The Holy Trinity and The Isenheim Altarpiece
A.P. Art History
# II: Masaccio: The Holy Trinity
Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece (closed)
The Holy Trinity by Masaccio was done approximately 1428. It is a
superb example of Masaccio’s use of space and perspective. It consists of
two levels of unequal height. Christ is represented on the top half, in a
coffered, barrel-vaulted chapel. On one side of him is the Virgin Mary,
and on the other, St. John. Christ himself is supported by God the Father,
and the Dove of the Holy Spirit rests on Christ’s halo. In front of the
pilasters that enframe the chapel kneel the donors (husband and wife).
Underneath the altar (a masonry insert in the painted composition) is a
tomb. Inside the tomb is a skeleton, which may represent Adam. The
vanishing point is at the center of the masonry altar, because this is the
eye level of the spectator, who looks up at the Trinity and down at the
tomb. The vanishing point, five feet above the floor level, pulls both
views together. By doing this, an illusion of an actual structure is
created. The interior volume of this ‘structure’ is an tension of the
space that the person looking at the work is standing in. The adjustment
of the spectator to the pictured space is one of the first steps in the
development of illusionistic painting. Illusionistic painting fascinated
many artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The proportions in this painting are so numerically exact that one can
actually calculate the numerical dimensions of the chapel in the
background. The span of the painted vault is seven feet, and the depth is
nine feet. “Thus, he achieves not only successful illusion, but a
rational, metrical coherence that, by maintaining the mathematical
proportions of the surface design, is responsible for the unity and harmony
of this monumental composition.” Two principal interests are summed up by
The Holy Trinity: Realism based on observation, and the application of
mathematics to pictorial organization.
All of the figures are fully clothed, except for that of Christ
himself. He is, however, wearing a robe around his waist. The figure is
“real”; it is a good example of a human body. The rest of the figures,
who are clothed, are wearing robes. The drapery contains heavy folds and
creases, which increases the effect of shadows. The human form in its
entirety is not seen under the drapery; only a vague representation of it
is seen. It is not at all like the ‘wet-drapery’ of Classical antiquity.
Massacio places the forms symmetrically in the composition. Each has
its own weight and mass, unlike earlier Renaissance works. The fresco is
calm, and creates a sad mood. The mood is furthered by the darkness of the
work, and the heavy shadows cast.
Grunewald’s The Isenheim Altarpiece is an oil painting on wood,
completed in 1515. The altar is composed of a carved wooden shrine with
two pairs of movable panels, one directly in back of the other. The
outermost scene is the Crucifixion; on the inside there are two others.
On the two sides, two saints are represented (St. Sebastian on the left,
and St. Anthony on the right). Together, these saints established the
theme of disease and healing that is reinforced by the inner paintings. On
the bottom of the panel, when opened, it appears that Christ’s legs were
amputated; possibly an allusion to ergotism, a disease treated in the
hospital where the altarpiece was kept.
An image of the terrible suffering of Christ is in the middle. The
suffering body hangs against the dark background, which falls all the way
to the earth. The flesh is discolored by decomposition and is studded with
the thorns of the lash. His blackening feet twist in agony, as do his
arms. His head is to one side, and his fingers appear as crooked spikes.
The shuddering tautness of Christ’s nerves is expressed through the
positions of his fingers. Up to this point, no other artist has ever
produced such an image of pain. The sharp, angular shapes of anguish
appear in the figures of the swooning Virgin and St. John, and in the
shrill delirium of the Magdalene. On the other side, John the Baptist, a
gaunt form, points a finger at the body of the dead Christ. Even though
death and suffering are dominant in the altarpiece, there are symbols of
hope: The river behind St. John, which represents baptism, and the
wine-red sky which symbolizes the blood of Christ. Through these