Bio: Matthias Grünewald

Special thanks to the Microsoft Corporation for permission to use following biographical information from Microsoft® Encarta '97:

Matthias Grünewald was a German painter whose work, along with that of the German artist Albrecht Dürer, represents the supreme accomplishment of the Renaissance in northern Europe.

Misnamed by 17th century sources, Grünewald may have originally been named Matthias, Mathias, or Mathis Gothardt-Neithardt, and was born in Würzburg, possibly in 1475. In about 1519 he married, thereafter often signing his work with his name and his wife's surname, Niethart, or with a monogram of the intertwined initials M, G, and N. Documents place him in Seligenstadt from 1501 to 1521 as the owner of a workshop. By 1509 he had become court painter to the archbishop of Mainz, and by the second decade of the century he was also accepting commissions in Isenheim and Aschaffenburg. Because of his Protestant sympathies, he was forced to move, first to Frankfurt in 1526 and then to Halle in 1527; he died in Halle in August of the following year. His surviving work consists of only ten paintings—several of them polyptychs (multipaneled altarpieces)—and about 35 drawings, in various European and American collections. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Grünewald did not engrave or make prints. His earliest unquestioned painting is the vivid, emotionally charged Mocking of Christ (1503, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), which, with its distortions and brilliant color, foreshadows his mature work.

In about 1512 Grünewald, on commission from Saint Anthony's Monastery in Isenheim, began his masterpiece, the magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece (1512?–1515?, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France). It consists of nine large panels mounted on two sets of folding wings: the outer set consists of the Crucifixion with the Entombment below it and is flanked by Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian; the inner set displays the Annunciation, the Concert of Angels, the Nativity, and the Resurrection. The innermost panels, flanking a carved wooden shrine to Saint Anthony, are Saint Anthony and Saint Paul in the Wilderness and Temptation of Saint Anthony. Grünewald's conception of these familiar subjects is unique; the compositions, powerfully reinforced by expressive linear rendering and richness of color unmatched in German art, have an overwhelming visual and emotional impact: for example, the crucified Christ, covered with flesh wounds and twisted in agony, is a gruesome image of suffering and death; the resurrected Christ, floating triumphantly upward in a radiance of intense light, is eternal life personified. Modern scholars have identified the source of the work's complex iconography as the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden, a 14th-century mystical tome popular in Renaissance Germany. In his subsequent paintings, Grünewald never equaled the splendor of his great altarpiece, although several late works—such as the grim Small Crucifixion (1519-1520, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) and the elegant Meeting of Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice (1523-1524, Alte Pinakothek)—echo its style and content.

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