“Little Is Known of the Life of Matthias Grünewald of Aschaffenburg” — W.G. Sebald

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.

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