Sunday, December 27, 2015

Unterlinden Museum - Religious Art

The Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, established in 1849, is housed in a 13th century Dominican convent and contains some wonderful religious art. This post consists of photos of some of that art.   
The front of the Unterlinden Museum.
Looking at the front from another side.
Looking down another side of the Unterlinden Museum.
One of the most famous works is the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald between 1512 and 1516 for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, near Colmar. The monks did hospital work and worked with lots of plague sufferers with skin diseases. Particularly powerful is the crucified Jesus with plague-type sores. This was to help illustrate to patients that Jesus understood their afflictions. 
Jesus here is covered in sores. To the left is Mary in white cloth in the arms of John the Beloved. To the right is John the Baptist, who announced the coming of the Messiah. The lamb symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus. 
To the left of the crucifixion panel is St. Sebastian pierced with arrows. Sebastian was a Roman military officer killed about 300 CE by being shot full of arrows and clubbed to death. He was prayed to for protection against the plague. 
To the right of the crucifixion panel is St. Anthony being taunted by a monster. St. Anthony was the patron saint of victims of St. Anthony's fire, which is another name for ergotism, common in France and Germany from eating a fungus that infected rye and other cereals. Ergotism caused a dry gangrene which caused edema, peeling of the skin and the death and loss of affected tissues. It also caused spasms, seizures, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 
Underneath the crucifixion panel is Christ being prepared for the tomb. Note the skin blemishes on his leg and trunk and the deformed feet. Just this illustration of symptoms makes me grateful I live in a day when these types of diseases can be dealt with more adequately. 
This second segment of the altarpiece is not photographed as clearly. Jesus is a baby in his mother's arms. An enclosed garden represents Mary's womb and perpetual virginity. A rose bush without thorns symbolizes her freedom from original sin and a fig tree symbolizes mother's milk. The bed, the bucket and the chamber pot demonstrate the human nature of Jesus.
To the left of the panel above is the Annunciation - the angel Gabriel telling Mary she will give birth to the Son of God. 
To the right is the resurrection. Christ emerges from his tomb and ascends to Heaven. 
This third segment has sculptures by Niclaus of Haguenau. In the center is St. Anthony, the healer of St. Anthony's fire. Guy Guyers, who commissioned the altarpiece is depicted kneeling at St. Anthony's feet. The two men are bringing offerings in kind, an important source of income to the monks. To the left of Anthony is St. Augustine and to his right, St.Jerome.  
To the left of the carvings is a painting of St. Anthony's visit to St. Paul the Hermit. 
To the right is St. Anthony being tormented by demons sent by Satan. He appeals to God who sends angels to help him combat them. To the bottom left is someone with ergot poisoning with swelling, ulcerous growths and a distended belly. 
Underneath the panel of sculptures with St. Anthony is a group of sculptures of Christ and his twelve disciples. 
The rest of the paintings are not part of the Isenheim Altarpiece. 
The presentation of Jesus in the temple is also the purification of Mary after giving birth. Exodus 12 requires the woman to give a gift to the temple of a lamb and a dove, or a pair of doves (as in this picture) if the parents can't afford a lamb. The young woman holding the doves may be one of the virgins the priests assigned as Mary's companions in the apocryphal gospels. Simeon, who was told he would not die until he saw Christ, is the old man holding Jesus. Simeon's hands are covered because the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew said that when Simeon saw Jesus he "took him up into his cloak and kissed his feet." The candles allude to "Candlemas," an alternative name for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. Simeon calls the child "a light to the revelation of the Gentiles" and the candles refer to the belief that Christ is the light to the Gentiles. Joseph may be the old man behind Mary. 
Christ is removed from the cross.
Simon of Cyrene assists Jesus with the cross. 
Jesus is stripped of his garments right before he is crucified. 
This is a great example of the resurrection in Christian art. The cross-banner in the resurrected Christ's hand represents victory over death. This Resurrection cross or Triumphal cross is a simple, long shaft crossed at the top (in this case there is another smaller cross at the top of the cross). The banner hanging on the Resurrection  cross is white with a red cross  and it also symbolizes victory of the resurrected Christ over death. This derives from Constantine's vision and his use of a cross on the Roman Standard. Christ has emerged from a Roman-style sarcophagus on the ground, the top of which has been removed by an angel. Christ is placing his foot on one of the sleeping soldiers. To the back right are the Three Marys 
The Harrowing of Hell is the descent of Christ into hell (or sheol or limbo) between the time of his crucifixion and his resurrection. It is only alluded to in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:19-20. Then appears more clearly in the Gospel of Nicodemus in the section called the Acts of Pilate. Christ stands on the gates of Hades (or Doors of Death) and holds Adam's hand to pull Adam and Eve out of Hades. Christ is traditionally surrounded by righteous figures from the Old Testament (to his left) and to the right are personifications of death and/or the devil. Christ holds in his other hand the Resurrection cross.   
The resurrected Christ has his Resurrection cross and he appears to Mary Magdalene. She appears to be wrapped in cloth the same color as the banner. She reaches out to Christ and he tells her not to touch him as he has not yet ascended to his Father. This takes place in a garden because she first mistakes him for a gardener. 
Here the resurrected Jesus holds the Resurrection cross and allows Thomas to put his hand into his side. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them. 

The Last Supper and Jesus has something interesting on his plate. Some say Leonardo DaVinci's depiction of Christ's plate has eel. We saw a depiction with cuy or guinea pig in Cuzco, Peru. This almost looks like a large rat. 
Jesus is betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane by Judas's kiss and Peter has just cut off the ear of one of the soldiers.
Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, James and John sleep. The red-robed Peter holds the knife he uses to cut the ear off the soldier with. The soldiers and Judas approach in the background. 


  1. St. Anthony being tormented by the Demons (in about the middle of this post) is my favorite painting in this post. So bizarre!!

  2. It's fun to see these and remember having been there. I agree with Judy, the St Anthony painting is a favorite.