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Raging Pain, Radiating Glory: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in German-Jewish Thought

Mon, December 17, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 1 Ballroom

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel explores the place of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in modern German Jewish thought. The altarpiece was commissioned around 1500 by the Order of St. Anthony for use in its hospital at Isenheim. There, those suffering from especially painful conditions could look upon its vivid representations of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. The altarpiece was subsequently dismantled and moved from Isenheim to the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar, Alsace. After the German annexation of Alsace in 1872, the altarpiece rose to prominence among German thinkers, eventually becoming a central element in debates about the meaning of German identity. This was especially true in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the altar was moved from Colmar to the Pinakothek in Munich. Between the signing of the German Armistice in November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, the altarpiece became a national phenomenon and a place of pilgrimage, giving expression to postwar German feelings of agony and suffering. In later years, Karl Barth famously claimed to have a reproduction of the altarpiece hanging over his desk.

Much like their Christian counterparts, German Jewish thinkers in the twentieth century wrote about and sometimes made the journey to see Grünewald’s altarpiece. Franz Rosenzweig went to Colmar in 1906. Buber composed a short article about it in 1914. Leo Baeck mentioned it in a lecture from 1935. And Walter Benjamin had its image placed on the wall of his study. In order to understand the historical significance of the altarpiece for these thinkers, the panel will open with a paper by Amy Hollywood (Harvard University), who will offer some reflections on its importance in the history of medieval and early modern Christian theology. The second paper, by Yaniv Feller (Wesleyan University), will provide a reading Martin Buber’s 1914 essay, “The Altar,” placing it the context of Buber’s writing on religion and aesthetics. In the final paper, Adam Stern will consider how the altarpiece mediates the concept of “expression” (Ausdruck) in the work of Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig.

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