The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald between 1512 and 1516, has been called “the most moving and impressive series of religious paintings of the entire Middle Ages.”1 The altarpiece consists of nine paintings and eight carvings, all placed on hinged panels so that the figures can be seen in various positions. Shown here are, from left to right, the Annunciation, the Concert of Angels and Nativity, and the Resurrection.

All of the paintings are rich in religious symbolism: The central painting has been a particular object of study, and some of the images still remain obscure. However, in her book The Devil at Isenheim (Univ. of California Press, 1988), Ruth Mellinkoff of the University of California’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, proposes a new understanding of one figure: She believes the orchestra of angels playing for the birth of Jesus includes Lucifer.

The first clue Mellinkoff identifies relates to the physical appearance of the angels. Most of them are shown emitting their own light, but they have the basic appearance of humans—albeit humans with feathered wings. But one of the angels looks different—the green angel lurking at left in the center panel (see the detail on the cover of this issue). He is covered with feathers, and even his hair appears feather-like. His flesh, particularly on his hands, looks like it is decaying, and Mellinkoff finds it telling that the gangrenous color of his skin is the same as the color of Jesus’ dead body in two other paintings on the altarpiece, the Crucifixion and the Lamentation (not shown here), in which Jesus’ body has been taken down from the cross.

Another feature, Mellinkoff says, dispels any doubt about this creature’s identity: the peacock’s crest on top of his head. By Grünewald’s time, peacocks were primarily associated with pride and vainglory, the causes of Lucifer’s fall. Peacocks were especially popular as symbols of pride in Germanic countries, Mellinkoff says, and a number of serpents in Garden of Eden illustrations have peacock heads or peacock crests. Significantly, none of the other angels in Grünewald’s painting is shown with any peacock attributes, though it was common for medieval and Renaissance artists to show angels’ wings made of peacock feathers.

But if this angel is Lucifer, why is he in a painting of the Nativity? Mellinkoff traces this to an idea popular in Grünewald’s time called the deception-of-Satan theory. According to this theory, when all of mankind was stained by Adam and Eve’s original sin, Satan acquired the right to keep all human souls in hell after death. To redeem his people, God offered the Devil his son, Jesus. By concealing his divine nature in human form, God provoked the Devil into claiming a sinless soul to which the Devil had no right; the Devil thereby lost his exclusive right to all men’s souls.

This episode appears throughout medieval literature and even influenced the writings of Martin Luther. The theory was also illustrated in the visual arts of the late Middle Ages: Often, Satan or his symbols are shown in Nativity or Annunciation scenes. Here, Grünewald puts all the pieces together: Satan appears as the fallen angel Lucifer, gazing not at the Christ child with the other angels, but, because of his confusion about this child, towards God the Father who appears in the heavens.