The Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, one of the most important works in the history of sacred art, has been undergoing unusually extensive restoration work for several years. Undiscovered details have now been brought to light for visitors to the French museum.
The hands and feet, pierced with nails, are even more contorted with pain; the festering sores covering the body of the dead Jesus stand out even more clearly.
At the end of several years of restoration of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, the depicted suffering of the crucified Jesus is once again on display in all its gruesome detail. The museum is celebrating the completion of a restoration that was unusually complex – and brought something unusual to light.
What makes the Isenheim Altarpiece so special?
The Isenheim Altarpiece is considered one of the most important works of religious art that found a new way of expressing the suffering of Jesus. Although the crucifixion scene was a central pictorial motif in medieval devotional paintings, the depiction by the exceptional artist Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) brought the suffering to the fore in a completely new way.
In contrast to previous depictions, Jesus here is not a victor over death hanging upright on the cross, or a triumphant redeemer from the sins of mankind. He is not dying, but suffering.
Grünewald depicts the Crucifixion as cruelly as no one before: the large nail with which the feet are fastened to the cross tears through the flesh, the head is covered in blood from the huge crown of thorns and the mouth has turned blue. His body is riddled with thorns and festering sores. The image must have shocked and terrified.
The altarpiece was created between 1512 and 1516 and consists of eleven painted panels and a interior shrine full of sculptures. The panels are by Grünewald, the wooden sculptures by Niklaus von Hagenau.
The long history of restoration
The restoration that has now come to an end is not the first facelift for the Isenheim Altarpiece, so called because it was created for the former Antonite monastery in the village of Issenheim, south of Colmar.
But for the first time, the altar has now been cleaned, studied and analysed using the most modern techniques. And this after strong objections when, in July 2011, the first interventions were made on the right-hand outer panel with the Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Critics, including Didier Rykner, accused the team at the time of using outdated methods that could endanger the paint layer. As a result, the restoration was stopped and resumed in 2018 – using state-of-the-art techniques.
These included X-rays, pigment and layer analyses, procedures that used infrared radiation or lasers. Even eye-tracking was used to observe visitors’ viewing behaviour triggered by the change in the restoration. The refreshment treatment took place before the audience’s eyes.
What’s new to discover?
A number of new discoveries were made during the restoration. For example, the original colour scheme of the sculptures, which had been painted over in the 18th century, came to light, as did nuances in the painting layer on the panel paintings. Now the carved base of St. Anthony is no longer pink, but malachite green. The horror of the crucifixion scene is no longer enveloped by a pitch-black night, but by a midnight blue sky with grey and black clouds.
For Pantxika De Paepe, the museum’s director, this allows for a new interpretation. It’s like a glimmer of hope in the darkest night, she said. It’s an interpretation that fits the history of the altarpiece, as people were brought before the altar of the former monastery in the hope of healing, especially those who suffered from “Saint Anthony’s fire” – an ergot poisoning that can lead to the death of tissue. It was one of the most feared epidemics of the Middle Ages.
Even before that, the Unterlinden Museum was one of the most visited art museums in France. At its most famous work, visitors can now see things that were hidden for centuries. New colour impressions allow conclusions to be drawn about the time when the artwork was created. Among the many details that can now be rediscovered on this important work of art history is this: a tear that can suddenly be glimpsed on the cheek of Christ’s mother.
dpa Via REUTERS