After Nature

By Winfried Georg Sebald

Modern Library

Copyright © 2003 Winfried Georg Sebald
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780375756580



Whoever closes the wings

of the altar in the Lindenhardt

parish church and locks up

the carved figures in their casing

on the lefthand panel

will be met by St. George.

Foremost at the picture's edge he stands

above the world by a hand's breadth

and is about to step over the frame's

threshold. Georgius Miles,

man with the iron torso, rounded chest

of ore, red-golden hair and silver

feminine features. The face of the unknown

Grünewald emerges again and again

in his work as a witness

to the snow miracle, a hermit

in the desert, a commiserator

in the Munich Mocking of Christ.

Last of all, in the afternoon light

in the Erlangen library, it shines forth

from a self-portrait, sketched out

in heightened white crayon, later destroyed

by an alien hand's pen and wash,

as that of a painter aged forty

to fifty. Always the same

gentleness, the same burden of grief,

the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled

and sliding sideways down into loneliness.

Grünewald's face reappears, too,

in a Basel painting by Holbein

the Younger of a crowned female saint.

These were strangely disguised

instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger

whose books were burned by the fascists.

Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art

men had revered each other like brothers, and

often made monuments in each other's

image where their paths had crossed.

Hence too, at the centre of

the Lindenhardt altar's right wing,

that troubled gaze upon the youth

on the other side of the older man

whom, years ago now, on a grey

January morning I myself once

encountered in the railway station

in Bamberg. It is St. Dionysius,

his cut-off head under one arm.

To him, his chosen guardian

who in the midst of life carries

his death with him, Grünewald gives

the appearance of Riemenschneider, whom

twenty years later the Würzburg bishop

condemned to the breaking of his hands

in the torture cell. Long before that time

pain had entered into the pictures.

That is the command, knows the painter

who on the altar aligns himself

with the scant company of the

fourteen auxiliary saints. Each of these,

the blessed Blasius, Achaz and Eustace;

Panthaleon, Aegidius, Cyriax, Christopher and

Erasmus and the truly beautiful

St. Vitus with the cockerel,

each look in different

directions without knowing

why. The three female saints

Barbara, Catherine and Margaret on

the other hand hide at the edge

of the left panel behind the back of

St. George putting together their

uniform oriental heads for

a conspiracy against the men.

The misfortune of saints

is their sex, is the terrible

separation of the sexes which Grünewald

suffered in his own person. The exorcised

devil that Cyriax, not only because

of the narrow confines, holds raised

high as an emblem in

the air is a female being

and, as a grisaille of Grünewald's

in the Frankfurt Städel shows in

the most drastic of fashions, derives from

Diocletian's epileptic daughter,

the misshapen princess Artemia whom

Cyriax, as beside him she kneels on

the ground, holds tightly leashed

with a maniple of his vestments

like a dog. Spreading out

above them is the branch work

of a fig tree with fruit, one of which

is entirely hollowed out by insects.


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