Revealing the God who is evoked by Nature

02 November 2006

THOUGH the 18th century produced many fine portrait-painters, there is little religious art from that period which appeals to us today. All this began to change at the end of the 18th century and in the early part of the 19th, with what came to be called the Romantic Movement.

Like all artistic categories, the Romantic Movement has blurred edges, but artists of this time shared a reaction against what they thought of as the shallow rationalism of the Enlightenment. They wanted to go, as they felt, deeper into the nature of things. Eighteenth-century painters had sought the sublime in nature, but, to the Romantics, their picturesque scenes had no hint of “inner goings-on”, as Coleridge put it. Romantic artists looked for “something far more deeply interfused”.

The result is that Romantic landscapes often have a strongly religious quality to them. Constable, for example, was a religious person who sought to respond to the truth of the divine in landscape. He and others transferred to landscape something of the Protestant attitude to God.

Sometimes these landscapes are manifestly symbolic, as those depicted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), which have an ambivalent, hallucinatory quality. Though they are full of symbols, their power does not rest simply in the symbols, but in the “strong intense polarity of closeness and distance, precise detail and sublime aura”.

Not surprisingly, the Romantic Movement has been termed “spilt religion”, and the second part of a major book on Caspar David Friedrich is entitled “Art as Religion”. These works from the Romantic Movement reveal a sense of the solitariness of the artist and the isolation of the viewer (or listener), an isolation related to the sundering of bonds of community by a rapidly industrialising society. The artist’s life, his subjectivity, his feelings all come strongly to the fore.

One of Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous works, Cross in the Mountains, was commissioned as an altarpiece. Its fir trees and cross silhouetted against the sky evoke a sense of a lonely soul reaching out to the infinite. The rays of light shining out from behind the mountain and the colour of the sky indicate new hope, fresh start, resurrection.

The less well-known work Morning in the Riesengebirge (reproduced, right), painted in 1810, has the same effect in a less obvious way. Most people love mountains, and, for many, mountains have an awesome, religious quality. Even without the cross in this picture, the mountain range, bare and austere in the forefront and misty in the background, would evoke a strange admixture of feelings of closeness and distance, longing and satisfaction.

The slim silhouette of the cross, with a tiny figure leaning against it, is not alien to this landscape. On the contrary, it focuses its religious appeal in Christian terms. The infinite for which humans long, evoked by such landscapes, is nothing less than the beauty of love given to the uttermost.

The God who gives us the rocks gives us his crucified Son. And both draw us out of ourselves to wonder and worship.

Questions for reflection

What landscapes particularly evoke your religious feelings? What do these feelings suggest?

Is Caspar David Friedrich right to see an affinity between what landscapes can evoke and the central symbols of our faith, especially the cross?

This is an edited extract from The Passion in Art by Richard Harries (Ashgate; 0-7546-5011-1)

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