Within a few years, all the German states were feeling the Napoleonic heat. By 1806, most of them were occupied by French troops. Over in Dresden, a young painter started on a remarkable series of drawings and paintings, all featuring crucifixes set in dramatic mountain landscapes. These works culminated in The Cross in the Mountains (the Tetschen Altar), the picture that made Caspar David Friedrich’s name.
|The cross in the mountains (The Tetschen Altar) (1807/08)|
Many critics found the image inadmissible. One accused Friedrich of trying to smuggle landscape painting into churches and onto altars. But surely that had been the artist’s intention all along. He even designed a frame for the painting, so that it could better serve as an altarpiece. The furore didn’t stop the Countess von Thun-Hohenstein plunking down two hundred thalers and carrying the painting off to Schloss Tetschen.
The story goes that, when the artist wanted to visit the Schloss to see his masterpiece in its new setting, he was repeatedly fobbed off by the Count and Countess – the reason being that they’d hung the work not in the chapel, as Friedrich had hoped, but in their bedroom.
|Cross in the mountains (c. 1805/06)|
So the critics may have had a point. Friedrich, a pious Lutheran, insisted The Cross in the Mountains was strictly a devotional work. But a close friend was not alone in seeing in his paintings of this period “a specific, I would like to say politically prophetic meaning, references to an invisible hand intervening in the confused affairs of men and in the liberation of Germany from the foreign yoke”. The symbol's significance depended on what you wanted to see in it.
|Morning in the Riesengebirge (1810/11)|
Symbols, wrote Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian, are not signs. While a sign points unambiguously at a universally agreed meaning, symbols grow out of the collective unconscious. They open up levels of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. They cannot be invented; they grow when the situation is ripe for them; and they die when the situation changes.
Be that as it may, after Napoleon was vanquished, C D Friedrich never again painted a notable cross in the mountains.
|The cross in the mountains (1812)|
(To be continued)