Book burning, popular rebellion, the role of the artist in a period of social and political upheaval: The musically and visually stunning masterpiece »Mathis der Maler« is Paul Hindemith’s artistic testimony on the eve of the second world war. In the form of fictional episodes in the life of the painter Matthias Grünewald, who between 1512 and 1516 created the famous Isenheim Altarpiece, the opera tells the fascinating story of an artist who departs the studio to join the ranks of the insurrectionists, a decision which is very nearly his downfall …
After the end of Mathis’ one-year retreat for focussing on his work which his patron Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg had enabled him, the painter is contemplating the value of his work: »Is what you do and create enough?« He is asked the same question, provocatively in the face of all the suffering, by the peasant leader Hans Schwalb who is being pursued by the soldiers of the federal army. Schwalb and his daughter Regina find refuge with Mathis. Regina stirs something in Mathis and he gives her a ribbon before the fugitives escape with his help. He stays to face the pursuers led by Sylvester of Schaumburg, admits he helped the insurrectionists and will defend this with the Cardinal.
Mainz is home to Lutherans and papists alike. The tolerant Cardinal Albrecht who has an understanding of art is still able to control the severe conflict. However, he is increasingly subjected to the pressure of his advisors, Capito and Pommersfelden, who are each pursuing their own goals. Albrecht needs money. The rich Lutheran Riedinger offers him financial support and for this Albrecht wants to ban the burning of heretical books. However, in the end he is unable to oppose the uncultured order from Rome. Riedinger’s daughter Ursula and Mathis have been very close for a long time and are pleased to see one another again although Ursula senses that the painter is slipping away. In the face of the apparent loss of freedom he counters with revolt, quits his service and decides to join the insurrectionists.
The Lutherans hide their books in Riedinger’s house but the confiscation still takes its course. Capita tries to exploit the situation and gives the Protestants a letter from Luther to the cardinal. If the diocese were to follow Luther’s demand for secularisation, the cardinal could marry. If Ursula were to marry Albrecht it would be the union of money and power but she is still hoping for Mathis. He decides against his love for Ursula so he can join the battle against injustice and poverty. They says their farewells. With a bleeding heart, Ursula will dedicate herself to the cause of the Protestants.
The insurrectionists brutally murder Count Helfenstein as the representative of the ruling class. Horrified by the hate and violence, Mathis protects the countess. The mob immediately turns on him and Schwalb and Regina step in and rescue him. The federal army defeats the rebellion and Schwalb is killed. Mathis, saved from death by the Countess of Helfenstein, leaves the battlefield with Regina.
The Protestants arrange a meeting between Albrecht of Brandenburg and Ursula Riedinger to specify marriage plans. Albrecht is appalled and accuses Ursula of letting herself be used, against her own heart, for the cause of the Protestants. However, Ursula is acting of her own accord and cleverly and sincerely portrays her clear stance, the worry of further violence. Considerably impressed by her immense conviction, he decides to turn his back on pomp and power. He will not marry but withdraw from the rest of the world.
Regina is mourning her father. Mathis calms her by telling her a tale about a concert of angels. Regina falls asleep, Mathis is distraught. What has become of the artist of the Isenheim Altarpiece after everything he has experienced on the battlefield of life? In a vision, he is confronted by his own pictures. People who have moved him appear to him as figures: the countess, Ursula, Capito and Schwalb. Through them Mathis experiences the temptations of wealth, power, knowledge and sensual pleasure and is tormented by his own demons until Albrecht appears to him and shows him the path of his calling: »Go forth and paint«.
Mathis has immersed himself solely in his art. Now Ursula is watching over his exhausted sleep. Regina, who is nearing death, gives Ursula the ribbon which she should give to Mathis as a memento. In this Ursula recognises her former pledge of love. Albrecht again offers Mathis a life under his protection but Mathis no longer sees any point to this. He prepares to leave.