One of my favorite small museums in Europe stands hidden in plain sight, fronting a leafy square in the exquisite little city of Colmar. The Unterlinden Museum has long ranked among Alsace’s greatest cultural jewels, a status only enhanced by its elegant expansion in 2015. Acclaimed architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron (designers of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium and London’s Tate Modern) vastly increased the museum’s square footage and created a new public space in the city. The design turned what had been a bus station and parking lot into an inviting square, partially bisected by the reopened Sinn Canal.
Two of the museum’s stars remain on display in the original space, a converted 13th-century convent. The most famous is the extraordinarily expressive and harrowing “Isenheim Altarpiece” by Matthias Grünewald, one of the greatest works of German Renaissance painting, displayed in the convent’s former chapel. Grünewald created this crucifixion scene for a monastery hospital, where many of the patients suffered from skin diseases. To show Jesus’ empathy for their plight, Grünewald painted his skin covered in welts. Jesus’ fingers contort in agony, blood drips from his mangled feet, and his loincloth is in tatters. A gray-faced Mary faints into disciple John’s arms, and below her, an anguished Mary Magdalene kneels in fervent prayer. Emphasizing the hellish quality of the scene, a bleak and blasted landscape extends behind the figures, unrelieved by a single shred of vegetation. Don’t miss the rear of the altar, where one panel depicts a suspicious-looking Mary during the Annunciation, and another on which Jesus floats above terrified soldiers in a psychedelic vision of the Resurrection. When we visited, we were able to watch restorers at work on other panels in a glass-walled enclosure just behind the altarpiece.
The Unterlinden Museum has long ranked among Alsace’s greatest cultural jewels, a status only enhanced by its elegant expansion in 2015.
In a side room of the convent is another of the museum’s stars, the late 15th-century “Orlier Altarpiece” by local artist Martin Schongauer. This vibrantly colorful work doesn’t have the raw emotionality of the “Isenheim Altarpiece,” but it merits close inspection just the same. Schongauer painted the people in each scene with great sensitivity, making each one seem like an individual, not a symbol. Certain panels depict the same sort of surreal demons and monsters that one might find in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
In the basement beneath the cloister, an archaeological exhibition is set to debut in 2020. A new tunnel leads from it underneath the Rue d’Unterlinden and the Sinn Canal, displaying works from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Don’t miss the moody 1838 painting of the convent’s cloister by Henri Lebert, or “Crucifixion” by Stéphane Lallemand, a copy of the main panel of “Isenheim Altarpiece’’ on a Télécran toy (like an Etch A Sketch).
The tunnel connects to Herzog & de Meuron’s addition, incorporating an ornate 1906 municipal baths building (now used as an event space) and the Ackerhof, a new brick extension with gothic windows that nod to the convent across the square. Its four levels contain a digestible collection of mostly French art from the mid-20th century to today, as well as a special-exhibition space. It was delightful to see some calligraphic paintings by Georges Mathieu, founder of the lyrical abstraction movement and a Jackson Pollock precursor not often exhibited in the U.S. I also loved the gallery of art brut works by Jean Dubuffet, centerpieced by his monumental sculpture Don Coucoubazar, which manages to look at once cheerful and sinister. For those unfamiliar with modern art movements in postwar France, the Ackerhof provides an excellent introduction.
The new addition is both striking and discreet, a difficult balance to achieve. With it, the Unterlinden Museum has become one of the top attractions in Alsace. It’s my favorite kind of museum: small, in historic buildings, with a superlative collection that is as yet undiminished by crowds. No visitor to Colmar should miss it.
Place Unterlinden, Colmar. Closed Tuesday.