The opera Mathis der Maler (1935), based on the sixteenth-century German painter Matthias Grünewald, is Paul Hindemith’s most iconic work. Because of its artist protagonist, scholarship on Mathis has traditionally focused on how Hindemith may have used the figure of Grünewald to express his views on aesthetics, the position of the artist in society, and/or his position under the Nazi regime. Little attention has been paid, however, to the cultural significance of Grünewald as a factor behind Hindemith’s choice of topic. This article examines the reception history of Grünewald from his rediscovery in the late nineteenth century through the interwar period in Germany. Drawing on contemporary periodicals and the scholarly literature, I show how the artist became a symbol of German Kultur in the nationalist context of the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War. This symbolic status arguably attracted Hindemith to Grünewald as an operatic subject at the beginning of the Third Reich. Not only did the topic align with National Socialist rhetoric about promoting German art, it also allowed Hindemith to draw parallels between himself and Grünewald, portraying himself and his work as inherently German. Given Hindemith’s determination to avoid controversy in the first tumultuous months of the Nazi regime, I conclude that Mathis represented an accommodation to the rapidly shifting social and political environment.

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