Grünewald, Mathias

Grünewald, Mathias mätē´äs grün´əvält [key], c.1475–1528, German painter of religious subjects. His original name was Mathis Gothart Neithart. Although he assimilated various compositional elements of three other great German masters (Schongauer, Dürer, and Cranach), he is unique in expressive power and in the visionary revelation of spiritual drama. From 1501 to 1521 he had his workshop in Seligenstadt, and from there he traveled to Alsace and Halle on commissions. He created several altarpieces for two powerful bishops of Mainz, and at his death in Halle he was listed as a painter and designer of waterworks. Grünewald's earliest work of certain date is the Mocking of Christ of 1503 (Munich), a linear, energetic and colorful painting in which the blindfolded figure of Jesus is beaten by a group of grotesque men. This work incorporates a number of stylistic components that Grünewald employed in his later works: the dramatic use of silhouette and unusual color; the striking contrast of light with shadowed areas, called chiaroscuro; and the exaggeration and distortion of the human form. This array of expressionist devices conveys terror and anguish in terms of powerful images rather than beautiful ones. In this respect, Grünewald's approach differs strikingly from that of the Renaissance humanists such as Dürer. The most frequent subject in his few surviving works is the crucifixion of Jesus, which he depicted again and again in harrowing detail. His masterpiece is the complex Isenheim Altarpiece of 1515, now at Colmar. It contains a central Crucifixion panel, a figure of the wounded St. Sebastian, the Annunciation, the Resurrection, and a fearsome Temptation of St. Anthony. There is a remarkable individualization of the characters of the drama, but more important are the spectacular effects of the light and color and the intense pain expressed in the tortured figures. Other of his crucifixion scenes are in Basel, Karlsruhe, and Washington, D.C. Although Grünewald's vision was almost unrelentingly terrible, the Karlsruhe crucifixion, completed in about 1525 and apparently his last work, incorporates a new heroism and restraint.

See E. Ruhmer, Grunewald: The Paintings (tr. 1958) and Grunewald: The Drawings (tr. 1970); N. Pevsner and M. Scheja, The Isenheim Altarpiece (tr. 1969); study by N. B. L. Pevsner and M. Meier (1958).

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