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Matthias Grunwald, The Annunciation from the Isenheim Altarpiece

Welcome to day 18.

Matthias Grunewald was a contemporary of Albrecht Durer. Both men were important Northern Renaissance painters, both became embroiled in the turbulent politics and religious conflicts that dominated the era, and both expressed themselves in unique and arresting ways. Some of Grunewald’s paintings had originally been attributed to Durer, what is odd about that is that as artists, they were the antithesis of each other.

Durer was an intense naturalist who was interested in the scientific Renaissance that emphasized empirical observation. His art made use of reasoned proportions and mathematical precision in terms of perspective. Grunewald largely rejected the classicism of the Renaissance and his paintings continue, with their own twist, the Gothic traditions. There is an underlying current of Medieval German mysticism to his works, a highly emotional charge that is often disturbing in its intensity.

We will be examining the Annunciation panel on his most famous work, the Isenheim Altarpiece. I plan on doing an expanded series on the Altarpiece, as there is so much contained with it. Each element needs careful examination, and taken as a whole it’s effect is to stretch the viewers understanding of what it means to believe, what it cost Christ to save us.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was made for the chapel in a hospital dedicated to Saint Anthony. This hospital served as a hospice for those afflicted with leprosy, syphyllis, and a fungal disease that was carried by rye. These patients were relegated to the edges of society, the hospital did not function as a place to come for healing, as there were no cures, but a place to come to die; it was a hospice facility.

The altarpiece ordered for the chapel would be seen by patients and by those who worked within the hospital, a pretty dismal place.  The work is monumental and opens in layers. When the final panels are raised there is a shrine that houses extraordinary sculptures by Nikolaus Hagenauer. There were 4 different views that were offered by the layered panels.

We will be focused on just one of the panels, the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

Article on the Annunciation
Matthias Grunewald, The Annunciation Panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. 1510-1515. Colmar, France

The Annunciation takes place in a Gothic church. This had been done many times by Northern artists in this time period and would not have appeared unusual. What was also commonly understood was that Mary represented the Church. Embracing this imagery that the church, like Mary, was to carry Christ and deliver him to a broken, sinful world in need of a savior might have given strength to the monks who worked in the hospital, dealing with those who had been cast out of society.

Article on Gruenwald's Annunciation
Detail from the Annunciation by Grunewald

We are given the moment of the angel entering Mary’s space, as she pulls away from the sudden intrusion. The angel’s robes are billowing around him, floating in the air. It’s not as if he’s rushed in and they are flowing behind him as we would expect…it feels like he has just appeared and is hovering in the air speaking. His clothing announces him as a messenger of heaven with it’s rich golden hues.

Mary has once again been interrupted in her reading. She is reading (in Latin) from the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Then, the angel is there telling her the prophecy speaks of her.

As I looked at Mary I was struck by the color of her dress. Generally, Mary is robed in blue, as the intermediary between heaven and earth, and as her future role will be the Queen of Heaven, it is traditionally her color. After some research I discovered that the blue paint that was used, depending on how it was mixed would occasionally, over time, darken to a near black. I’m going to assume that that is what has happened here, as painting Mary in black, the color of Satan, is just not a possibility.  Although, not having a Medieval prejudice against black, I have to say the fabric looks like a rich velvet.

Article on the Annunciation from Isenheim altarpiece
Detail from the Grunewald Annunciation

Along with the blue color of Mary’s dress and the connection to the sky, blue was also the color of the cloth that was hung over the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed that the wooden box on the floor between Mary and Gabriel is meant to be the Ark. As the Ark was where God was believed to have dwelled during the time of Moses, Mary is referred to as the New Ark, as God now dwells in her.

There are three arched windows in the background, a reference to the Trinity, and in front of the one to the left we see the Dove of the Holy Spirit coming into the scene.

The red and green curtains that hang seem to reference the veil in the temple, behind which the ark would have been hidden from the eyes of the people of Israel. In the Old Testament we learned that only one person under very special circumstances entered the Holy of Holies each year. The Ark was hidden behind the Temple veil. When Christ was crucified, the veil was torn from top to bottom, indicating it had been torn by God, and that with Christ death a new era had begun, with all men having access to God.

Detail from the Annunciation in Grunewald’s altarpiece

In this painting the veil/curtain has been pushed to one side, not fully opened, but with the incarnation we have begun the journey to the cross that will end in the veil being torn down. With the veils pushed aside the light enters the church. Or put more plainly, the light (Christ is the light of the world) enters Mary.

There is one more detail I want to point out. Up in the top left corner we have a painting of the prophet Isaiah. He is holding his prophecy and on the page facing us, written in Hebrew is the same verse from his prophecy that Mary was reading when the angel entered her chamber.

 

Sources

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

 

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