Sunday, 5 July 2009

Revealing and Concealing in the Iconography of the Isenheim Altarpice

Meditate on the Isenheim Altar Piece and you’ll find the painting revealing its contents, gradually. Not unlike a developing photograph filmed and shown at slow speed, frame by frame over a period of months or years, it gradually shows more and more. In my case meditation took the form of Transcription, drawing and inventing from the iconography in a search for an understanding of what it is that captivates in an obsessional way the followers of this work. As Picasso discussed, when drawing from it, even though initially a close following, a version or a transposition into another medium or style may be required, it doesn’t obey, its not like other works, it disobeys the rules, it forces a new energy and direction to be followed, it sustains itself for only moments before it is guiding towards imagery that is unexpected, unthinkable. Grunewalds drawings have a spirit of occasion about them, they were made, without ego, they retain the very essence of the moment they were made, seemingly holding the sounds, atmosphere, sensitivity, brutality of their moment of conception. As the Black Kimono is flicked with the foot to reveal its pink wink towards Venus so too does this work of majestic Darkness and Light, but ever so quietly and

gently, so quiet in fact that nobody seems to notice.

As I discussed in perfect imperfection an essay on the drawings of Grunewald, he leaves his drawings open ended, they remain with eros in the possibility of creative future, they are not held by Thanatos like Durer or Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, they don’t end, they are not there to demonstrate virtuosity, but are the productions of a search for the poetic image, metaphors that hold the essence of the subject of narrative and of drawing in the moment. Most importantly they are drawings with all the trials and erasure in their body, they breath, they are not smothered into mere image.

The starkness of the figure representing Christ is cut up and stabbed with thorns. His fingers gripping as if the aged elbowing oak tree is within the taught skin now pierced with nails. I have previously described this Christ as ‘always newly dead’. He is held on the surface of this painting, waiting to have his limb dismembered temporarily as the doors that this altarpiece is, are opened once more, his exhaled breath in limbo. But as it stands in the Museum Unterlinden, it does not open. The panels are standing free, to be mused past at will, passing through time, through emotion, through biblical tale, dream and nightmare imagery. It wraps up the soul as it wonders at the wanderings of the mind that has created this. But it is the minds of many, rather than the mind of the individual, that focused a collective of images and words onto the palette, onto the wooden panels and into the mind of the viewer. It performs the role of contemporary newspapers, television and computer monitors, unfolding the wonders and tragedies of each day, into forms of expression or repression.

This work of art initially has its impact imagery, followed eventually by its subliminal imagery that inform and construct our interpretations of the event of viewing. During the initial impact, the subliminal, subtle, small symbols and incidents are read subconsciously, as our peripheral vision takes in the territories beyond the stare, merging into a gaze, resulting in a meditative state of reverie.

As thoughts and readings of this experience begin to unfold, inherent ethical imperatives stand between me, and my reading of it. I am staring at, but for a tattered rag of a loincloth (that on another panel holds a baby) a nude man. His torso taut, muscles tight, known only through the ‘petit mal’. The genitalia, covered, are positioned at the centre of the axis of the corners of the main panel. The figures around swoon at his presence, or stare out at my staring in. A veil of moral decency filters and censors my viewing of the erotic within this painting. To read this painting beyond its theological message pokes at my conscience, my protestant high-church upbringing. Blasphemy pushes its way to the forefront of my mind. Some would express outrage at the suggestive readings of this painting. This painting expresses outrage and enables outrage to be expressed.

The very idea that Christ has a sexuality still shocks. Leo Steinberg in The Sexuality of Christ[1] explores Christ’s male image from infancy to adulthood. In his very personal exploration of The Isenheim Altar Piece, Jungian analyst Eugene Monick[2] looks at the idea that Christ’s sexuality is confirmed through his contraction of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. He discusses the possible readings of sexual relationships, through Jungian analysis, of the main characters in the painting (homosexuality, incest etc). In his introduction, he emphasises that this is his personal interpretation of the imagery. Accepting this, I find his reading of Christ’s body as showing signs of syphilis, debatable. He claims that a teacher of his introduced this fact to him, however years later when he discussed it the teacher denied having stated this. My thoughts on this are that he could have been told that there is a figure in the altarpiece that shows signs of syphilitic sores. This could relate (I think ) to the figure propped in the left corner of the Torment of St Anthony panel. This figure that could be seen as a miner (the Alsace being a mining area), wears a yellow and red hood and has a body covered in sores and puss oozing boils. He grasps onto a book, thought to be the bible (faith) and onto St Anthony’s cloak with a stump of a hand that seems to have lost its fingers. Of course we now know these physical attributes to be the outward sign of Ergotism, visually linked to syphilitic sores. The inward outcome of Ergotism was hallucinations and madness, represented in the painting by the monsters and creatures making the attack on St Anthony. This figure of Ergotic suffering was used by Jasper Johns as a transcribed metaphor for the horror of Aids.[3]

I also recognised the Erotic discussed in Monick’s book, when engaged with this work. However rather than through analysis of possible imaginary relationships, I started to feel it more and more in the openings, the folds and orifices within the drapery of the garments worn by the participants in this scenario. The robes of St Anthony, gently revealing the pink inner lining of his cape, has a sensual evocation to it. A saint with clothing in the form of female genitalia is staring me in the face. I try to see it as a cape and fabric again, but my body feels the tender inner skin of the mouth, the sexual organs, the eye. He reveals an inner flesh that is being revealed with the gentlest of touches to show off this opening to the body, that is metaphor for the gateway to existence through which we have all journeyed. This revealing inviting gesture by the pre reformation saint painted by the eve of Reformation artist is open, not closed, it reveals both as metaphore for bodily entrance, for entry to the inner sanctum, entry to the universe, entry to heaven. It has a generosity as symbol that is echoed on the chest of the sculpted St Anthony, this almond shaped wound is viewable only through the use of video zoom, it finds its equivalent in Strasbourg Cathedral where in the highest reaches of the church deep within the shadowed mosaic the mandorla or sign of Venus is held open by the arms of a welcoming Christ, whose open arms hold open the vulva of this border between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit.

The expression of this gesture of openness being made by Grunewalds Mystical Iconograhpy is starkly contrasted in what I perceive to be a Protestant Transcription of the Isenheim Altar Piece, that is The painting of the Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the younger in the National Gallery London. This painting takes the iconography of Grunewalds mystical work and replaces, puts in its place the iconography, the signs and symbols of the post reformation and renaissance world of scientific discovery and possibility, over the more emotional expressionistic imagery of the past. There is a hidden symbology pointing towards the marking of Good Friday within the secret codes of the objects, there is of course the elipsed skull laying in the position of the pradella, the crucifixion is demoted to the limits of the painting as a glimpse into a second chamber behind the chamber of learning and knowledge that forms the public face of the painting. It is in the robes of George de Selve ((1508-1541) later Bishop of Lavaur) that we see the possible coded relationship between the openness of libidinal drive in the Isenheim work and the closed closeted sexuality of the puritanically ruled society that grew out of the reformation, the shame of sexual disclosure can be seen in the closed posture, the gripping and covering action of his robe. He as a protestant priest closes the journey into the work, into the possibility of our entry into the universe, through Venus, into heaven. The evolution of the iconography from pagan into Christian use through adoption then adaption is halted in this figure. He closes his cloak which remained closed for centuries to come as a repressive repressed society shed its relationship with imgery of desire of eros, creating a shame that survives to this day. What you may ask makes me come to this possible relationship. When a young apprentice painter, Holbein along with his brother accompanied their Father Hans Holbein the Elder to Isenheim where he was undertaking a commission. It was there that he saw the Altar piece being painted, years later the young Holbein made the Basel Dead Christ in response to Grunewalds work. The extraordinary individualism of the Isenheim Altar piece must have had a huge impression on a young artist who would later return there to collect his fathers paints after his death viewing the work once again. I have mused at the possibility that the Holbein Brothers may have assisted Grunewald in the painting of the Altar Piece, the figures at times echoeing Holbeins portraiture, but maybe and probably it was just a creative inspiration that he grew from. I stated that the journeying adaptation of iconography was halted with the reformation, but maybe the use of codes and symbols allowed the artist to continue this dialogue , but secretly for fear of retribution. Of course the iconographic use of the robe, open in 1515, then closed in 15?? Although reversed is an adaptation of iconography that has and will always continue. In The Large Tryptych by Otto Dix Metropolis which sits in the wonderful glass cube of a museum in Stutgard , a painting commenting on a society ignoring its past mistakes journeying from the horrors of the 1st world war towards the horrors of the 2nd world war , There Dix borrows, transcribes from Grunewald, in particular the image of the sexualised robe of St Anthony which has a jouney from St Anthony and an image of open acceptance of eros, to Holbeins image of repression and suppression into Dix’s image of the prostitute whose fox fur forms the folds of fabric of her dress into female genitalia, a pink labial form that is toyed with gently with her delicate fingers, echoing St Anthonies hand revealing the open form 400 years before. In the case of the prostitutes clothing here ix is painting the open battle being fought between eros and thanatos, where oof course history shows that thanatos was the victor in a disgusting period of carnage and destruction.

Next the skins worn by John the Baptist, skin folding back on itself to form a skin, that internalises itself beneath the Old Testament. These openings seem to offer a gentle entry into the body of the painting. The work itself is punctured and pierced sharply, around and between the figures. But these softer openings encourage the eye to feel its way towards the womb of this painting in a soft caress, that forces the moralizing eye away, as it lingers in this nerve packed erogenous zone.

St Sebastian stands on the left side of the altarpiece as we view it, he raises his arms which twists his brick red robes into peaks and troughs, that are clearly suggestive of known metaphor.

Mary Magdalene, whose wringing gripping hands Eugene Monick sees as vaginal metaphors, along with the Virgin Mary’s and therefore possibly St Sebastian, contrast with the phallic renderings of the remaining male hands and fingers. Mary Magdalene gulps in the air with her open mouth, her hands slipping in the anointing oil that sits in a jar to her side, with which she anointed Christ's feet. Her veil doesn’t veil the pain and sorrow she feels. Her tears are for the pleasure of the past, the tears of joy for fond memory, halted. In the luxuriant fabric of Mary Magdalene’s robes, reminiscent of the fabrics of Fortuny or Issey Miyake, gathered by a silk rope tie, are the same references that I am viewing, seeing, feeling and trying to ignore in the painting as a whole. But the more I try to ignore the more I find myself realising that Grunewald had most definitely sexualised the Magdalene. Her pleasure revealed for all to view amidst her rippling hair and the yards of rippling material that softly seduces the emotions in sharp contrast to the tattered loincloth of Christ. The pain and pleasure of old and new contrasts, echoing across the whole painting, with the Old Testament being represented in the right hand of the main panel by John the Baptist and the New Testament to the left with Christ's contemporaries. The fantasy and reality again following the same divide, as the Baptist was actually already dead at the time of the crucifixion. This contrasting of good and evil, positive and negative, past and present was popular during the medieval period in the form of the tree of life, which represented the biblical story using words and images attached to trees.

It was one day at the National Gallery in London that I had my first piece of evidence to support the possibility of Grunewald deliberately placing these stylized wounds, these orifices, these entrances to the inner flesh of the body, in his painting. The Image of Christ exhibition[4] was crowded most days. Down into the basement, down the grey granite steps into the darkness of the underbelly of the gallery, where the spot lights enabled the exhibits to glow in their spaces on the wall and the visitors to slink in and out of the shadows, as they wandered through ecclesiastic history. Each work was being studied, read about, admired. Room after room of admiring gestures and under breath sounds of approval, until one framed print seemed to receive very short stabbing glances, before the viewers quickly scurried onto the next exhibit. There it was, a guide to prayer, a representation of the wounds of Christ and the nails of the crucifixion, metamorphosed into penises and vaginas. The representation of these images was used in meditational prayer, the user releasing their libido and entering into a deeper more personal (sexualised) relationship with Christ. Other imagery in the exhibition, prayer rings, carvings and prayer books all had representations of the wounds, stylized to form lozenge shaped, eroticised forms that at times danced free from the body as abstract representations of the wound. Out of this stylization and worship of the wound evolved the Sacred Heart and ultimately this evolved into the love heart of contemporary culture.

That this form of sexualised erotic vision and relationship took place and was encouraged, is discussed by Hans Belting in his book Likeness and Presence, chapter 19 - The Dialogue with the Image. As an extreme example of the use of image and object for meditational and mystical purposes he quotes Dagobert Frey discussing the experiences of the nun Margarethe Ebner –

What is important is that here, as in children's play, the reality represented by the object is not located in that object but in subjective experience. And indeed we are reminded of the games of a child with her doll when Margarethe Ebner tells us how she takes the figure of the Christ Jesus out of his cradle because he has been “naughty” in the night and kept her awake, how she places him on her lap and speaks to him, holds him to her bare breast to suckle him and is shocked to feel “a human touch of his mouth.” The game passes over into the erotic, even the pathological, when she tells us that she takes a life-size wooden model of the crucified Christ into her bed at night and lays it on top of her.

An extreme example of mystical meditational vision through the use of stylized wound imagery is the vision of St Catherine of Sienna. Ramond of Capua described the event

And putting his right hand on her virginal neck and drawing her towards the wound in His own side, He whispered to her “Drink, daughter, the liquid from my side, and it will fill your soul with such sweetness that its wonderful effects even by the body which for my sake you despise.” And she, finding herself thus near to the source of the fountain of life, put the lips of her body, but much more those of her soul, over the most holy wound, and long and eagerly and abundantly drank that indescribable and unfathomable liquid. Finally, at a sign from the Lord, she detached herself from the fountain, sated and yet at the same time still longing for more.[5]

So where am I? The use of sexualised imagery within pre reformation Christian iconography was in circulation both in imagery and in the writings of the mystical visionaries. The duality of this erotic imagery in relation to Christ can be seen as addressing the heterosexual female, gay female, gay male and heterosexual male as the vaginal and the masculine combined creating an arena for the libidinal release.

So I return to the Isenheim Altar Piece with the realisation that the readings of this imagery are not only in my reading of it, but were laid down knowingly during the period of heightened mystical revelations. Now I look again at Mary Magdalene, her flowing colourful robes contrasting starkly with the Virgin Mother Mary’s stiff white robe. I seek for the same contrasts in other crucifixion scenes and I become intrigued with the representation of the Virgin’s clothing in contrast to the Magdalene’s clothing. More often than not, the Virgin’s clothing is flattened without a fold at the front of her robes, whereas the Magdalene often has suggestive folds of fabric filling the area between her opened legs. There is a way into the robing of the Magdalene. Her body is accessible whereas the Virgin is closed, the symbolic representation of her virginity as a walled garden without a door is clearly seen when compared to Mary Magdlene. Mary Magdalene has a sexualized presence.

I see it in museum after museum. Then in Aachen two sculptures of Mary Magdalene point towards a possible evolutional development of her image from pagan into Christian iconography. At the base of one wooden cross kneels Mary Magdalene, but this time her sexuality is not in the folds of fabric but in a mandorla shape, formed by lengths of chain, a belt that hangs from her waist. The mandorla is an almond shaped image that was the symbol of Venus. Formed by the crescent waxing and waning moons, it is the gateway to the universe, the heavens. In another wooden sculpture Mary Magdalene is seen being carried up into heaven by angels. She is wearing or is covered in a hairy neglige type garment. A book illumination in the collection of the British Library is clearly described as Mary Magdalene being lifted by angels. This image of the Magdalene bares close relationship to the Botticelli’s Venus. The flowing hair, the near nakedness and the surrounding air flowing with angels or flowers. The Sheelagh which is thought to be a celtic representation of a goddess of fertility, often stood as the keystone to the entrance doorway of early churches. Many were destroyed by iconoclasts, but enough remain to see its importance alongside the image of the green man as soothers in the take over of sites of worship by the Christians and along with that, the merging of belief images to encourage attendance at the newly forming religion. I am proposing that this image can be seen as an evolution from the Venus mandorla, which has its image firmly placed in Christian iconography with that of the worship of the female sexualized goddess from Venus into the Sheelagh and into that of the Magdalene within Northern European, pre reformation imagery.

The Parish Church of St John the Baptist in Newton, Porthcawl was my place of worship as a child, and it was there at the pulpit that I would stare at my first encounters with the stylizations of the wounds of Christ. A Norman church, the carved pulpit dates back to 15th century. Just above the pulpit are five carved flower like marks, these represented the wounds of Christ. My mind would jump from wound to flower; flower to wound and then the moment would become a reverie, different wounds, different flowers; wounds with flowers and flowers with wounds. It is little surprise that I found the Ascension of the Virgin at the National Gallery, a fascinating painting, where the grave of death has been transformed into a grave of flowering lilies. Above the wounds in the church is a chalice lifted by angels and below, around the pulpit, a vine with leaves and grapes is said to secretly spell Agnus Dei, but I find it hard to read this. Below the vines there is a figure tied at the feet by rope and held by two figures brandishing whips. This is thought to be the figure of Christ. Returning to the stylized wounds, I have a recollection of there also being five flowers carved into the altars stone slab. The five wounds, the stigmata, there to be meditated on, to be wondered at, the stylized flowers converting the horror and terror into something of beauty, a scent to cover the stench. Simon Watney explores how, when meditating on lilies, the meditators saw crucifixions in lilies and the artisans created lily images supporting crucifixions, which were meditated on and no doubt created new poetic images, that were written about and then read about and then made into carvings, illuminations, paintings and stained glass windows.

At Colmar I had uncovered four openings in the clothing, in the painting. But more obvious than any of the others is the opening in the flowing robe of the rising Christ. Rising like the image of the ascending Mary Magdalene, Christ’s robe is open for all to enter, gaping with the warmth of fleshiness as he rises into the universe. This Christ is not seen resurrected, but is seen ascending, white faced, ghost like out of the grave in a blinding light that absorbs and emits everything around it. So these wounds, these openings are seducers, are erotic iconographic symbols that counterbalance the stench, fear and fantasy across the works, where the Virgin Mary gives a very telling glance to the Archangel Gabriel and Lucifer plays the cello, hidden from Gods view by a long green curtain. Where the prophets from the Old Testament are dotted around as St Anthony deals with his torments and temptations, as the inhabitants of Isenheim had to, as they fought with the hallucinations and gangrenous terrors of disease caused by ergotic rye bread. The journey into day and night through the beauty and awfulness of life strikes you in your gut, heart and groin as you infiltrate the extraordinary world that was born out of Mystical Enlightenment and which continues to abuse, confuse and help those who delve into its subliminal territories.

I am still intrigued by this piece of the world called the Isenheim Altar Piece, but now am more at ease with the inherent ethical imperatives that run through our society. I see more clearly the impact of the fearful periods of terror that raged across Europe in an attempt to destroy the evolved imagery that linked the pagan past with the Christian faith of the 16th Century. The reformation did all it could to destroy freedom of thought within society and with it any inherited relationship with imagery of the past. The belief that it was the word that would bring people closer to God came to a crushing end in the trenches of the First World War. The blind faith, the unthinking followers, who were led to slaughter in the name of God in the support of a society that saw blindness as the most loyal form of religious follower. The blind could not be deterred from the word of god by the visual seduction of imagery. All rules and regulations of right and wrong, societal structures and beliefs were torn to shreds. The traditional graveyard surrounding the village church where at the rising of the sun on the day of resurrection, as depicted by Stanley Spencer at Cookham, was gone. The millions of brothers, fathers and sons who were blown to pieces and left deep in the mud of Flanders ruined the wonderful plan set out in peoples minds for the future. How could the post reformation society carved out of blood shed resurrect itself now?

[1] Sexuality of Christ - Leo Steinberg University Of Chicago Press; 2nd Rev edition (January 1, 1997)

[2] Evil, Sexuality and Disease in Grunewalds Body of Christ, Eugene Monick

[3] Jasper Johns: Privileged Information - Jill Johnston Thames & Hudson (October 1996


[5] James Clifton - Blood - Prestel

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