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Caspar David Friedrich: faith on canvas

31 May 2024

Caroline Levisse finds evidence of Caspar David Friedrich’s faith in his landscape paintings, 250 years after his birth

Hamburg Kunsthalle/Elke Walford

Sea of Ice (1823-24) by Caspar David Friedrich

Sea of Ice (1823-24) by Caspar David Friedrich

IN DECEMBER 1808, the painter Caspar David Friedrich arranged an exhibition in his Dresden studio to show his latest work, an ambitious and unique painting. Cross in the Mountains was placed on a table, standing straight in a gilded frame, which Friedrich had designed himself. On the frame — a circular arch, to echo the painting’s shape — there are cherubs, palms, the eye of God in a triangle, sheaves of wheat and grape, all clear Christian symbols.

This display evoked an altarpiece. But on the canvas thus framed, visitors could not see a crucifixion, nativity, or Last Supper. What they contemplated was a landscape.

Cross in the Mountains — also known as the Tetschen Altarpiece — depicts a tall crucifix installed at the top of a rocky summit. It is surrounded by fir trees below, and ivy is climbing at the bottom of the cross. The crucifix is oriented slightly away from us, facing the other side of the mountain, which we cannot see. Visible, however, are a few powerful rays of sunlight. We imagine they are coming from a setting sun that remains invisible to us. It is lighting up the clouds above with a fiery orange and red tint.

This meeting of the religious format — the altarpiece — and the landscape painting surprised many in 1808, and even shocked some, who thought this was sacrilegious. Was Friedrich affirming that a landscape painting could serve as an altarpiece in a place of worship? Friedrich neither represented the crucifixion as described in the Gospels, nor used traditional iconographical patterns. The mountain and fir trees recalled a much more familiar northern setting. Crucifixes (or crosses, shrines, and statues of Mary) on mountain hills were frequent, and are still found today in areas such as the Alps.

The view painted by Friedrich could be real and contemporary; however, the painter has used some visual clues that intimate that it is not a factual landscape painting. In a text published in April 1809, he explained the symbolism: “Jesus Christ, nailed to the tree, is turned here towards the setting sun, the image of the eternal life-giving father.” And “The cross stands high on a rock, firm and unshakable like our faith in Christ. Fir trees surround it, lasting through the seasons, like our hopes in him who was crucified.”


ACCORDING to Friedrich, it is possible to find in the world around us scenery, objects, and phenomena that can elicit a religious experience. Beyond fir trees and sunlight, many other potential religious symbols appear in his work: mountain peaks, rainbows, a spring of water, the ruins of a Gothic church, the silhouette of monks, the cycle of the seasons, moonlight, anchors, and sailing boats. If the meaning is religious, why not directly represent the crucifixion or resurrection?

Friedrich was a man of his time, and his was a time of turmoil. Born in 1774 in a Lutheran family in Greifswald, in Pomerania, his father was a chandler and soap-boiler. This German town on the Baltic was then under Swedish rule. After a defeat against Napoleon, in 1807, the region was occupied by the French troops before being eventually ceded to Prussia in 1815. By that time, Friedrich had already moved to Dresden, but he always remained attached to his native region, and fiercely anti-French.

Berlin State Museums, National Gallery/Andres KilgerCaspar David Friedrich, in an 1810 portrait by Caroline Bardua

Friedrich had trained at the University of Greifswald first, and then at the Academy in Copenhagen. During that time, he became influenced by the ideas of the emerging Romantic movement. Romanticism was a reaction against the classicism of Italy and France, and the rationality of the Enlightenment.

Faced with growing secularism (as Chateaubriand stated in 1797, “Personne n’y croit plus”), and disillusioned with the Enlightenment’s promise of progress guided by reason, Romantic thinkers and artists wanted to revive the spiritual while avoiding the strictly dogmatic or authoritative. The traditional religious iconography was declared stale, as it failed to communicate the Christian mysteries and inspire religious elation. The natural world, on the other hand, could offer a mediation between the individual and the divine. The concept of the sublime, as articulated by Burke, Kant, and Schiller, was particularly successful in Romantic landscape painting.

This sublime experience, arising from a mix of wonder and terror, appears in some of Friedrich’s works. His famous Sea of Ice from 1823-4 (now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle) shows icebergs caught in a sea of ice. A monumental pyramid in the foreground is made of sheets of ice that seem to have been moving, pressing into one another. This, in itself, is an impressive sight. After a few seconds, the viewer might discover the wreck, caught in the ice. This presence of a man-made item gives us a sense of the scale of this landscape, the size of the sheets of ice, but also of the sheer power of nature, able to crush a large boat as if it were made of card.

Perhaps Friedrich was thinking about the expeditions to the North Pole, such as William Edward Parry’s in 1819-20, just a few years before the painting was realised. If the expeditions were symbols of the modern era, as men sought to map, control, and use every corner of the natural world, their failures were reminders of the ultimate vulnerability of men in the face of the natural environment — a message with particular resonance in today’s world.


THIS theme of the insignificance of the human being in comparison with the incomprehensible infinity of the universe is a Romantic trope. It is often accompanied by a desire to experience a state of harmony with the cosmos. In his Letters on Landscape Painting (1815-24), another German Romantic painter, Carl Gustav Carus, explained: “When man, sensing the immense magnificence of nature, feels his own insignificance, and, feeling himself to be in God, enters into this infinity and abandons his individual existence, then his surrender is gain rather than loss. What otherwise only the mind’s eye sees, here becomes almost literally visible: the oneness in the infinity of the universe.”

Many of Friedrich’s landscape paintings are expressions of such nature mysticism based on the intensely felt “immense magnificence of nature”, for instance Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818, Hamburger Kunsthalle), The Riesengebirge (1830-35, Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie), and Monk by the Sea (1808-10, Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie).

Elke Estel/Hans-Peter KlutCross in the Mountains (Tetschen Altar) (1807/08) by Caspar David, in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

In the often reproduced Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, a man has climbed to the top and is gazing at the scenery in front of him, a stretch of rocks and clouds. He stands still, contemplating the vastness in front of him. What is he thinking? Or should we ask, rather, what is he feeling? For, if rational thinking is defeated by the boundlessness of the cosmos — of God — the heart, and its intuitive intelligence, may feel one’s unity with the universe: a communion with God.

For Friedrich and his fellow Romantics, emotions and introspection were essential. They were also personal, and could not be forced on to others. In this context, Friedrich’s use of the Rückenfigur — a person looking, with his or her back turned to us — is meaningful.

We are looking at someone looking, which tells us that this landscape is experienced through someone’s subjectivity. It is not so much an actual place, than a fiction projected by an individual on to the surrounding world. The artist himself said as much when he stated: “The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.”

The Rückenfigur can be a lone man, a woman, or several figures, like the man and woman standing together and looking at the moonlit scenery. In Woman Before the Rising/Setting Sun (c.1818, Essen, Museum Folkwang), the feminine figure turns away from us. She is facing the glowing orb, which we cannot see directly. Like an orant, she is opening and rising her arms, in a gesture of prayer. This brings to mind association of God and light, feeling the light of God on one’s face. As St Francis wrote in his Canticle of the Creatures: “Praised by you, my Lord with all your creatures, Especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour, Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.”

Berlin State Museums, National Gallery/Andres KilgerAbbey in the Eichwald (1809-10) by Caspar David Friedrich

Ultimately, we are prevented from deciphering what the person represented actually feels. Instead, his or her position invites us to adopt a similar contemplative stance and imagine what we would feel in a similar situation. Friedrich merely suggests something, and it is up to us — potential kindred spirits — to recognise it. About his painting Cross on the Baltic (1815, Charlottenburg Palace), he wrote to Louise Seidler in 1815: “Raised up high on the barren, rocky seashore is a cross: to those who see it a consolation; to those who fail to see it, merely a cross.”

Many of Friedrich’s most beautiful and inspiring paintings are simply landscapes. There is no human figure, no grave, no crucifix, no Gothic ruins, no boat. We are left with what is, and what we hope there is; an expression of a longing, an oscillation between doubt and belief, between the fear of nothingness and the hope of a divine presence.


The paintings accompanying this piece are in the exhibition “Caspar David Friedrich: Infinite Landscapes”, at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Bodestraβe, Berlin, until 4 August. Phone 00 49 30 266 42 42 42. www.smb.museum

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