Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, The Plague and Hieronymus Bosch

Let's take a good look at this crucifixion painting by Matthias Grünewald, which is better known as the Isenheim Altarpiece. While it certainly tells the Bible story of Christ's crucifixion on the cross, the story behind the painting, completed in 1515, and its context within history, brings another fascinating story.


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The painting is now part of the collection of the Unterlinden Museum, in France, and one would assume that at one point in time it was installed in a church. It was, but it was no ordinary church - it was the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, and it was installed in the hospice where victims of the plague and leprosy were cared for by monks and nuns.

alterpiece painting of the crucifixion of Jesus, painted by Mathis Neithardt, also known as Grunewald

Grünewald was commissioned by Guido Guersi (pictured in a drawing by Grünewald below left), who was the Abbot (or the head person) at the monastery. The monks and nuns brought the patients of the hospice to pray in front of this alterpiece every day. Knowing who the audience for his painting would be, Grünewald actually depicted Christ with plague-type sores (as you can see in this detail below right), to show symbolically that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.

Guido Guersi, who commissioned Matthias Grunewald to paint the Isenheim alterpiece crucifixion painting

detail of the Grunewald Isenheim alterpiece showing Christ with leprosy

Here's where we diverge from Grünewald and Isenheim to a related topic: what doctors wore around victims of the plague and leprosy. Since both diseases were contagious, people treating them had to wear protective clothing. While we have no solid facts of what the monks and nuns wore at the Isenheim hospice, it was not uncommon for doctors at this time to wear clothing that completely covered their body, including a very bizarre looking mask with a bird-like beak. The illustrations, below left, look almost cartoonish, but when one sees a photograph of such a mask, below right, it brings the reality of it into focus.

The question, of course, is why did the mask have a bird-like beak? It was filled with herbs and spices that were believed to counter the bad smells of the victims, which were thought to be the principal cause of the diseases (long before it was shown to be germ-related, and not from the smell). The doctors wore this mask with the belief that the good scents of the herbs and spices would counter the "evil" smells of the plague and therefore protect them from becoming infected.

protective clothing and beak-like mask worn by doctors treating plague victims

leather model of a plague doctor mask with glass eye cover

Here's where we switch gears one more time ... in our various studies of the painter Hieronymus Bosch, some of the characters in his paintings are birdlike-creatures. Bosch had no shortage of bizarre-looking characters in his art, but now that we have the perspective of the protective clothing that the plague doctors wore, are these characters by Bosch (at right) simply an exaggerated version of a plague doctor?

Considering that Bosch was alive during the same time (1450 - 1516), he would have most likely seen Plague doctors with their masks and they certainly could have influenced his vision for these bird-like characters. One can better understand Bosch's exaggerated depictions of heaven and hell considering the destruction that the plague had upon Europe during the previous one hundred years. It's helpful to pull these various artists out of isolated studies and look at the connections in a bigger picture.

bird-like creatures painted by Hieronymous Bosch




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