The Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

In Colmar, in the Alsace region of north-east France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum. Colmar is an ancient town and was recorded as being the location of an assembly held by the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat in 884. It was granted the status of a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II in 1226. It has a fascinating history; amongst other things it was the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty which France gifted to the United States of America in 1886. Colmar has an extremely well-preserved old town, with numerous architectural landmarks.

Little Venice area, Colmar

The Unterlinden Museum contains a major collection of medieval and early Renaissance art, in which Martin Schongauer, who was born in the town in 1448, is particularly prominent. Other artists represented include Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Holbein. There is also a modern collection with works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Roualt, Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delaunay and Otto Dix.

Martin Schongauer ‘Retable d’Orlier’ (c.1472)

Hans Holbein the Elder ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (c.1515)

Lucas Cranach the Elder ‘Melancholy’ (1532)

However, the most spectacular work in the museum and the reason for my visit is the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in 1512 –1516 for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar. The monastery was known for its care of plague sufferers as well as for the treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism.The crucified Christ is depicted on the altarpiece with such a disease, indicating to sufferers that he understood and shared their affliction.

The altarpiece is a complex structure, with two sets of wings, meaning that three different configurations could be displayed. Except on holy days the wings were kept closed which meant that the usual view would be of the crucifixion, with Christ on the cross, his body covered with sores. The side panels depict Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows on the left and Saint Anthony on the right.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with wings closed

When the outer wings were opened for particular holy days, especially those concerning the Virgin, four different scenes were revealed: on the left is the Annunciation set in a chapel, in the centre are a concert of angels and the Nativity, whilst the right-hand panel shows the Resurrection.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with outer wings opened

When the inner wings are open, sculptures of Saints Augustine, Anthony and Jerome are visible, with Christ and the twelve Apostles below. These are flanked by paintings of, on the left, the Visit of Saint Anthony to Saint Paul the Hermit, and on the right, ‘Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons’. Saint Anthony has been beaten to the ground by the monstrous creatures but his appeals to God for help are answered by the arrival of angels.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with inner wings opened

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