Exciting times at the museum
The Isenheim Altarpiece and its restoration
What is the Isenheim Altarpiece ?
The Isenheim Altarpiece is one of the world’s most famous artworks.
The altarpiece was made for the Alsatian village of Isenheim, from which it takes its name.
The monumental polyptych* (3.30 metres by 5.90 metres) was painted between 1512 and 1516 by Grünewald (c. 1475,1480-1528) and sculpted by Niclaus of Haguenau (active in Strasbourg from 1485 to 1526) to adorn the high altar of the Antonite monastic hospital complex of Isenheim, which was established to care for sufferers of the disease known as St Anthony’s fire.
The disease was a genuine plague in the Middle Ages, caused by the ingestion of rye infected with ergot fungus. This cereal parasite found in poor-quality bread caused hallucinations, often verging on insanity, as well as necrosis of the body’s extremities. Sufferers came to receive care at the monastic complex, which was also known for amputations carried out by lay surgeons.
*polyptych : a set of interlinked panel paintings or sculpted reliefs, often consisting of side leaves that could be folded over a central section.
Why is it regarded as a masterpiece ?
Dating from the 16th century, the altarpiece was regarded as a masterpiece from the outset, and has been protected and venerated down the centuries for its artistic brilliance, the richness of its colours and the expressiveness of the scenes and figures created by the two artists.
Grünewald was the first artist to paint Christ’s suffering in such a radical manner, which must have enabled the sick to identify with him and compare themselves with Christ in his dying agony.
From Picasso to Bacon by way of Matisse and Dix, countless artists have been deeply moved by this masterpiece, which is genuinely one of the most extraordinary and enigmatic creations in the history of Western art.
Why the restoration ?
The altarpiece is over 500 years old and has been well-preserved overall. In spite of this, the sculptures had become very fragile and the panel paintings obscured.
A complete study conducted by the Research Centre of the Musées de France (C2RMF) in 2013-2014 made it possible to determine the state of the work and establish the protocol for its restoration (12 painted panels and 13 sculptures).
The contribution of the restoration to study of the Isenheim Altarpiece
Over a four-year period (2018-2021), the Isenheim Altarpiece has been closely studied by researchers and restorers. The painted panels, their frames, the sculptures and the caisse (the wooden case that contains them) have been meticulous restored.
The removal of layers of varnish that had developed yellow or brown discoloration has once again revealed the bright, contrasting colours, and certain details have reappeared, such as an angel in a door frame, an angel’s private parts, a little gateway, some figures in the scenery of the Resurrection, dates and figs on the trees… But the restorers also discovered traces of candle burns or chips in the paint caused by the rod used to open and close the painted wings.
The sculptures, which make extensive use of gold and silver leaf in their polychrome decoration, have recovered their brilliance, as well as the subtle rendering of the flesh tones in each of the faces and the richness of the ornamentation.
The restoration has returned a sense of colourful harmony to the whole of the altarpiece and demonstrated the consistency between the paintings and the sculptures.
The adventure continues !
During the first months of 2022, come and see the final stage of the altarpiece’s restoration.
The original frame of the Crucifixion still remains to be restored. The imitation marble decoration dating from 1933 conceals the quality of the original imitation marble dating from the same period as the painted panels (1512-1516). Visitors will be able to observe the restoration in progress from April for two months.
From April 1, an exhibition of photographs taken Before/During/After the restoration will enable visitors to take stock of the quality of the interventions and their importance for the study of the altarpiece.
With a member of the museum’s interpretation team, discover all of the altarpiece’s secrets: from its creation in the early 16th century to its spectacular restoration between 2018 and 2021.
Joe Downing (1925-2007) – Homage to Emmanuel Wardi (1923-2021)
23 february 2022 – 29 august 2022
From 23 February 2022, the Musée Unterlinden will present a set of works (30 collages, works on paper, paintings and sculptures) by Joe Downing.
Born in 1925 in Tompkinsville (Kentucky), Joe Downing moved to Paris in 1950, at a time when it was the capital of the artistic avant-garde. The small-scale oil paintings on paper of his early career were gradually emptied of all figurative content in favour of gesture and colour, whilst collages and stapling became the testing ground for his future output. Joe Downing joined the practitioners of “lyrical abstraction”, for whom the glorification of the gesture encapsulated the rediscovered freedom of post-war Paris. He worked his paint with a knife, a razor blade or his finger, successively removing material to form reliefs and cursive lines. Whereas the 1960s were marked by a return of figurative art in France, Downing continued to pursue the path of abstraction. He went back to using a brush, and his paintings evolved towards broad gestures that echoed the oval forms of his collages.
After moving to Provence in 1968, his canvases fragmented into a multitude of little parcels of colour, reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics and Seurat’s divisionism.
Leather first made an appearance early on in his career, with pieces of the material cut out, painted and nailed to wooden supports reminiscent of primitive totems. Driven by a vital need to give the objects surrounding him a second life. Downing worked on a huge variety of supports. This quest for new materials, which continued even into his final years, illustrates the endless inventiveness of a painter fascinated by the poetic power of colour.
Due to the current health situation, programming for 2022 may be subject to alterations. We will keep you informed of any changes.