From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Matthias Grünewald (c.1470 – August 31 1528), is a highly regarded figure from the German Renaissance. He painted primarily religious works, especially somber and awe-filled crucifixion scenes. The visionary character of his work, with its expressive colour and line, is in stark contrast to Albrecht Dürer's works. His best-known works are The Temptation of Saint Anthony (from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515). The painting Dead Lovers is no longer attributed to him.
- "Mathias Grünewald belongs to the family of Bosch, Brueghel and Schongauer. His paintings are born of the mystery of the supernatural, and exhibit teeming life and hideous, demonic creations, as we see in these details from The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One of the nine panels Grünewald executed for the altar piece of Issenheim, this painting reprises a favorite subject of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the hermit saint assailed by the entire arsenal of infernal monsters representing every weakness, every ugly human failing. It is a subject rich in implications for the fantastic, staging the drama of the double, the riddle of the hallucinatory or altered state of mind, and, not least, the problems of evil and of guilt. The theme would be revived in the nineteenth century, the golden age of the Fantastic, most notably by Flaubert. It would then tempt, in its turn, numerous book illustrators." --http://www.skidmore.edu/academics/fll/janzalon/grunewald.html [Jun 2004]
The details of his life are unusually unclear for a painter of his significance at this date, despite the fact that his commissions show that he had reasonable recognition in his own lifetime. His real name remains uncertain, but was definitely not Grünewald; this was a mistake by the 17th-century writer, Joachim von Sandrart, who confused him with another artist. He is documented as "Master Mathis" or "Mathis the Painter" (Mathis der Maler), and as using as surname both Gothart and Neithardt - this last may have been his surname, or more likely that of his wife. He was probably born in Würzburg in the 1470s. It is possible he was a pupil of Hans Holbein the Elder. From about 1500 he seems to have lived at Seligenstadt, when not working elsewhere.
His first dated painting is probably in Munich, dated 1503 on a much later note which apparently records an older inscription. From about 1510 to 1525 he served in the Rhineland as court painter, architect—or at least supervisor of building works—and hydraulic engineer to two successive Prince-Archbishops of Mainz, Uriel von Gemmingen and Albert of Brandenburg (whose face he used for a St Erasmus in Munich). He left this post possibly because of sympathies either with the Peasants' War, in which Seligenstadt was particularly caught up, or Lutheranism (he had some Lutheran pamphlets and papers at his death). Grünewald died in Halle, probably in 1528, or perhaps 1531.
Only religious works are included in his small surviving corpus, the most famous being the Isenheim Altarpiece, completed 1515, now in the Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar. Its nine images on twelve panels contain scenes of the Annunciation, Mary bathing Christ, Crucifixion, Entombment of Christ, Resurrection, Temptation of St. Anthony and saints. As was common in the preceding century, there are different views, depending on the arrangement of the wings; but the three views available here are exceptional. The third view discloses a carved and gilded wood altarpiece in the centre. As well as being by far his greatest surviving work, the altarpiece contains most of his surviving painting by area, being 2.65 metres high and over 5 metres wide at its fullest extent.
His other works are in Germany, except for a small Crucifixion in Washington and another in Basel, Switzerland. He was asked in about 1510 to paint four saints in grisaille for the outside of the wings of Dürer's Heller Altarpiece in Frankfurt. Dürer's work was destroyed by fire and only survives in copies, but fortunately the wings have survived, two of them are displayed in Frankfurt am Main, Städel and two in Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. There are also the late Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, and the Establishment of the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (1517-1519), Freiburg, Augustinermuseum. A large panel of Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice in Munich probably dates from 1521-24, and was apparently part of a larger altarpiece project, the rest of which has not survived. Other works are in Munich, Karlsruhe, and Rhineland churches. Altogether four somber and awe-filled Crucifixions survive. The visionary character of his work, with its expressive colour and line, is in stark contrast to Albrecht Dürer's works. His paintings are known for their dramatic forms, vivid colors, and depiction of light.
The Protestant theologian Philipp Melanchthon is one of the few contemporary writers to refer to Grünewald, who is rather puzzlingly described as "moderate" in style, when compared with Dürer and Cranach; what paintings this judgement is based on is uncertain. By the end of the century, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II embarked on his quest to secure as many Dürer paintings as possible, the Isenheim Altarpiece was already generally believed to be a Dürer. In the late 19th century he was rediscovered, and became something of a cult figure, with the angst-laden expressionism, and absence of any direct classicism, of the Isenheim Altarpiece appealing to both German Nationalists and Modernists. Joris-Karl Huysmans promoted his art enthusiastically in both novels and journalism, rather as Proust did that of Vermeer. His apparent sympathies with the peasants in the Peasants' War also brought him admiration from the political left. Elias Canetti wrote his novel Auto-da-Fé surrounded by reproductions of the Isenheim altarpiece stuck to the wall.
The composer Paul Hindemith based his 1938 opera Mathis der Maler on the life of Grünewald during the Peasants' War; scene Six includes a partial re-enactment of some scenes from the Isenheim Altarpiece.
German author W.G. Sebald traces the life story of Grünewald in his first literary work, After Nature. This book-length prose-poem uses the preoccupations of Grünewald and especially his creation of the Isenheim Altarpiece to communicate an intensely apocalyptic vision of a world that has abandoned nature.
He is commemorated as an artist and quasi-saint by the Lutheran Church on April 6, along with Dürer and Cranach.