Best known for the Isenheim Altarpiece, one of the greatest works of Western art, the museum is housed on the site of the former Dominican convent of Unterlinden, founded in the 13th century. This religious community grew from the initial decision of two noble widows, Agnes of Mittelheim and Agnes of Hergheim, to devote the rest of their lives to religious work at the site known as “Unterlinden” (under the linden trees) in Colmar. They were formally received into the Dominican Order in 1245 and began building their convent in 1252. Albert the Great consecrated the choir of the convent’s chapel in 1269. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the religious community at Unterlinden expanded considerably and acquired prominence, the convent becoming a focal point of Rhineland mysticism. Abandoned by the cloistered nuns during the French Revolution, the buildings passed into the hands of the city of Colmar in 1792 and were converted into military barracks.
History of the Musée Unterlinden and the Société Schongauer
The Revolution also resulted in the secularisation of church property. As early as 1789, with the consent of the revolutionary authorities, several local art lovers and scholars sought to safeguard the premises and works of art from vandalism and ensure their preservation. Works of art were gradually brought together by two representatives selected by the authorities, the librarian Jean-Pierre Marquair and the artist Jean-Jacques Karpff, and transported to the Collège National in Colmar, at the time a residential institution of higher learning (today the Lycée Bartholdi occupies these premises).
In the mid-19th century, when the former convent of Unterlinden was threatened with demolition, Louis Hugot (1805–1864), archivist and librarian for the city of Colmar, sought to develop a plan for the site. In 1846, he assembled a group of scholars to work on a project for the creation of a print collection combined with the establishment of a school of drawing in order to “develop taste and the appreciation of beauty”. Adopting the name Société Schongauer in 1847, the association also assumed responsibility for the administration of the works rescued from those revolutionary forces who had wished to destroy all property belonging to the Catholic Church. The Société Schongauer requested that the city “convert this monument into a museum for antique sculptures, paintings and prints”. In 1848, a spectacular archaeological discovery helped to contribute to the birth of the museum: a Gallo-Roman mosaic unearthed at Bergheim was moved to the convent’s chapel. In 1852, the works rescued from revolutionary forces were transferred to the buildings of the former convent. The museum opened to the public on 3 April 1853, presenting a collection of sculptures and painted panels, in particular from the monastery of the Antonite order in Isenheim (the Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grünewald, one of the greatest works of Western art, the Orlier Altarpiece of Martin Schongauer, the Stauffenberg Altarpiece) or from Colmar, such as Kaspar Isenmann’s Altarpiece of the Passion, from the Collegiate Church of Saint Martin, and the Altarpiece of the Dominicans by the entourage of Martin Schongauer. Since the early years of the Musée Unterlinden, transfers of other groups of works, donations, bequests and acquisitions have made the institution into a “universal” or “encyclopaedic” museum with multiple collections, although it remains focused in two main areas, art of the 15th to the 18th centuries on the one hand and modern art on the other.