Grünewald’s great violin

Baptism of a special instrument for ReRenaissance
Sun 24.04.22

Historical Museum Basel

Illustration: Middle panel of the Grünewald altar; © Museum Unterlinden, Colmar


asel, 1511: Sebastian Virdung publishes “Musica getutscht,” containing: Descriptions of all types of instruments, including the bowed, fretted great violin.

Basel, 2021: A gift makes it possible to commission Jacob Mariani from Oxford to build a great violin. The Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grünewald contains an angel concerto in the central panel, played with the string instruments described by Virdung. This depiction is one of the strongest of the late Gothic period and is influenced by the mystical visions of St. Birgitta of Sweden.

Secular songs from Grünewald’s youth were heard at the opening. The Angel Concerto is evoked with religious works from the 1510s, culminating in a German motet by the Basel composer Ludwig Senfl. The end of Grünewald’s life must have been marked by the advent of the Reformation and the Peasant Wars, a time of upheaval that determined the conclusion of the program.

Jacob Lawrence – vocals | Marc Lewon – lute, quinterne, grand fiddle | Tabea Schwartz – recorder, one-handed flute, grand fiddle | Elizabeth Rumsey – grand fiddle; production | Baptiste Romain – small fiddle, bagpipes; direction

Grünewald great violin by Jacob Mariani 2022


Baptism of Grünewald’s great violin

Concert recording April 2022

On Grünewald, dreamy viols, and LSD

Vlog April 2022 on “Grünewalds Grossgeige” – Christening of a special instrument for ReRenaissance

Talk with Jacob Mariani, Luthier Grünewald-Grossgeige

To the concert Grünewalds Grossgeige April 2022 EN Subtitle ML
Conversation with Jacob Mariani, luthier of the great violin Video GN


Jacob Mariani – lutenist, viola da gamba and viola d’arco player and specialist in early musical instruments

Thomas Christ (TC): How did your fascination with early music come about? What made the beginning, the sound of the notes or the curiosity for instrument making?

Jacob Mariani (JM): It was born out of a fascination for historical music and my active participation in it: it wasn’t always easy to get good medieval or renaissance instruments in my home country, so I started to rely on my vision and design to build them.

I had a lot of help and encouragement from other instrument makers and performers of the previous generation. These folks are often eager to share their skills and build a warm community around the topic. It’s not cut-throat competition, it’s a very open community.

TC: Perhaps you would briefly explain to our readers about the rich history of the violin and viola da gamba. There seem to have been almost as many types of violins or fiddles in the Renaissance as there were violin makers, yet Spanish, Italian, and Southern German violin families can be distinguished.

JM: I think there is still a lot of research to be done on regional differences. I am dealing with a time when very few instruments have actually survived, so we get our information mostly from iconography. It is difficult to obtain reliable facts from this area. We can talk about trends. In general, I see familiar stylistic elements emerging in the Italian illustrations of the lira da braccio, which are carried over to the violin and viola da gamba families. North of the Alps there is a greater variety, with many forms and styles (which may derive directly from the medieval fiddle culture), which to some extent withered away in the 16th century. Eventually, a general Italian style prevailed, with evidence of all this curious experimentation coming from the German-speaking world around 1500.

TC: The ReRenaissance concert in April will enjoy a premiere – the famous viola da gamba of the Isenheim Altar in Colmar, played by an angel, has been recreated by you and completed in March this year. The altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald must irritate the musicians only in view of the puzzling bowing of the kneeling interpreter. However, I am much more surprised by the strikingly strong lateral indentations of all three violas shown. Are these Grünewaldian fantasies, which in form and color rather emphasize the elegance of the angel, or are they actually historically relevant models?

JM: First of all, the secret is that I didn’t recreate or copy anything – I worked towards a model that would satisfy our ReRenaissance players by “taking” aesthetic elements from the painting. The goal was for viewers to see the instrument and immediately recognize Grünewald’s style, but also say, “Wait a minute, they changed this part … and then this part …” recognizing that nothing was mechanically copied. We first followed ergonomics and acoustics, and spent a lot of time studying image understanding, image interpretation. In my opinion, the depressions in the instruments in the painting follow the gestures of the “angels” – Venus, Lucifer (Mercury) and Apollo – the humanoid forms and gestures take precedence over the (functional) forms of the instruments. The outlines and indentations (waist) merely follow these (strange) gestures. That being said, our iconographic sources seem to have many gambentailles and external forms that seem bizarre at first glance, and these should be questioned as possible clues to actual trends that are now lost. There is also the question of depth-graded iconography within iconography – as is the case with some medieval instruments that attempt to convey an ancient concept, such as the horned lyre, within the contours of a completely different form and technology.

TC: In your replica, you have hit the light basswood color well, but in the soundbox you depart strongly from the “two-partness” of the painted instrument. Have they been able to use any other sources from the time? Have violin varnishes already been developed at that time?

JM: I tried to match the color of the painting and the assumptions of the types of wood used. There is very little varnish – only enough to protect the wood, and only very simple ingredients that were readily available throughout Europe. There are no secrets here (and no plastics!). We must also remember that the color of the wood changes significantly over the years. At the moment, the wood is still quite fresh. I hope that in a short time this viol will take on a honey tone, perhaps closer to the color nuances of the painting.

TC: The great popularity of Baroque music that has been observed in recent decades seems, with our concert series, perhaps to become a theme for the largely undiscovered music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Do you think that the richness and rediscovery of the still unknown wind and string instruments will contribute to this?

JM: Absolutely. Our ideas about performing medieval and Renaissance music were often guided by the skills we had already developed through familiarity with Baroque models. This mindset and the basic assumptions associated with it often influenced our approach to earlier music and instruments; the result is that many historical instruments and practices were continually overlooked, and others (which contributed greatly to the Baroque) were undeservedly celebrated and presented as central to the music of previous eras. The success of the Baroque in early music performance threatens to shape our conceptions of earlier periods into something that does not correspond to historical reality – this is a constant danger for new medieval and Renaissance projects; on the other hand, the success of the Baroque has paved the way for a movement that shows a greater interest in detail and variety, and perhaps increasingly craves the unknown (the strangeness) that comes with exploring earlier sources on their own terms. The ReRenaissance series may be part of this differentiating movement, evidence that early music communities are not satisfied with a singular and generic approach that does not adequately address the eras it purports to represent. When we throw out our assumptions about aesthetics and performance, we are confronted with a wealth of interesting and challenging details and models. I have always wished to build first, in the hope that new musical possibilities will arise as soon as we have a different set of instruments, however strange this may seem at first. The Grünewald viol project follows this way of thinking and will show that both performers and audience will rise to the occasion!



I’m in … ” by David Fallows on “Grünewald’s Grand Violin”, Apr 2022

To properly celebrate the debut of their freshly reconstructed Grünewald viol (based on a rather bizarre-looking painting), the ReRenaissance musicians have put together a truly bizarre program of music from Grünewald’s life. It comes from some of my favorite sources: My first real LP of early music was one with music from the Lochamer Songbook, so I’m always filled with a warm fuzzy feeling when it comes to this collection.

Many of my first playing experiences with this repertoire came from the Buxheim organ book (since a neighbor had a house organ at home). And one of my first big investments was the modern edition of the Glogau Songbook. Of course, I wouldn’t miss performances from these collections for the world. And at the end of the program there is a selection of pieces from another of my favorite sources, the personal collection compiled by Johannes Heer of Glarus during his stay in Paris. There is something for everyone.

(Translation: Marc Lewon)



Program Booklet April 2022

Matthias Grünewald

[Groß- und Kleyngeygen]

The susz nightingale
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Mus.MS 3725 (
Buxheim Organ Book
, c1470), fol. 60v

2. mir ist mein pferd vernagellt gar – anonymous
Berlin, Staatsbibliothek – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Mus.40613 (
Lochamer songbook
, c1455), p. 28

3. Which I am sorry – Hans Sigler? / Johann Zwigler? (died 1483 or active1502-04).
Krakow, Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Mus.40098 (
Glogau Songbook
, c1480), fols.M5v / N2r / N6v

– anonymous

Buxheim Organ Book
, fol. 61r

5. Oh God I lament the winter kind – Wencz Nodler
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. Germ. Mon. 810 (
Schedel’s Songbook
, c1460), fols.119v-121r

Oh avoid, you vil sene pein
– anonymous

Lochamer songbook
, S. 11

7. I jump at this ring – anonymous

Lochamer songbook
, S. 41

Cum audisset Iob
– Rigo de Bergis (active c1500)
Sankt Gallen, Abbey Library, MS 462 (
Songbook of Johannes Heer of Glarus
), S. 82

Male bouche – Circumdederunt me
– Loyset Compère (c1445-1518)

Songbook of John Heer of Glarus
, S. 114

Qui venit duum vocum
– Antoine Brumel (c1460-1512/13)

Songbook of Johannes Heer of Glarus
, S. 140

Je ne fais plus
– Gilles Mureau (c1450-1512)

Songbook of John Heer of Glarus
, S. 85

– Alexander Agricola (1445/6-1506)

Canti C numero cento cinquanta
, Ottaviano Petrucci, 1504, Venice [Canti C] fols. 144v-146r

13. When Jesus hung on the cross – Ludwig Senfl (1489/91-1543)
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Mus. MS 10 (1520-1529), fols. 81r-98r

14. i believe in God – anonymous
Wolfgang Köpphel [Köpfel]:
Teutsch Kirchenampt mit Lobgesengen und göttlichen Psalmen,
Strasbourg, 1524

15. God wants to be merciful to us – Johannes Wannenmacher (c1485-c1551)

Bicinia sive duo, Germanica ad aequales,
Bern: Mathias Apiarius, 1553, no. 7

Es get ein frischer sumer daher
– Hans Wisbeck?
Bern, University Library, MUE Rar alt 605, fol. 1r

17. Praised be thou Christe – Ludwig Senfl

Newe deudsche geistliche Gesenge
Georg Rhau, 1544, Wittembergmental

italic = instrumental



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