Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Crucifixion

Christ Crucified

Antonello da Messina (Around 1430-1479). The National Gallery – London.

The Isenheim altarpiece:

Crucifixion, Saint Sebastian, Saint Anthony, Annunciation, Angels’ Concert, Nativity, Resurrection, Entombment, Temptation of Saint Anthony, Anthony visits Paul in the Desert.
Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470/1480-1532). Musée d’ Unterlinden – Colmar (Alsace-France). 1511-1515. 1515.

Virgin with Child
Stuppach Church – Stuppach (near Würzburg-Germany). 1517-1519.

The Conversion of Saint Maurice by Saint Erasmus
Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Around 1520 - 1524.

Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg before the Cross
Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca. 1472-1553). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Around 1520-1530.

The Holy Mary Magdalene
Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca. 1472-1553). The Wallraf-Richartz Museum – Köln. 1525.

Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg as Saint Jerome
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Hans Cranach (?). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota (Florida). 1526.


Matthew told in his Gospel that when the soldiers had reached a place called Golgotha, that is the place of the skull, they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall, which he tasted but refused to drink. When they had finished crucifying him they shared out his clothing by casting lots, and they sat down and stayed there keeping guard over him. Above his head was placed the charge against him. It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on the right hand and one to the left.

The passers-by leered at him; they shook their heads and said, “So, you would destroy the Temple and in three days rebuild it! Then save yourself if you are God’s Son and come down from the cross!” The chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him in the same way, with the words, ”He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe him. He has put his trust in God; now let God rescue him if he wants him. For he did say, “I am God’s Son.”.” Even the bandits who were crucified with him taunted him in the same way. G38

From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those who stood there heard this, they said, “The man is calling on Eliah,” and one of them quickly ran to get a sponge which he filled with vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave him to drink. But the rest of them said, “Wait! And see if Eliah will come to save him.” But Jesus, again crying out in a loud voice, yielded up his spirit. G38

And suddenly, the veil of the Sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, the rocks were split, the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy people rose from the dead. And these, after his resurrection, came out of the tombs, entered the holy city and appeared to a number of people. The centurion, together with the others guarding Jesus, had seen the earthquake and all that was taking place, and they were terrified and said, “In truth, this man was son of God.” G38

There are two ways of representing the crucifixion. One can show the scene in all the details of the stories of the Gospels, with the mocking priests and scribes, with the Roman soldiers giving Jesus to drink or stabbing him with a lance in his side, and with the weeping women at the basis of the cross. Mainly Baroque painters have used the evident pathos and strange events that happened at Golgotha such as the earthquake to depict the moving scene. Earlier painters, particularly Italian masters of the fifteenth century such as Antonello da Messina and Fra Angelico reduced the scene to a symbol, to a mystic icon. Thus, about half of the over forty cells of the abbey of San Marco in Florence were decorated by Fra Angelico in this way by man-high frescoes on the white walls.

One of the best-known basic pictures of the intimate, private suffering and symbolic representations of the final Passion of Jesus is the ‘Christ crucified’ of Antonella da Messina in the National Gallery of London.

Antonello da Messina

Antonello da Messina was a very original artist. His mind was set to the study and to the comprehension of the New Testament and of his art. He was born around 1430 in Messina, a town of southern Italy. He worked mostly in Naples but he must have made a journey to Flanders to see the paintings of the Flemish primitives. He may have seen the pictures of Jan van Eyck there and he is supposed to have learnt all the possibilities offered by oil painting. This in itself was extraordinary. We know that northern painters frequently visited Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The contrary is very rare. But Messina was a man with a very spiritual vision, who must have admired the clearly detailed, rational yet nature-loving and very devotional spirit of Flanders’ Gothic images.

Antonello da Messina returned to Naples and to Messina around 1456, but he continued to travel through Italy. In 1475-1476, not so long before his death of 1479, he was in Venice and saw Giovanni Bellini with whom he conferred, and whom he could influence. Hence he had a certain impact on subsequent Venetian painting.

Antonello has reduced the Golgotha scene to an icon. Jesus is depicted high on a cross as a heavenly sign. Jesus is already a symbol floating in the airs. Therefore his figure is stylised without the apparent features of his torture. This is still much a Gothic view, dominated by the long vertical lines that tend to enhance the divine character of Jesus. Jesus is a slender man on the thin, tall beams of the cross, thus bringing even more coherence of depiction. Jesus’ elevation is emphasised by Antonello, in showing Mary and John huddled on the ground next to the high cross. These figures are lost in grief and despair; they have sunken to the earth of Golgotha. Golgotha means the place of the skull so Antonello has placed skulls and human bones in evidence at the base of the cross. Adam, the first man, was supposed to be buried on Golgotha. So in medieval pictures it is Adam’s skull that is shown beneath the cross. This then depicts the death and the sins of humanity.

The scene of the Crucifixion is set not amidst a jeering crowd, nor with soldiers around, but in a wide landscape of what is supposed to be the town of Jerusalem. All aspects of landscapes are shown, such as a forest, meadows with isolated trees, the town, desert land, the far sea and even mountainous regions on both sides of the frame. These landscape views have a Flemish character in them. Northern Gothic painters, notably the van Eyck brothers, had introduced a keen eye for the splendid details of nature. Pictures like Antonello da Messina show also the growing awareness of nature in Italy. The skies are an eerie light blue but the absence of prominent white clouds denote that this was not intended to be a picture of nature.

Antonello has introduced a new style of painting with his ‘Crucifixion’. The colours are subdued, with soft tones that all have the same tender hue. There are no harsh colours and no harsh lines too. All contours are soft and the shadows of a diffuse light that seems to come from the left side form the contours of Jesus, of Mary and of John. This same light is lost on the landscape however. We feel hereby the difference between the living, human matter and the inanimate. Antonello had found a different depiction than the strict design of Florentine drawing. This was depiction more of intuition and of emotion of the painter expressed through colour in the first place. By this finding Antonello most influenced Giovanni Bellini and Venetian art.

The general feeling of the picture is one of desolation, of loneliness and of despair. Mourning has come to the earth for Jesus has expired. The crowds have left and only Mary and John remain with their grief. The image is interiorised, dignified, poignant and unforgettable. Antonello has been able to compose a picture with which his fame has been settled for ages. We can imagine how he must have thought on his travels of a best representation of the ultimate scene of Christ’s passion and of how to express spirituality in its purest form as the earliest painters but in an innovated way. The picture is the rendering of lonely nights of journeying through Europe. This is the essential spiritual picture in which the feelings of transcendence are completely supported by the elements of form. With this image all that could be said of Jesus’ death has been told, al emotions and pictures of the mind shown. This is the mystic death of Jesus represented and its lasting image for humanity.

The Crucifixion of Issenheim

It is between the sixth and the ninth hour. The light of the day has retreated by command to a threatening darkness. The suffering of Christ in the ‘Crucifixion’ is brought to a paroxysm of horror. The body is thin, elongated and dirty. Flesh is only a thin layer over bones. Holes of skin disease and pus cover body and legs. The arms are extraordinarily long, since all the body hangs from them. The rest of the body, chest and loins are outstretched too, fully under vertical stress. The hands have become claws, so expressive of the ultimate pain that continued till the last moment. The hands claw upwards as if they have been twisting to get out of the nails that go through the palms, but not entirely, so that the body hangs merely on the iron spikes. The feet also show the monstrosity of the crucifixion. The feet and toes are distorted. The blood has trickled on a wooden support that has remained too low to be of any help to agony of the body. The blood flows from there on the ground. A huge nail has gone through the feet but does not support the legs, so that the body pitifully hangs from the beams. The beams of the cross were cut from a tree; they were not planed but remained rough. The horizontal crossbeams are too small to support the weight of the man, so they bend in an arc. Christ’s head is hanging down, hideous thorns on his scalp. His face shows the signs of blows and torture. The marks of torture are all over Jesus’ body. His crown is a circle of long thorns, longer than any thorns ever seen in a crown of Jesus, and the thorns are driven not just into Jesus’ head but the thorns also penetrate his shoulders. Soldiers have tortured Jesus, not just with whips studded with lead balls but also with the thorns, so that pieces of the thorns still remained stuck in his flesh. Jesus felt tortures in his flesh. His flesh is torn. Jesus is a sick man, and the signs of skin-wounds are all over his body.

Mary is dressed like a nun, in white coarse linen. This white linen reminds of the shroud of Jesus’ entombment and is certainly unusual for a depiction of Mary. The white cloak makes of Mary a nurse and the nun of a convent. Her face is as white as her clothes. The blood has left her cheeks and she arches back as if fainting in front of the suffering. John needs to hold her so that she does not fall. John also is grieving, turns his head away from the crucified Jesus as if he cannot endure the sight any longer. Now he has to care for Mary, as Jesus just asked him from the cross in his last human plea. The man on that cross is not a human anymore. It is a sheer horror.

Mary Magdalene is smaller than Mary and John, as she was a sinner and thus less in the eyes of God. She has the long flowing hair of seduction, shown, as was the tradition since very early in paintings and sculptures. She also here is outcrying and holds her praying hands high to the dying crucified. The hands resemble the distorted gesture to the heavens of the hands of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is probably the one who feels most the true pain and thus has most true empathy with the crucified. She has suffered too. She has brought the balms to anoint Jesus when he will be lowered from the cross. She may well be the only one to still have the force to touch the dead body and certainly the one with the less aversion to handle the corpse.

Jesus is giving his death to redeem humanity. This is shown symbolically by the lamb at his feet. It bears the cross from now on. The blood of the sacrifice of the Son of God flows into the chalice, which will be used forever after in the ceremonies of Catholic Mass.

It was all prophesied. Saint John the Baptist stands to the left of the scene. He points at the scene with a long, crooked finger. He is the teller of the story, the guide who reads to the viewers out of the book what has happened. This will be the New Testament that will testify for the redemption. The letters inscribed above John the Baptist are the first lesson: ‘Illum oportet crescere, me autem minui’ or, ‘He will increase while I will decrease’. John has remained a long time in the wilderness; he is still wearing the leather skins of his isolation there. He also seems wild because of that, out of our world, fitting well in the scene of poverty and degradation. This scene is not a conventional one for the Calvary theme, as John the Baptist could not have been present at Jesus’ death. He had been decapitated long before. The scene therefore is constituted for its symbolic and spiritual value. John baptised and by doing this made the baptised enter a spiritual realm.

No painter has shown so blatantly the horror of the crucifixion. Not only is there no embellishment whatsoever here, no transcendental thought, no respectful veneration, but also no dignity and no pity in the representation. There is no reference in the body of the crucified to something that could be more than an abject, tortured man in extreme suffering. This crucifixion is an experiment in thought, of somebody who has wanted to completely represent to himself, even to live himself utterly into, what might have been the real act of a crucifixion. It is a picture made by an artist who has read the testimony of the New Testament over and over again and then tried to put himself into the body of Christ. This artist has tried to understand how that Man has felt and suffered and contorted. But he did not want to paint an idea of Jesus, a concept of the mind. He wanted to draw suffering humanity, the suffering of a pestilence body clawing in pain. This somebody wanted to feel the suffering himself; he has read the Scriptures so much and thought so much about the scene that only this monstrous representation could be the result. He wanted to live this crucifixion again. And then he wanted to express all the suffering of humanity as well as the suffering of that one man, Jesus, in one scene.

This somebody was Mathis der Maler, Matthias Grünewald the German painter.

Who was this painter Mathis? Two names can be attributed to the artist; two names may have been used for one man. But the two candidate names may also be the names of different persons. One name is Matthias Grün, another Mathis Gothart Neithart. There are papers of the sixteenth century mentioning both names and on the pictures of Matthias Grünewald there are indications for the names. The first mention of the name of Grünewald is from a biography of painters published by the painter Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688) in 1675. That publication came more than a century and a half after the presumed death of the master of the Isenheim altarpiece. But Sandrart may have had the information through an oral line of connections that originated with the true painter of the altarpiece so that the name Grünewald is plausible. Various sources talk of a painter Mathis or Mathis Grünewald that came from Aschaffenburg. This painter worked mostly for Archbishop Uriel von Gemmingen, archbishop of Mainz from 1508 to 1514. This master worked also in Frankfurt in 1511 and ha may have worked as working-master on the castle of Aschaffenburg. Mathis Grün was known in Frankfurt as a sculptor. He was indeed also known as Mathis of Aschaffenburg, so ha may have been born there. While in Frankfurt in 1511, he was present at the baptism to Christendom of a young Jewish woman called Anna and he married this Anna later in the year. He may have left Frankfurt for Issenheim late that year 1511. In 1523 Anna was taken in a hospital and stayed there. She may have been treated for folly. So Mathis Grün did not have a lucky marriage and Joachim von Sandrart mentioned such a fact in his book. Grün seems to have lived in Frankfurt and he had a house there until 1526. From 1519 to 1525 he worked in Mainz and he died in 1532. He also worked for the Erbach family in Tauberbischofsheim from 1528 to 1530.

Several of Grünewald’s paintings bear the monogram MGN. This may come from Mathis Grün, a name in which the letters M, G and N appear naturally. German historians of the beginning of the twentieth century found that there had been a Mathis Gothart also called Neithart who also worked for the Archbishop of Mainz. This Mathis Gothart Neithart had for instance worked at the waterworks of the castle of Bingen for the Archbishop of Mainz in 1510. When this master Mathis died, presumably in 1528, twenty-seven preaches of Martin Luther were found in his heritage, mentioned to be of Würzburg, not of Aschaffenburg but the two towns are not far one from the other. The letters M, G and N of the monogram may also indicate Mathis Gothart Neithart.

So who was Mathis der Maler, the painter of the altarpiece of Issenheim? Who was Matthias Grünewald? Was he Mathis Grün or was he Mathis Gothart Neithart or were Grün and Gothart two names for the same man? The answer to this riddle has so far not been convincingly solved.

The Panels of the Polyptych of Issenheim

Matthias Grünewald has not only thought about the suffering of Jesus. He has also thought about the Resurrection of Christ. He painted this scene too, on one of the panels of an altarpiece he made in the town of Isenheim in the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the ‘Resurrection’, all is victory and resplendent. A ball of bright fire gloriously surrounds Jesus. Now He shows proudly the signs of His Passion on hands and feet. But the hands are held in a defying way, to stop people from coming too close. This is a gesture of which is also told in the Gospels, the ‘Noli me Tangere’, do not touch me for I am no human anymore and not yet a spirit. Now the gesture is a royal encompassing and a show of glory. Jesus’ body has the nice rosy colour of healthy flesh now. Jesus is well built, still a young man, with a calm and wise face that has known no suffering. His gowns are a flaming red with a white inner lining that falls down until it reaches the sarcophagus. He rises out of the tomb. The soldiers are not sleeping, they are more struck by the ball of fire and have fallen down, their faces to the earth.

Here the painter did show a concept, an ideal view of Redemption and of Resurrection. The sick, tortured man Jesus has become a splendid youth to rise to the Heavens. This is the end of misery, the full glory of a new body and soul. So will the just arise from sickness and sin after death. In the Middle Ages plague and pests as well as skin diseases were thought to be the result of sin. The Bible texts of the Old Testament were very hard on people with skin diseases, ordering to expel them from the community. And in the New Testament, healing of lepers was a forceful miracle for Jesus. Grünewald showed with Christ’s Resurrection image that there was hope not just for the body but also for the soul. The monks and brothers of the abbey of Isenheim treated skin diseases in their hospital. They healed the sick twofold. They treated the body but equally the soul and the people who were being taken care of in the abbey must have believed fervently that the combination of an abbey and a hospital was their best hope for a cure.

Grünewald painted other scenes on the multi-panelled altarpiece of Isenheim. There is for instance a ‘Concert of the Angels’. Pink angels are playing heavenly violins under a gothic chapel. There are organic vines growing on the columns of the structure, making the scene a strange view. The columns end in life figures of Saints. The cello of the foreground has ears, a nose, a mouth, seems alive like the building. There is also a warrior-angel, clad in armour. Or is he a devil, one of the fallen angels? He is looking at a whirling scene in the skies. A small crowned Virgin is seated in a halo of light. In this scene also a strange, alien view is presented to the viewers. The scene is inside a Gothic chapel, but since the figures inside needed to be shown, that chapel is only an open structure. Gothic architecture was strict and purified in style but Grünewald here exaggerated the flowing, curved lines of some of Late Gothic’s decorations to a dramatic view. Natural, organic forms grow out of the slender stone construction and these forms are such a contrast to what the viewer knows of stone and thus expects to see, that a feeling of uneasiness is evoked in any spectator. The presence also of a devil figure among the angels, of a strange sort of almost menacing smaller heavenly creatures in the airs, all these put the viewer on a strange footing. It is as if Grünewald wanted to show how heavenly music and pure religious spirituality might turn easily and rapidly into sin. Delightful music is precious but the pleasure it procures is close to sin, to the sin that lurks in a corner like the hidden devil. The devil incarnates evil, so this scene must represent part evil, part salvation. Salvation then would be the figure of the virgin in the yellow halo. She is knelt and she wears a crown of flames like a figure from the Apocalypse. Yet this figure is indeed the Virgin. Before her stands a carafe of transparent, clean water. This is a symbol of the Immaculate Conception.

The ‘Concert of the Angels’ panel is next to the panel of the ‘Virgin with Child’ or the ‘Nativity’ panel. This panel starts at the bottom left with the utensils of simple house life. The little bed, pot and wooden bath are all there in a family scene. These are symbols also of cleanliness. Christ will cleanse the world of its sins. Mary has bathed Jesus, dries the baby in white linen and tenderly seems to want to divert and play with him and with a little bell. The child plays with Mary’s necklace of beads. These represent also the rosary. Jesus is already counting the days and stages of his Passion. This Passion Grünewald also showed in the torn, white linen of Jesus and of the bed next to Mary. Torn linen is a sign of poverty and of misery, of a torn life and torn emotions. Here it represents the coming Passion of Jesus. Mary is a beautiful lady in fine blue and red robes, a princess or a rich merchant’s daughter. The wall of the room does not exist and has given way to a fantastic landscape. There is a lake and a village with an imposing church on the right, maybe representing the praeceptory of Isenheim for which the painting was made. It seems a poetic scene, but the tone is still menacing. God throws in a yellow bright glow. He is a very old and wise man with long white hair and a white beard. He holds a sceptre and the imperial ball like the German Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

Mary sits in a closed garden, a symbol of medieval iconography. The closed garden is a reference to the Song of Songs of the Bible, in which are sung the virtues of the virgin before her marriage. In Grünewald’s’ painting rose bushes grow all around Mary. This also was a symbol as used in many German paintings in which Mary is seated in a rose garden. Red roses were a symbol of Mary’s love and the red colour refers also to her son’s Passion. There is a door to the left directing to a cellar under the ground. The closed door also is a symbol. It is called the ‘Porta Clausa’. The symbol comes from the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. God showed the Temple to Ezekiel in this vision and brought him also to a closed door at the outer east of the sanctuary. God told Ezekiel: “no one may open it or go through it because the God of Israel had been through it. It must remain shut, but the prince himself may sit there and take his meal in the presence of Jahweh” G38 . On the door is the sign of the cross, awaiting the Child. High blue, icy mountains rise behind Mary and the highest mountain looks like a volcano spewing red fire and smoke into the sky. A church and its abbey are painted on the mountains; a tower also was a medieval symbol of chastity. Out of the red sky emerge angels or devils, strange flying creatures. The mountain volcano rises almost out the head of the Virgin, as if to indicate that every human can be both a source of love and of the hottest passion. Again a scene of the Virgin as we have not seen before in any other painter of Gothic or Renaissance times.

The ‘Annunciation’ panel is more traditional. The Angel who announces to Mary that she will be pregnant of the Chosen has all flowing robes as can be found in many German, especially Nuremberg paintings. Mary delicately keeps her head away, out of modesty but maybe also in a gesture of refusal or disbelief. The Angel manipulates with his will and his hand pointing at Mary’s head directly targets the Virgin’s own will. This cannot be refused, has to be accepted. Mary is a simple German girl. She has a round uncomplicated face, with long hair as Mary Magdalene, the long hair that in the Crucifixion is all hidden under the nun’s cap. The Annunciation theme is set in the interior of a Gothic cathedral. Grünewald created a strong illusion of space and depth. On the ceiling we remark menacing organic volutes, the exaggeration of late Gothic enhanced to a deranging effect. Mary is always shown in medieval Annunciation themes reading from the Book of Wisdom at the moment the angel meets her. In Grünewald’s picture, a book lies open before her but on a Bible citation from the prophet Isaiah: ‘Ecce Vigio concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel’, meaning, ‘A virgin will conceive and give birth to a child called Emmanuel’. The prophet Isaiah stands in grisaille like a statue of the past against the beams of the cathedral but Grünewald showed him as a malicious wizard. The books, among which maybe the Book of Wisdom, lie on a chest in front of Mary. This chest may represent the Ark of the Covenant into which Moses laid the tables of the Law of Israel. Grünewald painted Mary’s robe marvellously in all detail of its chiaroscuro. But more remarkable even are the flowing robes of the angel, painted in a way, as we are familiar with from the Nuremberg masters. This angel also has fiery red wings, which are more the wings of battle than the white wings of spiritual purity.

The panel of the ‘Conversation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul’ represents the two hermits in an oriental landscape. It is a scene as told in the Golden Legend. The two saints are seen in conversation and Grünewald painted a lively scene of that. Paul is dressed in leaves of the palm tree that can be seen in the background, as told in the Golden Legend too. Above the hermits flies the raven with two pieces of bread in its beak. This raven brought one piece of bread each day, until to Paul’s astonishment it brought one day two pieces. That same day Anthony called on Paul. Below the figure of Saint Anthony one can remark, on the rock, the armouries of the praeceptor of Isenheim and commissioner of the painting, Guido Guersi. The armouries are a blue Saint Andreas cross and five scallop shells of Saint James. Isenheim lay on the road to Compostella. From the presence of these armouries, one might deduce that in the hermit Anthony Grünewald has also represented the figure of Guido Guersi. There are also similarities between the Anthony of this panel and the Anthony of the front panel. But whether these figures are really portraits of Guido Guersi remains a conjecture, as we have no writings from the lifetime of Grünewald on the altarpiece, attesting to anything of the history and story of the paintings. Behind the two hermits Grünewald painted a luxurious landscape. The two men met in Egypt, so Grünewald placed a palm tree in a landscape of strange, un-German inspiration. Below, at the feet of the hermits are various plants that all have been recognised for their medicinal properties. Several or all of these plants must have been used in the hospital of Isenheim and Grünewald must have seen them in the botanical garden, in the pharmacy or kitchen of Isenheim.

In ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ we seem to find back the Grünewald of the fantastic, mystic and unrestrained passionate violence we already met. Monstrous creatures, vultures, dragons and bodies covered with pustules emerge from everywhere around Saint Anthony. The creatures bring destruction everywhere. Of a house or farm there remain only the charred beams. No living nature is near: this is desolate mountain land where all trees have died to naked trunks. The beasts are tearing at Anthony’s hair but the Saint desperately clings to a stake of wood in the ground. We only see his magnificent blue robe and a small white-bearded face amidst the torments. A nightmare as only Jeroen Bosch, who was one generation younger than Grünewald, could have seen. As all panels, we admire here the intensity of the colours, which are the main means of expression of the artist.

Mathis Gothart Neithart

Mathis Gothart Neithart was born around 1470 or 1480, probably in the town of Würzburg. Würzburg is a town in a part of Germany called Unter-Franken in Bavaria. Most of the town lies on the right side of the river Main. Würzburg was an Archbishopric and an important town in which several Conferences of the German Nation or ‘Reichstäge’ with the emperors were held. Once a year all German Princes who were the Electors of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation gathered, to discuss matters of politics and highest justice of the country, together with their elected Emperor. The German parliament building in Berlin is still called the ‘Reichstag’. The meeting or parliament is called usually in English the Diet and the word ‘Tag’ can best be read as ‘Tagung’ or meeting. The Reichstag was also the event at which the Emperor could call the Emperor’s Ban on somebody, in German the old word is ‘Acht’, and stronger a conviction was the ‘Aberacht’. Würzburg was not the main Reichstag town however. Augsburg, Nuremberg and Worms saw more important of such meetings.

Würzburg is best known for three events, the first of which may be of special interest to us as Mathis Gothart Neithart is concerned.

First, it was the town in which worked the Gothic wood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, called the ‘Master of Würzburg’, who settled there in 1483. Mathis the Painter must have seen and been impressed by Riemenschneider’s wooden sculptures. Maybe he was for the first time impressed by the art of Tilman Riemenschneider, introduced in another world of emotions and passions than Germany had known till then. Riemenschneider was a very realistic sculptor, but primarily interested in the expression of faces and bodies, not unlike Grünewald later. Riemenschneider made the wooden sculptures of the altarpieces for the surrounding towns such as Creglingen and Rothenburg. He made the Saint-Henry and Cunegonde tomb of the cathedral of Bamberg and of course he sculpted statues for the Saint-Kilian Dom church of Würzburg itself.

Secondly, in 1525, in the last years of Master Mathis, the Peasants Armies in revolt, led by Götz von Berlichingen took the town. Wolfgang von Goethe later wrote a play centred on von Berlichingen, depicting him as a Romantic hero of freedom. At the death of the painter a copy of the manifesto of the peasants’ revolt, the ‘Twelve Articles’, was found in his possession.

The last important event in Würzburg was that Balthazar Neumann built here in 1720 to 1744 the Residence of the Prince-Bishops that is now considered one of the main masterpieces of Rococo art. The Venetian Giovanni Battista Tiepolo decorated this palace.

Würzburg had a university founded in 1402, which had fallen into decay in Grünewald’s days, but which was re-instated in 1582 and became one of the most important Catholic universities of Germany and of course of Catholic Bavaria. From 1811 on it had the first Music Academy of Germany.

Grünewald travelled a lot, working where he could get a commission. From 1509 on he painted mainly in Aschaffenburg, not far from Würzburg. Aschaffenburg lies also to the right of the river Main, about halfway between Würzburg and Frankfurt-am-Main, situated likewise in Unter-Franken. It was a very old town, dating from Roman times, belonging until the end of the German Empire to the Electors of Mainz, after that to Bavaria. Aschaffenburg has a castle that was from the seventeenth century on the summer residence of the Princes of Mainz. Aschaffenburg was the seat of an Archbishop and these Archbishops had enclosed the town in heavy fortifications. Both Würzburg and Aschaffenburg had much to suffer in the Thirty-Year War of the seventeenth century. Both towns were besieged and taken several times. Its Stiftskirche or main church contains the painting ‘The Deploring of Christ’ made by Matthias Grünewald in 1525. Grünewald worked in Aschaffenburg, first for Archbishop Uriel von Gemmingen, and later for Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg. He may have been not just a painter, but also already an architect and engineer.

Grünewald also worked in Frankfurt in 1510 and 1511. He painted a now destroyed altarpiece there, for which the great Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg made the central panel. Some of the grace of this Nuremberg painter can be found back in the flowing robes of the angel of the ‘Annunciation’.

The Order of the Anthonites

Late in the year 1511, maybe only in 1512, Matthias Grünewald was called to Isenheim in the Alsace and he worked there on the altarpiece until about 1516. The Alsace region is now in France, but it had been since always under German influence. Its feudal lord was the German Emperor. In Isenheim, now Issenheim near the town of Guebwiller south of Colmar was a praeceptory founded in 1298 by the Anthonites. This praeceptory was also a hospital where skin diseases were treated. The hospital treated the diseases called ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’, or the ‘illness of the ardents’, the ‘ignis sacer’ or ‘sacred fire’. This disease was ergotism, caused by the fungus claviceps purpurea of rye. The fungus’ spores settle in the flowers of rye. Instead of the rye the grains then develop a sclerotium that falls on the ground, survives through the winters and develops new fungus. When the sclerotii are mixed with normal rye however, bread can become poisonous. A person poisoned by such bread and who became chronically ill, itched all over, hence the name of ‘Anthony’s fire’. But the disease could take more acute forms, lead to gangrene and loss of toes or fingers, probably because arteries were obstructed so that limbs needed to be amputated. Acutely poisoned people got miserably sick, had to vomit, suffered from headaches. Their bodies were covered with pustules. The weakest died. This disease was not easily cured. The sick needed a long cure. The Anthonites gave the sick to eat Saint Anthony’s bread, which was unpolluted bread without the fungi. The Anthonites knew many remedies to heal the scars on the skin. But they treated also all other skin diseases caused by bacterial and streptococcal infections which all caused rashes and warm skin: erysipelas, carbuncles and the like.

The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that demons tore at Anthony so savagely that everyone thought he was dead. But Anthony regained consciousness and challenged the devils to renew the fight. Wild beasts tore now cruelly at his flesh with teeth, horns and claws. But a wonderful light shone suddenly, and Anthony’s wounds were cured. The Lord told that he had not intervened first, because he had wanted to see how Anthony would fight. Since Anthony had fought manfully, his name would be known all over the earth. Saint Anthony was thus often associated with skin wounds and the healing of lacerations of the flesh.

Matthias Grünewald was called to his Isenheim hospital. He had seen there the horrors of the skin diseases of some patients in terminal phase. He may have recalled his sins. He may have been scared to be afflicted by the same disorders and have imagined the horrors on his own flesh. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of the hospital. Grünewald painted Anthony amidst the devilish attacks of pestilence and the worst, fantastic horrors he could imagine. He also painted Jesus as one of the sick. This kind of image must have been extremely powerful for the people who were being taken care of in the abbey. Grünewald had understood the sick and felt very close to these people.

Pope Urbanus II founded the Order of the Hospitallers of Saint Anthony in 1095. They wore black robes with a blue cross. They rode about wearing little bells to attract alms. These bells later were hung around the necks of animals to protect them from disease. The bells became a symbol of the Anthonites. In the ‘Virgin with Child’ panel not of the Isenheim altar but of a painting that is now in Stuppach, and also of Grünewald, Mary holds such a bell for Jesus to play with. These small bells were even taken on by the twentieth century Surrealist painter René Magritte to one of his major themes. Particular about the Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony also was that in the Middle Ages their swine were allowed to roam the streets of the cities, thus being the medieval cleaning service. Or their pigs were allowed special grazing rights, as the bells distinguished them. The pigs’ lard then was also considered a remedy for Saint Anthony’s fire. The bells could drive off evil spirits, alluding to Anthony’s temptation while a hermit.

The Anthonites had an important chapter house in the Dauphiné region in France. They founded a praeceptory in Issenheim around 1290 to 1313, as one of the over forty establishments of the Order. Issenheim was a praeceptory or a ‘praeceptoriae subditae’. Jean d’Orlier was at its head from 1470 to 1490. He voluntary resigned from this post in 1490. This Jean d’Orlier ordered the wooden sculptures to be made around 1486. This was the base of the altarpiece, as we still know it now. Guido Guersi succeeded on Jean d’Orlier. Guersi is an italianised form of Guers, a French family name of the Dauphiné. Guersi (ca. 1445-1526) ordered the panels for d’Orlier’s wooden sculptured altarpiece in 1511.

Saint Anthony himself was an Egyptian abbot who lived from around 250 to 350. He lived a part of his life as a hermit and underwent a series of temptations, which are found back on many pictures of the following centuries, up to the famous painting of Salvador Dali. Anthony the Great was thus considered the founder of monasticism.

Anthony is usually painted as an old man, bearded, wearing a monk’s cloak as the father of monasticism. He usually has a stick with a tau-shaped (T) handle like a crutch. This may simply be the emblem of the medieval monk helping the crippled and infirm. But tau, the Egyptian cross, was also a symbol of immortality in ancient Egypt. In the panel of the ‘Temptation of Anthony’, a small strip of paper down below in the right corner contains the words that Saint Anthony called out to God during his temptation. On the paper can be read, ‘Ubi eras, Jesus bone, ubis era quare non affuisti ut sanares vulnera mea?’ Or, ‘Where were you, good Jesus, and why were you not present to heal my wounds?’ Again we find here not words of solace but terms of protest, of scorn, of despair for God did not intervene and has let sickness and sin overcome Anthony. That phrase must of course have struck also the cords of protest in the viewers at Isenheim who had come to the praeceptory in sickness and misery and who must have felt abandoned by God.

In Grünewald’s scene Saint Anthony is thrown on the ground by the horrible creatures around him. These tear at his hear and drag him over the ground. This form of representation as well as the figure of Anthony himself, with the white hair torn away from his forehead, remarkably resembles a same scene of the ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ painted by Jeroen Bosch. The similarity is so striking that it seems almost impossible that Grünewald had not seen Bosch’s picture or engravings of it. The coincidence is obvious. It could mean that Grünewald had travelled in Brabant, which after all was not so far from the Alsace region and also part of the German Empire.

According to an account of Saint Jerome, Saint Anthony was supposed to have met Saint Paul, the first hermit, just before Paul’s death. A raven dropped out of the sky a loaf of bread, which became the ‘Saint Anthony’s bread’ with miraculous healing power. Lions dug Paul’s grave. Grünewald painted this meeting of Anthony and Paul also on a panel of the Isenheim altar so that the Hospitallers of Anthony could show the story of the Holy Bread. The Order of the Hospitallers of Saint Anthony does not exist anymore. It was abolished during the French Revolution and replaced by other orders of Hospital Brothers. That was also the time when the altarpiece was removed from the old hospital of Isenheim and transferred to Colmar.

The legend of Saint Anthony’s bread was reminded for a very long time in folklore of Western Europe. Even after the Second World War, bakers in many towns baked once a year particularly small breads; so small that they could fit in a palm of a hand, and made without salt or yeast. These breads were blessed at a very early hour in the Catholic Church of the parish and then eaten by the families before breakfast. This was supposed to protect one for a year from bites of animals, like from wandering dogs with rabies.

The Altarpiece

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Anthonite praeceptory of Isenheim was prosperous. It attracted the wealthy, nobles and merchants with skin diseases, from far around. Its abbot, Guido Guersi, an Italian Hospitaller knight, invited Grünewald to decorate the panels of an altarpiece of which the central part were three wooden statues of Saint Anthony flanked by Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, made by the wood sculptor Niklas Hagenauer around 1486.

Saint Augustine was a bishop who had established rules for monastic orders. The rules of the Anthonites were deduced from these. So Augustine was often considered a spiritual father for the Anthonite Order. At the feet of Augustine is a small statue of the donor of the altarpiece, Jean d’Orlier. He was the praeceptor of Issenheim from 1470 to 1490. On the other side of Anthony, to the right, is a statue of Saint Jerome who assembled the vulgate Bible, the official Catholic version of the New Testament. He can be recognised at the lion and his cardinal’s hat.

The panels close twice on the central statues. Grünewald was asked to paint scenes of the life of Christ on these wooden panels. In medieval times, sculpture was evidently more important than painting. For altarpieces, painting served as a decoration for sculptures and often panels imitated statues in that the painters made grisaille pictures in which the figures were shown standing fixedly like stone statues. The altarpiece of Isenheim was no exception since the paintings of Grünewald were commissioned long after the central sculptures. These had been commissioned first by Jean d’Orlier, the preceding praeceptor of Isenheim. Grünewald’s paintings decorated the panels that protected the casing with the sculptures. Moreover, on the two side panels Grünewald painted Saint Sebastian and Saint Anthony as statues on a pedestal. Jean d’Orlier ordered the sculptures to have an altarpiece for the church of Isenheim from Niklas Hagenauer, Nicholas of Hagenau, who was well known in the Alsace region and who also worked in the cathedral of Strasbourg, the largest town of the region.

The altarpiece consists of two pairs of mobile panels, two fixed panels next to these and a long, narrow supporting predella underneath. On the predella is painted the ‘Entombment’, but this also on two panels that open. When the predella is open one sees another set of wooden statues, representing Jesus amidst his Apostles, made by Sebastian Beychel. When all panels of the very altarpiece are open, one admires on the first panel to the right the ‘Conversation of Anthony and Paul’ and to the right the ‘Temptation of Anthony’. When these panels are closed, the viewer sees the ‘Nativity’ to the right and to the left the ‘Concert of the Angels’. These are flanked by two other panels, the ‘Annunciation’ to the right, and the ‘Resurrection to the left. The painting that closes on all panels, is the ‘Crucifixion’. So when all panels are closed, the spectator sees the Crucifixion flanked by Saint Sebastian on the left and Saint Anthony on the right. In all the Grünewald altarpiece of Isenheim consist of ten painted panels. It is therefore one of the most important and most imposing pieces of art that has come to us from Germany.

One of the fixed panels painted by Grünewald is Saint Anthony. This might be a portrait of the wise Guido Guersi in the dark robes of a Hospitaller of the Order of Saint Anthony. Here also is a reference to Anthony’s temptation since a devil breaks through the Gothic glass window above Anthony. The panel on the other side, the left one when one stands before the altar-piece, is a picture of Saint Sebastian, the other Saint whose sufferings are well known since he was shot by arrows and clubbed to death. Saint Sebastian was since old one of the plague saints, the saints to which men and women appealed to be spared from the plague or to be cured from it. A picture of Sebastian was thus also in its place in a hospital where skin diseases were treated. The Saint Sebastian could be a self-portrait of Grünewald as a tortured man. How could it be otherwise?

When the altarpiece is completely closed one sees the Crucifixion with the two fixed panels of Sebastian on the left and Anthony on the right. The two central panels thus form but one scene. But Grünewald could hardly have painted Jesus exactly in the middle because then Jesus’ body would have to be painted in one half on each panel. This would not only have been difficult, but also un-respectful. Grünewald chose to paint the crucified Christ entirely on the right panel. He positioned the imposing figure of John the Baptist also on this right side. Christ is shown quite longer than the other figure son the panels, which was also a medieval habit. So Grünewald had to balance the figures on the right panel with a lower but larger mass on the left. He did that in his composition by positioning here Mary, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene closely placed together. These form a heavy, compact mass that balances the other figures that are more shifted to the right side. Such effects of balance can also be seen on other panels so that Grünewald must have been a genius artist of much intelligence, with a keen feeling for composition. Another example of intelligence in composition to support the theme is on the middle opening. When all the panels here are opened, the altarpiece shows from left to right the Annunciation, the ‘Concert of the Angels’, Nativity and the Resurrection. There is a definite line, direction of view, which goes from the foremost angel musician over Mary of the nativity to the rising Jesus of the Resurrection.

Underneath the altarpiece is the long but narrow predella, covered with the panels of the Entombment. When one looks from a distance at the whole, one sees that John the Baptist points with his arm and finger at the head of the other John who is supporting Mary. This John holds his head slightly inclined to the left and when one follows the line made by the finger and the head of John, one arrives at the head of Sebastian. And this figure could be Grünewald. So, John the Baptist points at the painter of the panels. Guersi/Anthony is fully clad but Sebastian only holds a red toga in front of him. Is that an indication of the humility of the painter? One starts also to understand that the writings over the arm of John the Baptist, ‘He will increase while I will decrease’, may have been written as the personal pledge of the painter Grünewald.

Very remarkable also, when seen from a distance, are the red colour areas of the closed altarpiece: Sebastian and Anthony are in red clothes, so are John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

From 1516 on, Matthias Grünewald probably worked for the Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, who was the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg. Albrecht von Brandenburg had succeeded in 1514 on Uriel von Gemmingen. Würzburg depended from Mainz. Mathis Gothart Neithart was the water-architect of the Archbishop. He worked probably on the water works for the gardens of the castles. Matthias Grünewald was mainly the Archbishop’s court painter. Albrecht von Brandenburg was also since 1518 the main Cardinal of Germany for the Catholic Church. This was because Mainz was the first town of Germany ever to have a bishop. The first Archbishop of Mainz had been Saint Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon monk who had evangelised the largest parts of Germany in the eighth century, protected by the Frankish King Charles Martel. This same Boniface had founded the Bishopric of Würzburg. Grünewald continued to work for Aschaffenburg however, which also depended from Mainz. He painted for instance for the Marie-Schnee or Mary-Snow chapel of the Stiftskirche, the dean church of the town.

The painting ‘Virgin Mary with Child’ that is now in Stuppach near Würzburg was made for this Marie-Schnee chapel of Aschaffenburg. It is again a masterpiece of pure colours. Mary is in the middle of the painting in magnificent robes, dressed as a queen. She has the long hair and the same features as the Mary of the Isenheim altar. Here also her robe is red brocade, her cloak the traditional blue maphorion. Mary forms a solid pyramid that dominates the picture. Marie-Schnee means Mary Snow and so is Mary’s face: very snow-white, as are her hands and the nude body of her baby Jesus. Mary and Jesus have hair of the same colour, German blond-red. We have a nicely laughing baby here however, not the anxious looking child of the Isenheim panel. The baby is playing with what could be a small bell that Mary holds affectionately. The environment also is splendid. There are many flowers around: the thorn-less red Mary’s roses and the white lilies of virginal purity are to the right. To the left are further lush green bushes, but these are thorn bushes that wind around a wooden cross, symbols of Jesus’ Passion and of his crowning with thorns.

The structure of the painting has clear lines. There is the triangle of Mary in bright colours. Another triangle cuts the panel obliquely in two: there is a line going from the upper right, from the top of the cathedral over the heads of Mary and the Child to the lower left bottom corner. This guides our eye to that lower left corner, where food and drink stands to give the appearance of an uncomplicated family scene, as in the Isenheim panel. A reference to the Holy Mass? Then, the Marie-Schnee panel is separated in an upper and a lower part by a horizontal line. On the lower part are the flowers whereas the upper part contains a village and town scene. To the left is the village, with a shack of beehives. On the right is a mighty cathedral with a high Gothic front. Connecting village and cathedral is a rainbow, which also forms the larger halo for Mary. The bright colours continue in the sky, where we find back the golden-red colours of the skies of Grünewald, here in the Godly vision piercing through the bluish clouds. Next to Mary a tree trunk takes our eyes to the heavens on the opposite side.

From 1520 on, Grünewald seems to have worked mostly in Halle and der Saale, an important town in Saxony that depended from the diocese of Magdeburg, and thus had the same Archbishop Albrecht who was Archbishop both of Mainz and of Magdeburg. Albrecht von Brandenburg built his new residence palace in Halle, as he was also the archbishop of Magdeburg. It is interesting to look at a map and glance at the more western towns where Grünewald remained: Würzburg, Aschaffenburg, and even Isenheim are not so far from Mainz. On the other side then, in the Saxony of Leipzig, with Dresden and Berlin in the vicinity, lie Magdeburg and Halle. Grünewald changed regions, but the connecting person was the Archbishop of Mainz-Magdeburg who simply commissioned works for Grünewald in his various fiefs.

Grünewald worked for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg at the Saint Maurice church of Halle. He worked certainly in Halle from 1520 to 1523. Now look at the map again. Next to Halle, but very close by, on the river Elbe and not on the Saale, lies the town of Wittenberg. And in Wittenberg started and happened probably the most important events that European Christendom has known since the birth and Passion of Christ. For here worked Martin Luther at Wittenberg University. Luther would change European Christianity forever.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483, somewhat later than Grünewald, in Eisleben. His father, Hans Luther, soon moved to the town of Mansfeld where he became a man of some distinction since he was one of the Counsellors of the town. Martin spent his childhood in Mansfeld, but from his fourteenth on studied in the Latin schools of Magdeburg and Eisenach. In 1501 he went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He learned more the ancient rules of dialectic and the classics however, and after he had become a Magister in 1505, he started to read Aristoteles. In July of 1505 he went through a profound religious period, maybe accentuated by his loneliness and the fears that at that age besiege all young people, which left him in fear for his soul’s salvation. He became a monk and entered the Augustine abbey in Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. The Vicar general of the Augustines for Germany, Johann von Staupitz, remarked him in the abbey.

Johann von Staupitz was a friend of the Elector Friedrich der Weise, Frederick the Wise, of Saxony. Frederick had just founded in 1502 a new university in the old residence town of the princes of Saxony that is in Wittenberg. The princes of Saxony in fact were called of Saxony-Wittenberg. Frederick was an important man in Germany, probably its most influential Elector. And he was looking for bright men for his university. Von Staupitz recommended Martin Luther.

In 1508, Luther became a Professor of Philosophy and Dialectic at Wittenberg University. In those times, Wittenberg university was very popular because contrary to the universities of Leipzig and Erfurt, one did not have to study theology and philosophy there to obtain a degree in medicine or law. So the university quickly grew. In Luther’s time there were about one thousand students studying in Wittenberg. Later that number would grow to several thousand. Luther also preached at the church of the castle. He liked Wittenberg, could study the Bible in its old languages, Greek and Hebrew, and he became also a Doctor in Theology in 1512. In the meantime, however he had made in 1510 a travel to Rome that had profoundly shocked him. He saw the decadence of the town and the results of the Papal court of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI who had reigned till 1503, then the splendour of the court and the Italian wars of Julius II.

In 1515 however, Leo X had succeeded Julius II as Pope. Julius II had started to build the magnificent new Saint Peter cathedral with Bramante as architect. Julius II wanted to make his new church the sign of the triumphant reign of the Roman Catholic Popes and Leo X shared these views. This Pope ardently wanted to continue the work of his great predecessor who had used artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. But he needed money. So he allowed more and more the sale of indulgences. Indulgences could be bought and were very much sought after by any Christian who had some money. Because indulgences could be used, as official acts of the church and so the Pope testified, to redeem one’s sins. When one knows the fear of hell of medieval people, see the pictures of Hieronymus Bosch, one can easily imagine the profitability of the sales.

The trade was much to the spirit of Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, Prime Cardinal of Germany. Pope Leo X charged Albrecht to manage the income from the indulgences for the German Empire. The Cardinal of course shared in the benefits of the sale of indulgences in Germany. Albrecht appointed as his main Commissar for the indulgences trade and sale the Dominican friar Tetzel. Tetzel put his market also down in Wittenberg. And now the story starts for real.

Luther began a dispute with Tetzel. He did not accept the sales, which he compared to the sales in the Temple of Jerusalem against which Jesus had fought. Jesus had thrown all the merchants out of the Temple. When Luther cried and wrote, Tetzel answered. The dispute mounted between the two men. Luther was not a man that could be stopped once he was in a temper. And the more Luther launched his diatribes in Wittenberg church during his preaches, the more people liked the sensational fight and came to listen to Luther.

During this time, Grünewald worked on the altarpiece of the abbey of Isenheim. He stopped painting in Isenheim around 1515 or 1516 and left the town. Another painter arrived however. Hans Holbein the Elder had financial problems in Augsburg. He moved to the abbey of Isenheim where he would stay until his death in 1524.

On October 31 of 1517 Luther nailed 95 phrases of wrath against the sale of indulgences on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. They were rapidly printed and distributed all over Europe. In 1518, Tetzel burned the ‘Neunzig Sätze’ publicly in Frankfurt. Whereupon Luther’s friends burned Tetzel’s letters in Wittenberg. Until now, this had only been a dispute between one monk and another. But now, bye and bye, the Dominicans stood against the Augustines. The dispute mounted in tone. Sylvester Prierias, a Dominican and a Functionary of the Pope, together with the mighty Johannes Eck, vice-chancellor of the university of Ingolstadt, attacked Luther openly and reproached him for promulgating ideas not dissimilar to those of Johann Hus who had been declared a heretic and who had been burned. Luther was even more enraged now, so he started to argue against the whole medieval system of scholastic theories of Papist Catholicism. By that he enlivened Master Hoogstraten of Cologne, who brought the matter to the Pope.

We are now in the year 1518, while Grünewald was working in Aschaffenburg for the Marie-Schnee chapel, but also at the court of Albrecht von Brandenburg, where he heard the prelates talk about the latest religious news.

In this year 1518 was held in Heidelberg a large conference of the Augustine monks. All were in support of their brother Martin Luther. Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General, supported Luther. Many German bishops agreed that some reform was necessary. Luther’s supporters spread the new ideas, for here were words that many had expected but few had dared to say. Bucer, Brennius, Schnepf, and Theobald Billian preached the learning everywhere in Germany. Bucer even joined Zwingli and Bullinger in Switzerland, where a similar movement had started. The Bishop of Würzburg, Lorenz von Bilna, started to fear for Luther however. He asked support and protection from Friedrich der Weise the Elector of Saxony, which was granted. Neither Frederick nor Luther wanted at that time to break with Emperor and Pope, so that when these asked to stop the disputes between monks, Luther heartily agreed. The German Bishops also all still had sympathy for Luther’s ideas, but they grew scared and wanted to put a halt to the disputes that had gone awry. All Germany wanted reconciliation and was prudent about the outcome. But Rome did not stop.

An inquiry into the writings and actions of Luther started in Rome, in which Luther’s opposer Sylvester Prierias took part. This court of inquiry asked Luther to come to Rome within sixty days to justify himself. But both Frederick of Saxony and the German Emperor asked the Pope to let German bishops judge Luther. The letter in which this was stated arrived too late in Rome however. The Pope named the Spanish Cardinal Thomas de Rio, called Cajetanus after his hometown, to begin a procedure to treat Luther as a heretic. Cajetanus had some connections to Germany; he had been the Pope’s Nuntius at a Reichstag in Augsburg before. The Pope thought that Cajetanus might better understand the noisy Germans. Luther in the meantime had printed a book in which he put into question the right of the Pope to condemn, to ban and to excommunicate.

Friedrich der Weise, the Elector of Saxony, still wanted to end the disputes, as was everybody else really, including Luther. So he invited Luther to the Diet of Augsburg of 1519. But Cajetanus in his turn spoke a real diatribe in Augsburg against Luther. It turned so bad that Johann von Staupitz gave Luther a horse and told him to flee.

A Saxon nobleman, Karl von Miltiz, attached to the court of the Pope, tried now in all calm to settle the dispute. Helped by the death of Tetzel, and furthered by talks with Luther, yes Luther promised to join the Pope’s views. But Miltiz continued secret talks with Cajetanus and with the Archbishop of Trier so that the latter summoned Luther to come to Trier. Frederick the Wise and Luther sensed a trap, refused that Luther would go to Trier. Somewhat later however, in a real last effort, Luther accepted and proposed to hold an antagonistic discussion with Johannes Eck.

This now famous oral fight was held in the Pleissenburg castle with arguments and counter-arguments, where ten propositions of Eck were set against thirteen propositions of Luther. Luther mainly argued that the precedence of the Roman Catholic authority was only founded on the decrees of the Roman cardinals, not on the texts of the Holy Writings.

The public discourse ended with a victory of Johannes Eck. Eck was the better scholar, more learned in scholastics and dialectic, a better orator still than Luther was. So, the victorious Johannes Eck travelled to Rome in 1520 to ask the Pope to excommunicate and pronounce the Papal ban Edict on Luther. The Pope, ignorant of the fact that not just some Augustine monks, but now also almost all German imperial cities and many of the princes and even its bishops were tired of Papal pressure, silently gave Eck the bull. While Luther continued his disputes with the Professor of Leipzig, Hieronymus Emser, the bull was handed over on 15 June 1520 by the Papal Nuntii Aleander and Carracioli to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg. This was about at the time that Matthias Grünewald went to work in Halle, close to Wittenberg.

The German bishops refused to publish the bull. Even more: they were really angry of Johannes Eck who spread the bull by himself. By now, having followed these historical events, we have understood that Luther was a typhoon who liked nothing more than being fuelled. His fuels were the critics, arguments of his opponents. Once he had fuel, he could not stop. And the most powerful critic had been delivered: a Papal bull. So, Luther now wrote two documents, dated 1520, ‘An den christlichen Adel Deutscher Nation’ or ‘To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation’ and still later ‘Von der Babylonischer Gefangenschaft der Kirche’, ‘Of the Babylonian Imprisonment of the Church’ in which he urged separation of the real church of faith away from Papal authority. He called the Pope the ultimate anti-Christ and openly preached a new Christian church based on the Bible instead of on the traditional Catholic Church, which was founded in the old feudal ideas whereby all clergy depended from the Pope. And he continued to write to the Pope: ‘Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen’, ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’ and finally ‘Gegen die Bulle eines Anti-Christs’, the final declaration of war to the Pope. Luther repeated openly in writing that the Pope was the real Anti-Christ.

The answer of the Pope was to urge all universities to burn the writings of Luther, which was done in Cologne, Mainz, and at other German university institutions. And Luther of course took this in merely as more fuel. In his turn, he went outside the city of Wittenberg accompanied by a large assembly of adherents and burned publicly, in December 1520, the books of the canonical law of Catholic Church. Luther was now no longer an individual monk in a dispute with other monks. He was the spiritual leader of a growing radical group of relatively young scholars educated in the study of the Bible and the classics who wanted reforms desperately, passionately, and ever more decidedly.

Politically, the times were difficult for Germany. The old knight Emperor Maximilian I had died in 1519. For six months there had been no emperor. Germany had remained under the lead of Friedrich der Weise. An emperor had to be elected by the Prince-Electors of Germany. There were three candidates: François I King of France, Henry VII of England and Charles von Habsburg Duke of Aragon and Castille, the Grandson of Maximilian. None of these men even spoke one word of German. Charles, born in Flanders, in Gent, had been educated in French and that remained his preferred language. Later he spoke at best some very broken German. But he had the support of Friedrich der Weise and more importantly: he could lend the most money of Jacob Fugger the banker of Augsburg. With this money, electors could be bought. So, Charles won and became Emperor Charles V, crowned German Emperor in Aachen in October 1520. He was just twenty years old. We know that Dürer was present at the crowning, so was of course Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg and very probably also Matthias Grünewald. Although very young, Charles V and his counsellors wanted to end the disputes once and for all. Charles decided that an agreement on a solution by all German Electors was necessary and chose the next Diet at Worms of March 1521 as the date.

At first, Luther refused to go to Worms. But the Imperial herald Caspar Storm respectfully came to him and promised him security. So, Luther accompanied by his friends Hieronymus Schirf, Nikolaus von Amsdorf and Justus Jonas made their way in a peasants’ cart to Worms, where they arrived in the begin of April. There they were violently attacked by the same Johannes Eck again, now the Vicar of Trier, together with Aleander, the Pope’s Nuntius. Merely a fortnight after he had arrived, on April 26 Friedrich of Saxony once more fearing for Luther’s safety, smuggled Martin Luther out of Worms, lead him to the Wartburg near Eisenach, and hid him there in the middle of Saxony. This pleading at Worms inspired Romantic historic painters of the nineteenth century. Many pictures were made of the confrontation between Luther and the Catholic bishops and prelates at Worms, a confrontation that was witnessed by Emperor Charles V.

Many of the Electors left Worms in the middle of May. Charles V then threw the Imperial Edict, the old ‘Acht’ and ‘Aberacht’ ban over Luther. But he did this on May 26 when most Electors had left Worms, yet dated the Edict as May 8. What must have angered most Luther was that the Emperor asked Luther’s old opponent Nuntius Aleander to write the text of the Edict. All adherents of Luther were now formally declared heretics, their books had to be burned, Luther was to be imprisoned, all goods of his supporters were forfeited and were to be confiscated. A second Edict forbade all new changes to the Catholic religion in Germany.

Albrecht von Brandenburg

During that time, Matthias Grünewald worked in and for Halle. Around 1520 to 1524 he painted for the Saint Maurice church of Halle. In particular he made a picture there of the meeting between Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice, which is now in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich. Albrecht von Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz-Magdeburg and Cardinal of Germany of course commissioned the painting. It seems that Grünewald has given Saint Erasmus the face of Albrecht. The painting was left in the Saints Peter and Alexander Church of Aschaffenburg, although it was commissioned for the Saint Maurice church of Halle.

The bishop is splendidly dressed, all in brocaded gold. He wears an imposing tiara and he is really shown in all the magnificence of a Prince of the Church. Opposite him is a Moorish knight in armour. Saint Maurice was usually depicted as a Moor. The golden dazzling brightness of Saint Erasmus contrasts with the armour of Maurice. Saint Erasmus is better known as Saint ElmoE5. He was tortured and died around AD 300 during a persecution of Emperor Diocletianus. There are many legends around this bishop. One of those legends is that he preached during a thunderstorm. He remained unperturbed by a thunderbolt that struck close to him. Has Grünewald used this symbol, just as Lucas Cranach, to indicate Archbishop Albrecht as a bishop in the midst of a storm, the storm of a reform that would shake all his beliefs in Catholic Church? By this legend Saint Erasmus became the patron saint of sailors, who of course feared storms and sought help from a saint who remained stoic in storms. And at sea, after thunderstorms, remnant electricity is attracted by the mastheads of ships, giving visual effects called Saint Elmo’s fire, thought to be a sign of the protection of the saint. In Grünewald’s painting the bishop holds a staff, which is in fact a windlass, to turn ropes, a reminiscence of Erasmus/Elmo being the patron saint of sailors.

Saint Maurice, who confronts Erasmus in Grünewald’s painting, was an officer of the Theban legion, part of Emperor Maximian’s army that marched into Gaul. The Theban legion was constituted of Christians recruited in Egypt. Hence the black face of Maurice. When Maximian’s army was victorious in Gaul, it stayed near Lake Geneva to say thanks and make sacrifices to the heathen Gods. The Theban legion did not want to join in the heathen practices and withdrew to a place in the sweet Wallis region of Switzerland, a place now called Saint-Maurice. More so, Maurice as the spokesman of the Theban legion professed not only to one single God. He refused to renounce the one true God, but he also spoke loud against the killing of the innocent Christians of Gaul. Maximian, according to the ‘Golden Legend’, murdered the entire Theban legion. Saint Maurice became a patron saint of soldiers, and in particular of the Swiss guards of the Vatican.

So, in Grünewald’s painting a soldier faces Saint Erasmus. A soldier professing the true faith in one God and protesting against the killing of other Christians. Whether indeed willed so or not by Grünewald, one can see in this a symbol of the struggle going on in the German Catholic Church between the magnificence of the traditional authority now based on gold and outer pomp (Erasmus-Cardinal Albrecht) and the representative of the true inner faith ready to defend itself as a simple soldier (Maurice). One can also but note the similarity in the names of the Roman Emperor Maximian and the late German Emperor Maximilian. But in Grünewald’s painting the two opposers continue to argue and to talk. They are ready for the fight, but they are not at that yet.

There was a namesake to Saint Erasmus, a Humanist scholar also called Erasmus. This Erasmus and Archbishop Albrecht corresponded. Albrecht was also known as a Humanist. Erasmus knew the Emperor Charles V quite well for he had been invited by one of the educators of the young Charles at the court of Mechelen. This teacher of Charles was Adriaan Boeyens who would later become Pope Adrian VI. The encounters between Charles, Adriaan Boeyens, Erasmus and other teachers were also a subject for historical paintings of the nineteenth century. It is remarkable how all the actors of the drama knew each other and each other’s ideas, had even sympathy for each other’s concepts, yet in the end diverged and confronted as enemies.

During his last years, Matthias Grünewald lived in Halle and der Saale that was so close to Wittenberg. In the nineteenth century the universities of Wittenberg and of the then larger Halle were even merged. So, Grünewald lived in the immediate surroundings of the Prime Cardinal of Germany. He heard all the ecclesiastics talk about the new faith. Even the Cardinal Albrecht himself was sympathetic to some reform. He supported and protected Luther as long as he could or deemed in his interest. But Albrecht was too much a Prince of the traditional church to take sides with the revolutionary Martin Luther. Grünewald however, who was possessed as we can see in the panels of his Isenheim altarpiece by a true inner fire, may have chosen the opposite side. Mathis Gothart Neithart must have became a Lutheran, as testify the papers found in his heritage. He had to leave the service of Cardinal Albrecht and died in 1528 a very poor man.

A contemporary painter to Matthias Grünewald was Lucas Cranach the Elder. Lucas Cranach was in service to Friedrich der Weise from 1504 to 1508. In the 1520s he worked for Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg and knew him well. Later on Lucas Cranach worked also for Martin Luther, whose friend he became D6. Lucas Cranach painted a portrait of the Cardinal Albrecht, as the cardinal is humbly knelt before the Holy Cross. This painting was made for the main Church of Aschaffenburg D3 and on commission of Albrecht himself. The Cardinal wears the long red cardinal’s robe, but no special jewels or adornment. The picture is an image of humility. The Cardinal has a somewhat weak and still young face with puffy cheeks. This is a person who likes to live well, to eat and drink to a full stomach. Lucas Cranach has not embellished him. The painter added a somewhat arrogant, sceptic line of mouth and small, direct eyes. The scene is Golgotha at the moment when the skies darken and a thunderstorm threatens. Can this be a sign of the dark clouds that were amassing over the Catholic Church at the time the painting was made? Albrecht certainly needed a strong mind and steadfast line of mouth to steer the German Church.

Albrecht von Brandenburg was a man of the world. He came from one of the noblest families of the German Empire. He was the son of the Elector Johann Cicero of Brandenburg. His brother was the Elector Joachim I Nestor of Brandenburg. In 1513 he became Archbishop of Magdeburg and Administrator of the Bishopric of Halberstadt. The year after he became Archbishop and Elector of Mainz. He was appointed Cardinal in 1518. He liked to stay in Halle and der Saale, but as the reformation advanced he moved more to Mainz; in 1541 he even changed his designated burial place from the Collegiate Church of Halle to the Cathedral of Mainz. That same year he also transferred his art treasures to Mainz, the reason why there are so numerous works of art now in Aschaffenburg. D11

Another painting of Lucas Cranach showed the baker’s daughter Magdalena Redinger who was the mistress of the Cardinal. Cranach showed her as Mary Magdalene, a close theme since the Cardinal’s mistress’ name was also Magdalene. Lucas Cranach showed how rich Magdalena could be dressed. She is on her way to virtue, on the path that leads away from sin, but she still wears all the jewels the Cardinal must have given her around her neck. There are a few symbols in this painting of Mary Magdalene. On the right is a lake with a boat, which may refer to the boat trip over the Mediterranean that the Magdalene made with her companions to arrive at Marseilles. The small mandorla high on the left is a reference to the Magdalene’s life as a hermit in the Provence region of France. But the scene is set in a German forest environment of stags, where the Cardinal von Brandenburg may have hunted. Remark the magnificent way of depicting Mary’s robe and the details with which Cranach painted the luxurious foliage of a tree behind the figure. This tree seems to embrace and to protect her. The Magdalene is dressed in an opulent manner. Lucas Cranach painted various pictures of women dressed this way and all from Bible themes. He painted Judith with the head of Holophernes and Bathseba in her bath dressed just as the Magdalene. It is tempting to combine all these scenes and to put them in the perspective of Cardinal von Brandenburg. Lucas Cranach vowed to Protestantism. He may have disapproved of the Cardinal’s life and in various pictures hinted at the Cardinal’s hidden lack of personal virtue.

Lucas Cranach delivered another painting from his workshop to the Cardinal, a painting on which maybe also Cranach’ son worked. This shows the Cardinal as Saint Jerome, an image that might have flattered the Cardinal since there was no greater scholar in the Roman Catholic sphere than Saint Jerome who had put together the vulgate Bible. There was a tradition of showing Jerome in his study and so the Cardinal Albrecht is shown in his own study, reading from a heavy book. The cardinal is surrounded by many symbols among which typical Jerome icons such as the lion, the Cardinal’s hat, many books and a nearby Crucifix. There are animals around, as may have been in the environment of the cave in which Jerome lived as a hermit. But the Cardinal von Brandenburg certainly did not live as a hermit. The animals may add to the qualities of the Cardinal, but some elements of the picture also have dubious meaning. The pheasant and the peacock may refer to divine immortality and to redemption, but may also have been added to refer to the wealth of the church and to the rich ways the Cardinal lived. The beaver is an emblem of industriousness and constancy. The peacocks are tending their offspring as the Cardinal should tend to his church as a good father, but the family is a family of peacocks and not of sheep. An apple refers to the original sin, the pear to Christ incarnate. An hourglass on the wall warns of passing time and coming death and reckoning before God. Above the Cardinal however hangs a strange chandelier. This kind of chandelier was not uncommon in Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg’s times. It is a ’Leuchterweibchen’ that brings not only light but is also adorned with the bust of a lady. These ladies could have ample décolletés. Some of these chandeliers have been preserved. There is for instance a nice exemplar in the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum of Aachen, dating from the 1520’s. A Leuchterweibchen was quite common in studies. But by hanging such a chandelier above the head of the Cardinal, the painters must have hinted at a secret. Probably Lucas Cranach, or his son or the helpers of his workshop, were hinting at the Cardinal’s mistress Magdalena Redinger. The Cardinal may have had a small portrait of his beloved in his study. Here hangs on the wall behind the Cardinal a picture of the Virgin Mary and her child. Did the Cardinal have a child with his mistress?

We have seen various paintings of Cardinal von Brandenburg made by Lucas Cranach. It is almost unique in the history of art to see how many pictures with almost unconcealed dubious meaning were made by this painter or by his workshop. It is obvious from these pictures that the Lutherans could mock ever more openly the morals of the dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church. Subverting such devote themes as images of Mary Magdalene or Saint Jerome were signs of times of immediate and open crisis in the European Christian church. With these paintings Lucas Cranach showed the growing confidence of the new ideas. The Lutherans had left fear behind them and they knew there was no way back.


The Edict of Worms of 1521 that was supposed to end the conflict in the Church and in the Empire was not enforced. Charles V had a war to wage against François I of France in which also the Pope became involved at times. Charles’ brother Ferdinand, who governed the German states in his absence, but who was now also King of Hungary, had to wage a war against the Turks. For ten years Emperor Charles would not set a foot in Germany. He merely ruled out of Spain or Italy, sending letters to the Reichstag stating his opinions. Spanish and German hireling troops would even come to sack Rome in 1527 when in one episode of those wars the Pope had sided with France and allied Italian cities against Charles’ troops. The wars between France, Charles V and the Pope would only end at the Peace of Cambrai, called the ‘Ladies’ Peace’ because the two main persons who worked in the background for the reconciliation were the mother of François I, Louise de Savoie, and the aunt and educator of Charles V, Margaretha of Burgundy. As a final sign of conciliation, in 1530, Charles V was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope in Bologna. He would be the last German Emperor to be crowned by a Pope.

In the meantime, between 1521 and 1530, Luther’s new doctrine was openly preached and practised. Luther worked in the Wartburg castle on his translation of the Bible. He edited the new catechism in 1529. Luther and his friend Melanchton worked at the practical foundation of the reformed religion. Germany was split between the adherents of Luther and the adherents of Pope and Emperor. In favour of the cause of Luther was primarily the powerful Philipp von Hessen who reigned over a very large part of Germany. But Duke Johann von Sachsen, Count Georg von Brandenburg-Ansbach who ruled over Saxony, also took Luther’s side. Furthermore joined in Heinrich von Mecklenburg, Philipp, Otto and Franz von Lüneburg, Anton and Christoph von Oldenburg, Konrad von Tecklenburg, Count Wolfgang von Anhalt, and Duke Albrecht of Preussen. The Councillors of the towns of Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Konstanz, Ulm, Bremen, Reutlingen, Isny, Magdeburg, Lindau, Kempten, and many more, supported Luther. Most remarkable also was that the High Master of the German Knights Order, of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht von Brandenburg-Ansbach of the house Hohenzollern, joined the new league.

These nobles together would found in 1530 the ‘Bund’ or Union of Schmalkalden, so called after the town where they signed the agreement. This Bund would be the unified political force to confront the Emperor. On the other side were the dukes Wilhelm and Ludwig von Bayern, Archduke Ferdinand who was the brother of Charles V, the Archbishop of Salzburg, the Bishops of Trident and Regensburg, of Bamberg, Speier, Augsburg, Passau and others. Bavaria would remain mainly Catholic till today.

In the absence of Charles V his brother Ferdinand lead the Diet meetings. Charles had the Electors accept that Ferdinand would be crowned Roman King in Aachen in 1531. Two of those Reichstäge hold our attention. In 1526 in Speier, a clause was accepted by the Emperor, by which clause religious liberty seemed to be granted. On another Diet at Speier, in 1529, by majority of votes, a text was voted which stated that a National Conclave would be held and that until then all those who had not followed the Edict of Worms would withhold from new changes in religion. Catholic mass would not be abolished, the new religion would not be preached, but also neither goods nor territories of the adherents of the new religion would be forfeited. The outvoted Evangelist Electors formulated a public protest against this text, which they had also formally acted in the Reichstag’s archives. From then on, they would be called Protestants.

We stop here the history of Protestantism. In 1532, as all parties were tired of the dispute, a religious peace was declared until the Papal Council would be organised.

This peace held until 1544. In the years 1520 to 1530, when Grünewald was working in Halle and surroundings, and in the absence of Charles V, two major revolts shook Germany.

The first revolt was a general uprising of the German peasants. There had been peasants’ revolts before: in 1502 called the ‘Bundshuh’ and in 1514, called of the ‘Poor Konrad’. Another revolt broke out in 1524. The peasants wanted a new social contract and soon the whole middle Germany was in uproar. Götz von Berlichingen took Würzburg. Mülhausen, or what is now the town of Mulhouse in the Alsace of France, not so far from Isenheim, was in the hands of Protestant preacher Thomas Münzer. In 1525 at the battle of Königshofen, Götz von Berlichingen’s peasant army was defeated by the army of the German Schwäbische Bund under Richard von Trier, Ludwig von der Pfalz, the Bishop of Würzburg and Duke Otto von Bayern. Philipp von Hessen and Duke Georg von Sachsen defeated Thomas Münzer in 1526 at Frankenhausen. Followed a frightful murdering and torturing of the peasants and their supporters all over those parts of Germany where the revolt has waged, including the Alsace region.

Mathis Gothart Neithart was a sympathiser of the peasants’ movement. He would have been deeply impressed by the injustice done to the peasants however cruel their own revolt. He might have been profoundly shocked by the slaughters that followed the battles where these artisans faced professional soldiers only too keen on killing.

The second revolt was a revolt of German knights. The mightiest and richest robber-knight of the Rhine region, Franz von Sickingen, led it. He wanted to restore the old knights’ traditions; he only recognised the authority of the Emperor. He wanted to free Germany of the Pope and found some support with important cities. It was a revolt of cities and knights against the Prince-Electors. The conspirators had some success, attacked and plundered Trier. But the Elector Philipp von Hessen and the Archbishop of Trier Richard von Greiffenklau, with the formidable army of the Bund, took Franz von Sickingen’s Rhine castles one by one until he had only one left, Landstuhl, in 1523. Von Sickingen, who had found no support from any nobles anymore, was killed in the last battle.

Mathis der Mahler

Mathis Gothart Neithart. There is a whole program in those names. Matthias was an apostle, a follower of Jesus from the very first moment of Jesus’ baptism to his passion, chosen as an apostle very late, and then only to replace Judas. Niethart or Neithart may mean ‘not hard’ or ‘hard in jealousy’. Mathis himself preferred to be called Gothart or ‘hard in God’. And that was also Grünewald. Grünewald tried to put himself completely in the place of the suffering Jesus on the cross and then depict the emotions and details of the horror. He had read the Bible in a way that the words permeated him. He went back to the Bible texts, to the sources, as Luther had done, and as was one of the intellectual drives of the Renaissance. He then transformed the ideas in form but primarily in colour. He was a simple man, considered an artisan, albeit a very good one, no nobleman, and very inferior to the Princes of the Church among which the first was his Archbishop and commissioner Albrecht von Brandenburg. In the end Gothart must have chosen sides according to his conscience, although he must have known it meant rejection by the ones he needed to be able to paint. Hence he chose poverty. He made the choice of the people of Germany. He was a bystander and a participant in the religious reformation that shook Germany and later the whole spiritual world of Europe. His painting of ardour explains some of the reasons that led to Protestantism. If Grünewald was not Gothart Neithart, did he make the same choices or did he remain faithful to Catholicism and to his Cardinal Albrecht?

In that sign Gothart resembled many of the German people of that beginning of the sixteenth century. Renaissance of new ideas also broke through in the German scholars who worked in the proficient German universities. The German scholars chose the side of the people more than the side of intellect and of aristocracy. They did not necessarily considered intellect as a kind of nobility, contrary probably to their Italian confratres and contrary to Italian culture where intellect permeated and elevated society. The Germans went a step down the ladder to reach the city people and the peasants. As the German nineteenth century historian Friedrich Scholler E3 has said, for the next two hundred years the German nation struggled with the question whether its state religion would be a religion for artists, poets, kings, princes, counts and knights or whether it would be a moralistic middle-class religion. In most parts of Germany Protestant faith would win.

Luther did it all. But Martin Luther was a very controversial person. He was fuelled by counter-arguments, could not stand being attacked and always retorted. This went crescendo until the final break. But was Luther in all these events so important? The German people like we can see so clearly in our painter Grünewald was ready for any Luther. Luther found ample following so quickly and in such numbers because the people expected this; they had enough of outward magnificence and wanted to hear again the first message of Jesus, which of course was one of love, pity and poverty. The tension between what they heard and saw of religion and what it should be according to the Gospels was all too obvious. Jesus had put man, whoever he was, at the centre of concern. That was in stark contrast with the outward life of the wealthy Catholic clergy and with the wide gap between the rich and poor of Germany. The people yearned, as we will see over and over again in our history of paintings, of a new, profound and true spirituality. The very signs Matthias Grünewald expressed in his paintings.

The altarpiece of Isenheim has remained almost intact. All the painted panels have been preserved, and most of the sculptures. Only missing is a wooden superstructure with – probably – a statue of God the Father. This was the crowning piece on top of the casing. The altarpiece remained at Isenheim until 1793. Then came the French Revolution. The Republican Commissars Casimir Karpff (who was also a painter and a student of Jacques-Louis David) and Jean-Pierre Marquaire, a magistrate, took the altarpiece to the National District Library of the Alsace in Colmar. The church of the Anthonites was destroyed in 1831 but parts remained and these can be seen today. The altarpiece remained in its new place until 1852. Then the convent of Unterlinden was transformed in a regional museum. During the First World War the panels were transported to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, where they remained until 1919. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the panels were brought to the Castle of Lafarge close to Limoges in France. From 1940 to 1945 they remained safe in the cellars of the Hoch-Königsburg in the Alsace.

The message and passion of Grünewald continued to inspire artists. The German composer Paul Hindemith worked in Berlin until 1935. He had composed a symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ in 1934 on request of the Berlin orchestra leader Furtwängler and he worked on an opera with same name from that year to 1938, in which he expressed Mathis Gothart Neithart’s doubts on society. This was not to the taste of the Nazi regime that had come to power in Germany in 1933. The Nazis associated him with decadent, modern art. Hindemith was defended by the great orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, but in vain. Furtwängler even resigned from most of his official posts. ‘Mathis der Maler’ was performed for the first time in Zürich in 1938, in Switzerland and not in Germany. Hindemith’s music was very modern and inspired by religion. Hindemith’s music was forbidden. History repeated itself. Again, an artist who primed individual thought and honest introspection was forbidden to work.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.