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Matthias Grünewald Photo

Matthias Grünewald - Biography and Legacy

German Renaissance Painter

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

Biography of Matthias Grünewald

Childhood and Early Training

Mathis Gothardt Neithart was probably born in Würzburg, Germany sometime between 1470-75. The name Matthias Grünewald was mistakenly given to him by the seventeenth-century German painter and writer, and the artist’s first ardent admirer, Joachim van Sandrart, who wrote Grünewald’s first biographical record for the dictionary, Teutsche Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künste (German Academy of the Noble Arts of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting) published in 1675, 1679 and 1680. It has remained a source book for historians and critics ever since. But, as the famous art historian E. H. Gombrich noted, while his contemporary Albrecht Dürer “stands before us like a living human being whose habits, tastes and mannerisms are intimately known to us, Grünewald is as great a mystery to us as Shakespeare”.

In several sources Grünewald is named as common “Meister Mathis” which has made substantiating details of his formative years a speculative task at best. Some authors have suggested that he may have been a pupil of Hans Holbein the Elder the Elder. However, Grünewald’s name first appears as a “free master” in official documents dated 1500, for the small Offenbach town of Seligenstadt where he purchased a house (“with a pond”) and opened a workshop for painters and woodcarvers. But, unlike Dürer, and his other famous contemporary, Lucas Cranach the Elder, there is no evidence that Grünewald took on any pupils or apprentices (not at this early stage in his career at least).

This early portrait, about which nothing is known of its subject, has been titled by researchers, <i>Benefactor with the Birdcage</i> (c. 1500). Given that the subject is dressed in black clothes with a standing collar it is generally agreed that he must have been a member of the clergy.

The earliest complete work attributed to him is Benefactor with a Bird Cage (c. 1500). The "Benefactor" of the title holds in his hands a miniature pince-nez and a book (most likely of religious text) while the bird cage in the upper right corner is probably home to a songbird. Although nothing is known of its origins, the painting has been dated around 1500 because of Grunewald’s subdued color scheme would seem to predate his subsequent religious works which favor more dynamic color combinations. Indeed, his next known work, The Mocking of Christ (1504-06), offers a vigorous and distorted vision of a blindfolded Christ being beaten by a gang of grotesques. It is a much more indicative piece (than the Benefactor) and was thought to be part of an epitaph for the aristocrat Baroness Apollonia von Cronberg of Cronberg who died in 1503.

Von Sandrart, writes that in 1505 Grünewald was in Frankfurt working on the outer adornment of an altarpiece by Dürer. Considering that it was the kind of work typically assigned to someone of limited experience, it is speculated that Grünewald was being employed by Dürer in the capacity of apprentice. Official records confirm for us, however, that Grünewald was commissioned to paint and inscribe the epigraph of Johann Reitzmann, the vicar of a collegiate church in Aschaffenburg, around the same time. By 1509-10 Grünewald’s reputation was such he become court painter - or “clerk of the works” to give him his official title - for two archbishops for the city of Mainz: Uriel von Gemmingen and, following his death in 1514, Albrecht von Brandenburg. The post was the first significant step in his career, and he held it for around 15 years in total.

Mature Period

Grünewald started to receive important commissions from this date too. In 1510 he was asked by the German merchant, Jakob Heller, to execute four grisaille saints for the fixed wings of the Dürer Altarpiece, Assumption of the Virgin. The wings, according to the art historian Craig S. Harbison, “already show the artist at the height of his powers […] Like Grünewald’s drawings, which are done primarily in black chalk with some yellow or white highlighting, the Heller wings convey colouristic effects without the use of colour. Expressive hands and active draperies help blur the boundaries between cold stone and living form”. In addition to his career as a painter, Grünewald also worked as a hydraulic engineer. It is documented that he repaired a fountain in Bingen in 1510. (Civic records suggest that he continued to work periodically on fountain and water works until his premature death in his late-‘40s or early-‘50s.)

The third panel of Grünewald's great masterpiece, the <i>Isenheim Altarpiece</i>.

In 1512 Grünewald started work on his most important work, and what is now universally considered his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece, for the hospital at the monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace. The monumental project was commissioned by the Italian knight Guido Guersi who was the head of the religious community at the Antonite monastery. Grünewald was asked to paint three sets of wings – which included scenes of the Crucifixion, the Nativity and the Temptation of Anthony - for the High Altar shrine that had been carved by Niclaus Hagnower of Strasbourg in 1505.

As Harbison writes, “The subject matter of the wings […] provided Grünewald’s genius with its fullest expression and was based largely on the text of the popular, mystical Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden (written about 1370) […] The colours used are simultaneously biting and brooding” and express “deep spiritual mysteries [that] are perhaps the most spectacular found in German art until the late 19th century”. It was a view shared by historian John Oliver Hand who wrote, “In terms of its emotional power, expressive, often radiant color, and gruesome depictions of suffering, the Isenheim Altar is without parallel in northern European art”.

<i>The Snow Miracle</i> (<i>Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome</i>) (1517). The right panel of Grünewald’s original altarpiece tells the legend of the falling of fresh snow, in August 352, that marked the spot where the Pope built the Roman Basilica of <i>Santa Maria Maggiore</i>.

Grünewald followed the Isenheim Altarpiece in 1517 with a prestigious commission for Canon Heinrich Reitzmann for the collegiate church at Aschaffenburg. Although the work is no longer intact, the original frame of the altarpiece Our Lady of the Snow remains. It is dated 1519 and shows the monogram “MG” (in ligature) below an “N”, providing confirmation that it was an original work by Mathis Gothart Neithart.

In 1519 Grünewald married to a converted Jewish woman named Anna Neithardt. Civic documents show that Grünewald sometimes added his wife’s surname to his own – as in Mathis Neithardt or Mathis Gothardt Neithardt – but Anna suffered from mental health problems which badly affected the couple’s home life. Indeed, having become convinced she was host to a demonic spirit, Anna was committed to a mental institution in 1523.

Late Period

In 1520, Cardinal von Brandenburg, having now succeeded von Gemmingen as the elector of Mainz, commissioned Grünewald to paint The Meeting of SS. Erasmus and Maurice (the figure of Erasmus thought to be a vanity portrait of the Cardinal himself) and bears close seminaries to Dürer's 1519 engraving, Little Cardinal. The work was part of von Brandenburg’s renovation plans for the monastery of Halle which included relocating relics and artworks from Magdeburg with the aim of increasing German pilgrimage to the city (Halle). Art historian Julia Alcamo explains “This elaborate, and beautifully executed oil panel depicts the meeting of two important figures relevant to the city and its ruler. Saint Maurice was the patron saint of the monastery while Saint Erasmus was the patron saint of Albrecht’s royal household […] The wooden panel depicts the theme of religious discussion and debate, an important theme for this period of German art”.

Sandrart writes that at some point, most likely towards the end of his career (after 1520), Grünewald apprenticed the painter Hans Grimmer who garnered considerable fame during his lifetime. In 1526, Grünewald gave up his position as von Brandenburg’s court painter, and moved to Frankfurt where he stayed with the silk embroiderer Hans von Saarbrucken. There is some speculation as to why Grünewald chose to give up his post. The most likely suggestion is that Grünewald, who had become sympathetic to the Protestant cause, could no longer work in the services of the Catholic church. Indeed, he was directly implicated in the Great Peasants’ Revolt (brought on by the Reformation which promoted the “divine law” that demanded freedom from oppression by nobles and landlords) of 1525.

By 1527 Grünewald was living in Halle with a child (possibly his own or, perhaps, adopted) where he worked for the wealthy von Erbach family. He also resumed his interest in hydraulic engineering and was involved in the supervision of Halle’s water systems. Grünewald died, probably a result of a flu epidemic, in Halle on August 31, 1528. Hand noted that the recorded inventory of his possessions offered a “fascinating document, listing what appears to be expensive clothing for court use, artist's materials, pigments in particular, coins and medals, two paintings, copies of Luther's sermons and a New Testament (the latter described [in the document] as ‘Lutheran trash’)”.

The Legacy of Matthias Grünewald

While he is today considered one of Germany’s greatest painters - Grünewald (with Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach) is commemorated by the Lutheran Church each year (on April 6) as both an artist and saint - his reputation has over the centuries suffered highs and lows. The importance of his commissions confirm his standing on his own lifetime, but Grünewald was almost completely forgotten by the end of the seventeenth century and was only “rediscovered” in the nineteenth century when his dramatic and expressive forms caught the attention of German Expressionists and Neo-Classicists alike. Since then, his critical “rebirth”, helped no doubt by his known involvement in the Peasants’ War which drew the admiration of leftist intellectuals, has offered inspiration for important artists, composers and writers.

Grünewald’s use of vivid coloring, animated gestures, exaggerated expressions, and renderings of the often-tortured human body, have provided inspiration for artists including Pablo Picasso, Otto Dix, Francis Bacon and Jasper Johns, who traced the Isenheim Altarpiece onto his own work. In the sphere of musical drama, Paul Hindemith’s 1938 opera Mathis der Maler is based on Grünewald’s involvement in the Peasants’ War, with three movements - “Angel Concert,” “Entombment,” and “The Temptation of St Anthony” - named after three paintings in the Isenheim Altarpiece. For his first piece of prose, After Nature (1988) the German author W. G. Sebald narrates the life story of Grünewald, focusing particularly on his execution of the Isenheim Altarpiece, while the Altarpiece also makes an appearance in Sebald’s novel, The Emigrants (1992), in which it serves as a reference point for the protagonist’s deliberations on pain and power. Lastly, the French novelist and journalist, Joris-Karl Huysmans promoted Grünewald’s art so passionately some have drawn comparisons with Marcel Proust’s exaltation of Johannes Vermeer.

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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
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First published on 23 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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