Mathias the Painter
I first encountered the painter Mathias Grünewald via Paul Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Mahler," from 1934, which was based on themes from his opera of the same name; the opera was premiered later, in 1938, due to several controversies. Hindemith was one of the composers of the first half of the Twentieth Century who changed the face of contemporary music, though he is now often given credit than he deserves. As a composer he combined traditional tonal elements with more experimental elements in his music, to create a distinctively modern sound. Yet it was as a teacher and music theorist that he influenced many other composers. HIs theory and method books were much sought when he was at Yale in his later career.
I began working through Hindemith's theory method books when in my teens, long before I went to music school. By then I had already studied a lot of Debussy, had a teenage fling with Sturm und Drang in the Romantic composers (my two favorite Beethoven symphonies being the Sixth and the Ninth), and wanted more than traditional tonal music. I had already started to explore John Cage's musical ideas by then, and also Steve Reich's, and had had my hands on tape recorders and electronic music instruments; my junior high school actually owned a suitcase Moog synthesizer. Hindemith provided an alternative to both traditional tonality and to Schönberg's serial atonality; neither of which spoke to me as a composer. I recall being introduced to modes and modal composition; to polychords; and to open, non-triadic voicings in counterpoint. Later on, in music school, I was drilled relentlessly in 18th C. counterpoint, notably Bach's voice-leadings, Heinrich Isaak, and much more. It was a good grounding, but Hindemith's ideas about opening up music theory beyond strictly tonal possibilities had a stronger influence on me. Hindemith prefigured a fair bit of jazz music theory, although I don't know if he was aware of this; on the other hand, I recall reading somewhere in a jazz history book that some influential jazz composers had read and absorbed Hindemith's theory books.
Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Mahler" can be thought of as an orchestral suite of themes developed from the opera; although it stands alone as a symphonic work, and is probably Hindemith's best-known work at this date, the programmatic origins of the music should not be forgotten. Each movement of the symphony is a musical response to a painting by Mathias Grünewald: each depicts a painting, or the meaningful response to the painting. The music, therefore, is simultaneously contemplative and ecstatic. There are moments of great dynamic force, of relentless motion; these are side by side with moments not of tranquility but of revelation.
Grünewald's most famous surviving work is the Isenheim Altarpiece. it was originally painted for a chapel hospital serving patients afflicted with St. Anthony's Fire, a neurological syndrome scholars now believe was caused by ergot contamination of rye, a fungus that grows on the grain and produces a poison.
The remarkable starkness and cruelty of the Crucifixion that Mathias depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece has been much discussed; less remarked upon is the context of naturalism that Mathias was depicting within the context of his commission: the horror of the Crucifixion was no doubt felt directly and personally by the patients who might have viewed the paintings, suffering as they were from ergotism and perhaps plague. The stark naturalism of the painting thus connects the viewer to the Christ of the miserable, the poor, the forgotten, the diseased. It tells no lies about the hard facts of life. Death is not made pretty or easy. Mathias' depiction is remarkable in part because of its heightened drama, created by its technical ultra-naturalism, remarkable for tis time. In fact, still remarkable, still unique.
There was a tradition in Medieval and Renaissance painting to be darkly horrific when depicting the Crucifixion. Death was quite familiar, and fear of death, and fear of damnation. Remember that Medieval art was visual preaching: sermons in sculpture and paint. Even some of the landed gentry were quite illiterate, and the Church conducted its offices in the learned tongue of Latin, not in the vernacular. This tradition of painting has doctrinal origins, obviously. A great deal more art historical study of Medieval art focuses on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection: in part because it was more often depicted in art. Again, there are doctrinal and dogmatic reasons for this. These visual sermons were intended to get sinners to repent, by depicting the horrors of death and damnation. They were meant to inspire, if only by fear, good behavior.
When the three wings of the painted altar are fully opened, there is a bit of gilded peace: the presence of St. Anthony, the balm and protector of those with the fire in their flesh. The altar wings open through layers of art and thus layers of meaning. It's a very poetic artwork, full of deep symbolism, each opening layer reflecting upon the others, making a complex sermon indeed. The patient viewing the altar might be led through a connection of their personal suffering to Christ's suffering, through to their personal relief of suffering: they might achieve consolation.
I remember from when I studied art history and Medieval art, that several art historians have noted that, since the Middle Ages, the emphasis has almost always been on death over resurrection: it's a more emotionally powerful image, as it leads them to contemplate their own mortality. At its crudest, it keeps the flocks in line with threats of death and damnation. The crucifixion makes people aware of their own immortal souls, and they might be reminded to repent of their sins. There's a special area of study in Medieval art history on this topic.
Artistic images of death remain more common, even today, than images of transcendent overcoming. We still think this way. I've read more than one book analyzing our contemporary culture as death- and pain-obsessed. We market everything with sex, while our stories, our fictions, our contemporary myths strongly emphasize death and violence over love and overcoming. We can show violent bloody deaths on television every night, but we still can't show people making tender love without getting censored.
In art, another factor in play might be that it's very easy to sentimentalize the resurrection. It takes a very great artist indeed to effectively paint, or sculpt, ecstatic experiences. There are some great resurrection poems; perhaps it's a topic that easier to talk about than to directly experience. Many of us never rise above the pain of life; we remain mired in the woundology of crucifixion. It's difficult to depict transcendence without becoming clichéd, or using symbols that are so familiar that they don't pack the same emotional punch as images of death do. (BTW, that emotional punch is one reason Sigmund Freud decided that the death-fear was so central in his model of the unconscious. I don't agree with Freud that it is of primary importance; but it is present nonetheless.)
Joseph Campbell wrote compellingly about the death-and-resurrection mythos. So did Carl Jung. You have to die to be reborn: and each of us experience smaller crucifixions in our lives, which to overcome we too must be reborn. It's part of the Hero's journey pattern, and goes back very far in Western culture. The goddess Innana, from Sumerian myth, died and was reborn; the trope is also in the Gilgamesh myth.
Death images contain drama, high drama, high emotion; we're all afraid of death, to some extent. But not all of us experience the ecstasy of rebirth: it's a fundamentally harder topic to relate to, personally, for most people. There are some great artworks depicting the resurrection, including some from the Middle Ages, but they're usually sublime rather than dramatic, so to be blunt they may not hold the attention of the average viewer quite as powerfully as death images do.
For me, the most remarkable panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece is the Resurrection painting. As has been remarked by more than one art historian, depictions of the Crucifixion, of the Suffering, far outnumber depictions of the Resurrection. This painting is thus both amazing in its own right, but extraordinary in its context. There is nothing at all sentimental in this painting: it's as stark, as super-naturalistic as the Crucifixion, in its depiction of its theme. It's one of the most potent Resurrection paintings I've ever seen, one of the most memorable.
The resurrection panel depicts Christ literally exploding out of the tomb, blasting out of the earth, flying above the landscape as though an angel or a rocket, enveloped in a sphere of glowing luminous light. His flight from death is the point of light illuminating the darkened landscape. Ordinary people on the ground, mostly covered in shadow, avert their gaze, the Light is so bright; or perhaps they have been knocked off their feet by the wind of the Christ's passage. There is in this painting a sense of immanent power, overwhelming force. Nothing can stand before the conqueror of death, without being utterly transformed.
Light itself has often been used as a symbol of resurrection and transcendence. The light coming in the Medieval cathedral windows was a symbol of God, who is Light and Radiance. The radiant light surrounding the Christ in this painting is both explosive and sublime: a continuous explosion that never ceases, that never ceases to renew itself, and goes on and on. The rocket analogy seems natural to me here, because, in essence, a rocket is propelled by continuous explosions that thrust it forward through space.
To contemplate a painting so transformative for a long period of time does make changes in the viewer. Perhaps one feels a peace arise within, knowing that the fear of death is not so important after all. Perhaps one is led into a direct experience of the Light, in one's own self: an experience recorded by many mystics from many times and places is of feeling illuminated from within. Of being lifted up, and plunged into a Light-filled space in which all shadow is scoured away. Perhaps one can hear a lingering trace of that continuous explosion in the music of the heavens, which in this pocket of the Light suffer none of the chaotic failings of entropy. The conqueror of death conquers time, as well.
Hindemith's music, in the Symphony, reaches this sublime level more than once. There are moments when one hears that continuous explosion in the orchestration: a lot is going on in one part of the orchestra, while an immanent, continuous theme floats above it. The music mediates upon the paintings, each containing a fragment of eternal Light, and becomes itself transcendent.
(With thanks to Dave King for inciting this meditation.