A detail of Grünewald’s Crucifixion, the central panel of the Isenheim alterpiece, is the cover image for John Willett’s 1970 survey of Expressionism, published by the World University Library. (Willett’s obituary from the 22 August 2002 The Guardian is here; a critic and translator well worth remembering.) The Crucifixion, which long languished unvisited and unappreciated, was rediscovered by the early Expressionists in both art and literature, as the below excerpt from Huysmans’ Là-Bas (1891) suggests; in 1938, Paul Hindemith based his opera Mathis der Maler upon the painter’s life and career. (Hindemith has been categorized as both an Expressionist and New Objectivist composer, this latter after his music had developed into a form of neoclassicism in the 1920s, inspired by collaborator Bertolt Brecht and quite different from Stravinsky’s neoclassicism.) The fixing of Christ’s body in a position of abject suffering — “at the opposite pole from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since the Renaissance,” as Huysmans described it — uniquely inspired the Expressionists with the physical and sensual nature of the physical and spiritual suffering of humankind. Certainly this could not, in the common definition of the word, be called “beautiful”; it does, however, exemplify the most important property of the “sublime” work of art, as Edmund Burke would define it: “tranquillity tinged with terror.” (A larger image of the above graphic is instructive.)
There are few geniuses like Grünewald, and it is commonly conceded that the Isenheim alterpiece is the greatest work of his career. But the traits evidenced by the Crucifixion have significant bearing on the reception of a contemporary Expressionism and New Objectivity, were it ever to make its way back into theatrical practice. The Crucifixion tears its subject from historic and even religious context to render it uniquely contemporary in the experience of the spectator; as Stanley Meisler noted in an essay about the alterpiece (also quoted at more length below; the full essay is of interest), the first to lay eyes on the work were patients in a hospital run by Antonite monks in the town of Isenheim to treat victims of St. Anthony’s Fire:
That disease (now rare and called “ergotism”) struck down many in periodic epidemics during the Middle Ages. Saint Anthony’s fire set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions. Many victims died.
Saint Anthony’s fire came from the poison of a fungus that clung to rye and was inadvertently pounded into the flour used to make rye bread. The cause, however, was not known in Grünewald’s time. The monks treated the sick with a balm made from herbs and other plants and with prayers to Saint Anthony, who was believed to possess miraculous curing powers. The monks also tried to bolster the faith of the sick by reminding them that Christ — and Saint Anthony as well — had suffered even greater torments. Grünewald’s altarpiece played an important mystical and psychological role in the Isenheim treatment program.
We are, unfortunately, not lacking in plagues or famines ourselves; some things do not change.
The essences of ecstasy and suffering, those Platonic Ideals which are the objects of aesthetic contemplation in art, de-individualized and stripped of the personal perspective, are resolutely rejected in most contemporary drama and theatre. Once the Ideal of erotic ecstasy is married to this sensual suffering — and done so through the contemplative prism of the principles of Expressionism and the New Objectivity — drama and theatre, as they did in Europe before 1933, may once again speak to our time. But not until then.
1515, it will be argued, was not 1915. But as the timeless power of the alterpiece indicates, in some aesthetic sense, 1515 was very much 1915, and even 2015. If theatre and drama seek to speak to the body and the spirit, it will do so through transcending the calendar, and constantly return us to our condition, capable of the knowledge of the catastrophic and erotic sublime.
This is Huysmans on the alterpiece in 1891:
Ah, this coarse, tear-compelling Calvary was at the opposite pole from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since the Renaissance. This lockjaw Christ was not the Christ of the rich, the Adonis of Galilee, the exquisite dandy, the handsome youth with the curly brown tresses, divided beard, and insipid doll-like features, whom the faithful have adored for four centuries. This was the Christ of Justin, Basil, Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the apostolic church, the vulgar Christ, ugly with the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, through humility, in the most abject of forms.
It was the Christ of the poor, the Christ incarnate in the image of the most miserable of us He came to save; the Christ of the afflicted, of the beggar, of all those on whose indigence and helplessness the greed of their brother battens; the human Christ, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until such time as no further torture was possible; the Christ with no recourse but His Mother, to Whom — then powerless to aid Him — He had, like every man in torment, cried out with an infant’s cry.
In an unsparing humility, doubtless, He had willed to suffer the Passion with all the suffering permitted to the human senses, and, obeying an incomprehensible ordination, He, in the time of the scourging and of the blows and of the insults spat in His face, had put off divinity, nor had He resumed it when, after these preliminary mockeries, He entered upon the unspeakable torment of the unceasing agony. Thus, dying like a thief, like a dog, basely, vilely, physically, He had sunk himself to the deepest depth of fallen humanity and had not spared Himself the last ignominy of putrefaction.
Never before had naturalism transfigured itself by such a conception and execution. Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds and running sores and bleeding nail holes of the Saviour. Grünewald had passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. A divine light played about that ulcerated head, a superhuman expression illuminated the fermenting skin of the epileptic features. This crucified corpse was a very God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with none of the stock accoutrements except the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns, Jesus appeared in His celestial super-essence, between the stunned, grief-torn Virgin and a Saint John whose calcined eyes were beyond the shedding of tears.
These faces, by nature vulgar, were resplendent, transfigured with the expression of the sublime grief of those souls whose plaint is not heard. Thief, pauper, and peasant had vanished and given place to supraterrestial creatures in the presence of their God.
Grünewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never had artist known such magnificent exaltation, none had ever so resolutely bounded from the summit of spiritual altitude to the rapt orb of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes. From the rankest weeds of the pit he had extracted the finest essence of charity, the mordant liquor of tears. In this canvas was revealed the masterpiece of an art obeying the unopposable urge to render the tangible and the invisible, to make manifest the crying impurity of the flesh and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.
It was without its equivalent in literature. A few pages of Anne Emmerich upon the Passion, though comparatively attenuated, approached this ideal of supernatural realism and of veridic and exsurrected life. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, seeming to spurt forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with the divine befoulment of Grünewald. Hardly, either. Grünewald’s masterpiece remained unique. …
Even today, the alterpiece remains in some neglect, as Meisler notes below:
The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald almost 500 years ago, is regarded by scholars and critics as a sublime artistic creation, an icon of Western civilization like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Yet, in all of last year, barely 250,000 people came to the Unterlinden Museum in the French Alsatian town of Colmar to look at this masterpiece of Northern Renaissance art. That is a paltry number compared with the millions who crowd into the museums of Paris and Rome and New York every year to render homage to similar stirring creations. “Of the handful of the greatest works of Western art,” New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote after making a pilgrimage to the altarpiece in 1998, “it’s the one that may have been seen by the fewest people, certainly by the fewest Americans.” …
For today’s pilgrim to Grünewald’s masterpiece, however, there is a blessing in the relative lack of other visitors. You’re often free to sit for hours, savoring the power and beauty of the paintings. No one blocks your view. You do not have to elbow anyone to see portions up close. There is so little noise you can hear the intake of breath. You cannot have such blissful privacy amid the massive crowds in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or within the Sistine Chapel in Rome. For that alone, it’s worth the trip.
“A Masterpiece Born of Saint Anthony’s Fire”
Of course, most American theatre practitioners today seem to find an artist of a different order more to their taste. The choice is yours.