No artist ever saw a man crucified, yet thousands have painted the Crucifixion.
The great Italians, consciously seeking the union of spiritual and formal per
fection, achieved a decorative grandeur in which the subject was separated
from the emotions of living men; the medieval artists, concentrating on the
manifestations of torture, created gruesome images from which the modern
mind recoils in horror.
But an obscure German from the middle Rhine, un
afraid of corporal agonies and possessed of appalling mystical insight, painted
one of the supreme masterpieces of art, above and apart from all others, the
most profoundly moving conception of the most tragic theme in art.
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never saw a man crucified, but he painted the scene as if he had been a fol
lower of Christ, an eyewitness at Calvary, and reincarnated in German flesh,
surrounded by suffering and acquainted with the attitudes of men and women
in the throes of suffering, he invested the tragedy with its full significance.
Less is known of Griinewald than of any other artist of the first rank. It is
told on good authority that he lived a solitary and melancholy life and was
wretchedly unhappy in his marriage”
and his fame rests on the altarpiece
painted for the monastery at Isenheim and now in the Colmar Museum. When
unfolded, the work, a polyptych of eleven wings, represents in brilliant, lumi
nous colors, scenes from the life of St. Anthony, the patron saint of the monas
tery; the Annunciation, Nativity, and Resurrection; when closed, one great
picture appears, the Crucifixion.
The body of Christ, flayed, covered with bruises, bleedmg and distorted,
hangs on the cross erected on a rocky plateau; on one side stands John the
Baptist whose prophetic words are inscribed in Latin
He must increase, but
I must decrease. On the other side, in a group which has the dramatic intensity
of an observed convulsion, the Virgin, all in white, sinks into the arms of St.
John robed in scarlet, while between them, the kneeling Magdalen raises her
clasped hands toward the cross.
Before this work, formal criticism is help
less. The strained attitudes and the physical torture, which might have been
ghastly and medieval, are sublimated into an effect which can only be de
scribed as beautiful and overpowering.
The altarpiece is one of the great
shrines of art, and painters who journey to Colmar to study its form and color
are converted by the tragedy of Calvary.