German Romantic painters elevated spirituality of landscape

“Winter Landscape with Church” by Casper David Friedrich

By Dennis Raverty
It is often claimed by art historians that early 19th-century Romanticism represented a secularization of subject matter, long after the pinnacle of religious art had been reached during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The rise of landscape painting at the beginning of that century signaled the end of the era of great Christian art, it is said.

But the German Romantics transformed and elevated landscape painting from the minor genre it had been up to that point, to be the bearer of the kind of serious and sublime content that had formerly been reserved for biblical or mythological subjects alone. Artists such as Caspar David Friedrich did not abandon the sacred but instead radically redefined it and expressed spiritual aspirations and moral lessons in terms of an implied but ambiguous narrative found within the work — a narrative often characterized by the theme of going on a journey, an excursion laden with mystical allusions in these haunting, and in a sense sacramental landscapes.

The “Winterreise,” a Romantic song cycle by Friedrich’s younger contemporary Franz Shubert, tells a tale through music of a young man’s wintertime travels. The word “romantic” comes from the root word “Roman,” which in both French and German means “novel.” It is this novelistic quality, this sense of storytelling, that informs the lieder cycle, where, ultimately, the protagonist represents the listener, and his wanderings embody the traveler’s destiny as it unfolds over the course of his lifetime–his spiritual journey, his very own Roman, the “novel” of his life, so to speak: his personal “Winterreise.”

In the extraordinarily subjective world of early 19th-century painter Casper David Friedrich, we are almost always positioned before a landscape that strongly suggests our presence, whether by placing us directly on a path into the forest, or even in the much subtler evocation involved in a painting like “Bushes in Snow,” which seems to invite us to enter and inhabit the space with our presence, like a roadside shrine honoring this humble and easily overlooked bit of shrubbery

“Bushes in Snow”

The scene is nonetheless an entire world unto itself in Friedrich’s romantic realm, precisely because it is designed to be visually and imaginatively entered and “colonized” by the viewer, thereby re-enchanting the mundane and making the very act of representation itself sacramental, while the experience of a sympathetic viewer of the picture then becomes almost mystical.

Often the narrative is both more complicated and more ambiguous in Friedrich’s work, as in “Winter Landscape with Church.” Here, the artist has depicted an actual outdoor shrine with a crucifix in the shadow of a small cluster of evergreens, echoing the Gothic church steeples in the distance shrouded in a mist of light snow and fog during the last few minutes of twilight, before darkness descends on the scene. The destination of the wanderer/viewer seems to be the distant church, representing, perhaps, his spiritual quest, his highest aspirations — and yet it seems so far away as to be almost unreachable, like a vision or hallucination.

In the right foreground lies a crutch in the snow, and a little further on, another crutch. Following the trajectory of these abandoned crutches, we notice a small figure sitting in the shelter of the rock, his hands folded in prayer, his face gazing rapturously at the crucifix. We are aware that the artist is representing some sort of a narrative here, but the exact nature of that narrative remains unclear. Why has the man left behind his crutches? Why does he stop here? A miracle cure could be one possible answer, with the grateful restored man giving thanks to God afterwards.

But one could just as easily interpret the scene entirely differently. Perhaps the man is finally giving up all hope of ever reaching his destination before darkness descends, and so, throwing away his crutches, he collapses in the snow, praying for the forgiveness of his immortal soul during these final moments or hours before hypothermia ends his life. The narrative is purposely left unclear by Friedrich, so as to permit a variety of such possible interpretations.

Despite the references to infirmity and death, it is not merely a despairing, hopeless vision of the ultimate futility of all human endeavor, but rather, its lesson seems to be almost the opposite. Namely, in the voyage of life, beset as it is with various obstacles and diversions, you may very well never reach your highest aspirations. But regardless of whether the seeker actually reaches his destination or not, the painting seems to say, it is the journey itself that is of paramount significance: a process where the striving is more important than the achievement.

“Hut in the Snow”

In “Hut in the Snow,” the hunter’s hut has been long since abandoned; the door hangs open and unhinged, with only blackness inside. Long unkempt grasses surrounding the hut bend beneath the weight of the heavy snow. Apparently no one has walked here for years. As if to underscore the references to the absent hunter, a large branch of a dead tree has fallen to the ground, blocking our way to the empty hut. The hunter is either too old to enjoy the sport any longer or (perhaps more likely) he’s dead.

The strange trees behind the hunter’s hut, which branch off so oddly from the lower, much thicker branches, are an indication that the tree had been cut back at a certain point and new branches have sprouted from where it had been truncated by the saw — it looks like quite a few years previously. And if these “re-sprouted” trees were not enough to make his point, it will be noticed that a few pink blossoms have sprung up just to the left of the dark doorway — a detail almost too understated to notice.

 The viewer’s presence in this scene is as a witness; the narrative is implied rather than stated directly by suggestive elements such as the fallen branch, the abandoned hut, the sprouting trees and the blossoms in the snow. The significance in Friedrich’s sublime painting of this humble and easily overlooked hunter’s hut, then, is exactly the same as in the traditional iconography of the three astonished women at the empty tomb of the resurrected Christ early that Sunday morning.

Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.