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).
During the restoration of the Isenheim Altarpiece, Grünewald’s masterpiece will remain on display !
In 2019, the painting restorers were observed directly by the public as they worked for several weeks: since the beginning of April 2019, visitors to the Musée Unterlinden can admire the newly revealed colours and depth thanks to the thinning of the varnish on the panels depicting the Concert of Angels and the Nativity, St Anthony Tormented by Demons and the Visit of St Anthony to St Paul.
In parallel, the sculpture restorers are operating in the restoration workshop of the Musées de France Research and Restoration Centre in Paris. The restorers are at work cleaning the original polychrome decoration. This restoration will restore the harmony of colours to the entire altarpiece, which is a rare and exceptional example given the strong coherence between the paintings and sculptures.
The adventure continues in 2021!
The three final sculptures (Saint Augustine, Saint Anthony and Saint Jerome) are still undergoing restoration, but will return in late August 2021.
The full restoration of the work will be finalised at the museum at the end of the year, with the removal of the repainting on the original frame of the Crucifixion panel.
Plan your next visit to observe the quality of the restoration of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Accompanied by a member of the museum’s interpretation staff, you will be able to discover all of the work’s secrets, from its creation in the early 16th century to its spectacular restoration between 2018 and 2021.