Painter, draughtsman, master builder, architect and sculptor
In his 1531 treatise 'Elementa rhetorices' the humanist and reformer Philipp Melanchthon names Albrecht Dürer, Lucas (Cranach), and a "Matthias" as the three most famous painters of his time. According to present-day thinking, the latter can be identified with the creator of the 'Isenheim Altar' in the Unterlinden-Museum, Colmar, the 'Stuppach Madonna' with its attached altar painting in Freiburg's Augustinermuseum, the Sts Erasmus and Mauritius panel in Munich's Alte Pinakothek, the 'Tauberbischofsheim Altar' in Karlsruhe, the fixed wings of the 'Heller Altarpiece' in Frankfurt and Karlsruhe, and a handful of other works, as well as some thirty-five uncommonly expressive chalk drawings. Whereas the contours of Grünewald's oeuvre are now relatively clearly defined, the same cannot be said of his biography. The painter and 'water artist' was apparently soon forgotten. The name "Matthaeus Gruenewald", under which the artist biographer Joachim von Sandrart introduced him in the seventeenth century, is documented nowhere in the sources. Why Sandrart used the name is unclear, but because of the popularity of Sandrart's 'Teutscher Académie' it came to be accepted and is so to this day. It was challenged only in 1938, when Walther Karl Zülch made an intensive archival search for the 'historical Grünewald', who appears in sixteenth-century documents as "Mathis Gothart" or "Mathis Nithart", spelled in a variety of ways. This artist, a native of Würzburg, was first active in Aschaffenburg by 1511, and for a time worked in the service of the Mainz archbishops Uriel von Gemmingen and Albrecht von Brandenburg, from whom he received payments between 1511 and 1526. For the Aschaffenburg canon Heinrich Reitzmann he painted the 'Our Lady of the Snows' altarpiece, of which the 'Stuppach Madonna' is a part and whose original frame, inscribed with the monogram 'MGN' is still in the Aschaffenburg parish church. In 1526 and 1527 the painter worked in Frankfurt, but in 1527 he was summoned to Halle, where his death was announced the following year. In 1527 the city of Magdeburg commissioned him to make a drawing of Frankfurt's Main Mills, of which it wished to build copies. The artist left an extensive estate, which was inventoried after his death and which included court costumes and painting utensils. An adopted son in Seligenstadt was named as heir, but this is Grünewald's sole connection to that city. Zülch assumed that a carver by the name of Mathis who lived there could also be identified as Grünewald, but that has proved to be false.