Restoration of the Isenheim Altarpiece

Concert des Anges and La Vierge et l’Enfant panel.

 

Mathias Grünewald: Isenheim Altarpiece

Musée d’Unterlinden

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, July 2022

One of the world’s greatest paintings just became greater. Mathias Grünewald’s monumental 8x10’ oil-on-wood polyptych painting Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1516), located at the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar, has been cleaned of its yellowed varnish and reconditioned by a team of restorers led by Anthony Pontabry. Though this painting suite of suffering and frenzied transfiguration is rare, exceptional, excellent, and well known; the painter Grünewald was once obscure. Still little is known about his life. Indeed, until the late 19th century, many of his ten existing paintings were attributed to Albrecht Dürer. That is right, there are only ten paintings by Grünewald in existence—several consisting of many panels—and thirty-five drawings. So with Grünewald you never tire of a tireless productivity, as you surely do with Andy Warhol and others, but rather awaken to the quality of the painter’s ambition. 

There is very little that is not of piercing first quality in the radiant gigantism of the paintings’ chiaroscuro and perspective arrangements. But the restoration has brought even deeper enigmas to come to the surface, like invisible writing when held up to a flame. This once very somber moody painting-sculpture assemblage has now an enrapturing visual harmony achieved without losing much of its smoky deep coherence. I will point out where I think it did below.  

The opening and closing Isenheim Altarpiece was first created to adorn the high altar of the now destroyed Antonite monastic hospital complex of Isenheim, a town located in the Haut-Rhin department in north-eastern France. It was originally established to care for sufferers of the St. Anthony’s Fire (SAF) plague, but we do not know when which panels were revealed to them at what time as what ritual transpired. Frequent SAF symptoms included gangrene, convulsions, sores and hallucinations. The ‘fire’ element is in reference to the burning sensation sufferers of the disease often feel in the extremities of the body. The St. Anthony Monks (who treated the ergot epidemic with plant-extracted tranquilizing balms) intended for those praying to Saint Anthony the Hermit to be cured and to help them avoid contracting the disease again. Unlike Covid-19, this plague was caused by societal ingestion of rye infected with the ergot fungus. In the Middle Ages, this cereal parasite found in bread caused such great sickness and hallucinations—something that seems acknowledged in the trippy flamboyance of the Résurrection and Le Concert des Anges (Angelic Concert) scenes. Sufferers came to receive care at the monastic complex and the Isenheim Altarpiece was central to that care. 

A study conducted by the Research Centre of the Musées de France completed in 2014 determined the state of the Isenheim masterpiece—that consists of twelve painted panels and thirteen sculptures—and established the protocol for its restoration. Over a four-year period (2018-2021), this three-part scene of goatish grossness mixed with gossamer delicacy has been closely studied by researchers and restorers; following a controversy that sparked at the start of its restoration in 2011. Now the painted panels, their frames, the sculptures, and the caisse (the wooden case that contains them) have all been restored. The paintings have received a minimalist light-touch while the wooden sculptures, contemporaneously created by the sculptor Nicolas de Haguenau, have received a more obviously intense overhaul. The collaboration between painter and sculptor completed the Isenheim Altarpiece and Haguenau’s sculptures have been restored in the polychrome wood restoration workshop of the Paris Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France by a team of sculpture restorers led by Juliette Levy. Haguenau made extensive use of gold and silver leaf in their polychrome decoration, and they have recovered their brilliance. Still, they still feel as if life has fled from them. Certainly an unintended effect; but nevertheless real. 

La Vierge et l’Enfant (detail). 

Astonishingly pertinent for our time, the idea of plague-time and a high-transcendent visionary impulse well mix in the Isenheim Altarpiece. In the top part of the La Vierge et l’Enfant (aka Nativite (Nativity)) painting, new gold revelations of paradise pop out. Even the intense ugliness portrayed in the Isenheim Altarpiece now has a captivating charm. Given my usual reverence for the patina of time (having seen both: I feel the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling stripped it of its smoky mysticism) I found the light-touch interventions here quite correct; except in the red robe of John the Baptist in the Crucifixion painting. The evangelist (not commonly depicted in crucifixion scenes) is gesturing towards the dead body at the center while holding an open book that reads “he must increase, but I must decrease.” Visually, I wish he would have done so more. Unfortunately, the drummed-up white highlights appear to me now too white. They compositionally compete with the composed well balanced white areas of the painting: the book’s pages, the veiled dress of Mother Mary, Christ’s loin wrap, and the bleeding white lamb; that perfectly contrasts with the grotesque dripping-with-blood feet. Those feet, if you look closely, are nailed but are also suspended off the support of the cross structure so that the dead Christ seems to improbably defy gravity. Or are we to assume that he is being hung in the air merely by the nails in his hands? 

Crucifixion (detail). 

Previously, the yellow varnish de-emphasized the slightly distracting highlights in the evangelist’s red robe and gave the entire image a slightly golden tint that unified its scène. But what does rewardingly reappear with the removal of the yellow tint is the dim light in the background of the scene. What was a flat black sky is now seen as Prussian midnight blue streaked with clouds of ominous dark gray. For this and other flat painted surfaces, the restoration essentially involved removing the yellow opaque varnish that has protected the paint over time while diminishing its finely glazed chromatic range—touching up some worn and scratched parts of the paint’s surface—and applying a fresh coat of clear varnish to protect the shimmering colors. That is all good, but the new coat does present some shine problems. Looking at the Crucifixion requires slight but frequent head movements to escape it; especially when looking close up from side angles.

Whereas Modernism had us looking at these painted surfaces simply from a chromatic point of view, the Isenheim Altarpiece is definitely a powerful psychic painting for when the plague is at the door. Grünewald seems to have understood that the pestilent and the bestial are always on the verge of an Ovidian metamorphoses into lower or higher forms of nature. Cleaned; an altered atmosphere emanates from his sensuous and pensive surfaces. A golden gloom has been lifted. 

Résurrection (major detail).

In the Résurrection painting, the swaggering pelvic-thrusting seems alive with a kind of incandescent animal life—quick, alert, and prescient with a high-sided bestiality. The sinuous pattern covering the risen Christ’s thrusted-out sex (one thinks of jagged mid-career Mick Jagger here) seems to be coming a flower running a chromatic scale from yellows to reds to blues. The combination of thoughtfulness and trompe-l'œil stillness—time seems to have stopped in motionless wonder in the bottom third of the canvas; leaving a host of queries echoing in the air—and animal vitality is very effective. That paradox makes this painting, in the context of the rest, now and forever one of the greatest paintings in the Western cannon about exultation over suffering as part of human potentiality. Its running chromatic scale reveals what the painting is up to: an unleashing cyclone of erotic supernatural force into conventionally cruel life with its smell of dung. 

I felt a new melancholy to the Isenheim Altarpiece; which remains forever an indispensable sine qua non of great Northern Renaissance art. The painting now possesses a freshened, more intense, weirder sadness; punched up with added subtle detail and brighter color. Also re-revealed are new details previously hidden by varnish or repaint that include the lovely, fine, ample, golden hair of Mary Magdalene and a soft subtle tear on the cheek of the Mother Mary which previously looked like a skin abrasion. A new vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Mary discloses her fainting innocence. 

Also newly revealed is an angel in a door frame, some tiny figures in the scenery of the Résurrection, and dates and figs plentifully hanging on the trees. At the top of the La Vierge et l’Enfant panel—that pairs with Concert des Anges—a bevy of flowing gossamer angels look more like faint-hearted fairies than ever. On the Résurrection panel a diminutive gate between the space of the sepulcher and Christ’s tomb can now be made out.

Dating from the 16th century, the Isenheim Altarpiece was regarded as a genuine masterpiece from the outset, and has been protected and venerated down the centuries for its artistic brilliance and the expressiveness of its scenes and figures. In the Crucifixion, Christ’s hands and feet are extraordinary in their expression of agony. 

Crucifixion (detail).

The hands are painted, to use Joris-Karl Huysmans phrase, against nature. (Huysmans—author of the great decadent masterpiece, À rebours (Against Nature)—in his 1891novel Là-bas (Down There) describes how his hero Durtal is haunted by this Crucifixion painting.) The gnarly fingers here, that catch and hold the eye, defy the laws of nature’s gravity. Erect fingers of a flaccid, de-structured, dead body—with slack open mouth and slumping carriage—do not fail to lose their tension in death within nature. Scientifically, these expressive, frozen, grasping hands cannot be a sign of rigor mortis; a passing notion immediately contradicted in the depiction of the same Christ figure (still dead) at the tomb in the panel beneath. So I see these erect expressive hands as a purely symbolic artistic construct devised by Grünewald to communicate the tension and yearning of the figure’s painful agony, as he reaches up for ecstasy. This unnatural (albeit supernatural) erect infinitely-held duration establishes a hypnotic contredanse relation between the living viewer and the inert painting—whose stillness produces unrest. I attribute much of the German Expressionist movement in Modern Art to these stylized tension-filled hands (and the twisted bloody feet). What in life is abnormal, through an artistic construct became normalized in art. 

Curiously, I noticed that the form of these dead but extended and expanded fingers are echoed in other panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece: in the fingers of the cello and violin playing angels who are fingering an apparently difficult chord, and in the hand of the Virgin Mary cupping the head of baby Jesus in the La Vierge et l’Enfant scene.

Crucifixion.

The painter took other radical chances as well. To paint pestilence as thaumaturgic, Grünewald was the first artist to paint the suffering Christ’s flagellated skin covered from head to toe in what appears to be thorny and sickly agitations. When I first saw that panel in 1991, it spoke strongly to me of the AIDS epidemic of the time. The hung pockmarked body of Christ is visually reminiscent of the surface of a body with advanced AIDS—with manifestations of herpes simplex, herpes zoster (shingles), skin rashes, warts and ringworm. Also in the Tentation de saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony) panel, a fallen, web-footed, tummy-bloated victim of the ergot epidemic with syphilis signals that the carnival is over. 

Tentation de saint Antoine (detail).

In the 16th century, this extraordinary and enigmatic creation of démesure emotion must have enabled the sick to identify with the painted figures and compare their suffering to their agony. So too, the painting is still pertinent to our coronavirus plague-time, because it teems with electrifying and macabre emotions that blend ecstasy with agony into a transcendent, high-pitched, visionary impulse. In many of the swampy background scenes, the new clarity deepens further the deep telescopic distance while emphasizing the solidity, diversity and beauty of things; such as the exquisitely executed feathers of the battling bird-man in the amazing Temptation of St. Anthony painting where nature has turned against humanity. A detailed reverence for the concrete world is apparent even within this highly fantastic scene. In Le Concert des Anges detailed realism mingles naturally with a highly-enhanced glowing super-reality.

Le Concert des Anges (detail).

One of the biggest differences is to be found in the Crucifixion lower panel. Its frame has regained a queer faux marble décor that pierces the Crucifixion’s high art sensibility—based in restraining morality. This re-added delicate sign of voluptuous luxury recalls the eternal laws of sex arching over time and circumstance. The exaggerated, fantastic, naïve and passionate aspect of this panel now takes on a démodé camp aspect. An outlandish, extravagant, tumultuous, greedy, vital, sensuality—what I think of as pagan—is suggested by the stupid cartoon-like twisted mouth of the over-stated weepy Mary Magdalene. She too now projects camp sensibility to me. This is the dark night of the soul tinctured with ironic distress. But there is also here a re-revealed real distress: a huge deeply burnt gully made long ago by candles that illuminated the panel have been newly revealed in what I take as a bravo act of anti-restoration restoration. The scientific committee also decided to leave some scratches, probably caused by a metal rod used to open and close the wings. They have been attenuated to avoid interfering with understanding the altarpiece sections as wholes, but remain partly visible as evidence that some of the work’s components were originally moveable.

In the end, I found the Isenheim Altarpiece has become even more magnificent, excessive, appalling and moving than before. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest double LP has recently been released on Pentiments, and his new book of poetry Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by punctum books. He recently exhibited new paintings at Galerie Richard in Paris in a solo exhibition Turning the Viral Tempest and is exhibiting early work in the No Wave survey exhibition Who You Staring At: Culture visuelle de la scène no wave des années 1970 et 1980 at The Centre Pompidou from February 1st to May 15th.

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