French journalist and writer André Hallays (1859-1930) once said: “here dwells the relics of which are today the most precious treasure of the [Unterlinden] museum of Colmar, one of the glories of Alsace“. The masterpiece of the museum is undoubtedly the Isenheim altarpiece. However we should not forget the great art collections from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Organised around the 13th C cloister, this is one of France’s most visited art museums outside Paris. Following my recent visit to the Unterlinden Museum, here is a little report which – I hope – will inspire you to explore the museum when staying in Colmar.
The Unterlinden Dominican convent
Coming to the museum for the first time, one realises that the buildings are quite old. In fact, they date back to the Middle-Ages when the site was a Dominican convent named “Unterlinden”. Unterlinden? In Alsatian, this means “under the lime trees“. Around 1230 two widowers of the local nobility choose to establish a religious community at a site known as Unterlinden. In this district to the North of Colmar once stood a chapel dedicated to St. John (Sankt Johann unter der Linde). In 1252 the convent was integrated to the Dominican order.
The existing buildings date from the 1260s and the cloister was added in the second half of the 13th century.
The creation of the Unterlinden museum in the 19th C
The nuns were expelled from their convent at the French Revolution. The site were abandoned until the mid-19th century when plans were made to tear them down. Louis Hugot (1805-1964), the town’s archivist, came with a brilliant idea. In 1849 he had a Roman mosaic from Bergheim kept there. A museum was later opened on the 3rd April 1853 by the Société Schongauer.
The rich collections of the Unterlinden museum
The fine collections of the Unterlinden museum are kept all around the 13th C cloister. They present Rhenish art from the Renaissance era. In the 15th and 16th centuries, art in Alsace and the Rhineland reached a golden age.
A great number of paintings, sculptures, engravings from the Renaissance are displayed in the Unterlinden Museum of Colmar. The cloister, the Gothic chapel and the medieval buildings greatly contribute in making your visit an unforgettable experience.
On the 23rd January 2016, the museum wrote a new chapter in its history with the inauguration of the New Unterlinden in the presence of the French president François Hollande.
The Unterlinden Museum cloister and the ground floor
After the ticket control you reach the beautiful cloister. It was built in pink sandstone of the Vosges mountains in Gothic style.
Several doors lead to the exhibition rooms in the ground floor. There we admired the works of Martin Schongauer (cc. 1440-1491), a native from Colmar. His engravings were noticed by the great painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer. One of his most famous work on display at the Unterlinden Museum is The Temptation of St. Anthony. When he was 12 or 13 year old, Michelangelo painted his earliest known painting The Torment of Saint Anthony after Schongauer’s engraving.
The Issenheim altarpiece
Then we reach the former church where stands the famous Isenheim altarpiece. The creator of this magnificent work of art is Matthias Grünewald. He has it built between 1512 and 1516 for the monastery of St. Anthony situated at Issenheim (a village not far from Guebwiller).
The monastery took care of people suffering from ergotism (also known as Holy Fire or Saint Anthony’s Fire). St. Anthony was prayed for the healing while this ailment was treated by the monks of the Order of St. Anthony. At Issenheim, the sick prayed by the altarpiece expecting a rapid recovery.
This jewel of Germanic art is worth a visit. It consists of two sets of wings, displaying three configurations:
- Wings closed: the Crucifixion framed by St. Anthony (patron Saint of the victims suffering from ergotism) and St. Sebastian (protector from the plague).
- Outer wings opened: it depicts the story of Salvation. From left to right: the Annonciation, the Incarnation of the Son of God (concert of the angels and Nativity), the Resurrection.
- Inner wings opened: dedicated to the life of St. Anthony. The sculptures are attributed to Nikolaus Hagenauer and his workshop. The sculptures of the lower part represent the twelve apostles surrounding Jesus.
Issenheim or Isenheim? In French, the altarpiece is known as the “retable d’Issenheim” in English the “Isenheim altarpiece”, and in German the “Isenheim Altar”. Issenheim is a village located South of Colmar. Historically the village was known with only one ‘S’, likewise in English and German. The second ‘S’ was added maybe in the 19th or 20th centuries… but it doesn’t really make sense!
On the first level: the rural and city life in Alsace
Let’s get to the first floor to discover other fine collections displayed all around the cloister:
- Decorative arts: Furniture, ceramics, faiences and china from the 16th and 18th centuries.
- Folk art and traditions from Alsace : items and kitchen tools from Alsace (17th-19th C), toys (17th-beginning of 20th C)…
- Don’t miss the room where the famous Treasure of the Trois Épis is displayed. In 1864, during renovation work at the chapel of Notre-Dame des Trois-Épis, near Colmar, a copper cauldron was unearthed by the workmen. It was probably hidden by a chaplain during the Thirty Years’ War. Inside was discovered twenty kilos worth of objects in gold and silver: coins of various origins, cups, tumblers, jewellery, etc. The room also features a collection of works in gold and silver from the Renaissance era coming from Augsburg, Basel, Colmar, Freiburg im Breisgau, and Nuremberg.
- The room of the Demoiselles anglaises and its painted ceiling from the 18th century which celebrates the triumph of Flora. Notice the beautiful harpsichord built in 1624 by Ioannes Rückers (1578-1642) from Antwerpen.
On the underground are exhibited the archaeologic collections including a Gallo-Roman mosaic of the 3rd Century AD unearthed in Bergheim. I really enjoyed discovering the winegrower’s cellar with ornate wine barrels.
- To know more about the Unterlinden Museum (dates and opening times, collections…), visit the official site.
- We would like to thank Alexandra and the Unterlinden Museum for their welcome! 🙂
Have you ever visited the Unterlinden museum in Colmar? Which collections impressed you the most?