There be dragons!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Grunewald's Resurrection


I was reflecting on this magnificent piece of artwork today by Matthias Grunewald.  The Resurrection is one of the panels in the Isenheim Altarpiece; the outside right panel to be precise.  Grunewald painted the panel within the measurements of a golden rectangle

The scene depicts the moment of the resurrection when the Lord rises from the grave.  It is divided into four sections marked by very pronounced lines of the sarcophagus, the large stone, & the arms of Christ who hovers over the open sarcophagus like a flower opening in the darkness.  This division parallels the geometric divisions in sacra geometria of natural man elevated to the supernatural level.

Surrounding the luminous figure of the Christ is a deep impenetrable darkness dotted with stars in the background.  At his feet in the first of the four sections of the painting are three fallen soldiers, bending over or prone from the shock of the resurrection's power and the earthquake that has broken open the tomb.  They are reminiscent of the worshipping figures of the three wise men.  One raises his left arm to ward off the power of the risen Lord.  The cloth of the risen figure seems to rise up almost from the body of this figure whose color scheme and whose lines of cloth resemble the sheaths of a dead plant.  The line of the risen figure's cloth stems, literally, from the very heart of this figure, traveling up the line of the second figure's shoulders and into the person of the Christ who floats suspended above their dark, petrified world of steel and stone.  This cloth acts as a tether, an umbilicus, a stem upon which the flower of the risen Lord rests.  It's predominantly white and blue colors remind one of the sky on a clear day; or spotless linen newly washed.  The line of the cloth follows the diagonal division of the golden rectangle of the panel's frame.  Part of the winding sheet drapes over the sarcophagus like milk poured out; its smooth purity contrasting directly with the roughness of the soldier's chainmail and the cold purity of the sculpted sarcophagus.  The perfectly chiseled tomb of right angles and smooth lines representing the slavery of the pattern lies open behind the two figures in the foreground, the lid lying to the side as though slid off rather than violently broken open.  To the right of the prostrate figures in the foreground one can barely make out the dead stump of a tree, cut down by axes rather than withered away.  The line direction of the stump points directly to the head of the risen Christ, though the new stalk full of life is the winding sheet, not this stump.

In the second section we find the third crouching figure who leans on his sword in an attitude that suggests not collapse but a struggle almost to rise up from the darkness of the earth.  In relation to the two other figures he is drawn in perspective according to the sacra geometria of the growth from the root, or exponential growth. The ground below him is flat, stoney like a stage upon which is unfolding a tremendous drama.  Above him looms precipitously a massive uncut stone of the same composition, color and shape (the golden rectangle) as the sarcophagus suggesting both a reduplication of the sarcophagus' finality and the imposition of the forms on the life of man.

The third section of the painting is dominated almost entirely by the red cloth of the winding sheet of Christ.  Like petals of a flower the fabric floats with the risen Lord and possesses a mysterious infolding like water or something organic.  The colors are predominately red but are also constituted of blue and yellow that encompass the scope of the spectrum passing from deep blue, to blood red, to pink, to orange, to yellow.  Taken together with the rest of the figure the cloth creates the inverted triangular division of Metatron's cube, or the tree of life, wherein Christ's head is at the top of the geometric image. Oddly, the sarcophagus, the boulder, and the edges of the corona do not seem at first to line up; the sarcophagus' right side is inline with the corona but the left is off the panel.  The boulder seems shifted to the right of the corona which is aligned in direct horizontal center of the panel.  What this does, however, is create an amazing artistic trick in the mind of the viewer.  Like the perception of straight columns in the parthenon we are treated here to a perception of a spiralic pattern in three dimension; the eye of the viewer moving from the base near the sarcophagus, back into the painting toward the boulder, back again outward toward the corona.  The three are lined up in the mind, therefore, even if visually they are not aligned in the painting itself.

The final section has the hands and arms of Christ which glow with a translucence and seem to inscribe a circle - the wounds of the hands marking two points on a golden rectangle.  This is the same shape perceived in the large boulder and in the sarcophagus.  Here, however, the shape has moved from being an emblem of finality in death, to a terror from the darkness, to the limits of a heavenly light.  It is the cruciform boundaries of the New Jerusalem inscribed within the circle of rainbow light that emanate like a corona from Christ's sternum rather than his head.  At the top of the golden rectangle is the head of Christ, serene, awake, aware, fully conscious.  He is the mystical flower that emerges from the dead earth; the awakened Buddha-mind aware of its world; the sun that rises on the morn; Dionysus ascendant in glory. 

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