Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512–1516
One of the world’s greatest masterpieces is often and mysteriously excluded from the common pilgrimages educated tourists make in their travels. While crowds will mill about the Mona Lisa in Paris or endure hours of air travel and difficult connections to see The Dying Gaul in Rome, very few take a simple side trip to the French-German border town of Colmar to see Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516). The altarpiece, no longer presented in its original form as a polyptych, now sits divided in an empty gallery, allowing the viewer to enjoy each panel separately. Even more captivating is Grünewald’s beautiful muse for this enduring piece of religious art: ergotism, a disease that still exists today and has probably killed more people than we will ever know (Meiser, 1999).
Caused by eating fungal-infected grain, usually rye, ergotism (claviceps purpurea) is derived from the Old French word argot, which means spur. Its fungus forming a spur-like, red, sticky sweet appendage on the heads of grain, the disease is both ancient and modern. First referenced on an Assyrian tablet from ca. 600 BCE, the most recent outbreak of ergotism occurred in 2001 in the Arsi Zone of Ethiopia (Shiff, 2006). Brought to Arsi Zone by contaminated oats mixed with barley, the disease killed five and sickened eighteen in a small, remote village in the region (Urga et al., 2002).
Causing convulsions and gangrene in humans, the fungus’ sclerotia produce an alkaloid called ergotamine, a vasoconstrictor. It is this vasoconstriction that causes the excruciating and relentless symptoms of ergotism: a feeling of one’s flesh burning, uncontrollable convulsions, hallucinations with imaginary sounds, dry gangrene resulting in the loss of digits and limbs, insanity, and death (Urga et al., 2002).
Isenheim Altarpiece, Detail
In the Middle Ages, ergotism was known as “St. Anthony’s Fire.” No one knew that the disease resulted from grinding the poisonous spurs into milled grain. Earning the Latin name ignis sacer or “holy fire” due to the unbearable burning sensation it caused internally and externally, the disease was so prevalent before and during Grünewald’s life that an entire order of clergy—the Antonite order—as well as a hospital inside the Isenheim monastery were devoted to caring for the victims. It is even possible that Grünewald’s young wife, an 18-year-old converted Jew, was among the afflicted: Anna Neithardt suffered mental illness and was herself institutionalized. Grünewald’s earliest biographer (who mistakenly called him Grünewald—his last name was actually Gothardt) wrote that her institutionalization plagued the artist, leading to bouts with persistent depression (Bruhn, 1998).
In unhesitatingly likening ergotic suffering to Christ’s unthinkable agony, the altarpiece is monumental in its evidence of the anguish ergotics endured. In fact, it is likely that the church elders commissioned the work with this comparison in mind. In the altarpiece, Christ is depicted with blue lips and blue toenails, early signs of dry gangrene, which destroys the distal areas of the body first. His body emaciated, Christ’s pustular skin is marked with sores and scourge marks. While his fingers reach upward as horrifying claws, his head is almost impossibly bent both down and sideways.
The altarpiece, originally located on the high altar of the monastery hospital’s chapel, was open daily for viewing. The hospital patients regularly came before it to seek solace (Sayre, 2012). In 2009, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, described the altarpiece scene as “spiritual homeopathy” in a world void of analgesics. Other scholars of the altarpiece call this vision of a totally isolated Christ a haven for all those who are isolated in their pain (Anonymous, n.d.). In a world yet unenlightened by the god that science has become, Grünewald’s highest artistic achievement was also his highest gift of altruism.
- Anonymous. (n.d.). Grunewald 1/3. Retrieved from YouTube from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MX6z4VxaIGY.
- Bruhn, S. (1998). The temptation of Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler as a spiritual testimony. New York: Pendragon, pp. 28–29.
- Meiser, S. (1999, September). A masterpiece born of Saint Anthony’s Fire. SmithsonianMagazine, 30(6), 70–79. Retrieved from http://www.stanleymeisler.com/smithsonian/smithsonian-1999-09-grunewald.html.
- Sayre, H. M. (2012). The renaissance in the north. In H. M. Sayre, The humanities: culture, continuity and change (pp. 551–553). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
- Shiff, Paul L. (2006, October) Ergotism. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. School of Pharmacy, University of Pittsburgh.
- Urga, K., Debella, A., W/Medihn, Y., Agata, N., Bayu, A., & Zewdie, W. (2002). Laboratory studies on the outbreak of gangrenous ergotism associated with consumption of contaminated barley in Aresi, Ethiopia. Ethiopian Journal of Health Development, 16, 317–323. Retrieved from http://ejhd.uib.no/ejhd16-n3/ejhdv16no3-page317.pdf.
JULIET HUBBELL, MA, teaches Humanities and Literature at Arapahoe Community College in Colorado. Her work has been published in JAMA: Journal of American Medical Association, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Workers Write! Progenitor and Many Mountains Moving. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and has lived abroad as well as traveled to over 25 countries. Her travels and museum visits enable her to teach her students with a wide-eyed, enthusiastic appreciation for all of the beauty that the human creative spirit produces.