I spent my college and graduate years studying ancient languages, hermeneutics, biblical studies, theology, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, and, of course, the history of “religious” art. Some pieces in particular captured my attention and imagination, and one of them is Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. It is in Colmar, France, and one of my goals is to see this work before I leave for the summer.
But Matthias Grünewald created other masterpieces, and this one in particular I have wanted to see for 40 years. The “Stuppacher Madonna” resides in the smallest churches in one of the smallest villages in Europe. I couldn’t get close to it though–maybe 10 feet–because it is surrounded by glass. But I finally got to see this masterpiece. The “Isenheim” is majestic and full of beauty and grandeur. The “Stuppacher” is like no other Madonna and child. Though painted in 1519 (2 years after Luther’s public protest), I see this as one of those paintings/pieces waving goodbye to the Middle Ages and heralding the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Notice how “human” and unstylized Mary and baby are. And Jesus with golden curly hair laughing, and Mary smiling, and a sun shining where the halo “should” be? How did he paint this in such a time? How did he get away with this? This revolutionary masterpiece rests in a small church of “no” consequence. In my mind, here we have one of the first humanist Madonna and Child. Realism rejects stylized; real life refuses religious pretension; effusive joy overflows and lights the ubiquitous dark world; mother plays tenderly with her child with no hint of what is to come.
And notice the white lilies in the foreground–they force us to view them, and they take our breath away. This is mother and child as intended. This is mother and child playing together in the lush and light garden of Eden. The innocence is hopeful and heart-breaking in the same moment. We know the end of the story–Station 13 weighs heavily in our minds. But Grünewald gives us this moment in time unseen up to his day; Grünewald’s rendition reminds of the light and love and downright joy of mother and child no matter who they be. There are billions of Marys; innumerable Christ-childs.
Mostly, never in my life did I think I would get to see this in real time.
Thank you, thank you.
“The Madonna was painted by the creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece , the master painter Mathis at the court of Cardinal Albrechts zu Aschaffenburg, also known as Mathis Gothart Nithart or Matthias Grünewald .
The Maria Snow Chapel in the Aschaffenburg collegiate church is said to be the original home of the image of Mary. From 1519 it was the center piece of the three-winged altarpiece and came around 1532 as a gift from Cardinal Albrecht to the Teutonic Order of Mergentheim. It has been repeatedly restored and initially attributed to Rubens.
After the abolition of the Teutonic Order (1809), the Maria-Schnee-Tafel found a new home in the parish church of Stuppach in 1812. After a Tübingen scientist finally awarded the “Stuppacher Madonna” to Matthias Grünewald in 1908, the picture was thoroughly restored from 1926-1931. It was then placed in a specially built chapel, which was attached to the late Gothic parish church of the Coronation of Mary (1607).”
Anton Friedrich gave this brief description of the world-famous Stuppach Madonna in his “History of a Village”.