The Isenheim altarpiece is the Unterlinden museum
's main attraction and has brought the museum international renown. The masterpiece of two masters of the late gothic period (1512-1516): Matthias Grünewald for the painted panels and Nicolaus de Haguenau for the sculpted portion. The restoration consists of thinning down the varnish and the extrication of any maladroit repainted areas. This process is taking place over a three year period (2011-2013).
In 2011, the restoration of the Isenheim altarpiece began in the museum's chapel (the room of the altarpiece) from July 6-10 (the restoration of the panel aith the Agression of St. Anthony), then in spring 2012 moved to the Dominican church located 200m from the museum due to the work taking place around the museum for its expansion project. During the restoration, the altarpiece remains visible every day during the museum's open hours. The restorers, Carole Juillet and Florence Meyerfield, are restoring one panel at a time without disturbing the overall viewing of the piece.
The Fondation du patrimoine granted 100.000 euros to the Société Schongauer, the museum's administrative association, for the restoration of the Isenheim altarpiece. A patronage agreement was signed on Thursday April 28, 2011 at the Unterlinden museum by Charles de Croisset, president of the Fondation du Patrimoine, and Jean Lorentz, president of the Société Schongauer, in the presence of Pierre Goetz, regional delegate of Alsace's Fondation du Patrimoine and Gilbert Meyer, Mayor of the City of Colmar.
With the exception of certain holy days, the wings of the altarpiece were kept closed, displaying The Crucifixion framed on the left by the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, and on the right by Saint Anthony, remaining placid although he is being taunted by a frightening monster. The two saints protect and heal the sick, Saint Anthony as the patron saint of the victims of Saint Anthonys fire and Saint Sebastian, whose aid was invoked to ward off the plague. Grünewalds Crucifixion stands as one of the most poignant representations of this scene in Western art due to the artists masterful depiction of horrific agony, with Christs emaciated body writhing under the pain of the nails driven through his hands and feet. This body covered with sores and riddled with thorns must have terrified the sick, but also left no doubt about Christs suffering, thus comforting them in their communion with the Saviour, whose pain they shared. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is shown at Christs right, collapsing in anguish in the arms of John, the beloved disciple of Christ, and shrouded in a large piece of white cloth. At Christs left, John the Baptist is accompanied by a lamb, symbolising the sacrifice of Jesus. The presence of John the Baptist is anachronistic. Beheaded by order of Herod in 29 AD, he could not possibly have witnessed the death of Christ. This last figure announces the New Testament by crying out, He must increase, but I must decrease. The inclusion of John the Baptist in this scene is symbolic, since he is considered as the last of the prophets to announce the coming of the Messiah.