In the small French town of Colmar, on the German border, sits one of the wonders of Western art: a 16th-century polyptych created by an enigmatic figure for a hospital that treated victims of Saint Anthony's fire, a disfiguring disease now called ergotism. The Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as a "sublime artistic creation," and its creator, Matthias Grünewald, have fascinated artists and scholars since the work was first moved to Colmar some 200 years ago.
Commissioned by Antonite monks, the altarpiece was created between 1512 and 1516 for the chapel of a hospital at the order's monastery in Isenheim, 15 miles south of Colmar. There, the monks ministered to patients suffering from the painful and often fatal disease, named (as were the monks themselves) for a figure who himself had known great suffering. The man chosen to execute the commission was a German artist and engineer contemporary of Albrecht Dürers whose very name long eluded scholars. A biographer declared him Matthias Grünewald in 1675, and since then though it has subsequently been determined that his name was either Mathis Godhardt or Mathis Godhardt Neithardt scholars have continued the tradition of using the misnomer.
The altarpiece Grünewald created is a many-faceted collection of disturbing and uplifting images that unfold as the wings open to reveal a series of scenes. As in most Christian art, the Savior plays a central role, appearing in a terrifying Crucifixion panel and a powerful Resurrection. But in this work, the tortured Saint Anthony is also prominently featured. The two figures seem meant to give hope and consolation to the ill, conveying the message that pain, also, brings one close to God.
Today, few people come to see the altarpiece, now in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, which attracted only 250,000 visitors last year. The peace and privacy thus gained offers a distinct advantage, argues author Stanley Meisler, to those who do make the pilgrimage.