It is generally, but not universally, agreed that the artist called "Matthaeus Grünewald" or "Matthaeus von Aschaffenburg" in Joachim von Sandrart's Teutsche Academie der edlen Bau-Bild-und Mahlerey-Künste (1675) is the same person referred to in sixteenth-century documents as Mathis Gothart (Gothardt) Neithart (Nithart or Neithardt), or simply as "Meister Mathis". The artist continues to be known, however, by the traditional name of Matthias Grünewald.
Grünewald was probably born in Würzburg around 1475/1480. Nothing is known about his training or early career, although some authors have seen connections with the work of Hans Holbein the Elder. "Meister Mathis" is first documented in 1505 when he was commissioned to paint and inscribe the epitaph of Johann Reitzmann, vicar of the collegiate church of Aschaffenburg. The first dated painting is the Mocking of Christ of 1503 which was probably part of an epitaph for Apollonia von Cronberg who died in 1503; the picture was painted shortly thereafter, c. 1504/1506.
In addition to being a painter, Grünewald was also a hydraulic engineer and is first mentioned in this regard in 1510, when he was called to Bingen to repair a fountain. It was around this time, perhaps in 1511, that he entered the service of Uriel von Gemmingen, archbishop of Mainz. The artist worked for the archbishop in Aschaffenburg where he designed and supervised the construction of a chimney piece in the castle. Grünewald also executed commissions for the Dominican church in Frankfurt; grisaille representations of saints were seen there by Joachim von Sandrart as part of Albrecht Dürer's altarpiece or belonged to a now lost Transfiguration of Christ.
The Isenheim Altar is Grünewald's masterpiece and was commissioned for the high altar of the church of the monastery of Saint Anthony, near Isenheim, in Alsace. Grünewald created three sets of wings to accompany Nicolas Hagenau's altarpiece of c. 1505. The wings are usually dated between c. 1512 and 1516, the death date of Guido Guersi, the Antonite preceptor who commissioned the paintings. The Crucifixion on the outermost wings may bear a date of 1515 on the Magdalene's ointment jar. In terms of its emotional power, expressive, often radiant color, and gruesome depictions of suffering, the Isenheim Altar is without parallel in northern European art.
No longer intact, the Miracle of the Snows altarpiece was commissioned by Canon Heinrich Reitzmann for a chapel of the collegiate church at Aschaffenburg. In 1517, a year after the chapel was consecrated, payment to magistrum Matheum pinctorem is recorded. The original frame, still in the church in Aschaffenburg, bears both a date of 1519 and a monogram of MG (in ligature) below an N, important evidence for identifying "master Matthew the painter" with Mathis Gothart Neithart.
Sometime around 1516 Grünewald began working for Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz. In the Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice, completed before 1525, the portrait of Albrecht as Saint Erasmus is based on Dürer's 1519 engraving, the so-called Little Cardinal. While in Aachen for the coronation of Charles V, Dürer recorded in his diary that he gave examples of his prints to "Mathes", usually assumed to be Grünewald. Grünewald seems to have remained in service to Cardinal Albrecht until 1526, and it has been suggested that he was dismissed because of his participation in the Peasant Rebellion of 1525. Around this time he moved to Frankfurt where he stayed in the home of Hans von Saarbrucken, a silk embroiderer.
Grünewald is one of the greatest German artists of the sixteenth century. Only about twenty-two individual paintings and approximately thirty-seven drawings have been attributed to him. Unlike Dürer and Cranach, Grünewald seems not to have had a school or pupils, although his work influenced his contemporaries and was in demand into the late sixteenth century.
In 1527 Grünewald moved to Halle where he worked as a hydraulic engineer for the city. He died in late August of 1528. The inventory of his possessions is a fascinating document, listing what appears to be expensive clothing for court use, artist's materials, pigments in particular, coins and medals, two paintings, copies of Luther's sermons and a New Testament (the latter described as "Lutheran trash").
[Hand, John Oliver, with the assistance of Sally E. Mansfield. German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1993:70-71.]