GRUNEWALD (Mathias Gothart Neithart)

(c. 1475-1528)
The identity of the painter known as Grünewald was for many years a mys­tery. Even the name Grünewald by which we know him today is incorrect, the result of an attempt by Joachim von Sandrart, in his Teutsche Academie of 1672, to discover his identity. His fame today rests largely on a single work, the great Isenheim altarpiece painted for the Antonite monks at Isenheim in Alsace be­tween 1512 and 1516. It was only in the nineteenth century, when the Isenheim altarpiece was first shown to the public, that interest in the painter grew and his probable identity was revealed. His name was not Grünewald, but Mathias Gothart Neithart, and he was born in Würzburg around 1475. He died in Halle in 1528.
The altarpiece is a complex work of art, including not only the triple wings of nine panels with a predella, painted by Grünewald, but also a carved interior shrine by the sculptor Nicolas Hagenau of Strasbourg. Grünewald's contribution was the series of wings that unfold to expose this central shrine. The wings are a painterly masterpiece, a magical burst of color and form, their inspiration probably mystical in nature, for Grünewald was known to have been a deeply religious man. The altarpiece, which was placed in the monastery hospital, had a very special function—to give hope to the sick.
The Antonite monks specialized in treating skin diseases, such as ergotism and the plague, and the plague saints St. Anthony and St. Sebastian, intercessors for the sick, are shown on both the exterior and the interior of the altarpiece. They flank the crucified Christ on the exterior, a terrible figure covered with skin blemishes, blood, and wounds; in the inner set of wings, Christ is seen ascending to heaven in a burst of light, his skin luminous and clear, giving hope to the sick that they too might be cured of their disfiguring diseases, if not in this world, then in the next.
Grünewald worked for several patrons, including the powerful archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht of Brandenburg. Sandrart mentions three altar panels painted for the Mainz Cathedral; according to him, all were lost in a shipwreck when they were being taken to Sweden in the mid-1600s. Grünewald collaborated with Albrecht Dürer* on the Heller altarpiece, supplying the grisaille wing pan­els. Unlike Dürer, he did not work in the print medium, though his surviving black chalk drawings are much admired. He was also recorded as holding civic engineering and hydraulic jobs in Mainz, designing city fountains and even engaging in paint and soap manufacture.
Unfortunately, Grünewald fell on hard times during the period of the Peasants' Revolt of 1525. Sympathizing with the rebels and the Protestant cause, he left the service of Albrecht of Brandenburg, who, though tolerant of the Re­formers at first, would become an implacable opponent of Martin Luther* and his supporters. Even though Albrecht eventually pardoned Grünewald, he never returned to the archbishop's service, leaving Mainz for Frankfurt and then Halle, where he died in 1528.
Bibliography
A. Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's Medicine and the Painter's Vision, 1989. W. Stechow, ed., Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents, 1966.
Rosemary Poole

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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