NYMC Faculty Publications


The Isenheim Altarpiece: Religion, Art and Medicine [El Retablo de Isenheim: Religion, Arte y Medicina]

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September 2018


Microbiology and Immunology


Northern Europe at the beginning of the 16th Century was in turmoil as a result of religious and political dissention, epidemics of plague, syphilis, ergotism, and famine, and the threat of the Ottoman Empire. In Alsace, a fulcrum between Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Grunewald painted his celebrated and complex altarpiece at Isenheim in a convent chapel of the Antonine religious order that kept a hospital for the care of patients suffering from ergotism, plague, syphilis and other illnesses. The ten paintings of this altarpiece convey a series of religious, medical and political meanings, with the scenes of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection being thought to play an integral part of the curative process. This was because patients could be soothed by comparing their suffering to that of Christ on the cross and could console themselves by the Resurrection. The portrait of Christ in the cross is astounding in its realism and naturalism. It represents, with great pathological veracity, a tortured body in agony, a break with previous traditional representations of this event. Impressive pathological detail is also given to a figure in the Temptation scene. The entire work is suffused with religious connotations provided by the composition, the forms and the richness and sophisticated use of colors. Although Grunewald's paintings are few and the facts of his personal life sparse, it is known he married a Jewish woman, supported the peasant revolts, and was probably a Lutheran in a Catholic area. While Grunewald is considered the epitome of a German artist, the universal projections of his art have influenced physicians and the artistic productions of many painters, writers, musicians and sculptors throughout the world.