Little is known of the life of
Matthias Grünewald of Aschaffenburg.
The first account of the painter
In Joachim von Sandrart’s German Academy
of the year 1675 begins with the notice
that the author knows not one person living
who could provide a written or oral
testimony of that praiseworthy hand.
We may trust the report by Sandrart,
for a portrait in Würzburg museum
has preserved him, aged eighty-two,
wide awake and with eyes uncommonly clear.
Lightly in grey and black,
he writes, Mattheus had painted the outer
wings of an altarpiece made by Dürer
of Mary’s ascension in the
Preachers’ convent in Frankfurt and
thus had lived at around 1505.
Exceedingly strange was the transfiguration
of Christ on Mount Tabor
limned in watercolours, especially
one cloud of wondrous beauty, wherein
above the Apostles convulsed
with awe, Moses and Elijah appear,
a marvel surpassed.
Then in the Mainz cathedral
there had been three altar panels
with facing fronts and reverse
sides painted, one of them
showing a blind hermit who, as he crosses
the frozen Rhine river with a boy
to guide him, is assaulted by two murderers
and beaten to death. Anno 1631 or ’32,
this panel in the wild war of that era
had been taken away and sent off to Sweden
but by shipwreck beside many other
such pieces of art had perished
in the depths of the sea.
At Isenheim, Sandrart had not been,
but had heard of the altar-work there,
which, he writes, was so fashioned that
real life could scarce have been other
and where, it was said, a St. Anthony with
demons meticulously drawn was to be seen.
Except for a St. John with hands clasped
of which he, Sandrart, when at one time in Rome
he was counterfeiting the pope, had caught sight,
with certainty this was all that was not lost
of the work of Aschaffenburg
painter of whom, besides, he knew only
that most of the time he had
resided in Mainz, led a reclusive
melancholy life and been ill-married.
—W.G. Sebald. Chapter II of “…As Snow on the Alps.” From After Nature.