One of the main reasons for spending the first couple of weeks of an extended camping holiday in France this year is so that we can visit Colmar and especially the Musée d’Unterlinden in order to see the famous Issenheim Altarpiece. Painted by Matthias Grünewald at the beginning of the 16th century for the high altar of the monastery at Issenheim, this altarpiece is one of our favourite works of art, full of beauty, symbolism, and meaning. We have seen pictures of it many times, and Julia has a copy of the central painting, in her Quiet Room at home, which she often uses for meditation. But now we have an opportunity to see the actual altarpiece itself.
We leave our campsite in good time and drive to Colmar which is only a few miles away. Colmar itself is delightful – typically Alsatian in character with picturesque flower-decked houses, centred around its beautiful ‘Little Venice’ district unaltered by time and war. With her nose in our excellent guidebook Julia leads us through a maze of streets – frequently losing me en route as I stop to take numerous photographs – until we reach the Musée d’Unterlinden, a former 13th century convent building whose name means ‘under the lime trees’. Our plan is to spend the morning in the museum, particularly contemplating the Issenheim Altarpiece, and then do the guided walk around Colmar itself. And so begins a frustrating day that can only be described as one of ‘pains, trains and altarpieces’. Indeed it is so much so that by the end of the day we are surprised not to have bumped into Steve Martin and John Candy (film buffs will understand the reference)?
We walk over to the museum entrance only to find our way barred by a huge metal fence. ‘They must be doing some work on the entrance?’ we say to ourselves, and start to walk round the building looking for the temporary entrance. We walk right round the whole building … every possible entrance has a huge steel fence in front of it?! When we finally get back to (almost) where we started we find a notice telling us that the whole museum is closed for two years for ‘re-development’? ‘Oh no!’ we say to ourselves. ‘Not again!’ Two years ago we were in Saint Remy in Provence, hoping to see as much as we could of the places where Vincent van Gough lived and worked. Most of them were closed at the time for ‘re-development’ as well?!
I see the pained expression on Julia’s face … she was so much looking forward to seeing the Issenheim Altarpiece … and it looks like we won’t be able to see it after all!? We are about to give up when I suddenly see a small notice directing us to a nearby former Dominican Church only five minutes walk away. They have moved the Issenheim Altarpiece there for the duration of the re-development of the museum. ‘Hooray!’ we both cry (or words to that effect) … and head off for the Dominican Church. There is more good news when we arrive. The cost of getting in to see the exhibition is half the normal price because it is essentially only the Issenheim Altarpiece (and some associated work) that is on display. This is fine by us because we didn’t want to see all the other stuff that would have been in the Musée d’Unterlinden anyway. What is more I also get a concessionary price for ‘being a really old person’ (which rarely happens in France). Julia is delighted … until they give her the same ‘concessionary entrance price’ as well? I am sure that it is because they thought she was a ‘student under 30 years of age’!
The Issenheim Altarpiece is all that we anticipate it being … and more! By far Grünewald’s greatest and largest work, it was painted (as suggested earlier) for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Issenheim near Colmar, where the monks were known for their care of plague sufferers and their treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism. The image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-type sores, showing patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. This body covered with sores and riddled with thorns left no doubt about Christ’s suffering, thus comforting the sick in their communion with the Saviour, whose pain they shared. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is shown at Christ’s right, collapsing in anguish in the arms of John, the beloved disciple of Christ, and shrouded in a large piece of white cloth. On Christ’s left, John the Baptist, accompanied by a lamb, symbolising the sacrifice of Jesus, points to Jesus and announces ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30) The inclusion of John the Baptist in this scene is symbolic, as the last of the prophets to announce the coming of the Messiah. We make good use of the free audio guide and take in every detail.
I take lots of photos (you can see many of these on my Facebook page). You are allowed to take photos as long as you do not use flash. My camera has its flash switched off but suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, the flash goes off?! I am immediately ‘confronted’ by one of the attendants – a very small Frenchman with a huge ego – who sternly rebukes me for ‘uzing ze flash’! I apologise profusely but find the whole thing rather comical. The ‘official’ is about 4’ 6” tall (and I am 6’ 4” tall) and he is peering into the distant heights as he tells me off. He is doing his ‘Herr Flick’ impersonation!? I am finding it very difficult not to laugh out loud. Julia manages to pacify him … but I now find that he is following me everywhere I go? For the next hour he is following me … just in case ‘ze flash, ‘e goze off again!’ What a pain!
We eventually leave the Dominican Church still ‘drinking in’ all that we have seen and heard. Fortunately ‘Herr Flick’ remains behind. And after a picnic lunch we decide to do the guided tour of Colmar. We pass the ‘Little Train’ on our way and think ‘Why not let the train take the strain?’ We manage to procure the last two available places although I find myself sitting over a wheel arch which means that my leg is soon hurting as it is so cramped a position. We are also clearly on the ‘wrong side’ of the train because virtually everything of interest in Colmar (that the audio commentary is telling us about) is on the other side of the train. Half way round the audio commentary stops completely. There are serious moans in 15 different languages. The driver stops the Little Train and resets the audio commentary. We get going … but the commentary has started from the very beginning again. It is like that Two Ronnies sketch on British TV where what is being described relates to a previous scene?! We are nearly back to where the train journey started, however, so it doesn’t really matter.
Our trip on the Little Train, however, has only served to make us aware of all the places in Colmar that we need to see properly … so we end up doing Guided Tour on foot anyway. At least walking is not as painful as sitting in that very cramped train seat for 45 minutes! We see all that we want to see and in the end feel that despite it being a day of ‘pains, trains and altarpieces’ in many ways … it has actually been a really good day!