The old centre of Colmar, a fifty-minute train ride south of Strasbourg and lying east of the main Route des Vins villages, is echt Alsatian, with crooked half-timbered and painted houses. Its small canals and picturesque narrow streets are a flaneur’s paradise. This is prime Elsässisch-speaking country, a German dialect known to philologists as Alemannic, which has waxed and waned during the province’s chequered history. As the proud home of Mathias Grünewald’s magnificent Issenheim altarpiece, the town is a magnet for tourists all year round.
Colmar’s foremost attraction, the Musée d’Unterlinden is housed in a former Dominican convent with a peaceful cloistered garden. The museum’s pièce de résistance is the Issenheim altarpiece, thought to have been made between 1512 and 1516 for the monastic order of St Anthony at Issenheim, whose members dedicated themselves to caring for those afflicted by ergotism and other nasty skin diseases. The extraordinary painted panels are the work of Mathias Grünewald (1480–1528). The luridly expressive centre panel depicts the Crucifixion: a tortured Christ of exaggerated dimensions turns his outsize hands upwards, fingers splayed in pain, flanked by his pale, fainting mother and saints John and Mary Magdalene. The face of St Sebastian, on the right wing, is believed to have been modelled on Grünewald’s own likeness. The reverse panels depict the annunciation, Christ’s resurrection, the nativity and a vivid, flamboyant orchestra of angels, all splendidly bathed in transcendental light. On the rest of the painted panels, you’ll find a truly disturbing representation of the temptation of St Anthony, who is engulfed by a grotesque pack of demons; note the figure afflicted with the alarming symptoms of ergotism. Altarpieces by Martin Schongauer, in the same room as the Issenheim, are also worth a quick look, as is the museum’s collection of modern paintings, which includes some Impressionist works and a couple of Picassos.