Veselin Pehlivanov

Art and the World II
Professor Sorabella
The Hospital Context
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.

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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 apart on a
tracking mechanism, even though there’s no direct proof of this. And,
second, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that, if the predella
is opened, Christ as depicted in the “Lamentation” has to be split in some
part of his body and that it’s more reasonable to split

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