ON OPENING the shrine of the Isenheim Altar, we see on the left wing the scene of the visit of St. Anthony to St. Paul, the hermit in the wilderness depicted by Grünewald. Here the art of the master reaches its climax. Evening spreads over the valley, in which trees of the German forest are interspersed with exotic palms. It is an aboriginal, a magic landscape, which looks as if the waters of the deluge had just receded. Rocks darken in deep, velvety brown; stems rise, gray like the bodies of scaly animals; black mosses drip from the branches. Deer cross the wilderness with soundless step, merging with the dusk. Misty hues float through a mysterious glen in the background, where beyond a dark river the silent majesty of the blue, high forest rises. It is overtowered by mountain peaks whose aerial shapes catch the last evening light and softly glow in a most tender rose. The whole color symphony is unified as in a painting by Titian.
This extraordinary feeling of nature does not appear for the first time in German painting with Grünewald. In a painting (Fig. 21) done some years earlier, in 1511 (actually a sheet of vellum mounted on wood), there is represented the meeting of St. George with the dragon. It is difficult to distinguish the figure of the Saint in his plumed helmet from the thicket of the high forest. The overwhelming richness of uncouth nature fills the little panel. Tall beeches form a tight network with the undergrowth; one form is interlaced with the other. The forest as a unit is supposed to enter the picture space. Although we see only a part of it, its unlimited extension in height and depth is suggested. A soft breeze seems to move the branches, so that the high lights of the leaves glitter. The forest is the main content of the picture,