Art and the World IIProfessor Sorabella The Hospital ContextGrunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece is an extraordinary work of art,expressive and dramatic. And Hayum’s impressive book tries to explain theoriginal context of Grunewald’s German Renaissance masterpiece in order tohelp the reader to understand and appreciate it in terms of the particularneeds and circumstances of its creation.
The first chapter of the book looks at the hospital context of thealtarpiece, and illuminates themes of dire illness and miraculous healingthat, according to the author, are features of the three panels of thismasterwork, and their relationship to the monastery’s healing and spiritualmissions. The author herself reveals the main point, proposing that “by thetime Grunewald’s panels were added, the hospital context had become apowerful motivating force in the commission, that it provided a principalcomponent in the iconographic fabric of the work, and that it shaped acrucial aspect of the altarpiece’s overall function”(p.17, ln.
4-8). Sheargues that each of the three different stages of the altarpiece deal withillness in distinct manners, examining in details “certain motifs andfigures” (p.17, ln.11).
Here we should underline “certain”, because justseveral lines above Hayum states that she wants to reexamine what was knownon the ground of the claim that it “has tended to be viewed and analyzedmainly in terms of isolatable details” (ln.2-3). This contradiction weakensthe author’s argument even before she started giving actual evidence in itsfavour. But the evidence itself is not more convincing, even though verypicturesque. In numerous places we can see how Hayum uses only very limitedpart of the complex details in the different states, which supports herview, how she takes for granted possible explanations, for which shealready mentioned that we “assume”, or how she explains particular detailstypical for the Christian iconography in a way that suits her purpose. Forexample, the author bases a significant part of her argument on thehaunting figure in the foreground of the “Temptation of Saint Anthony”,even though she says that “given the professed goals of the monastery, wecan assume that the artist meant to suggest the symptoms of Saint Anthony’sFire” (p.21, ln.
13-14). She doesn’t pay any attention to the other demonsinvolved more actively in the torture of the saint, because they don’tsuggest anything connected to the hospital context. In another place, whenHayum writes about the middle stage, she admits that it “suggested nosystematic association with the hospital context. But given the healingsaints in the closed state and the diseased figure and medical plants inthe open position, we are led to the hypothesis ..
. for which there is nostrict documentary basis ..
. that the Isenheim Altarpiece functioned aspart of the healing program at the monastery hospital” (p.24, ln.5-12). Butthis doesn’t prevent the author from using examples from the middle panelto support her argument. She explains the rosary that the infant Christplays with as associated with common necklaces and bracelets, good-luckcharms or amulets because of its physical nature as jewelry. But we knowthat the rosary is common element in depicting the infant Christ and theMother in the late Gothic and the early Renaissance so we explain it aswell with the influence of previous famous works treating the same topic.
Another unconvincing point is the alleged purpose of the red stones on thegold rings that the musical angels wear in the same panel to arresthemorrhage and to nullify the effect of wounds by suggesting the color ofblood. With no less reason we can argue that they exemplify the redemptiveeffect of the blood of Christ and the purpose of his being sent on earth.But the weakest of all points is that, if the predella is opened, Christcan be seen as a model amputee in the “Lamentation”. The main reason,pointed out by Hayum, is that in this case Christ’s body will be split justbelow the knees, which should suggest amputation, because amputation was anactive form of medical intervention in Antonite monasteries. But, first,this conclusion is based on the suggestion, made by Kurt Bauch, that thetwo halves of the predella were originally meant to slide apart on atracking mechanism, even though there’s no direct proof of this.
And,second, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that, if the predellais opened, Christ as depicted in the “Lamentation” has to be split in somepart of his body and that it’s more reasonable to split