While little is known concerning the events surrounding the commission of the Isenheim Altarpiece or of the artist known to us as Master Matthias Grünewald, much can be ascertained about the message of the Altarpiece through careful study of the socio-historical-religious context from which the work was commissioned and iconographic analysis of the images portrayed by Master Matthias. This thesis explores iconographic metaphors for birth and sacrifice, metaphors which work to create a theological dialogue about Christian redemption within the nine painted panels and the underlying sculpture that makes up the Isenheim Altarpiece. First, we will address the panels in the middle position of the Isenheim Altarpiece, which reveals events from the life of Mary. Since the Madonna is a prominent figure in the Altarpiece panels, understanding her role in sixteenth century Christian theology as birth mother of the Savior and as an especial example of bringing forth good fruit by virtue of obedience and humility is crucial to understanding the Marian iconography of the panels. In the center of the triptych, immediately following the Annunciation panel in the middle position, we see a celebration of Christ's birth in the Concert of Angels panel. When replaced by the folded wings depicting the Crucifixion, the Concert of Angels panel creates a discussion of rebirth through the sacrifice and death of the Savior which is symbolized by the Resurrection displayed in the final panel of the middle position. Through the use of iconographic devices which reference different panels within the Altarpiece, Grünewald creates a dialogue of redemption and rebirth through Jesus' mortal birth mother, the Virgin Mary. This dialogue extends to images of saints and disciples who find spiritual rebirth through conversation and help to build the kingdom of God on earth through their exemplary lives. Even the faithful followers of Christ numbered in the audience of the Isenheim Altarpiece are given a role in the dialogue of rebirth through conversion by bearing virtue, rather than vice, in the attitude of Mary and the saints.
College and Department
Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Anderson, Katherine Lena, "The Birth of Sacrifice: Iconographic Metaphors for Spiritual Rebirth in Master Matthias' Isenheim Altarpiece" (2006). Theses and Dissertations. 1027.
humanities, art history, Matthias Grünewald, Master Matthias, iconography, Isenheim Altarpiece, birth, sacrifice