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Lucifer in Grunewald's Masterpiece : THE DEVIL AT ISENHEIM,Reflections of Popular Belief in Grunewald's Altarpiece, by Ruth Mellinkoff, California Studies in the History of Art, Discovery Series, 1 (University of : California Press: $29.95; 109 pp., illustrated; 0-520-06211-6)

June 04, 1989|Jeffrey Burton Russell | Russell is the author of 13 books on the history of theology, including "The Prince of Darkness" (Cornell University Press, 1988)

This beautifully written, sumptuously illustrated, and elegantly printed work on Matthias Grunewald's famous altarpiece is an auspicious first volume in the new Discovery Series in art history from California Press. Edited by Walter Horn and James Marrow, the series is designed to publish short monographs requiring extensive illustration to develop their arguments.

In this volume, Ruth Mellinkoff, a distinguished art historian and author of "The Mark of Cain," concentrates on one of the more puzzling figures of the famous altarpiece at Isenheim, painted by Grunewald about 1512-1516. Best known for its terrifying depiction of Christ's Crucifixion, the altarpiece was designed with two hinged sets of wings so that three entirely different views could be presented according to the arrangement of the wings. A total of 14 panels appear in the three views. The famous Crucifixion appeared in the view when the wings were closed; the almost equally renowned Temptation of Anthony appeared when the wings were opened in the shrine position. At the center of the middle position is a picture of a musical concert given by angels in the presence of the Madonna and Child. In the sky above the Madonna, God sits enthroned among his angels, radiating spiritual light. This panel has long resisted satisfactory interpretation. By addressing one of its most puzzling figures, Mellinkoff finds a key to understanding the panel as a whole.

In the back row of the concert of angels sits a strange, feathered, greenish creature, strikingly different from the other angel musicians in the panel and from other angels in the altarpiece. Mellinkoff is the first to demonstrate that this figure is the Devil himself. Unlike the other angels, who have feathered wings, Lucifer is almost completely covered with feathers and hair. Unlike the other angels, who are reddish, Lucifer is a sickly green suggesting decay.

One small point here is debatable. Mellinkoff argues that the Devil's hair is metamorphosing into feathers, but it seems more likely that the process is the opposite, since iconographic tradition is that in his fall Lucifer was transformed from beautiful angel into hairy brute. That this Devil still has a sensitive face is not to be wondered at, for St. Paul said that Satan could take on the appearance of an angel of light, and the earliest portrait of the Devil in Christian art shows him in the shape of a beautiful angel.

Most strikingly, the Devil is looking up toward the figure of God in the sky with an expression of horrified amazement. I have made an unthinkable mistake, he seems to be saying; God's power is real; I am ruined forever. It is an arresting, compelling face, this face of suffering Lucifer, a strange echo of the suffering Christ of the Altarpiece's most famous panel, and, in wider terms, a premonition of the protagonist of Victor Hugo's great poem "Satan" three centuries later. The astonishment of the Devil derives not from his stupidity--he is after all an angel, the most brilliant of God's creatures--but rather from his willful refusal to accept the truth. A moment after his creation, he refused to accept his dependence upon God the Father; and later, when he met Christ to tempt him in the wilderness, he refused to accept that this was the Son of God.

The author confirms her argument by following a number of other clues in what amounts to brilliant detective work. Atop his head, Lucifer wears a strange crest that on examination proves to be a peacock's plumes. Mellinkoff shows that Grunewald would have perceived the peacock as a symbol of sinful pride and that other contemporary artists sometimes set a peacock's crest upon the head of the serpent of the Garden of Eden. She links Lucifer with the fall of humankind in the same panel, taking the dark fig tree in the center of the panel as the fatal tree of Eden.

She identifies a number of strange little figures in the panel as demons, one of them, near Lucifer himself, having a peculiarly repellent face. She argues that the chamber pot bearing pseudo-Hebrew characters is linked with sin and Satan as part of the contemporary custom of demonizing the Jews who denied Christ.

Mellinkoff's interpretation is art history at its best; she understands that it is impossible to interpret a painting satisfactorily without understanding the mentality of the painter. As others have shown for Bosch, Mellinkoff shows for Grunewald that his work is not as peculiar as it at first appears but rather is rooted in traditional Christian theology. We now understand the altarpiece better than ever, and we also have a more poignant sense of the sorrow of Satan, elected, like Judas, to play a painful part in the drama of salvation.

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