Encounter in Colmar

By Leon Kortenkamp - Belmont, California, USA - 18 February 2015



The old monastery, now museum, is freezing cold. A hint of smoke in the air suggests a fireplace somewhere, but nowhere in sight.

Normally, I travel to Europe in May, following the spring semester, after the cold months and before the onrush of tourists and the summer heat, but not this year. This year, two days before Christmas, my fiancée announced the end of our engagement. I asked for time to talk, to work things out, and she responded by taping a three-line note to the steering wheel of my car before running off with her theater director. Too distracted to function in the classroom, I took leave from the university and began my research a few months early.


The Isenheim Altarpiece is disassembled for exhibition. The huge two-sided hinged wings are positioned back to back on a row of pedestals, standing like banners in a procession down the center of the chapel nave. 


The display aptly begins with the Nativity panel. Originally flanked by the hinged Annunciation and Resurrection wings, it is now featured on its own, a delight of detail and emotion. Musician angels celebrate the baby’s birth.  Demons cower in the shadows, knowing that it’s all over for them. 


As I move in for a closer look, a young woman rounds the edge of the panel. Thinking that I am alone in the chapel, her appearance gives me a start. Our eyes meet; she smiles faintly and quick-

ly turns her attention to the painting. She is a slight woman, dark hair and dark eyes, bundled up with a heavy coat, gloves, boots, and a long red and white striped scarf wound around her head and around her neck, one end hanging down her back and the other hanging in front, almost to the floor. 


We pause for a time with the mother and child before moving on to view the next panel, St. Anthony’s travail in the desert. Grotesque demons torment him, pulling his hair and assailing him with a barrage of afflictions as he struggles to hold true to his rigors of prayer and contemplation.


Next is the dazzling Resurrection leaf. Jesus rises in a radiant burst of light. Displaying his wounds he floats weightlessly above the tomb. The soldiers, depicted in stunning color and detail, overcome by the awesome event, tumble to the ground. 


Panel after panel, the young woman pauses as I move on, then I pause as she moves on. Turning, pausing, moving on, lingering behind, moving on together, turning and parting, coming back together we move around the pedestals and through the exhibition like slow motion dance partners in a Jane Austen movie.


At the Crucifixion, the last panel, we stand silently transfixed before the gruesome depiction of the bruised body extended on the cross, nailed hands gnarled in pain, head bowed in death. Mary Magdalene beneath the cross, raises her twisted hands in desperate grief, John the beloved disciple comforts the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist, marvelously present, with a lamb at his feet and scriptures in hand, points and explains the cosmic Paschal meaning of the event. 


It is our final panel together, and I want to connect the moment with the young woman.  “Grunewald got it right,” I venture.


She says nothing in reply. What? No reply at all? Maybe she doesn’t understand English. 


Then, “Jesus got it right, and Grunewald understood that,” she replies in perfect English. Her remark bares no edge, but is possessed with disarming authority.


I want to reply, but only glib classroom responses come to mind. My thoughts are in a muddle, and I come up with nothing. Then another voice, like a soft whisper. I glance over at the young woman. It isn’t she. The words are clear, “Believe in my love.” A jolt of mysterious sweet pain grips my chest, like a crust around my heart is cracking and falling away. The figure on the cross, bowed in death, begins to blur, and I am awash in a wave of idyllic calm. I step back slightly to conceal my tears from the young woman. She, with delicate reserve, blesses herself and disappears around the edge of the panel.


Wait, I want to call after her. Who are you? Where are you going?  I want to talk to you about what just happened here.  I round the panel; she is nowhere in sight. I search the next and the next, and suddenly, there she is, back at the Nativity. Back with the musician angels. Back with the baby. I join her, pretending to review the panel. She turns and walks toward the doorway leading to the next museum room. I’m sure she thinks I am following her, but I don’t care.


“I’m going out for a hot cup of coffee,” I call after her. “Would you like to join me?” The stone wall returns my invitation as an empty disconcerting echo.


Turning, she replies, “That’s very kind. But I want to see the rest of the museum.”


“I’m sure they’ll let you back in,” I persist. “I mean, if you would like to get out of the cold for a bit.”


“Yes…I suppose they will,” she answers with a knowing smile and a tug on her scarf.