, we see a board attached to the top of the cross, with the letters “I N R I”. In Latin, this abbreviation translates as “Jesus, King of the Jews”, but n Greek, this abbreviation would spell “INBI”, as it is written in many other paintings. The altarpiece’s iconography includes several unusual and strange elements, some of which were derived from following closely the accounts of the mystical visions of Saint Bridget of Sweden. The Nativity of Christ, for one especially, had a great amount of wisdom and influence from one of such these visions. If we were to follow the chronology of the gospels, we would notice almost instantly that John the Baptist had already long been dead, yet he stands there, in his entire splendor, next to the crucified Jesus Christ. This signifies that the artist wanted the character of John the Baptist to stand next to Christ at his time of death, which tells us that the artist had a deep respect for John the Baptist. The greatest metaphor used in this masterpiece would probably be the lamb embracing the cross. The lamb, signifying Christ “as a lamb, sacrificed for the sins of the world”, and the cross, as the way and path to Christ’s crucifixion, are as hammer and nail.  Yet another symbol that is pictured in this work is the Holy grail under the lamb and cross, the vessel with which Christ had his last supper, the cup from which he and his disciples shared wine, the symbol Christ’s blood, shed for our iniquity and sin. Another object of interest is the vessel next to Mary’s knees. This object is believed to be the myrrh which the kings and wise men had brought to Jesus’ feet in his childhood. The Last view, or the third view, depicts the temptation, as some would believe it, of St. Anthony, the Patron of the monastery.

The altarpiece definitely has a status of personal value. It is clear to me that this painting gives each viewer a chance to interpret the metaphors and iconographies that they themselves imagine them to be. The mood of this painting is clear and obvious: this piece has an ethereal, surreal, unearthly pure yet grievous touch to it all at once.  The artist, when he was painting this piece, had the intention to give each and every single viewer to separately, without the interpretation, help or explanation of another, interpret this piece of art for themselves.


As a conclusion, I’d like to state that this piece of art, a grand masterpiece, gives the viewer a chance to get a glimpse, however small it may be, into the pain and suffering of Christ; the betrayal and greed of Judas; the grief and loss of John, Mary the Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene; the treachery of the Pharisees who handed Christ over into the merciless jaws of the Roman Empire, at the hands of Pontius Pilate, who ordered his crucifixion. However, the artist gives a positive side to the portrayal of Christ. The resurrection of Christ, pictured on the inside of the first flank, counters all the negativity that had previously been inflicted. The resurrection of Christ is the climax of this story, the grand finale to the sufferings, pains and turmoil of Christ and the artist does an excellent job of giving the viewer all of these privileges! In an honest and true way, this piece of art is far better than the art and ‘masterpieces’ that claim the title today. This masterpiece is not made merely of paint, this work was made from the toil and work of almost ten full years, and the result is extraordinary. In this work, we can see not only the colors of the canvas, and not just the mere strokes of the brush. What we see is the pain and suffering of a man that was above all men; a king above all kings. We see the turmoil of a Savior that would sacrifice his life for men that would betray and slay him, and all this on a sheet of paper, a work of art; a masterpiece, a true masterpiece. The only words that are capable of describing this masterpiece, is that the artist had a touch of genius.

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