Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Isenheim Altarpiece as Medieval Metaphor

Stability suggests constancy, steadiness, firmness, solidity, permanence. The stability of sacred iconography under the familial doctrinal demands of the church of the 14th century produced an ideal within which the evolved components sat with unquestioning authority. The evolution from pagan iconography out of early naive adoptions, adaptations and invention of image into sophisticated compositional devices, were bred with intent towards a non-plural semiotic possibility. This sat comfortably within the security of the womb of the church, as an offspring of the building within which it sat. The words of biblical text rendered as image and form, faithfully obeyed genealogical patterns of reproduction and creation. I won’t here spend time explaining in depth the period of Mystical Enlightenment where and when the given image of textual illustration broke with the bounds of Roman Catholic doctrine. I’ll summarise this period as a move towards the imagination, where the dreams of Mystics were recorded, when ordinary people, not just saints, were seen to be able to enter into commune with extraordinary visions, where the socio arena of that time entered into the imagery of the church, not just illustrations of text for the illiterate, but illuminations of the imagination and the landscape/dreamscapes of the mind, images of vision, the expression of reverie. I call this period Medieval Surrealism.

The period of Medieval Surrealism created in-stability, broke the constant, was not steady, firm or permanent. It was at times strange, weird, wonderful, awful, exciting, open. This openness tangled the doctrine of the church away from the dictating regulations of the bible. The mystical texts allowed for freedom of expression and interpretation giving way to the imagination of sculptors and painters, but greeted with horror by the iconoclasts within the church whose steely grip over the congregations imagination was slipping. This shifting of ground rendered a new type of sculptural image, a realism based on the accounts of mystical experiences, of stone or wooden figures taking on the presence of human existence. Whereas the meditation on static monumental statues caused the mind to see or imagine movement in the observed figure, the Medieval Surreal figure was carved with gesture in place, revealing the experience of human presence . While the gesture and human presence of the statues broke ground from the earlier crude caricatures of figures, they were still firmly held within the womb of the church, so much so that their presence was concealed from the outside world further through the encasement within the doored retable, a protective box that concealed with the expectation of reveal latent within its presence. These boxed altarpieces with their hidden sacred sculptures were for the use of the faithful and the hierarchy of the church only. The box stood, like a wardrobe, in churches to be opened for prayer and festivals. It would have acted as both a security device for keeping the precious imagery safe and as a form of preventing an overindulgence in the mystical possibility of release into the imagination beyond ecclesiastic regulations.

It was sculpture that led the way in the move towards the expressionism and representation of “reality” in Medieval Surrealism. The paintings on the retable’s were still illustrational in their rendering. It was with the commission for a painter to decorate the box of a sculptural sequence that Mathias Grunewald created a series of panels whose paintings moved beyond the boundaries of sculptures' ability to represent mystical vision and human presence. He painted the polyptych multi doored Isenheim Altarpiece in 1512. Its birth into the heart of the Hospital order of the Anthonite Chapel in Isenheim produced one of the highest points of Medieval Surrealism, where dreams, visions, wonder, beauty, horror and terror encased the sculptural family of St Anthony, St Jerome and St Augustine, who sat above Christ and his disciples populating the predella. This work delved into mystical writings and contemporary circumstances with abandon. But still it was held in the heart of the church, but maybe now freeing the imagery a little beyond the exclusive ranks of its order. It was shown to patients being treated for ergotism during the epidemic of the 16th century, its parallels with the aids epidemic of the 20th century are marked by the Isenheim Altarpiece's re-use as a source of comfort and understanding by many throughout the world in the light of its Profanation by the French revolution, into the common use of all during the eighteenth century and its exhibiting since then in the Museum Unterlinden in Colmar.

Its survival of the Reformation in the closed order of the Anthonites incubated this Medieval Surrealism with its closed panels and hidden possibilities. At the point of the French Revolution it was in fact fragmented and scattered only to be recalled into Colmar where its curation ensures that all its possibilities of expression, dream and vision are revealed. The “closed pages” of space between each panel have been expanded to allow the visitor to wander between the panels, experiencing its constant use of metaphor and colour. The birth of this object into the world, freed from its theological restraints, Profanated for common use, became a major influence on both Expressionism and Surrealism of the twentieth century and continues to ripple through the works of others into the twenty first century.

No comments:

Post a Comment