The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Sixteenth-Century European Art and Architecture

What is the Isenheim Altarpiece?

The Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1510–1515) is a highly realistic altarpiece painting done by the German painter Matthias Grunewald, who was a painter at the court of the archbishop of Mainz. The work is complex, incorporating exterior paintings on the wings of the altarpiece with interior paintings that are revealed upon opening. The exterior subject is the Crucifixion of Christ, painted in gruesome detail and emphasizing Christ’s suffering against a dark background. His fingers are bent and broken and his emaciated body hangs heavily from the cross. The interior paintings are completed on multiple panels and include The Annunciation, The Virgin and Child with Angels, and The Resurrection. These interior works are brightly colored and emphasize hope and joy over suffering. The physical act of opening the door is symbolic of the salvation that comes from Christ’s sacrifice. The Isenheim Altarpiece is emotionally expressive and a powerful example of the role of art in the Christian tradition.


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