Martin Schongauer painted around 1473 a ‘Madonna in the Rose Garden’ for the Saint Martin church of Colmar. He was a prolific engraver, one of the first copper engravers, and it is mostly through this medium and the growing use of printing presses that he gained fame. He was one of the first German painters thus to have drawn attention to the people around him and to introduce these realistic elements in religious paintings in Germany.
Martin Schongauer’s picture is a ‘Throning Madonna’ since two angels hold an enormous crown symbolically over Mary’s head. The painting is unconventional in various ways. The hair of the Madonna is flowing freely over her shoulders. This feature was reserved since old for Mary Magdalene; it was a sign of sensuality that was rarely associated with Mary. Jesus and Mary are looking in different directions, whereas Mary usually only has eyes for her son. Mary is painted as a melancholic young lady. She holds her head inclined; she smiles affably, secretly and contentedly. But Jesus already tries to escape from her. The colours of Mary’s robe are not conventional. Martin Schongauer must have been one of the first painters to emphasise the strong pyramidal composition, which is obtained by the red cloaks of Mary. Schongauer certainly was a highly skilled colourist and he knew very well how to paint with realism the smallest detail, as in the various tones of the folds of the red cloak of Mary.
Mary is sitting with the baby Jesus on her lap in an enclosed rose garden. The roses indeed grow around her in a hedge. The roses are red, the colour of the Passion of Christ. The Virgin is completely dressed in red, which is an unusual colour for Mary. She is usually shown with a blue cloak. But these colours for her would have been too harsh as compared to the rose garden of red and green behind her. The red tones suit harmoniously and give the picture a very warm hue against the green background. In the rose bush are birds; these are the goldfinches whose necks have turned red after having nipped of Jesus’s blood at Golgotha. Large red roses bloom around Mary, but also a single white rose can be seen close to her, indicating her purity.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is an altarpiece sculpted and painted by, respectively, the Germans Nikolaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald in 1512–1516. It is Grünewald’s largest work and is regarded as his masterpiece. It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Issenheim near Colmar, which specialized in hospital work. This polyptych, which decorated the high altar of the monastery hospital’s chapel until the French Revolution, was commissioned by Guy Guers, who served as the institution’s preceptor from 1490 to 1516.
The sculptures of Saint Augustine and Guy Guers, Saint Anthony, Two Bearers of Offerings, Saint Jerome, Christ and the Twelve Apostles are by Nikolaus of Haguenau. Sculpted wooden altars were popular in Germany at the time. At the heart of the altarpiece, Nikolaus of Hagenau’s central carved and gilded ensemble consists of rather staid, solid and unimaginative representations of three saints important to the Antonine order; a bearded and enthroned St. Anthony flanked by standing figures of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, two of the four great fathers of the Latin Church. Guy Guyers, who had commissioned the Altarpiece, is depicted kneeling at the feet of Saint Augustine.. Below, in the carved predella, usually covered by a painted panel, a carved Christ stands at the center of seated apostles, six to each side, grouped in separate groups of three. Hagenau’s interior ensemble is therefore symmetrical, rational, mathematical and replete with numerical perfections—one, three, four and twelve.
With its inner wings open, the altarpiece allowed pilgrims and the afflicted to venerate Saint Anthony, protector and healer of Saint Anthony’s fire. St. Anthony was a patron saint of those suffering from skin diseases. The pig who usually accompanies him in art is a reference to the use of pork fat to heal skin infections. On his left and right, two bearers of offerings illustrate these contributions in kind, an important source of income for the Antonites.
Built between 1235 and 1365 the Saint Martin’s collegiate church is an important example of Gothic architecture in Alsace. Because of a fire in the south tower in 1572 the framework and all the roofs were destroyed. The tower was replaced three years later by the original lantern bulb (a construction on the top of the dome which has the form of a lantern) which gives the Church its characteristic silhouette. The church has been restored several times. The inhabitants of Colmar consider for a long time the Saint Martin’s collegiate church as their cathedral (in German “Münster”). The roof consists of colorful varnished tiles. On the top of the tower, is a giant stork’s nest. The presence of the stork in Alsace dates back to at least the Middle Ages, the first historical reference comes from the Annals of the Dominicans of Colmar dating from the late 13th century, which mentions their return spring. They are thought to be symbols of happiness and faithfulness and bring fertility and good luck—after all, who else delivers all those babies? In 1983 France started a program to repopulate the storks in Alsace, and it has been very successful.
This corner of France has changed hands several times with Germany over the centuries. As a result, Colmar and nearby small French towns have a distinctive culture all their own influenced by those who have claimed the region. From language to food to architecture, everything is a little French and a little German.