Colmar’s foremost attraction, the Musée d’Unterlinden is an even richer experience after a lengthy period of renovation and extension. The core of the collection is housed in a former Dominican convent with a peaceful cloistered garden; it includes the museum’s biggest draw, the Issenheim altarpiece, which is thought to have been made between 1512 and 1516 for the monastic order of St Anthony at Issenheim, whose members cared 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 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 flamboyant orchestra of angels, all splendidly bathed in transcendental light. On the rest of the 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.
The renovated convent is now linked via an underground gallery of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art to a brand-new wing, which houses modern and contemporary works, and to the town’s former municipal baths, re-imagined as a venue for cultural events. Highlights include Impressionist paintings by Monet and Bonnard, plus a couple of Picassos.