Travel 2019 – Alsace and Baden, Day 8, Colmar

Friday, 20th September 2019 – Colmar

Friday was entirely dedicated to Colmar, and establishing beyond any shadow of a doubt that it is stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. A run for me first thing meant that I saw up close some of the Bartholdi monuments that I’d seen designs and models for the day before, and then it was another good breakfast before we walked through town towards the first of the day’s museums. Before 10:00 the streets were remarkably quiet apart from the tourist trains and the free electric shuttle (the navette) which runs round and round the town centre every 10 minutes or so dropping people off and picking them up silently and effectively. Towns outside of France?! This is one way to encourage people to visit your town centre; pick people up from convenient car parks and ferry them around for free. It sparked the first of a number of rants about public transport and how it can change towns that had been seething away under the surface since Strasbourg and its joined up public transport, or even since Boppard where we’d been given a card which you get when you check into your hotel and which allows you to use public transport free of charge within the area for the duration of your stay. I’ll probably have something to say about this is an entirely separate post at some point soon! Anyway, we enjoyed the quiet and the opportunity to take unimpeded photos of the Maison Pfister. Although the house was built in 1537 for the hatter Ludwig Scherer, and has a number of medieval features, it has been heavily restored and was in fact the first house to be rescued as part of the architectural renaissance of Colmar in the mid-1800s. It takes its name from the family who carried out that restoration and who lived in it between 1841 and 1892. It’s beautiful when you can get near it!

Round the corner there was a flea market taking place, mostly selling various vintages of light fittings or glassware it seemed at a cursory glance, some of them even quite interesting, but that really wasn’t what we were after.

We were on a mission. The Musée Unterlinden was calling us. It’s in what started out as a 13th century convent, which is now linked to the art nouveau former municipal baths building inaugurated in 1906, with an underground gallery consisting of three exhibition rooms leading to a new building, the Ackerhof, named after the convent’s former farm building. Is that was not reason enough to visit – and its own website really does sell it short in my opinion – it is home to the stupendous work of medieval art, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. That is offset by a mindbogglingly wonderful collection of Upper Rhenish medieval and early Renaissance art, including pieces by Colmar’s native son Martin Schongauer.

The guidebook I’d got suggested that the best policy is to work round the rooms in a specific order so you end up at the altarpiece last. It didn’t quite work out like that once we’d fought our way in (there were a lot of tour groups heading straight for the altarpiece who’d made it to the admission desk ahead of us and they were most disorganised and painfully slow). They headed straight for the key sight whereas we set off to explore the earlier works beginning in a room full of Roman artefacts, including a small but exquisite section of a mosaic floor.

Also in the archaeological collection, along with a number of Merovingian carvings, are these:

They were found in 1884 inside a sarcophagus excavated at Horbourg-Wihr and are also Merovingian, gold pieces. The ring is interesting because it includes a Roman intaglio design of a bird, consists of a circular loop, but the cylindrical pill box is truly remarkable. It is made from heavy gold sheet and the box and its lid are connected with two hinges, the welding hidden by a filigree design. A small eyelet enabled it to be worn around the neck on a chain which points to it being a bulla, a locket used as an amulet by the Franks. The style indicates that these pieces date from the second half of the 7th century, and as someone with an interest in the Franks and the Carolingians, this is a fabulous thing, though it’s a fabulous thing in a museum crammed to the rafters with fabulous things (disclaimer: If like me you are obsessed with medieval art and history)!

What was also intriguing was how quiet it was in most of the rooms. Apart from one man with his camera who was just ahead of me, we were the only people in the first few rooms. This really started to bug me when I realised we were also the only people looking at this, Melancholy, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, at which point I started to wonder what was wrong with these people! The work was apparently inspired by an engraving by my artistic hero Albrecht Dürer on the same subject in 1514. Cranach uses Dürer’s motifs to illustrate one of Martin Luther’s sermons, which denounced melancholy as a sign that the sufferer was under the influence of Satan.

As if that being overlooked was bad enough, a portrait of a young woman by Hans Holbein the Elder wasn’t getting much attention either. Well, more fool them, is all I say. It was painted between 1510 and 1512, and is one of a number of portraits of the time where the subjects actually look like real people. I think it’s fabulous, and it’s apparently the only one of his works in a French museum. Just because his son was more famous does not seem like a good reason to simply pass by and not stop for a close look.

We were working our way round towards the altarpiece when I was stopped in my tracks by a fragment of another one, this time by Schongauer, the museum having more of his works than any other museum in the world. These are two wings from an altarpiece commissioned by Jean d’Orlier, preceptor of the Antonite monastery at Isenheim from 1460 to 1490, and they are startling in their intensity. They are also startling in that they instantly call to mind the work of some of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, making me wonder if they’d taken direct inspiration from Schongauer’s works. The interior surfaces are painted with a Nativity and a representation of Saint Anthony with Jean d’Orlier at his feet, and on the exterior is an Annunciation.

And while on the subject of altarpieces, the Bergheim one is a mightily impressive piece of work. It’s based on a series of engravings by Dürer, and seems to have been the work of Veit Wagner, a sculptor active in the Strasbourg region between 1492 and 1510. It came from the chapel of Bergheim and includes Saint George Slaying the Dragon, an Annunciation, and an Adoration of the Shepherds on limewood (with a pine frame).

And then we got to the Isenheim Altarpiece, the masterpiece of the collection. Except we didn’t, because it is undergoing a lengthy period of analysis and restoration and has thus been dismantled as pieces of it are taken away to be worked on. It won’t be back in its entirety for some time, with the Crucifixion, Annunciation, and Resurrection panels being restored to their proper place by 15th November 2019. All the parts are still on display, just not as a whole at present, which was slightly – but only slightly – disappointing. I’ve stolen a couple of photos from the Museum catalogue of what it should look like both closed:

And opened:

It is stunning, though it’s not exactly reassuring. The altarpiece was sculpted by Nikolaus Haguenauer, with Grünewald repsonsible for all the painting. It is Grünewald’s largest work, and is regarded as his masterpiece and was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The monks were noted for their care of plague sufferers and their treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism. It is for that reason that the image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-type sores, showing patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. It’s mind-bending, with some very odd things going on, including the torment of Saint Anthony were some of the devils look like Bosch on acid, and made me wonder if Grünewald had been exposed to ergotism as well.

Some time later we emerged, blinking in the day light and wondering why the world had gone monochrome. I cannot begin to describe the effects of that much poly-chromatic carving and medieval religious painting on the human mind, but I needed a coffee and I needed it now. Outside in the Ackerhof we sat in the sunshine and stretched for a while before going back in. We’d already spent 2 hours in the place and we really hadn’t finished.

It was up to take a look at their collection of modern and contemporary art next. This collection is now displayed in its entirety because the 2015 extension by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron means they now have space. They have an interesting collection through I’m not sure about some of it personally. I do now know that Pablo Picasso knew some funny looking men as well as funny looking women though.

I was surprised to find I did like the works of Otto Dix though, although I probably shouldn’t have been given that I have since found he took some inspiration from Grünewald!

We also took a good look at what used to be the municipal baths, which are now an exhibition and events space. The building has been beautifully preserved but I wish it was still a swimming pool. The world needs more spectacular swimming pools, and it would be an especially spectacular one. You can just imagine it, or I can anyway.

The Church of the Dominicans is the most remarkable building commissioned by this religious order in the Rhine region, and was built between 1283 and 1310, just before they were temporarily driven out of Colmar in 1330. The remarkable and surprisingly slender space is lit by 14th century stained-glass windows and is crowned by the magnificent altarpiece, “The Virgin in the Rose Bush” (1473), a masterpiece of rare elegance by that man Schongauer. It’s stunning, even with the church surrounded by scaffolding and with the sound of heavy duty building work going on, but again there was no one there! It was most odd. The church fell into disuse in the 19th century but was reconsecrated in 1898, with the altarpiece still in place. The painting was stolen in 1972 by thieves who backed their car up to the church and smashed a window to get in, and was found in Lyon by an off-duty police officer 18 months later. It’s back now and it draws the eye, no matter where you stand in the space.

It was well into the afternoon now, so we figured it might be time for a boat ride where some Canadian Danes joined us, and we eventually persuaded the boatman that as the party of 30 Germans he was expecting had not turned up 20 minutes after their booked time, he should take us up and down the Lauch on his barque. It’s a short trip and you have to duck right down to get under the bridges, but it does provide an attractive alternative view of the city. Also it was included on our Colmar city pass along with all the museums. These boats were used to move produce from the market gardens outside the town walls to the market square and are probably the only vessels shallow enough to navigate such a shallow waterway.

Afterwards, having seen it from the bridge, and from the barque, we decided we needed sustenance if we were going to get round another museum and a church or two, so we sat down on the balcony at Les Bateliers. They said we were too late for lunch but they were happy to produce as many flammkuechen as we might wish to eat. One to share and a glass of wine each was fine, thank you.

We sat and watched the swans, or rather the adolescent cygnets, harassing diners for bread and dough crusts for a while. To start with there was one; by the time we’d finished there were four.

We walked a little more, this time ending up at the market hall, which has been renovated and re-opened and can now not only serve you food and drink overlooking the Lauch, but can supply you with plenty of food and drink to take away with you. We made a plan for me to call in the following morning and buy supplies for the apartment we’d be staying in next.

From there we identified our restaurant for the evening (long story) and then found our way to the Church of Saint Matthieu. This was built by the Franciscans, who arrived in Colmar before 1250, and started construction of their church in 1292. It took the best part of a century, and was a match for the Dominicans’ church in terms of major ecclesiastical buildings in Alsace. After restoration work from 1982 to 1997 the church is now as it once was. Ceilings, lowered in 1862 to save money on heating, were raised and the space now provides superb acoustics, thus making it the ideal place for concerts during the International music festival every year.

In 1543 the monastery closed and the city of Colmar bought the buildings and turned them into a hospital. In 1575 the church was turned over to the Lutheran community. 150 years later a wall was built to separate the protestant chapel in the nave on one side and the catholic chapel in the choir on the other side from the hospital. After the construction of the new Pasteur hospital in 1937, the church was again turned over to protestant worship and in 1987 the wall was removed. It’s very striking now, and I cannot imagine what it must have looked like with all those internal walls.

It was getting late in the afternoon now, but we reckoned we had one more museum left in us, so we headed for the small but perfectly formed Toy Museum. It contains a number of interesting displays but the real draw is the model railway (or rather railways) on the upper floor. A delightful member of staff was very keen to tell us all about these, so we gathered rather more information than we would have done from the various placards (though the website is in English). I always wanted a train set when I was a kid, but Mum wouldn’t let me have one after what happened to my cousin when he got one for Christmas one year. My dad and his dad promptly took it over and he couldn’t get near it! One of these days… and if I ever do manage to get one, this is the level of detail I would be wanting…

I could have spent the rest of the afternoon just watching the trains.

However, despite there being lots to occupy us in the museum, we had places to be and things to do (or should that be the other way round?). A small amount of shopping was required, which is why I now know that the French for “pencil sharpener” is “taille-crayon” and it’s also why we found a couple of other glorious buildings as we made our way back towards the hotel.

We took a short detour via the Champs de Mars where I had run in the morning to take a closer look at a couple of monuments there. The park itself, as the name implies, started as a place for military exercises and public ceremonies, and was given its current name in 1793. It is planted with shady lime trees and from above the park is reminiscent of the cruciform Legion of Honour medal. In the centre of the tree lined area is one of Bartholdi’s fountains, this with a statue of Admiral Armand Joseph Bruat. It’s meant to represent the four continents, and is a reconstruction as the original was destroyed in 1940 by the Nazis.

It is spectacular, and seemed to be very popular with small children, who were enjoying the spray. I was fairly partial to it myself at the end of a hot and sticky day.

Additionally there is a statue of General Jean Rapp, also made by Bartholdi. It too was destroyed in 1940 and has been restored.

My favourite monument though, was not these spectacular offerings, but this odd one.

It commemorates Charles Xavier Thomas, the inventor of the first industrial calculator… No, me neither, at least not until I sat down to write this anyway. But there was something so random about it that it appealed to me.

One Comment Add yours

  1. What an amazing museum, I can’t believe we didn’t visit when we were in Colmar. We used to visit the Mauritshuis quite often in The Hague, it has an abundance of amazing works, but people mostly want to see Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Goldfinch. Beautiful works of art, but not the best things in the museum!


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