The Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar is one of the most important works in the history of sacred art. In years of work, it was unusually extensively restored. Now there are many surprises to be discovered.

The hands and feet pierced with nails are even more contorted with pain; the suppurating sores that cover the body of the dead Jesus are even more prominent.

After the end of the multi-year restoration of the famous Isenheim altar in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, the depicted suffering of the crucified Jesus is again displayed in its cruel details. The museum is celebrating the completion of a restoration that was unusually complex – and brought something unusual to light.

What makes the Isenheim Altar so special?

The Isenheim Altar is considered one of the most important works of sacred art, which found a new way of expressing the suffering of Jesus. The crucifixion scene was a central motif in medieval devotional images, but the depiction by the exceptional artist Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) brought suffering to the fore in a completely new way. Contrary 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 him: the large nail with which the feet are attached to the cross tears the fleshy flesh apart, the head is covered in blood from the huge crown of thorns, the mouth has turned blue. His body is covered with spikes and pus-filled boils. The picture shocked.

The walkable altar was created between 1512 and 1516 and consists of eleven pictorial parts and a central shrine full of sculptures. The picture panels are by Grünewald, the wooden sculptures by Niklaus von Hagenau.

The long history of restoration

The completed restoration is not the first lifting of the Isenheim Altarpiece, so called because it was created for the former Antoniter monastery in the town of Issenheim, south of Colmar. But for the first time, the altar has now been cleaned, studied, and analyzed using the most modern techniques. And that after strong objections when in July 2011 the first interventions were made on the right outer panel with the temptation of St. Anthony. Critics, including Didier Rykner, accused the team at the time of using outdated methods that could endanger the paint layer. The restoration was then stopped and continued in 2018 – with the most modern means.

This included X-rays, pigment and layer analyses, methods that use infrared radiation or lasers. Even eye-tracking was used to observe the viewing behavior of visitors triggered by the change in the restoration. The refreshment cure took place before the eyes of the audience.

What’s new to discover?

Many new discoveries were made during the restoration. This is how the original color scheme of the sculptures, painted over in the 18th century, came to light, as did nuances in the paint layer of 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 night-blue sky with gray and black clouds.

For Pantxika De Paepe, the director of the museum, this allows for a new interpretation. It’s like a glimmer of hope in the darkest night, she said. An interpretation that fits the story of the altar. Because in front of the altar of the former monastery, people who were suffering from “Antonius’ fire” – an ergot poisoning that can lead to the death of tissue – were brought in the hope of healing. It was one of the most feared epidemics of the Middle Ages.

What visitors can expect now

Even before that, the Unterlinden Museum was one of the most visited art museums in France. At his most famous work, visitors can now see things that have been hidden for centuries. New color impressions allow content-related conclusions to be drawn about the time when the work of art was created. This is one of the many details that can now be rediscovered in this important work of art history: a tear that suddenly appears on the cheek of the Mother of Christ.