Mathis Grünewald and the Reformation
by Edoardo Villata (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan)
Was Mathis Grünewald a follower of the Reformation? Grünewald’s 1525 removal from Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg’s court in Mainz, right after the German peasants’ revolt, is a powerful argument in favor of this assumption. Two further pieces of evidence suggest the same: firstly, the theological message of his last masterpiece, the altarpiece of Tauberbischofsheim, secondly, his move to Frankfurt, a town closely associated with the Reformation, in the last years of his life. The fact that after the Tauberbischofsheim Altar he gave up painting altogether, also suggests that he may have shared Luther’s mistrust concerning religious images. Grünewald’s early career developed in Würzburg under the influence of the great sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. His most gifted follower, albeit not personally taught by him, was painter Joerg Ratgeb. Both Riemenschneider and Ratgeb were involved in the peasants’ war: the former as a supporter, the latter as a frontman. Riemenschneider was later imprisoned, Ratgeb met a horrible death. Besides the artistic evidence, it seems more than a coincidence that both artists associated with Grünewald, the one important for his formation and the one following in his footsteps, were deeply involved in the most dramatic and bloody episode in the early days of the Reformation—as probably Mathis himself was.
Edoardo Villata (PhD, 2004) studied art history at Turin University and the Catholic University Milan, where he finished his dissertation and has acted as adjunct professor since 2004. He devoted several books to Renaissance art and its prominent figures, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Mathis Grünewald, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Bramantino, and Pordenone. He frequently acts as curator for various museum exhibitions in Italy, Hungary, and Switzerland, and prepares exhibition catalogues. He is member of the academic board of several art historical periodicals, such as the Raccolta Vinciana or the Bollettino Storico Vercellese.