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Matthias Grünewald Photo

Matthias Grünewald

German Renaissance Painter

Born: c.1475 - 1480 - Würzburg, Germany
Died: August 31, 1528 - Halle, Germany
Movements and Styles:
Northern Renaissance

Summary of Matthias Grünewald

Grünewald is one of the most important artists in the history of Northern Renaissance Art, and one of the greatest of all German religious painters. Ignoring for the most part the rise of Renaissance classicism (unlike his famous contemporary Albrecht Dürer), Grünewald favored the irrational and mystical spiritual style of late medieval European art. His paintings were unique in the way he used expressive colouring and uneven line to present a personal take on religious parables that are renowned for their harrowing intensity. His Isenheim Altarpiece, now widely considered one of the most significant paintings in the history of Western art, secured Grünewald his worldwide reputation.

Accomplishments

  • Grünewald - described by a seventeenth century biographer as the “German Caravaggio” - was unique amongst painters of his generation in the way he so explicitly showed the horror of pain and suffering through figural distortion. With swollen skin made postulant by flagellation and torture, his visions of Christ often appear revolting, but without ever losing sight of the theme of holy redemption.
  • Grünewald was a painter of great technical ability who was even able to use grisaille to suggest effects of color, light and shadow, and depth in space. But it is for his stark and iridescent use of color that he is most admired. It was Grünewald’s combination of vivid coloring and animated gestures and expressions that distinguished him from his most eminent peers, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder.
  • Although he proved willing to follow the “great discoveries” of the Italian Renaissance masters in the way he rendered the living flesh tones of his subjects, generally he rebutted the modern styles in favor of gothic-inspired images and late-medieval art. As the art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote “Grünewald’s work may […] remind us once more that an artist can be very great indeed without being ‘progressive”.

Biography of Matthias Grünewald

Matthias Grünewald Life and Legacy

On his skill at blending the physical with the spiritual, E. H. Gombrich stated: “Just as he used his brush to depict the dead and tormented body of Christ”, so too did he use it “to convey […] an unearthly apparition of heavenly light”.



Progression of Art

The Mocking of Christ (1503-05)
1503-05

The Mocking of Christ

This painting is the first securely dated work of art attributed to Grünewald and demonstrates his style in its early stages of development. A blindfolded and bound Christ sits on a low surface in the bottom left foreground of the frame. His slumped shoulders and upturned lips suggest defeat, exhaustion, and an acceptance of his fate. To his right, a crouched figure pulls aggressively on the rope secured around his wrists. The top half of the painting is dominated by six men who attack and taunt Christ in diverse ways. Directly behind Christ, for example, a man tugs violently on his hair; about to strike him with his raised clenched fist.

While the composition may appear chaotic and confused, the densely packed figures that tower over the sitting figure of Christ create a palpable sense of claustrophobic tension. The painting also displays Grünewald’s nuanced treatment of color. Christ’s blue drapery, for instance, acts as a distinct foil against the dark and earthy tones of the other figures’ garments, thus strategically delineating him as the victim. The expressions of hatred, clearly visible on the faces of the soldiers attacking Christ, anticipate the intensity of emotion that will dominate Grünewald’s artistic oeuvre. As the art historian Robert Suckale states, in this painting, Grünewald “gives vent to the primeval force of emotion dominating his art”.

Oil on wood - Alte Pinakothek Museum, Munich, Germany

Panel of St. Lawrence: Heller Altarpiece (c. 1510)
c. 1510

Panel of St. Lawrence: Heller Altarpiece

This painting depicts Saint Lawrence with his attribute of a metal gridiron (the instrument on which he was martyred). He gazes to the left with an expression of silent and sorrowful contemplation. In his right palm he balances pages of a manuscript. This work of art is executed entirely in grisaille (monochrome shades of grey). That, in addition to St Lawrence’s rather linear and static pose, suggests that the painted figure was meant to emulate a saintly statue or religious sculpture. Yet at the same time the animated drapery adds dynamism and movement to his otherwise static pose. The painting originally formed part of the two fixed wings of the Heller Altarpiece (by Albrecht Dürer) featuring a total of four painted saints (also in grisaille) and commissioned by the German merchant Jakob Heller.

The painting is a testament to Grünewald’s technical ability. Saint Lawrence’s hair has been rendered in delicate swirls of paint. Moreover, despite being rendered in grisaille; Grünewald has nonetheless managed to suggest effects of color, shading, and even three-dimensionality. The creases and chiaroscuro of the drapery in particular convey the depth and form of Saint Lawrence’s body. In the bottom right corner, Grünewald has signed the painting with the monogram M.G.N. thus confirming that he was originally known as Mathis Gothardt Neithart.

Oil on panel - Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany

The Crucifixion: Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16)
1512-16

The Crucifixion: Isenheim Altarpiece

This painting’s composition is dominated by the body of Christ hanging from a crucifix placed unusually close to the ground. His body is taut and entirely covered in lacerations and blistering spots of pox (some containing small thorns). His fingers are extended in agony. His feet, which are nailed to a projection on the crucifix, are horrifically distorted. He is the epitome of physical suffering, and he looks to have died on the cross. The left side of the painting features three mourning figures: a kneeling Mary Magdalene, and a swooning Virgin Mary supported by St John the Evangelist. Mary Magdalene’s hands are clasped in an ardent gesture of desperation and distress. On the right, the figure of St John the Baptist points calmly towards the body of Christ and holds a Bible. A red inscription reads: “he must increase, but I must decrease”. St. John the Baptist is accompanied by a lamb with a cross that is bleeding from a wound in his chest; the lamb both an attribute the Baptist and a recognised Eucharistic symbol of Christ and his passion.

The painting forms part of Grünewald’s largest and most significant commission: the famed Isenheim Altarpiece. Grünewald’s principal source for Christ’s intensely mangled and damaged body was the fourteenth century Revelations by St Bridget. While it was common to dramatize the agony and torment of Christ’s passion in German devotional art of the late Middle Ages, Grünewald’s picture of Christ is unsurpassed in its unflinching depiction of suffering and pain. In the words of Robert Suckale, this painting “portrays the agony of Christ with a penetrating forcefulness seen neither before nor since”, while the American psychiatrist and author Charles W. Socarides describes “an affect of pathos to the point of distortion”.

The altarpiece was commissioned by the Antonite Order for the hospital at their monastery in Isenheim, Alsace. The hospital primarily treated skin diseases, including St Anthony’s Fire (what is today known as ergotism). The patients of the hospital would likely have identified with Christ’s torment and pain, and the hospital staff would have been encouraged to treat their patients as they would Christ. The painting also offers the hope of salvation after suffering; a comforting thought in a hospital setting. It suggests that true healing will come from Christ and faith in his sacrifice. Sombre, dramatic, and affecting, the Altarpiece is Grünewald’s uncontested masterpiece.

Oil on wood - Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, France

Stuppach Madonna (1514-19)
1514-19

Stuppach Madonna

Stuppach Madonna portrays the Virgin Mary and Christ child amid a luscious backdrop. The two figures smile joyfully as the Virgin presents her son with what appears to be a fig. The background is composed of an enchanting landscape featuring vibrant greens, blue faraway mountains, a townscape, and a prominent and accurate rendition of Strasbourg Cathedral. The rainbow in the background and the vivid colours grant this painting an ethereal and mystical quality that heightens its religious fervour.

This painting is considered one of Grünewald’s principal works. It was commissioned by Stiftskanonikus Reitzmann to be part of an altarpiece for a collegiate church in Aschaffenburg. Mary’s elongated fingers and her dainty features point towards the influence of Late Medieval panel painting on Grünewald’s style. Rather than re-awakening the classicism of ancient Greece or Rome (in line with the Italian Renaissance), Grünewald revived Gothic forms. However, his Virgin Mary and Christ Child are uniquely fleshier than those of the Late Gothic.

This painting is full of religious symbolism and established iconography which confirms Grünewald’s own pious faith. In the foreground of the painting, a fig tree, and a vase of lilies echo the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Lilies are typically represented with the Virgin Mary, and the fig tree is a recognised symbol of Christ. The church façade (in the right background) and the prominent rainbow (in place of what one would expect to be Mary’s halo) both portray Grünewald's reliance on the Revelations of St Bridget of Sweden as a principal source for this painting in which St Bridge describes Mary as the guardian of the church and invites an analogy between the Virgin Mary and a rainbow. Art historian John Gage suggests that Grunewald’s iconography may have also been partly inspired by the early writings of St Bonaventure (Laus Virginus, 6) in which the colours blue and red (the two main prominent colours of Grünewald’s rainbow) are linked to virginity and charity.

Mixed Media on Wood - Parish Church of the Coronation of the Virgin, Stuppach, Germany

The Meeting of Saint Erasmus and Maurice (c. 1520-24)
c. 1520-24

The Meeting of Saint Erasmus and Maurice

In this painting, four figures are seen conversing amongst themselves. St Erasmus, the former bishop of Antioch, stands to the left. He is dressed in an opulent gold bishop’s gown, and he holds a windlass, the instrument that was used to suck intestines from the body. He converses with St Maurice (on the right); a black knight who is depicted clad in armour and gesticulating emphatically with his right open palm. He is also shown wearing a jewelled headdress. Each figure is accompanied by an attendant who shadows them in the background.

This work is perhaps Grünewald’s most opulent painting. It was executed for the Cardinal and Elector Albrecht von Gemmingen (Archbishop of Mainz) for whom Matthias worked as court painter until 1525. Von Gemmingen commissioned the painting as part of his renovation plans for the monastery at Halle which explains the choice saints in the painting. St Maurice was the patron saint of the monastery in Halle, and St Erasmus was important to Albrecht as he had his relics transported from Magdeburg to Halle in order to attract German pilgrimage to the city. In the painting, Saint Erasmus is in fact a portrait of the Cardinal. It has been discovered by historians that this prominent portrait is based on an engraving by Albrecht Dürer entitled Little Cardinal (1519).

This painting depicts a very important theme in German art of the time: religious debate. However, it is not clear what theme is under discussion. This artwork also reveals the progression and development of Grünewald’s later style. Professor of Art History, Craig S. Harbison writes: “In this painting as well as in the late, two-sided panel known as the Tauberbischofsheim Altarpiece, Grünewald’s forms become more massive and compact, his colours restrained but still vivid”.

Oil on panel - Alte Pinakothek Museum, Munich, Germany

Christ Carrying the Cross (1523-24)
1523-24

Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ slumps on his knees in the centre of this composition. He has collapsed while carrying the heavy cross on the way to his own Crucifixion. He gazes upwards in exasperation. His back is dramatically and angularly arched, thus evoking a sense of discomfort, pain, and suffering. Christ is surrounded on both sides by armed henchmen that taunt and mock him. A man to Christ’s left tugs aggressively on his drapery, forcing him to continue his journey. A crouching figure on the right stares hostilely at Christ. The background of the painting is composed of medieval architecture that represents the city of Jerusalem. The ledge of the loggia bears an inscription from The Book of Isaiah.

This work encapsulates the religious paintings of Grünewald which are intense and emotionally expressive (particularly his scenes of Christ in agony). Here, Christ’s torture and suffering has been amplified to create an emotionally tugging work of art. As art historian Arthur Burkhard claims, the brutality and fierce hatred visible on the surrounding soldiers’ faces betrays Grünewald’s “preference for emotional extremes” and his unmatched ability to evoke them. Like all his paintings, the figures depicted are not classicized, but inspired by Gothic Art. Yet the painting (like others) is also indebted to the Italian masters in his rendering of realistic skin tones. It was this ability to bring existing styles into new formal relationships that gave Grünewald’s art such a distinct personal style.

Oil on wood - Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Matthias Grünewald
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Martin Schongauer
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Hans Grimmer
  • No image available
    Hans von Saarbrucken
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Tatyana Serraino

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Matthias Grünewald Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tatyana Serraino
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Available from:
First published on 23 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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