Grünewald, Matthias

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Grünewald, Matthias


(real name Mathis Nithardt, Nithart, Neithardt, or Neithart; c. 1505 given the name Gothardt or Gothart). Born circa 1470–75 in Würzburg, Bavaria; died Aug. 31, 1528, in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. German Renaissance painter. Since the 17th century erroneously known by the name Grünewald.

Grünewald worked in Aschaffenburg (Bavaria), Frankfurt am Main, and Mainz (Hesse). From 1508 to 1525 (or 1526) he served as court painter, artistic adviser, architect, and hydraulic engineer for the Mainz archbishops and electors. In 1525–26 he was subjected to persecution for sympathizing with the Peasant War of 1524–26 and for possibly siding with the insurgents.

Grünewald’s art had close ties with the ideology of the lower classes and with late medieval mystical heresies, which, on the eve of the Reformation in Germany, were permeated with an antifeudal rebelliousness. His representations of Christ, filled with suffering and pain, are imbued with a spirit of protest, as are his saints, who are portrayed in ordinary human terms. In his art, Grünewald reflected the tragic and emotional spirit of his times and achieved a revolutionizing impact by using the agitated and expressive vocabulary of late Gothic art, which he developed and enriched in conformity with the new, increasingly complex conditions of his time.

The nine panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–15, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France) occupy a central place in his work. The altarpiece depicts scenes of the Passion that are suffused with spiritualism, tragic tension, and hopeless despair (Crucifixion) along with scenes imbued with ecstatic joy and exultation of life and a pantheistic perception of nature (Nativity). The clearly mystical representation of Christ that seems to be dissolving in a flash of bright light (Resurrection) gives way to figures of greater clarity, regularity, and humanity (St. Sebastian). Grünewald used a nervous Gothic linear style and bold colors against a dark background in some parts of the altarpiece and gentle color transitions and a soft, almost watercolor technique in others. This use of color to break up what seemed to be infinite spatial depth opened up new possibilities in painting.

The clarity and monumental forms of his subsequent works reflect the influence of Italian Renaissance art (Virgin of Stup-pach, 1517–19, Parish Church, Stuppach; Meeting of St. Erasmus and St. Mauritius, c. 1518, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). In his late works he once again turned to the theme of the Passion and to the vocabulary of late Gothic painting (Tauberbischofsheim Altarpiece, 1523–24, Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe; Mourning Over the Body of Christ, 1524–25, Parish Church, Aschaffenburg). The few drawings by Grünewald that have survived are, for the most part, preliminary studies (Woman With Folded Hands, black chalk, O. Reinhart Collection, Winterthur). They are distinguished by picturesque chiaroscuro modeling and gentle technique. Some of his drawings are extremely detailed, while others exhibit an unconstrained sketchlike character.


Nemilov, A. N. Griuneval’d. Moscow, 1972.
Schmid, H. A. Die Gemälde und Zeichnungen von Matthias Grünewald, vols. 1–2. Strasbourg, 1907–11.
Zülch, W. K. Grünewald: Der historische Grünewald…. Munich, 1938.
Vogt, A. M. Grünewald: Meister gegenklassischer Malerei. Zurich-Stuttgart, 1957.
Scheja, G. Der Isenheimer Altar des Mathias Grünewald. Cologne, 1969.
Ruhmer, E. Grünewald: Zeichnungen. Cologne, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.