I currently find myself residing at a house in a rural German village tucked into the corner where Germany meets the Czech Republic and Poland. To shop, I take a nine-minute ride on a train whose beginning and endpoints are in the Czech Republic. It’s a region where one of my first art historical loves, Caspar David Friedrich, born in Greifswald (one of my ‘happy’ places) in 1774, often wandered. He captured the rolling hills, distinguished by pale nuances even at sunset, in many of his paintings, although Cross in the Mountains (painted in 1808 and now in Dresden) depicts the nearby, pointier, red sandstone peaks a few kilometers southeast. Here, an excerpt from my 2011 book, An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Art (link under ‘Books’):
“Landscape painting in the German states followed a different pattern than France or England due primarily to three factors: 1) ‘Germany’ consisted of more than three dozen independent states, many with art academies, 2) Napoleonic imperialism encouraged patriotism and nostalgia for an era when German was independent and powerful (under Charlemagne circa 800 CE), and 3) pantheism (belief in the spiritual value of nature as a creation of The Creator) permeated Lutheranism in the northern German states (CDF was born at the Baltic seaside)….
Throughout his career, CDF (who died in Dresden in 1840) expressed a Romantic awareness of human limitations in his landscape paintings. Unlike his French colleague Camille Corot, whose paintings evidence sensitivity to the art market, Friedrich considered painting a spiritual endeavor. His training was traditional: four years of drawing lessons at the local university (Greifswald), then four years at the Copenhagen Academy….After completing his studies in 1798, Friedrich settled in Dresden, where he attracted the patronage of Friedrich August III, Elector of Saxony, for whom he made a series of topographical etchings. In 1805, Friedrich won a prize in Goethe’s Weimar Friends of Art competition with two landscape drawings, the first time a prize was awarded for a non-classical subject. Inspired by Friedrich Schelling’s nature philosophy and the medieval nostalgia of Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich’s artistic method combined memory and imagination, and his execution captured minute details observed in nature. Throughout his life, Friedrich hiked and sketch in Pomerania, Saxony, and Bohemia during the summers, gathering material for landscape paintings sought after by collectors such as the King of Prussia and the Tsar of Russia. Like Blake, Goya, and others, Friedrich considered his generation as plagued by false values: “What our ancestors believed and accomplished in childish simplicity, we too should believe and do with a higher more purified knowledge.”
Friedrich was Lutheran, like most inhabitants of the northern German states and Scandinavia. Lutherans, unlike Roman Catholics, believe that individuals can communicated directly with God (independent of an ordained priest, the conduit to God for Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians). In the north, pietistic Lutherans believe that the best way to know God was through ‘his’ perfect creation, nature. Lutherans rejected the Neoclassical assertion that nature was imperfect and required improvement when it appeared in paintings as well as the belief of some Romantics that nature was chaotic. Instead, they believed that nature was structured by a divine order graspable through a combination of faith and contemplation. Friedrich’s ideas about the spirituality of nature were influenced by the ideas of Novalis, who believed that individual souls strive for harmony with the world soul. Friedrich declared: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within, then he should also avoid painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his picture will resemble those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.” In other words, create like The Creator.
Friedrich expressed his ideas about nature and spirituality in his only altarpiece, Cross in the Mountains. This is the first altarpiece ever painted that consisted solely of a landscape. In his innovative spirit, CDF transgressed the boundary between Catholic and Lutheran devotional forms. Despite its novel use of nature as Christian symbolism, Cross in the Mountains conformed to the Lutheran rejection of Catholic religious imagery. Martin Luther claimed that images of saints found in Catholic churches detracted from authentic spiritual contemplation because they focused attention on humans rather than on divinity. As a consequence, Lutherans abandoned the use of altarpieces (and pictorial wall decoration).
In his path-breaking altarpiece, Friedrich replaced typical New Testament subjects with a common sight in the mountains of central Europe—a crucifix (with or without the effigy of Christ) planted at the summit of a high mountain. Such crucifixes verify the ascent of individuals to spots offering awe-inspiring landscape views (marking, in effect, tourist destinations). These crucifixes were placed in the closest proximity to heaven, where, people believed, one came nearest, both physically and spiritually, to The Creator.
Here, Friedrich also initiated a practice that didn’t became common until the end of the nineteenth century, among Symbolist artists: he designed his own wooden frame to enhance the meaning of his painting. He reinforced the sacred character of Cross in the Mountains by including religious symbols on the frame: grapes and wheat, referring to the blood and body of Jesus, a triangle containing the omniscient eye of God and referring to the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (also a masonic symbol, and it seems likely that CDF was a freemason). Its form—a pointed Gothic arch—evoked Gothic churches and monasteries. CDF planned the altar as a gift to King Gustaf Adolf of Sweden, ruler of Pomerania, the German-speaking Baltic province where Friedrich was born. However, when Gustaf Adolf surrendered the Pomeranian island of Rügen to Napoleon, Friedrich changed his mind, eventually selling it to Austrian Count von Thun-Hohenstein, an anti-Napoleon activist from Tetschen, Bohemia (now Dečín, Czech Republic).
In one of his few published statements, Friedrich explained: “The cross stands planted on a rock, unshakably firm like our faith in Jesus Christ. The fir trees surround the cross, ever green and enduring through all time, like the hopes of man in Him, the crucified.” For him, the visible world was one of symbols that reflected higher, inchoate spiritual truths. While my own attitude is secular, I share the same sense of awe and reassurance when I wander the footpaths of the Zittau Mountains.