Metaphysics – symbol – landscape. On the motif of ruins in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting.

Michał Haake

Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań


The article proposes a new reading of the symbolic and metaphysical meaning of three paintings by Caspar David Friedrich with the motif of church ruins. The restoration of The Abbey in the Oakwood of 1809, carried out between 2013 and 2015, proved of particularly great help in this respect. The article is a polemic against interpretations that choose to depart from the symbolism of individual motifs. Instead, the author argues, the basis for symbolism should be sought in the structural relations that connect individual elements, i.e. the visual form of the painting. Accordingly, in consonance with the way symbols were understood after 1800, symbolism is seen as being linked to the sensory aspect of the symbolizing object. In addition, the ability of symbols to send off towards the extrasensory, the ideal, and the transcendent is rooted in the relationship between the world depicted in the paintings (a collection of motifs distributed in space) and the plane of the painting, understood, following the existential hermeneutic theory of art, as a value that is experienced in the process of perception, but is distinct from the depicted world and transcends it.

Keywords: Caspar David Friedrich, symbol, Romanticism, ruin


            Our interpretation of the Greek term “metaphysics” (τα μετα τα φυσικά), posthumously introduced as the title of a work by Aristotle, crucially depends on the way we understand the prefix “meta”. For a long time, the Platonic explication held sway: for Herennius Pontius (4th c.), metaphysics referred to the study of what is beyond nature; for Thomas Aquinas it was related to transphysica, i.e. the knowledge of “divine things”.[1] The metaphysical dimension of a painting is intimately linked with its symbolism; symbols define the special semantic relationship between that which is perceived, an image, and that which transcends visual perception and by its very nature remains invisible, transcendent, and ideal.[2] In order to determine whether a painting enters metaphysical reality, or, as put by Klaus Krüger, allows the viewer to “experience the presence” of “the invisible”,[3] we would therefore do well to begin by considering the ways in which its symbolic dimension is defined. In this article, I propose to do so with three works by Caspar David Friedrich.

Painted between 1830 and 1843, Ruins in the Giant Mountains [fig. 1] are considered to be Caspar David Friedrich’s highest artistic achievement.[4] The painting combines the natural landscape of the Giant Mountains, that is, the landscape of Silesia from which Friedrich’s family hailed, which he visited in 1810 with a friend, Georg Friedrich Kersting,[5] and the ruins of the Eldena Abbey near Greifswald, where he himself had been born and raised. The landscape extends over three separate planes, cut through by a winding path, a peasant hut in the forest, church ruins, and distant hills. Further to the left, ruins of a castle can be discerned on a hill beyond the forest. The painting is not merely a faithful compilation of the various motifs in question; its artistry derives from the fact that, firstly, the ruins undergo an important transformation (more about that later), and secondly, all planes are projected as a characteristic pattern of visual bands that help create various optical relationships independent of the spatial distance between individual elements.

Irma Emmrich points out the “amazing unity of the modest foreground and the unshaken summits far off in the distance”, drawing attention to the mountains that seem to run parallel to the “purplish clouds that cut through the sky of golden yellow and duplicate the contour of the mountain range along the entire width of the painting”. According to the scholar, owing to their central position, the ruins bring all the “disparate” planes together to create an impression of a “closed and dynamic whole”, which “allows us to forget about the compilatory method”. The importance of the ruins derives from their monumentality; the building is stripped down to one wall; the artist decided not to emphasize its spatial dimension and exaggerated its size relative to the landscape. The sensation of transience thus gives way to an impression of “durability”; the ruins seem able to “maintain their independence or even rise above the mountains in the background”, and the viewer cannot help but feel “extraordinary respect” towards them, an instance of the typical Romantic “heroization of the past”.[6] Emmrich’s interpretation deserves attention because it makes it clear that the ruins cannot symbolize transience; the latter is linked to matter and does not constitute a value that would transcend visual reality. At the same time, neither can they symbolize “durability” because durability is also a feature of their material being as that which has survived the passage of time.

 Helmut Börsch-Supan, the most important scholar specializing in Caspar David Friedrich, also notes the optical relationships between the various layers of the landscape and their relationships with individual motifs. Like Emmrich, he remarks on the parallel outline of the clouds and the mountains, and the reference of the abbey and the castle to the mountain range, in which the vertical dimension of the two buildings seems to “accompany” (begleiten) its course.[7] He does not, however, include these observations in his analysis of the symbolism of the painting; rather, he reconstructs the latter based on his knowledge of the date and circumstances in which the work was created. In his view, the path leading up into the background symbolizes “the path of life” and the hut – “the turning towards God at life’s end”; the ruins of Eldena “link the reflection on that turning to Friedrich’s personal memories”, the mountain range stands for “the other side” (Jenseitsvision), and the whole can be seen as a symbol of the “homeland and, at the same time, death”.[8] Representative of Börsch-Supan’s writings at large, such interpretations met with fierce resistance for their treatment of the visual language of Friedrich’s paintings in terms of verbal language. According to Tadeusz Żuchowski, the most outstanding Polish expert on the oeuvre of the German artist, Börsch-Supan’s interpretations moved from pertinent spatial analyses[9] towards “trivial cliches”.[10] Noting that “there is nothing to warrant a leap from an image of a ship to the idea of human destiny”, Gabriele Dufour-Kowalska likewise dismissed similar explanations as a “pseudosystem whose foundations in vain would be sought in Friedrich’s oeuvre”; such a system “relies neither on Friedrich’s writings (except a handful of pointers concerning the symbolism of ‘Cross in the Mountains’), nor his paintings” and makes it difficult to discover the bond between the meaning and “the graphic content”, so “characteristic of the painterly symbol”.[11]

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1]    Cf. K. Leśniak, Wstęp, in: Arystoteles, Metafizyka, transl. K. Leśniak, Warszawa 2013, p. 8ff.

[2]    T. Todorov, Wstęp do symboliki, transl. K. Falicka, in: Symbole i symbolika, ed. M. Głowiński, Warszawa 1991, p. 40; H.-G. Gadamer, Symbol i alegoria, transl. M. Łukasiewicz, in: ibidem, p. 100ff; P. Tillich, Symbol religijny, transl. M.B. Fedewicz, in: ibidem, p. 147.

[3]    K. Krüger, Das Bild als Schleier des Unsichtbaren. Ästhetische Illusion in der Kunst der frühen Neuzeit in Italien, München 2001, pp. 11–26.

[4]     I. Emmrich, Caspar David Friedrich, Weimar 1964, p. 117.

[5]    He had previously visited other mountainous regions in what is now the Czech Republic, e.g. in the vicinity of Teplice, south of Dresden; cf. G. Grundmann, Das Riesengebirge in der Malerei der Romantik, München 1958, p. 75ff; K.-L. Hoch, Caspar David Friedrich in Böhmen. Bergsymbolik in der romantischen Malerei, Stuttgart 1987, pp. 13–20.

[6]    Emmrich 1964, as in fn. 4, pp. 116–117.

[7]     H. Börsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich. Gefühl als Gesetz, München–Berlin 2008, p. 41.

[8]     H. Börsch-Supan, K.W. Jähnig, Caspar David Friedrich. Gemälde, Druckgraphik und bildmäßige Zeichnungen, München 1973, p. 440; H. Börsch-Supan 2008, as in fn. 7, p. 40.

[9]    H. Börsch-Supan, Die Bildgestaltung bei Caspar David Friedrich, (diss. Berlin 1958), München 1960.

[10]   Börsch-Supan, Jähnig 1973, as in fn. 8; T.J. Żuchowski, Między naturą a historią. Malarstwo Caspara Davida Friedricha, Szczecin 1993, p. 103.

[11]    G. Dufour-Kowalska, Caspar David Friedrich. U źródeł wyobrażeń romantycznych, transl. M. Rostworowska, Kraków 2005, pp. 57–58. It is worth noting that the information on the cover which claims it to be “the first Polish-language” monograph devoted exclusively to Friedrich is untrue; cf. Żuchowski 1993, as in fn. 10. For a very critical review of this work by T.J. Żuchowski, see: “Modus” 7, 2006, pp. 240–251.

[12]   More about the subject: F. Möbius, Caspar David Friedrichs Gemälde “Abtei im Eichwald” und die Frühe Wirkungsgeschichte der Ruine Eldena bei Greifswald, Berlin 1980.

[13]   Börsch-Supan 2008, as in fn. 7, pp. 180, 184.

[14]   Börsch-Supan, Jähnig 1993, as in fn. 8, pp. 229, 304.

[15]    H.-G. Gadamer, Aktualność piękna. Sztuka jako gra symbol i święto, transl. K. Krzemieniowa, Warszawa 1993, p. 43.

[16]  Ludwig Tieck remarked on both “allegorical and symbolic elements” in Friedrich’s paintings and opined that his works aim to express “a specific emotion, a real outlook, a well-established thought and concept in consonance with the mood of sorrow and sublimity”, L. Tieck, Eine Sommerreise. Urania, in: idem, Schrifften, vol. 23, Berlin 1853, pp. 17, 18, after: Börsch-Supan, Jähnig 1993, as in fn. 8, p. 124.

[17]    An allegorical interpretation of Friedrich’s paintings: A.A. Kuzniar, The Temporality of Landscape: Romantic Allegory and C.D. Friedrich, “Studies in Romanticism” 28, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 69–93; Th. Noll, Die Landschaftmalerei von Caspar David Friedrich. Hysikotheologie, Wirkungaesthetik und Emblematik Voraussetzungen und Deutung, München 2006, pp. 38–46.

[18]   After: Börsch-Supan, Jähnig 1993, as in fn. 8, p. 163.

[19]   Żuchowski 1993, as in fn. 10, p. 26.

[20]   T.J. Żuchowski, O pojmowaniu religii przez formację artystów niemieckich pierwszej dekady XIX wieku, “Artium Quaestiones” 3, 1986, pp. 51, 56, 58.

[21]   Ibidem, p. 57ff, especially the writings of Wilhelm Heinrich Wakenroder, Ludwig Tieck, and Novalis (“Ruins are the mother of these blossoming children”; Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, in: idem, Werke und Briefe, Leipzig 1942, p. 273).

[22]   M. Brötje, Die Gestaltung der Landschaft im Werk C.D. Friedrichs und in der Holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts,  “Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen” 19, 1974, p. 57.

[23]   A similar relationship can be observed in Friedrich’s Coffin on a Fresh Grave (ca. 1805–1807), where the coffin resembles the outline of a remote mountain range.

[24]   Brötje 1974, as in fn. 22, p. 58.

[25]   Emmrich 1964, as in fn. 4, p. 116; Börsch-Supan 2008, as in fn. 7, p. 40.

[26]   Brötje 1974, as in fn. 22, p. 57. A similar conceit whereby a road winding upwards is inscribed into a band structure can be seen in Friedrich’s The Bohemian Landscape with Mount of Milleschauer of 1808, Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Galerie Neue Meister.

[27]   Ibidem, p. 58.

[28]   Börsch-Supan, Jähnig 1993, as in fn. 8, p. 276. In Winter of 1803 and its 1826 replica; Möbius 1980, as in fn. 12.

[29]   After: Dufour-Kowalska 2005, as in fn. 11, p. 59.

[30]   Cf. Tillich 1991, as in fn. 2, p. 148.

[31]    Brötje 1974, as in fn. 22, pp. 43, 48.

[32]   Ibidem, p. 58.

[33]   Cf. M. Brötje, Der Spiegel der Kunst. Zur Grundlegung einer existential-hermeneutischen Kunstwissenschaft, Stuttgart 1990. Brötje’s theory is discussed in: M. Bryl, Suwerenność dyscypliny. Polemiczna historia historii sztuki od 1970 roku, Poznań, 2009, pp. 580–621.

[34]   Brötje 1974, as in fn. 22, pp. 48–49.

[35]    Ibidem, p. 58. It is difficult not to agree with the conclusion that Brötje “does not treat the space of the paintings, nor the paintings as such in terms of symbolism, but only as perceptual objects, focusing on their structure rather than meaning”, cf. E. Rzucidlo, Caspar David Friedrich und Wahrnehmung. Von der Rückenfigur zum Landschaftsbild, Münster 1998, p. 205.

[36]   Żuchowski 1991, as in fn. 14, p. 23

[37]   Por. W. Bałus, Osiągalne-nieosiągalne. O topografii symbolicznej obrazów z motywem krzyża w twórczości Caspara Davida Friedricha, in: Miejsca rzeczywiste, ed. M. Kitowska-Łysiak, Lublin 1999, p. 115.

[38]   C.D. Friedrich, List do Johannesa Schulze, February 1809, in: idem, Die Briefe, ed. H. Zschoche, Hamburg 2006, p. 64.

[39]   H. Frank, Aussichten ins Unermessliche. Perspektivität und Sinnoffenheit bei Caspar David Friedrich, Berlin 2004, p. 86.

[40]   W. Busch, Ästhetik und Religion, München 2008, p. 69.

[41]   W.H. Wackenroder, Wynurzenia serdecznie rozmiłowanego w sztuce braciszka zakonnego, transl. J.St. Buras, in: Pisma teoretyczne niemieckich romantyków, ed. T. Namowicz, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków 2000, p. 26ff; cf. Żuchowski 1986, as in fn. 27.

[42]    C.D. Friedrich, A letter to Johannes Schulze, February 1809, in: Friedrich 2006, as in fn. 44, p. 64. The above interpretation contradicts neither the statement that the artist meant to take up the issue of faith challenged by the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte (Busch 2008, as in fn. 40, p. 66), nor the conjecture that the figure of Christ visible in infrared photographs refers to the artist’s brother who died in childhood, and the painting should be treated as an expression of the artist’s personal attitude to death (Y. Nakama, Caspar David Friedrich und die Romantische Tradition. Moderne des Sehens und Denkens, Bonn 2011, p. 126), because these circumstances, as well as the death of his father in 1809, could have induced him to take up the issue of human mortality.

[43]   Tillich 1991, as in fn. 2, p. 148.

[44]   G. Pochat, Der Symbolbegriff in der Ästhetik und Kunstwissenschaft, Köln 1983, p. 207.

[45]    About the issue of originality that constitutes the work as a symbol, cf. M. Heidegger, Źródło dzieła sztuki, transl. J. Mizera, in: idem, Drogi lasu, Warszawa 1997.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" . Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.