The Hospital Context

Art and the World II

Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece is an extraordinary work of art, expressive and dramatic. And Hayum’s impressive book tries to explain the original context of Grunewald’s German Renaissance masterpiece in order to help the reader to understand and appreciate it in terms of the particular needs and circumstances of its creation.

The first chapter of the book looks at the hospital context of the altarpiece, and illuminates themes of dire illness and miraculous healing that, according to the author, are features of the three panels of this masterwork, and their relationship to the monastery’s healing and spiritual missions. The author herself reveals the main point, proposing that “by the time Grunewald’s panels were added, the hospital context had become a powerful motivating force in the commission, that it provided a principal component in the iconographic fabric of the work, and that it shaped a crucial aspect of the altarpiece’s overall function”(p.17, ln.4-8). She argues that each of the three different stages of the altarpiece deal with illness in distinct manners, examining in details “certain motifs and figures” (p.17, ln.11). Here we should underline “certain”, because just several lines above Hayum states that she wants to reexamine what was known on the ground of the claim that it “has tended to be viewed and analyzed mainly in terms of isolatable details” (ln.2-3). This contradiction weakens the author’s argument even before she started giving actual evidence in its favour. But the evidence itself is not more convincing, even though very picturesque. In numerous places we can see how Hayum uses only very limited part of the complex details in the different states, which supports her view, how she takes for granted possible explanations, for which she already mentioned that we “assume”, or how she explains particular details typical for the Christian iconography in a way that suits her purpose. For example, the author bases a significant part of her argument on the haunting figure in the foreground of the “Temptation of Saint Anthony”, even though she says that “given the professed goals of the monastery, we can assume that the artist meant to suggest the symptoms of Saint Anthony’s Fire” (p.21, ln.13-14). She doesn’t pay any attention to the other demons involved more actively in the torture of the saint, because they don’t suggest anything connected to the hospital context. In another place, when Hayum writes about the middle stage, she admits that it “suggested no systematic association with the hospital context. But given the healing saints in the closed state and the diseased figure and medical plants in the open position, we are led to the hypothesis … for which there is no strict documentary basis … that the Isenheim Altarpiece functioned as part of the healing program at the monastery hospital” (p.24, ln.5-12). But this doesn’t prevent the author from using examples from the middle panel to support her argument. She explains the rosary that the infant Christ plays with as associated with common necklaces and bracelets, good-luck charms or amulets because of its physical nature as jewelry. But we know that the rosary is common element in depicting the infant Christ and the Mother in the late Gothic and the early Renaissance so we explain it as well with the influence of previous famous works treating the same topic. Another unconvincing point is the alleged purpose of the red stones on the gold rings that the musical angels wear in the same panel to arrest hemorrhage and to nullify the effect of wounds by suggesting the color of blood. With no less reason we can argue that they exemplify the redemptive effect 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, Christ can 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 just below the knees, which should suggest amputation, because amputation was an active form of medical intervention in Antonite monasteries. But, first, this conclusion is based on the suggestion, made by Kurt Bauch, that the two halves of the predella were originally meant to slide