Restored masterpiece: The Isenheim Altarpiece

3 Jul

To renovate the Isenheim Altarpiece, old overpaintings were removed to reveal the original colors, and dirt was cleared from the masterpiece — all under the eyes of the visitors of the museum where it is kept.


Before restoration began at the Musee Unterlinden in the French city of Colmar, the paintings were X-rayed and examined under 3D microscopes. Experts also removed pigment samples during the 4-year restoration process, which cost €1.4 million ($1.5 million) and was financed by the Societe Schongauer and the French culture ministry.

Museum director Pantxika De Paepa is more than happy with the results: "Apart from the original beauty, you can now also see the interplay between the panels and the sculptures," she told DW.

The works by German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald offer a dramatic depiction of the crucifixion of Christ: The wooden cross, on which Jesus Christ hangs, appears oversized. His body, covered with wounds, is heavy, weighing down the horizontal beam of the cross. His outstretched arms look as if they are being pulled out of his shoulders. His palms, nailed to the beams, are cramped in pain, spread out toward the sky. John the Baptist and Mother Mary are grieving at the foot of the cross.

Commissioned by monks

The paintings were created between 1512 and 1516 after being commissioned by the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, located at the old Roman route from Mainz to Basel. Pilgrims on the way to Rome stopped here.

The Order of St. Anthony also ran a hospital close to Colmar and treated many people with ergotism — a disease caused by the ergot fungus, which grows on rye and other cereal grasses, leading to spasms, hallucinations and burning sensations.

The restoration took four years to complete

Historically, the disease was also known as St. Anthony's fire, as its gangrenous version causing affected tissues to blacken and look charred in advanced stages. There was no treatment at the time to heal the illness. Grünewald's altar was placed in the monastery's church so that sick people could find solace.

The painter's work is now on display at Colmar's Unterlinden museum, a former monastery of the Dominican nuns. The paintings were made on two fixed and four movable altar wings. The sculptures in the main shrine are believed to have been made by the sculptor Niklaus von Hagenau from Strasbourg. These pieces were also painstakingly restored.

The restoration changed the altar, explains museum director de Paepe: "The panel paintings and sculptures form a visible unit again," she says. Grünewald's paintings all shine with a new brilliance and colorfulness. The painted wooden sculptures of Nikolaus von Hagenau also have gained in visual impact through the restoration.

Chief restorer Antony Pontabry summarizes an important result of the analyzes and restorations: "We learned that Grünewald's altar was intended from the outset as a joint composition of all the craftsmen and artists involved," he told DW. "Paintings, sculptures and frames were all hand-made."

The altar was conceived with 11 display that could be opened or shut depending upon the liturgical calendar and prayer service requirements. The monks then prayed directly in front of the altar during Christian feasts such as Advent, Christmas or Passiontide, while laypeople were only allowed to view the panels through a rood screen, which was a richly decorated barrier that separated the choir and nave.

Vivid description of Jesus' sufferings

Grünewald's imagery was excessive compared to his contemporaries Dürer or Cranach. In the detailed representation of the suffering of Christ on the Cross, the liberating scene of Christ's resurrection or the depiction of St. Anthony's torment, Grünewald masterfully merges realistic representation with his mystical worldview.

The crucifixion of the Son of God, a common motive of devotional pictures in the Middle Ages, has an exceptionally direct effect in the case of Grünewald's images. Before him, no artist north of the Alps had depicted the killing in Golgtha, the misery and the torment of the martyr in a similarly brutal manner.

The body of Grünewald's Jesus is also ridden with green-blue wounds, telling signs of ergotism. The Messiah suffers from St. Anthony's fire, like so many people at the time. Grünewald's work impressed not only his contemporaries. When the altar was brought to Munich after the end of World War II, the writer Thomas Mann saw it in the Alte Pinakothek Museum.

Mann wrote in his diary about the strong impression the paintings had left on him, the colorful Madonna scene's "sweetness" contrasting with the "grotesque misery" of the crucifixion. The paintings were one of the "strongest" he had ever seen, he wrote. Expressionists like Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, August Macke and Marianne von Werefkin were also inspired by Grünewald. The composer Paul Hindemith called his 1935 symphony and opera, "Mathis the painter."

World Cultural heritage

The Isenheim Altarpiece was brought back to Colmar in September 1919. Writer Elias Canetti stood for a whole day in front of the masterpiece when he visited the museum in 1927, saying he felt the "horrifying condition" of Christ's body was true. He said that the images, depicting an event from which one would have turned away from in horror in real life, allowed him to grasp the beauty and transfiguration of the crucifixion.

Today, the Isenheim altarpiece is a World Heritage site. With it, the Musee Unterlinden owns one of the most famous masterpieces of the late Gothic era and is — after the Louvre — the most visited museum in France.


 Author Stefan Dege

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