The painter Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1475-1528), the greatest German colorist of the Renaissance, represented the highest achievement of German artistic development not directly affected by the Italian style.
The real name of Matthias Grünewald was Mathis Neithart Gothart. Grünewald was the name given to "Mathis, painter of Aschaffenburg" by the German art historiographer Joachim von Sandrart in 1675. At that time he wrote, "not a single man could be found who might be able to give account of Grünewald's activities even in a scanty memorandum or by word of mouth." The memory of the artist had indeed become so vague that only in the late 19th and 20th centuries was his historical existence reconstructed, although in a fragmentary and hypothetical manner.
It used to be thought that Grünewald was born in Würzburg between 1450 and 1480 and that he settled in Seligenstadt, where he bought a house in 1501. But it has since been shown that the artist by the name of Mathis who was active at Seligenstadt was a sculptor, and there is no record that Grünewald made sculptures. Furthermore, Mathis the sculptor was still active at Seligenstadt in 1529, a year after Grünewald's death. It is now held that Grünewald was born about 1475, since his style presupposes a knowledge of Italian Renaissance art, and he was probably of the same generation as Albrecht Dürer. Grünewald's first datable picture is the Mocking of Christ (probably 1503).
Beginning in 1509 Grünewald was active as a painter for Archbishop Ulrich von Gemmingen at Aschaffenburg, as well as architect and superintendent of building activity at the Aschaffenburg castle. From 1510/1512 to 1516 Grünewald executed his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece: a large folding altar for the church of the Anthonites at Isenheim in Alsace. He painted few other works, and some of these have disappeared. From 1516 on he was court painter to Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg. The most important work Grünewald executed for him was the altarpiece for the new monastic church of Saints Moritz and Mary Magdalen at Halle on the Saale, the Meeting of Saints Erasmus and Maurice, painted before 1525, in which Cardinal Albrecht is represented as St. Erasmus.
In 1525 the Peasants' War disrupted the feudal order in the Mainz area. After the insurrection was put down, the Lutherans and those who sympathized with the reformers had to leave the area. Grünewald must have been strongly involved in the movement, for after his death Lutheran books were found among his possessions. Dismissed from his post of court painter after the Peasants' War, he settled in the Protestant community of Halle, where he worked as a hydraulic engineer. He died there in August 1528.
Altogether, only about 10 works of painting (some composed of several panels) and about 40 drawings by Grünewald are known. Attempts to ascribe other works to him have been made, but these attributions have not been generally accepted. The Isenheim Altarpiece (now in Colmar, France) is by far his most important work, and it is the largest and most individual painted ensemble of the German Renaissance.
The central shrine of the Isenheim Altarpiece is composed of carved wood figures of the enthroned St. Anthony flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome; it was carved about 1503 by Nikolaus von Hagenau on the order of the preceptor of the Anthonites, Jean d'Orliac. His successor, Guido Guersi, commissioned Grünewald to execute the paintings, and the artist was probably the author of their iconographic program.
The altar was so conceived as to fulfill various liturgical functions. According to the occasion, it can remain closed; the Crucifixion is then seen, with the figures of Saints Anthony and Sebastian on the fixed wings and the Lamentation over Christ on the predella. When the first pair of wings is opened, the Angel Concert and Nativity are seen, depicted according to the vision of St. Bridget as described in her Revelations, with the Annunciation and the Resurrection on the wings. When the second pair of wings is opened, the sculptures of the central shrine are visible, and on the painted wings appear, to the left, Saints Paul and Anthony in the wilderness, fed by the raven, and, on the right, the Temptation of St. Anthony.
A Christological and Passion content dominates in the first opening, suitable for Lent and normal weekdays. The second opening, Mariological in content, is appropriate for Easter, Christmas, the feasts of triumphant Christ, and Sundays. The third opening, devoted to St. Anthony, the patron saint of the order for which the altar was executed, is suitable for his feast days.
The paintings of the Isenheim Altarpiece are exceptional in style and expression. In contrast to the then current German and Netherlandish custom of dividing the surface of altarpieces into separate panels, Grünewald composed large images, filling the entire area of the closed wings, as in the Crucifixion and the Angel Concert and Nativity. He reached a stage in his development similar to Italian artists in his ability to correctly represent three-dimensional objects rendered in perspective. But he wholly disregarded Italian ideals of harmony and beauty, which Dürer accepted and sought to introduce into German art.
For Grünewald, ugliness and deformity were fully justified artistic means to achieve his end:to move the spectator by the dramatic expressionism of the work. His main artistic preoccupation was not so much drawing as color. In contrast to almost all his German contemporaries, Grünewald had no interest in the graphic arts. He was not a linear-minded artist but first of all a painter. His importance as an innovator lies above all in his masterly, free, and individual use of color, with which he achieved not decorative but expressive effects. Of all his known drawings, only one is done in pen and ink; all the others are painterly drawings which the artist executed in soft chalk.
The only really outstanding picture executed by Grünewald outside of the Isenheim Altarpiece is the Meeting of Saints Erasmus and Maurice (now in Munich), which is equally individual in concept. Here he shows his mastery in contrasting various kinds of materials:the glittering apparel of Bishop Erasmus and the light-reflecting armor of the black saintly knight.
Grünewald was a unique artist. Guido Schoenberger (1948) states:"He never had a school, he never had a real pupil; it even seems that he never had an assistant." Outside of his immediate vicinity, in the Mainz region and the Middle and Upper Rhine, he had no influence whatsoever and his name was soon forgotten. Early in the 20th century the expressionists rediscovered his work; they were able to accept an art not intent upon esthetic beauty, and they valued his mysticism. Not only the expressionist painters were inspired by his work:the opera Mathis der Maler (1934) by Paul Hindemith deals with Grünewald's life, and he also wrote a symphony from three extracts of the opera whose movements have descriptive titles from the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Further Reading on Matthias Grünewald
The most dependable book in English on Grünewald is Nikolaus Pevsner and Michael Meier, Grünewald (1958). Arthur Burkhard, Matthias Grünewald:Personality and Accomplishment (1936), is a good monograph, but it was published before the definitive book by W. K. Zülch (in German) appeared in 1938. A very fine and useful catalog of Grünewald's drawings is Guido Schoenberger, ed., The Drawings of Mathis Gothart Nithart, called Grünewald (1948). Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting (1968), devotes a chapter to Grünewald and discusses the Isenheim Altarpiece in detail. For background material see Otto Benesch, The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe (1945; rev. ed. 1965).