Secrets of the Isenheim Altarpiece: Interview with Experts

Throughout art history, Jesus has been depicted in all his states, from life to death, not to mention the resurrection. The works that represent him lead us to reflect upon human nature; they inspire devotion and meditation. Sometimes the contemplation of his martyrdom can even offer comfort to believers in search of an echo of their suffering. There is a particular piece of work that responds to this echo and has always caught my attention: The Isenheim Altarpiece. Painted between 1512-1516 and attributed to Matthias Grünewald, it is now at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. We had the rare opportunity to interview the director and the chief restorer of the museum and talk to them about this particular masterpiece.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, France. 

The Image of Christ

Many are familiar with Christ having a serene, peaceful, and resolute face before his fate, but what Grünewald offers us here goes much further than just illustrating his stigmata. He invites the viewer on a hallucinatory trip to the last nightmarish hours of this martyr. In this crucifixion, he depicts the horror of the event by aestheticizing the unsustainable. Grünewald succeeds in making sublime a violence rarely observed in art.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden
Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden

What is the motivation that drives an artist to create such a work? What does it tell us about the history of its patrons? Who was this “genius savage,” as Joris-Karl Huysmans called him?

Taking advantage of the Museum’s invitation to attend this restoration, I took the opportunity to interview the director of the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, Pantxika De Paepe, and the chief restorer, Anthony Pontabry.

Interview with Pantxika De Paepe

CM: Could you tell us more about the patrons of this altarpiece? 

PP: The Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned for the Antonine Commandery, probably in the early 1510s. This order, officialized in 1247, was intended to welcome pilgrims coming to pray to Saint Anthony the Hermit to avoid contracting “the ill of the ardent” or “Saint Anthony’s disease,” prevalent at that time.

CM: This poignant representation goes beyond the simple depiction of the known stigmas of Christ. Would it have anything to do with the disease, the “fire of the ardent?”

PP: Indeed, patients also come for treatment (Saint Anthony had the power to give the disease but also to cure it). This painting is also there to represent the stigmas of the fire of the ardent ones. Patients felt burned from the inside out due to rye ergot poisoning, resulting in severe headaches up to hallucination, and progressive necrosis of the extremities of the body.

CM: Can you explain to us how the Antonines proceeded to treat these patients? 

PP: Once accepted in Isenheim, patients went to the heart of the church at the foot of the altarpiece. They received the Saint Vintage, made up of relics macerated in wine with plants that had calming properties. All this ceremony gave this work a medicinal character. The contemplation of Christ brought comfort, a form of echo to the sick by allowing them to consider a recovery or to find peace in the other world.

CM: In one of the panels of the altarpiece, we see the attack on Saint Anthony by demons and other monsters. We can also find these kinds of fantastic creatures in the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Is this bestiary specific to this part of the West?

The representation of the subject of Saint Anthony’s attack pleased some artists because they could “let go.” Most scriptures have established descriptions and stories. In the case of the attack on Saint Anthony, artists could explore their imagination. Much as in the representations of the apocalypse, this gave them a way out of the shackles of often restrictive orders.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Musée Unterlinden

CM: According to you, how could such a work have a strong impact at the time of its creation and still succeed in awakening passions today? Is there a form of morbid voyeurism, a little like a new type of modern tourism?  

PP: Take time this afternoon to sit in a corner and observe the people contemplating this work, and you will see that no matter where the audience comes from, the fascination is the same. Some come to reflect, others shudder. From Bacon to Picasso and some operas, this work fascinates. Voyeurism does not take root as deeply as fashion. What happens with Grünewald, and this masterpiece, in particular, is much more profound. As Rilke said, “beauty is only the beginning of the terrible.”

Interview with Anthony Pontabry

CM: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of this restoration? 

AP: This project was initially born in 2003, originally to restore the work in parallel with the expansion of the museum. The cleaning started with another team, but they suspended restoration in 2011.

In 2013, after further tests on the work, a call for a consultation to carry out a feasibility study on the entire altarpiece was put in place. It was also necessary to propose a new installation of the altarpiece, which was then presented on an altar surrounded by glass barriers, difficult to dismantle in case of danger. Responding to the offer, we won the site, and a team of 19 specialists was set up. After a few months of research, we conducted a study in 2014.

CM: A little like the Mona Lisa, I imagine the Isenheim Altarpiece is a major work that generates a significant percentage of visitors to the Unterlinden Museum. Knowing that, can you tell us how such a restoration is organized?

AP: Since most of the museum’s income comes from the altarpiece, the decision was made not to move it, and to restore the panels in the presence of the public, protected behind windows. For the visitors to be able to follow this event, we leave times when the panels are free of any intervention, making us work every third month.

This gives us the luxury of being able to organize the interventions under the best conditions.

CM: In a conservator’s career, what does it mean to work on this type of masterpiece? Did you have a particular relationship with this work before the restoration?

AP: Being at the end of my career, this restoration represents the highlight, with maybe one or two other projects that I have done in my life.

For me, it is incredible, and for younger restorers, it is something pretty spectacular. It is a work that I had seen in 1980 and which utterly amazed me with its beauty, but I was not thinking about the restoration at that time. It was later that I thought it was an absolute masterpiece and that I would love to get my hands on it.

CM: When taking such work into your hands, there must be a certain level of apprehension or fear. How did you apprehend this unique project, especially under the eyes of an attentive public?

AP: The team of experts we have assembled means that we are not afraid. Not afraid, but it means that there are infinite precautions that are taken in the cleaning we do, etc. An important point is that the cleaning was made easier by the extraordinary condition of the panel. This is due to the carpenters of the time who created a structure designed so the painting never “moved,” despite all the transport due to regional and world wars that succeeded one another. So much so that we could have left it in its original condition as well.

CM: We know little about Grünewald’s life. Did this restoration allow you to discover new elements about his life or work?

AP: Removing these varnishes makes us rediscover exceptional work and details that had disappeared, such as the yellow highlights of the angel in the Concert of the Angels. This particular detail was evident on her cheekbones and eyebrows and even her dress that ends with yellow lights highlighted once again. Also, small characters we could not see anymore in the background.

Altarpiece Restoration by Mr. Pontabry

I sometimes wonder what can happen in the mind of an artist to achieve such a hallucinatory creation—the same question that we can ask ourselves for Hieronymus Bosch. If you look at this drape, the restoration has brought to light 7 to 8 different colors on the same drape, from yellow to orange, then red, and then purple and blue in the shadow. Then comes purple, blue, red, and finally, there is this bright white.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, concert of the angels, 1512-1516,

In terms of the perfection of the realization of the monsters, I had never seen anything like it. One thing has been confirmed for me—Grünewald is the master of light and color.

CM: According to you, how could such a work have a strong impact at the time of its creation and still succeed in awakening passions today?

AP: In my opinion, at the time, it only touched the patients who went to see it. Then the work completely disappeared into darkness, when you consider its exposure until the early 1900s. It had not even been mounted as an altarpiece, the panels and sculptures being separated.

Today, it is his rather mystical and enigmatic side that appeals to me. When I see the audience viewing this work, they stay a very long time to contemplate it without wavering, as if they see something else in it. It is a multifaceted masterpiece, between scenes of serenity and violent crucifixion. I think that is what pleases me so much too.

The Image of Suffering

Art and painting bring the freedom that we find only a little in our exchanges, and more in our silences. The freedom to contemplate and love the forbidden; the freedom to appreciate the odd, the unknown, the ugly, the naked, and life and death in a new form without ever having to justify it—that’s how it is. Art offers us the possibility of exaltation in front of the unbearable, superb pain—the light which cannot live without its share of shadow.

Such suffering in our daily lives would disgust, embarrass, and shock us; perhaps even some would turn a blind eye. For this artwork, however, people travel from all over the world to contemplate and photograph it.

You will find the rest of my visit on my Instagram.

More from author

Related posts

Latest posts