Aesthetic Symbiosis and Spiritual Quest: Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Hindemith’s Opera Mathis Der Maler

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 63)


In the 1930s, the then foremost German composer, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), found himself torn between three forces: the instigations of the Nazi government to write music towards the glorification of the Third Reich, the urging of his friends and colleagues to use his influence and speak up against the devilish developments in German politics, and his own wish to live exclusively for his art, to compose, perform and teach. In the middle of this inner turmoil, which eventually led to his emigration, Hindemith composed his opera Mathis der Maler, in which he clearly identified with the painter, whom he made the protagonist. Mathis Grünewald (ca. 1482–1532) had himself suffered greatly from feeling torn in three directions: his sense of obligation to the society in which he had grown up, which entailed the demand to support the Peasants’ Insurgence, the demand of his conscience to stand by his religious convictions and take a stance in the Lutheran Uprising, and finally his wish to dedicate all his life to his art and thus his direct service to God.


Black Grouse Operatic Plot Patron Saint Spiritual Quest Operatic Scene 
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  1. 1.
    See Erik A. Nielsen, “The Veil: Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece,” in Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, vol. 19 ( Odense: Odense University Press, 1990 ), p. 122.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Reinhold Hammerstein, Die Musik der Engel: Untersuchungen zur Musikanschauung des Mittelalters,Bern/München: Francke Verlag, 1962. (Cf. especially pp. 229–257, where Hammerstein writes: “Die Engel bei der Christgeburt sind nach der Autorität der Schrift eindeutig Sänger, und sie bleiben es auch, als die Instrumentenengel längst in andere Bildthemen eingedrungen sind” p. 229.)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Andrée Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 47.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Berta Reichenauer, Grünewald, Thaur/Wien: Kulturverlag, 1992, pp. 146–147.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Quoted after Berta Reichenauer, 1992, p. 148. The “sweet song,” significant in the context of Grünewald’s three angels, finds a direct way into Hindemith’s opera, where the chorale “Es sungen drei Engel ein süßen Gesang” figures prominently both in the overture and in the scene that shows Mathis soothing the dying Regina with the description of “a pious picture” with three angelic musicians.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Berta Reichenauer, 1992, pp. 149–150.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ruth Mellinkoff, in a chapter that she aptly entitled with the double meaning of “Fallen Mankind,” identifies the black, winged fiends as creatures who represent the dark, evil forces of a world ruled by Lucifer, “fought by a light, bright angel whom God has released to repel the evil horde.” See Ruth Mellinkoff, The Devil at Isenheim, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 45.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Franziska Sarwey, Grünewald-Studien: Zur Realsymbolik des Isenheimer Altars, Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 1983, p. 63.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See Andrée Hayum, 1989, pp. 30–31.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Psalm 42, verses 2 and 3: “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?”Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    For a detailed account of this topic, see Georg Scheja, Der Isenheimer Altar des Matthias Grünewald,Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1969, pp. 27–33. He makes an interesting point when he states that the herbs painted together here do not grow in the same habitat; their depiction can thus be interpreted as a recipe of sorts. Scheja writes (p. 33): “Im deutlichen Zusammenhang mit der Paradiesbedeutung der Höhle stehen auch die in naturalistischer Treue dargestellten Pflanzen im Vordergrunde. Eine Anzahl von ihnen, vor allem Spitzwegerich, Breitwegerich, Eisenkraut, Hahnenfuß, Spelz, weiße Taubnesseln, Gamander, Weißklee, Mohn und Kreuzenzian konnten als gegen das Antoniusfeuer oder andere schwere Erkrankungen verwendete Heikräuter identifiziert werden. Sie sind in dieser Indikation in den Heilkräuterbüchern, vor allem dem Hortus sanitatis (Mainz 1457), ausführlich beschrieben.”Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This print is reproduced in Maria Lanckoronska, Matthäus Gotthart Neithart: Sinngehalt und historischer Untergrund der Gemälde,Darmstadt: E. Roether, 1963, p. 107. Baldung’s woodcut shows seven monsters, all of them hybrid forms of several animals. Each carries a sword that is inscribed with the name of the deadly sin symbolized. The modern-German transcription of this catalogue and their English equivalents read, from top to bottom: Zorn = anger, Hoffahrt = pride, Neid = envy, Trägheit = sloth, Fresserei = gluttony, Unkeuschheit = unchastity, and Geiz = avarice.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien,I, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1955–59 (vol. 1–6), p. 130.Google Scholar
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    See Maria Lanckoronska, 1963, p. 109.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    In her eagerness to look for a meaningful number, and thus find twelve identifiable monsters, Lanckoronska includes another creature that, to other viewers’ eyes, would appear rather separate from the threatening activities around the fallen saint. In the very bright parts of the depiction, i.e., in the upper center of the panel, she describes a hybrid of bat and flying dragon bursting furiously against the rock that rises before the brightly lit sky. According to her reading, this creature embodies a mixture of DELUSION and shady dishonesty. See Maria Lanckoronska, 1963, p. 111.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    As Hagen writes, “Die unreine Wirkung dieser disparaten Formen — gerade weil es geometrische Formen sind, die man natürlicherweise kongruent gestaltet erwarten würde — ist ärgerlich, wie ein falscher Ton in einer sonst einfachen Volksmelodie” [“the unclean effect of these discordant forms — especially since they are geometric shapes, which one would normally expect to be cast in congruence with one another — is annoying, like a wrong note in an otherwise simple folk tune”] (Oskar Hagen, Matthias Grünewald, Munich: Verlag Piper Co., 1922, p. 168 ).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    See Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art,Boston: OsgoodCo., 1879, vol. 2, pp. 370–371.Google Scholar
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    See Anna Jameson, 1879, vol. 2, pp. 371–372.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See Maria Lanckoronska, 1963, p. 116.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Even in the opera’s initial scene, where the designation of the dramatis personae merely reads “choir,” the preceding stage directions, which announce that “one hears the choir of the Autonite Brothers,” render them specific.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Hindemith’s stage directions actually distinguish the choir from these demons at least on the level of the enactment, when he says that “in the center of the stage — demons torment Antony” and “The soloists and the choir fill all other parts of the stage.”Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Hindemith’s contemporary, the art historian Rudolf Günther, seems to be making a similar point in identifying Mathis both with Antony and with the Crucified Christ in the title of his book on Grünewald’s altarpiece, Das Martyrium des Einsiedlers von Mainz [The Martyrdom of the Hermit of Mainz], Mainz: Mathis—Grünewald-Verlag, 1925.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Students listening to the symphony without any information other than the movements’ titles reacted unanimously by expressing, somewhat amazed, “now it sounds like some resurrection.” Even more surprisingly, a group of Chinese students of predominantly non-Christian background interpreted their impression of this significant musical transformation as “here, it seems that the dying of the body is completed and the freeing of the soul has taken place.” (Result of a class experiment conducted at the University of Hong Kong in 1991.)Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See Gottfried Richter, Der Isenheimer Altar des Matthias Grünewald,pp. 45–47.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    One interpretation of the number five as a symbol for Jesus derives from the sum of 2 + 3, or the coexistence of the christological with the trinitarian aspect. Other associations include the five wounds of Christ and, particularly germane in the context of Grünewald’s fivefold use of the Inkarnat in the altar’s intermediate view, the five mysteries of Christ. Incarnation, Suffering, Resurrection, Ascension, and Last Judgement would then be seen as matched with Christ’s prefiguration, conception, birth, death, and rebirth in the Isenheim Altarpiece. Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    For one example out of many that pertain here, see the tenth piece in his cycle Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,which plays with the number five in all conceivable musical parameters when trying to express the bliss of God at the birth of His Son.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    The five imports are: (1) “Es sungendrei Engel ein süßen Gesang”; (2) “Rector potens”; (3) “Es wollt ein Maidlein waschen gehn”; (4) “Lobt Gott, Ihr frommen Christen”; (5) “Lauda Sion Salvatorem.” The four songs fashioned like possible historical sources are: (1) Schwalb’s song in 1/2, bars 447–478 (from RN 132 [+8]): “Denk an dein eigenes Blut”; (2) Riedinger’s song in III/4, bars 51–78 (from five bars before RN I1I68): “Des Widerstandes Stahl härtet sich im Feuer”; (3) the peasants’ song in act IV/1, bars 11–19 (from RN IV1): “Du hast uns lange getreten”; and (4) the second peasants’ song in IV/1, bars 79–99 (from RN IV6 [+6]): “Wer hat dich geschlagen, du armes Bauernpack?”Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MichiganUSA

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