Colmar. The rediscovered splendor of the Isenheim Altarpiece.

It is a mythical work, which attracts art lovers from all over the world: at the Unterlinden museum in Colmar, the Altarpiece of Issenheim has regained its original brilliance, thanks to the “colossal” work carried out by a team of restorers.

In the former convent transformed into a museum, visitors can observe the final alterations carried out by Anna Brunetto, world specialist in laser restoration. With her thick protective glasses, she progresses, millimeter by millimeter, to remove the successive layers of paint added to the frame over time and find the original colors.

“The complexity is to find the balance between the parts we want to remove and those we want to keep”, explains this 52-year-old Italian, who notably contributed to revealing drawings by Leonardo da Vinci on the ceilings of the castle. of the Sforzas in Milan.

A “primordial work”

Around it are exposed the already restored parts of the Altarpiece of Issenheim. The work is made up of ten paintings, presenting episodes from the life of Christ and that of Saint Anthony, and eight sculpted reliefs made between 1512 and 1516 by two great German masters, Matthias Grunewald and Nicolas de Haguenau.

“There is the Sistine Chapel, there is the Mona Lisa and there is the Altarpiece of Issenheim: it is a primordial work. I place it on the same level for its dimension and its impact”, explains Pantxika de Paepe, the director of the Alsatian museum.

The masterpiece had suffered from layers of varnish deposited successively, darkened or yellowed over time, and manipulations carried out during the French Revolution as during the two world wars, to put it under cover, which altered the frames. and basswood supports.

After several superficial operations, until the last carried out at the beginning of the 1990s, a complete restoration was essential. It took place over more than four and a half years, mainly within the confines of the museum, but also in Paris (for the sculptures) and Vesoul (certain frames). A renovation that cost 1.4 million euros, 80% funded by sponsorship.

Five centuries of patina

“It was a very meticulous exercise. To see the thinning of the varnishes, to rediscover certain planes, colors, depths, contrasts, it’s marvelous,” enthuses Pantxika de Paepe. On the panel of The Crucifixion, “we find for example the hair of Mary Magdalene, when we did not see it before, it was masked by the varnish”, which had become opaque.

The restoration mobilized two teams, ten people in charge of the sculptures and 21 for the paintings. Responsible for the paintings, Anthony Pontabry does not hide his satisfaction at the extent of the work accomplished.

“There’s five centuries of patina on the paintings, so there’s a slight color metamorphosis, but I think we’re very, very close to what Grunewald did,” he argues. The grand opening is scheduled for June 30.


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