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  Matthias Grunewald

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Matthias Grunewald
 
 
 
born c. 1480, Wurzburg, bishopric of Wurzburg [Germany]
died August 1528, Halle, archbishopric of Magdeburg

original name Mathis Gothardt one of the greatest German painters of his age, whose works on religious themes achieve a visionary expressiveness through intense colour and agitated line. The wings of the altarpiece of the Antonite monastery at Isenheim, in southern Alsace (dated 1515), are considered to be his masterpiece.

Although it is commonly agreed that “Master Mathis” was born in the German city of Wurzburg, the date of his birth remains problematic. The first securely dated work by Grunewald (a name fabricated by a biographer in the 17th century; his actual surname was Gothardt), the Mocking of Christ of 1503, seems to be that of a young man just become a master. Grunewald appears first in documents of about 1500 either in the town of Seligenstadt am Main or Aschaffenburg. By about 1509 Grunewald had become court painter and later the leading art official (his title was supervisor or clerk of the works) to the elector of Mainz, the archbishop Uriel von Gemmingen.

About 1510 Grunewald received a commission from the Frankfurt merchant Jacob Heller to add two fixed wings to thealtarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin recently completed by the painter Albrecht Durer. These wings depicting four saints are painted in grisaille (shades of gray) and already show the artist at the height of his powers. Like Grunewald'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.

About 1515 Grunewald was entrusted with the largest and most important commission of his career. Guido Guersi, an Italian preceptor, or knight, who led the religious community of the Antonite monastery at Isenheim (in southern Alsace), asked the artist to paint a series of wings for the shrine of the uhigh altar that had been carved in about 1505 by Niclaus Hagnower of Strasbourg. The subject matter of the wings of the Isenheim Altarpiece provided Grunewald'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 Isenheim Altarpiece consists of a carved wooden shrine with one pair of fixed and two pairs of movable wings flanking it. Grunewald's paintings on these large wing panels consist of the following. The first set of panels depicts the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, and portraits of SS. Sebastian and Anthony. The second set focuses on the Virgin Mary, with scenes of the Annunciation and a Concert of Angels, a Nativity, and the Resurrection. The third set of wings focuseson St. Anthony, with St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Desert and the Temptation of St. Anthony.

The altarpiece's figures are given uniquely determined gestures, their limbs are distended for expressive effect, and their draperies (a trademark of Grunewald's that expand and contract in accordion pleats) mirror the passions of the soul. The colours used are simultaneously biting and brooding. The Isenheim Altarpiece expresses deep spiritual mysteries. The Concert of Angels, for instance, depicts an exotic angel choir housed within an elaborate baldachin. At one opening of the baldachin a small, glowing female form, the eternal and immaculate Virgin, kneels in adoration of her own earthly manifestation at the right. And at the far left of the same scene under the baldachin, a feathered creature, probably the evil archangel Lucifer, adds his demonic notes to the serenade. Other details in the altarpiece, including the horribly wounded body of Christ in the Crucifixion, may refer to the role of the monastery as a hospital for victims of the plague and St. Anthony's fire. The colour red takes on unusual power and poignancy in the altarpiece, first in the Crucifixion, then in the Annunciation and Nativity, and finallyon Christ's shroud in the Resurrection, which is at first lifeless in the cold tomb but which then smolders and bursts into white-hot flame as Christ ascends, displaying his tiny purified red wounds. Such transformations of light and colourare perhaps the most spectacular found in German art until the late 19th century. And through all this drama, Grunewald never misses the telling picturesque detail: a botanical specimen, a string of prayer beads, or a crystal carafe.

Another important clerical commission came from a canon in Aschaffenburg, Heinrich Reitzmann. As early as 1513 he had asked Grunewald to paint an altar for the Mariaschnee Chapel in the Church of Saints Peter and Alexander in Aschaffenburg. The artist painted this work in the years 1517–19. Grunewald apparently married about 1519, but the marriage does not appear to have brought him much happiness (at least, that is the tradition recorded in the 17th century). Grunewald occasionally added his wife's surname, Neithardt, to his own, thereby accounting for several documentary references to him as Mathis Neithardt or Mathis Gothardt Neithardt.

In 1514 Uriel von Gemmingen had died, and Albrecht von Brandenburg had become the elector of Mainz. For Albrecht, Grunewald executed one of his most luxurious works, portraying The Meeting of SS. Erasmus and Maurice (Erasmus is actually a portrait of Albrecht). This work exhibits the theme of religious discussion or debate, so important to this period of German art and history. In this painting, as well as in the late, two-sided panel known as the Tauberbischofsheim Altarpiece, Grunewald's forms become more massive and compact, his colours restrained but still vivid.

Apparently because of his sympathy with the Peasants' Revolt of 1525, Grunewald left Albrecht's service in 1526. He spent the last two years of his life visiting in Frankfurt and Halle, cities sympathetic to the newly emerging Protestant cause. In Halle he was involved in supervising the town waterworks. Grunewald died in August 1528; among his effects were discovered several Lutheran pamphlets and documents.

Grunewald's painterly achievement remains one of the most striking in the history of northern European art. His 10 or so paintings (some of which are composed of several panels) and approximately 35 drawings that survive have been jealously guarded and carefully scrutinized in modern times. His dramatic and intensely expressive approach to subject matter can perhaps best be observed in his three other extant paintings of the Crucifixion, which echo the Isenheim Altarpiece in their depiction of the scarified and agonized body of Christ.

Despite his artistic genius, failure and confusion no doubt marked much of Grunewald's life. He seems not to have had a real pupil, and his avoidance of the graphic media also limited his influence and renown. Grunewald's works did continue to be highly prized, but the man himself was almost forgotten by the 17th century. The German painter Joachim von Sandrart, the artist's fervent admirer and first biographer (Teutsche Akademie, 1675), was responsible for preserving some of the scanty information that we have about the artist, as well as naming him, erroneously and froman obscure source, Grunewald. At the lowest ebb of his popularity, in the mid-19th century, Grunewald was labeled by German scholarship “a competent imitator of Durer.” However, the late 19th-century and early 20th-century artistic revolt against rationalism and naturalism, typified by the German Expressionists, led to a thorough and scholarly reevaluation of the artist's career. Grunewald's art is now recognized as an often painful and confused but always highly personal and inspired response to the turmoil of his times.

Craig S. Harbison

Encyclopaedia Britannica

 
 
 
 
Grunewald's dark vision

Sister Wendy

 
 


The final flowering of the Gothic came relatively late, in the work of the German artist Matthias Grunewald (his real name was Mathis Neithart, otherwise Gothart, 1470/80-1528). He may have been an exact contemporary of Durer, but while Durer was deeply influenced by the Renaissance, Grunewald ignored it in his choice of subject matter. Much of his work has not survived to this day, but even from the small amount that has come down to us, it is possible to see Grunewald as one of the most powerful of all painters. No other painter has ever so terribly and truthfully exposed the horror of suffering, and yet kept before us, as Bosch does not, the conviction of salvation. His Crucifixion, part of the many-paneled Isenheim Altarpiece, is now kept in Colmar. It was commissioned for the Antonite monastery at Isenheim and was intended to give support to patients in the monastic hospital. Christ appears hideous, his skin swollen and torn as a result of the flagellation and torture that He endured. This was understandably a powerful image in a hospital that specialized in caring for those suffering from skin complaints.
The more accessible Small Crucifixion engages us very directly with the actual death of the Savior. The crucified Lord leans down into our space, crushing us, leaving us no escape, filling the painting with his agony. We are hemmed in by the immensities of darkness and mountain, alone with pain, forced to face the truth. The Old Testament often talks of a "suffering servant," describing him in Psalm 22 as "a worm and no man": it is of Grunewald's Christ that we think. In this noble veracity, Gothic art reached an electrifying greatness.


 

First view of the Isenheim Altarpiece




Isenheim Altarpiece (first view)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar



St Antony the Hermit
c. 1515
Oil on wood, 232 x 75 cm
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar






St Sebastian
c. 1515
Oil on wood, 232 x 76,5 cm
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar





Crucifixion




The Crucifixion
c. 1515
Oil on wood, 269 x 307 cm
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar

This is the central panel of Grunewald's large, multipaneled Isenheim Altarpiece. It is an extraordinary record of intense and disfiguring human suffering. Because he worked in a hospital, Grunewald based his image of suffering on the patients whose torments he witnessed. These were mostly sufferers from skin diseases, which were common at the time.



The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar

 

Family grief

Divided from the stoic figure of John the Baptist by the monstrous dying Christ are the traumatized relatives and friends. Mary collapses into herself either swooning from exhaustion or from a need to shut out the vision of her crucified son. Grunewald originally painted her as an upright figure, hut later arched her body into this pitiful state. She is supported by the despairing St. John the Evangelist.



The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar

 

St. John's prophecy

St. John the Baptist stands barefoot, wearing the animal skins that symbolize his time in the wilderness, and carrying a book. He seems unbowed by the horror of the moment and is unshakable in his prophetic conviction - inscribed against the night sky — "He will increase while I decrease." John delivers the Christian message of hope and redemption, balancing the desolation of the scene.


The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar



Physical pain


The crossbar of the crucifix is a simple, rough-hewn branch, bending under the weight of the dying man. Christ's arms are abnormally elongated and His hand, contorted into a physical scream, seems both a desperate reproach and a surrender to God.

The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar
 





The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar
Agony visualized

Grunewald takes the Gothic concern with suffering, sin, and mortality to its furthest extreme.
Here in graphic detail is Christ the victim, physically repulsive in His brutalized condition and far removed from the heroic, athletically beautiful Christs of the Renaissance. Grunewald's vision is one of horror, a metaphor for the supreme cruelty and degradation of which humanity is capable, and by the same token, of the supreme mercy of Christ's benediction.

 

Lamb of god

The lamb, used as a sacrificial animal by the Jews, was
adopted by the early Christians as a symbol of Christ's
sacrifice. It is associated with St. John, who on seeing Jesus
declared, "Behold the Lamb of God." The lamb normally
holds a Cross and its sacrifical blood flows into a chalice.



The Crucifixion (detail)
c. 1515
Oil on wood
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar





The Crucifixion
c. 1501
Oil on wood, 73 x 52,5 cm
Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basle



Plagued to Death

Consolation in suffering



The Small Crucifixion
c. 1502
Oil on wood, 61,5 x 46 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
 


Appear to me as my shield, my consolation in the hour of my death. And let me see thine image in thy sufferings on the cross. I will look up to thee, full of faith will I press thee fast to my heart: who thus dies, dies well.

Paul Gerhardt, 1656, after the Salve caput cruentatum of Arnulf of Louvain, before 1250




Death is all around:
A ward m a hospital in the
Middle Ages, 1514

With the deep-cleft valleys of the Vosges Mountains, and the idyllic market towns which dot the eastern slopes with their charming half-timbered houses, Alsace-Lorraine is renowned for its quaint, picturesque scenery. Yet death haunted medieval Isenheim, on what is now the Wine Route between Colmar and Guebwiller. Dedicated to caring for the sick, the monastery of St Anthony — whose name derived from the patron saint of lepers — maintained a hospice. In the Middle Ages lepers were spoken of as being branded by "hellfire" or the "burning disease". All they could do was await death, which gradually but inevitably devoured them. Fear of contagion made them outcasts in society. They were also regarded as sinners who were being punished for mortal sins by being afflicted with leprosy. Only the devoted care of committed monks and nuns relieved their suffering.

Monks and nuns cared even more for the souls in the disintegrating bodies of their patients. Communal prayer was the high point of weekdays in the hospice. In the Isenheim hospice, monks, nuns and their patients prayed together before the Crucifixion painted by Mathis Neithardt Grunewald, a native of Wurzburg. The Abbot, Guido Guersi, had commissioned this work to adorn the central panel of a hinged altarpiece on view during the week in the hospice church. The visionary expressive power of Grunewald's sublime Crucifixion, his masterpiece, reveals the painter as one of the greatest of that or any age. Emperor Rudolf II desperately wanted to acquire the painting for his collection. The Prince Electors of Brandenburg and Bavaria also made attractive offers for it to enhance their collections. Nonetheless, for the time being, the luminous Grunewald Crucifixion remained in the setting for which it had been created: the church of the Isenheim lepers' hospice. Here it consoled those who could identify with what it portrayed. In Christ's martyred body as Grunewald had painted it, the lepers in the Isenheim hospice could find a personal relationship to their Lord. Not until the Isenheim monastery was disbanded in the secularisation that followed the French Revolution was the Colmar Crucifixion finally moved — to a museum.



The Crucifixion
1523-24
Oil on wood, 193 x 152,5 cm
Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

 
 
 

 
 
 
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