The Isenheim Altarpiece is one of the best known and most praised works by the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. The work that concerns us here is a large polyptych more than seven meters wide and almost six meters high, where no less than nine panels painted in oil and tempera on lime wood are shown. The work is without a doubt one of the best examples of Northern European Renaissance painting, a typical example of the German school which at the time was also producing works of great quality but which has been overshadowed by the magnificence of the Italian Renaissance.
Today this great polyptych is exhibited in the Unterlinden Museum in Alsace, France, but the truth is that the piece was originally commissioned by Guido Guersi, the prior of the monastery of San Antonio de Isheim in the region of Alsace as a high altar for the monastery chapel. The monks of San Antonio cared for those affected by a serious topical disease that we know today as ergotism. The polyptych made by Grünewarld stands out for being a work designed to be seen from both sides since the altar would be located in the central area of the main nave in order to separate the sick from the he althy people; the monastery church had two altars, one on each side of the polyptych that allowed it to celebrate the Eucharist simultaneously.
In this way the polyptych can reach various positions depending on the tables it has open or closed and the position from which it is observed. When the work is completely closed we find what would be its most representative piece, a scene of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in which he appears slightly off center from the middle of the composition and where the very strong drama stands out with which the artist has represented the scene. The figure of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross seems constrained by the frame that frames it, his body is too large, more typical of mannerism than of Renaissance aesthetics, and furthermore, it is worth noting the position of his hands where the fingers are tensed from sheer pain.
When the work is presented partially open we can see that the polyptych focuses on Marian scenes, they are representations of the life of the Virgin such as the Annunciation or a scene of the Virgin with the Child but also appears in the table on the right a representation of the Resurrection of Christ.
Finally, when the polyptych reaches its open position, the work reveals a completely different piece, this time they are no longer paintings but in the central part we observe sculptures made by the artist Nicolás de Haguenauand representing Saint Anthony flanked by Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. To the sides of the sculptures appear two more painted boards ofnew by Grünewarld and that represent episodes from the life of Saint Anthony the Abbot, specifically the scenes of The Temptations of Saint Anthony and the Saint's Visit to Saint Paul.