The miraculous revival of the Isenheim altarpiece, a 16th century masterpiece unveiled in Colmar

The miraculous revival of the Isenheim altarpiece, a 16th century masterpiece unveiled in Colmar

At the risk of shocking, the Mona Lisa next door is a piece of cake. The Issenheim altarpiece, painted between 1512 and 1516 by Mathis Nithart – known as Grünewald – and sculpted by Nicolas de Haguenau was the subject of an unparalleled restoration campaign, except perhaps that carried out recently on the altarpiece of the ‘Mystical Lamb painted by the Van Eyck brothers, in Ghent. The result is unveiled at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar and deserves both the visit and plenty of applause.

These are addressed to the director of the premises, Pantxika de Paepe, but also to the restorers, the eighteen people from Anthony Pontabry’s team for the paintings and the eight who assisted Juliette Lévy to restore the polychromy of origin of the sculptures. Not to mention an international committee, bringing together curators, scientists, restorers and art historians, which supervised each phase of the project. With a special mention for Vincent Husser, the manager of the museum, who had the delicate mission of depositing the statues of two carriers of offerings (a dozen kilos each) at the foot of the sculpture representing Saint-Antoine. These two elements, stolen in the 19e century through the fault of an unscrupulous city councilor, are now kept at the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe, which confraternally puts them on deposit in Colmar. These have been restored by Andrea Wahning. In short, an exemplary collegial approach.

The total cost of this project amounts to 1.3 million euros, including 720,000 euros for the restoration itself.

The work that has been done there is exceptional. It began in 2003 following an observation: centuries of grime accumulated on old oxidized varnishes made this masterpiece difficult to read. In 2011, it was decided to clean it up, starting with a panel. The varnish was swiftly thinned, so quickly that many were moved by a work carried out according to the rules of the art, but which they believed to have been done in a hussar fashion.

The controversy then led the director of the museums of France, Marie-Christine Labourdette, to ask Pantxika de Paepe to act more cautiously, which she did and even better: in 2013, it was decided to go beyond the simple cleaning and to carry out the complete restoration of the whole.

The total cost of this project amounts to 1.3 million euros: 720,000 euros for the restoration itself, the rest for preliminary studies and the construction of structures allowing emergency evacuation in the event of fire. . We will take the opportunity to applaud the patrons who have been many to contribute to this resurrection.

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