Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

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]


Is this criticism, however, relevant to Ruins in the Giant Mountains? Börsch-Supan’s interpretation seems to be supported by another very similar painting by Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, created in 1810 [fig. 3]. Both feature a landscape, shown as a number of separate visual bands, and a church wall with an ogival window along the vertical axis of the composition (according to the same scholar, The Abbey in the Oakwood also depicts the ruins of Eldena[12]). A funeral procession passing through the portal of the ruin and the misty background led Börsch-Supan to conclude that the work represents the clash between “this” and “the other” side (Diesseits/Jenseits), the “realm of measurable time and eternity” (Die messbare Zeit/Ewigkeit).[13] Because a comparison of the two paintings suggests that in the later work the path motif was eventually replaced by the funeral procession, its interpretation as a “path of life” nearing its end and the interpretation of the remote mountain range as “the other side” seems quite convincing. Ultimately, unlike Emmrich, Börsch-Supan interprets the ruins as symbols of what has passed. In The Abbey in the Oakwood, he claims, they represent Friedrich’s belief that the Middle Ages with their “ancient forms of religiosity (…) are now a thing of the past”, just like paganism, symbolized by the oaks that surround the church.[14] In Ruins in the Giant Mountains, on the other hand, the ruins are taken to allude to the artist’s childhood. All these meanings are retrieved based on facts wholly external to the painting, with no relation to how particular motifs and the landscape are depicted. As such, they can be viewed as an allegory in which the image remains transparent with respect to the meaning. An allegory diverts attention from the image to the idea; one thing is said or shown and another is meant.[15] The image is merely an index that points to the meaning or concept, but in no way determines them. This interpretation would be consistent with the views of the artist’s contemporaries,[16] as well as some modern scholars.[17]

This would necessarily lead us to conclude that since Friedrich’s works are allegorical rather than symbolic, the question of how his paintings as images can refer to metaphysical reality and whether they can retrieve that reality on their own cannot be answered. A closer reflection on this conundrum, however, admits a modicum of doubt: why should we assume that the mist and the mountains in The Abbey in the Oakwood and Ruins in the Giant Mountains stand for “the other side”, if Goethe, for instance, interpreted the former as a “graveyard in the mist” (ein Nebelkirchhof),[18] and the mountains in the latter, despite all their remoteness, continue to belong to the same space as the ruins and the path in the foreground? This interpretation would also require us to subsume the ruins of the castle under the symbolism of “the other side”, since they are shown behind the church ruins, and there are no grounds for doing so.

The shortcomings of Börsch-Supan’s interpretation are avoided by Tadeusz Żuchowski. In his analysis, as a sign of the past, the ruins in Friedrich’s painting symbolize the “transition from a civilization based on artificial law to a world based on natural law”.[19] The symbolism of his works is said to derive from the quest of contemporary thinkers, poets, and artists to turn the “slowly decaying ruins of past religions” into a foundation for a universal faith, in which God would be “identified with nature, or better yet, would become nature as such”.[20] This can lead us to suppose that the mountain range of Ruins in the Giant Mountains, located beyond the derelict abbey that represents the “sign of the past” and symbolizes “transition”, is not some otherworldly “other side”, as Börsch-Supan proposed, but rather a realm of nature identical to God. As such, it belongs to real space and at the same time serves as a site for the manifestation of transcendence. However, based on a discourse external to the paintings,[21] this interpretation is belied by the works themselves.

The landscape in Ruins in the Giant Mountains is a bundle of narrow bands unfolding from left to right. These include the dark forest and the bright mountains, but also the hill with castle ruins that separates them and extends all the way to the right edge of the painting. The hill fills up the space between the forest and the mountains, as well as optically mediates between them. The landscape thus forms a coherent structure that encompasses both the foreground and the clouds; no antithetical parts can be distinguished to warrant designating one ruin as a symbol of transition between two distinct realities.

The meaning of the ruins derives from elsewhere. The outline of the hill runs parallel to the outline of the mountain range. However, right after the bulge of the ruined fortress, its contour is suddenly refracted and “slides downwards”. At the same time, a structure of multilayered streaks emerges within the mountain range, which implies a forward motion that, towards the right, brings the mountains, the hills, the forest, and the ground together. The mountains do not point towards the sky but remain fixed within the horizontal and earthly order. What we see here is Friedrich’s characteristic “reversal” of the functional meaning and traditional symbolism of elements;[22] there are several more instances of this procedure in the painting. And thus, the hill with the castle is meant to show that any quest measuring itself against the real world, the mountain range,[23] is bound to fail and be annihilated, as represented by the withered root shown directly below in the foreground (its shape mimicking the sharp bend in the outline of the hill). The church ruins visualize the opposite relationship.

 Their specific function was described by Michael Brötje. Brötje’s point of departure was to observe that the horizontal bands of the landscape are strictly related to the plane of the painting (which he considers to be a typical feature of Friedrich’s entire oeuvre). On the one hand, the bands seem to extend freely beyond the frame, on the other, however, their distinct, regular sharpening make “the areas of proximity and distance appear equivalent, nearly interchangeable, in their phenomenal relationship to the plane of the painting”.[24] The visual importance of the band pattern also derives from the fact that it includes the path in the foreground. The observation of Emmrich and Börsch-Supan, who remarked that it guides the viewer’s gaze from the lower edge up towards the peasant hut, do not properly describe its optical features.[25] Importantly, along most of its course, the path is inscribed into a planar wedge that encompasses the withered tree and runs towards the right, and by that virtue, it forms part of the foreground band which, like the forest and the mountains, stretches from the left towards the right side of the painting. Further on, the path winds towards the right, cutting through a bright expanse of the ground that mirrors the contour of the mountains above. The motif thus serves as another instance of Friedrich’s functional “reversal” of the meaning of the elements that divide space.[26] It must be noted that the peasant hut is also inscribed into the band pattern through its form and color.

The ruins of the church, however, show a certain degree of duality: on the one hand, their two parts, “a continuum parallel to the plane”,[27] participate in the left-to-right course of the planar bands, on the other, they seem somewhat independent from the mountain range. According to Brötje, this is not because of their central position, as Emmrich would have it, but because their left side takes on the form of a reclining rectangle. The artist achieved the effect by stretching the ruins along the horizontal axis (in other paintings, he would lengthen them vertically[28]) and partly hiding them behind the forest. In order not to disrupt the emphatic quality of the shape, he also lowered the corresponding section of the mountain range in the background. The rectangular form makes the wall lose its vertical appearance despite the window in the middle; the latter does not direct the viewer’s gaze upwards, as Börch-Supan would have it, but rather towards the upper edge of the wall that frames it. (Another reason that the gaze does not turn up towards the sky and the mountains is that the window is simply too small.) The wall appears centripetal and its form is perceived as if “in motion” from the external edges of the wall to the edge of the window. This centripetal character translates into its independence from the whole band pattern that runs from the left to the right, from the layers of the earth and forest, as well as from the mountains and the sky. Secondly, the independence also derives from the “anchoring” of the ruins “in the center of the painting”. Both their position and their lopsided rectangular form optically relate the ruins to the shape of the pictorial plane.

The above conceit determines their symbolic function. An object cannot establish its own symbolism; it cannot be symbolic merely by virtue of its sensory properties. The forest cannot represent the end of life just because it is dark; the mountain range and the mist cannot stand for “the other side” just because the latter is oblique and the former, far off beyond the forest, shimmers with light. Certainly, Friedrich himself does nothing to warrant such interpretations when he says that “a misty landscape seems more vast, enlivens the imagination and stimulates attention, just like the sight of a veiled maiden”;[29] the very mention of a girl’s face shows no allusion is being made to the invisible, ideal, or transcendent realm. (If, however, the elusive mist is treated as a symbol of transcendence, it is worth asking whether it does not become invisible only in a relative and temporary way, which would trivialize not only the concept itself but also the idea of the image as a symbolic formula). To reconstruct “symbolism” on the basis of sensory properties is to add on meanings that cannot be derived from the motif as such; such meanings remain a discursive appendage without any rooting in the visual study of the painting. This leads to complete arbitrariness in establishing the symbolism of artworks.

An object becomes a symbol, firstly, by virtue of the structural relationships that it establishes with other elements in the painting; these endow it with the force of necessity that preconditions all symbolism:[30] it is impossible to correct, let alone replace, a given structure without affecting its nature and coherence, as would be the case with a common sign. Secondly, it becomes a symbol only insofar as the structure of the painting helps isolate symbolic meaning as experiential content for the eye. And thirdly, symbolism can only emerge when the concrete visual shape of the object participates in properties that are not given directly by its sensory form and cannot be derived from it; an object is a symbol only in comparison with its essential  “other”.[31]

Because the perceptual process directly relates the shape of the ruins in Ruins in the Giant Mountains to the shape of the pictorial plane, these can be compared to what is essentially “other” to them and the entire representation.[32] The plane of the painting cannot be reduced to its role as a material substrate. During the perception of a work, the plane is present both in the depicted world and beyond it; it permeates it but cannot be reduced to its dimenssion. It contains whatever is depicted and, at the same time, transcends it as something otherworldly. In relation to what constitutes the theme of the painting (portrait, battle scene, landscape, etc.), the plane plays the role of the all-encompassing (das Umgreifende). Its apparent superordinate status with respect to representation and its character as something more than the whole visible world confer upon it the rank of a perceptual synonym of the absolute. The plane is “the other” because, compared to the fragmentary landscape, it appears as whole, closed, absolutely opposed to the pictorial elements in relation to which it constitutes “the other side”.[33]

The reference of the depicted world to the plane of the painting, according to Brötje, also provides the only rationale for talking of infinity in Friedrich’s oeuvre. The German scholar strictly rejects any interpretations that would trace Friedrich’s ability to inspire a sensation of the infinite to the way in which his landscapes always seem to extend beyond the frame of the painting. He points out that the essence of “infinity” needs to be understood as absolutely opposed to any finitude; the defining feature of the infinite is that it can never overlap with the finite. The extension of the landscape beyond the frame of the painting merely a projects a greater distance; the distance, however, remains measurable and thus, finite. If, for obvious reasons, the painting does not illustrate that expansion, that does not mean that infinity becomes a feature of the landscape. If we think of infinity, Brötje suggests, and stretch our imagination to visualize it, we are bound to fail, as every visualization can be achieved only through elements that in themselves are finite. Therefore, the implied extension of the landscape beyond the frame reveals its non-infinite nature, since any reality whose fragment can be depicted is by definition not infinite. Infinity cannot be a palpable “site”, accessed once the boundaries of the painting are crossed. As such, it would be defined by the process of constant continuation, an ever further expansion, and would thus be relative: first smaller, then larger. Infinity, however, cannot be diminished or increased. To be experienced in a painting, it must be suggested by the reference of the depicted world to some perceptual value that the painting itself identifies as absolute, entirely opposed to its objective content and finite object. In the painting, this is the role of the plane, the only element to which the term infinity of space can properly be applied.[34]

As destroyed architecture, the ruins serve to illustrate (rather than symbolize) finitude. The symbolic dimension of this motif in Ruins in the Giant Mountains derives from its reference to “the other” that acts as its opposite pole. The reference makes it impossible for the ruins to enter into any binding relationship with the surrounding landscape and play a dividing or centering role within it. The infinity of space cannot and does not change in time. For this reason, the landscape and the ruins are experienced as symbols of different relations to the temporal dimension. The uninterrupted stretches of landscape symbolize time that is at once never-ending and finite, i.e. time (niemals endenden endlichen Zeit) that plays itself out “in” timelessness, but always remains in conflict with it. The closed surface of the ruins, in contrast, symbolizes the passage of finite time into timelessness.[35] The building acquires this specific semantic dimension precisely as it loses its previous function.

To take Brötje’s interpretation a step further, it should be noted that the dynamics of the landscape is also reflected in the layout of figural elements. Two men and a dog stand in front of the hut. The dog belongs to the same band as the path; the men are partially contained in the outline of the hut and highlighted against the bright window wall. The wall is connected to a line of lower walls that stretch out on both sides and heighten the impression that the hut is clinging to the ground. At the same time, it mirrors the pattern observed above between the two protruding parts of the ruined abbey. On the right, we see an element that serves as a counterpoint to the castle ruins further up the hill; it is equally vertical and reaches up to the same height in the visual field, establishing a new relationship with the surrounding space. The viewer’s gaze is drawn into the interplay between the ruins and the hut: on the one hand, it is attracted by the dark window that “embraces” one of the men, symbolizing the possibility of life being extinguished, on the other, by the shape between the ruins, transparent with respect to the landscape, immaterial, independent of the mountain range beyond, and opening upwards. The viewer perceives human existence as stretched between two opposing points of reference: earth, time, and death on the one hand, and invisible infinity on the other.

The ambivalence of human life related both to its finitude and its openness to infinity was also rendered through an image of church ruins in earlier paintings: Ruins of Eldena Monastery near Greifswald of 1824-1825 [fig. 2] and the previously mentioned The Abbey in the Oakwood [fig. 3].

The first painting depicts church ruins enclosed between the foreground with a motif of withered branches and a line of trees in the background. The concave shape of the former, and the upper, semicircular contour of the latter create an elliptical form that contains a three-segment ruin surrounding a hut and two human figures. One of the many openings in the hut is placed along the vertical axis of the painting and in the same vertical line as the almost completely built-up window in the center of the ruin: it is the dark entrance to the household. The darkness (of the door) that “opens” at the bottom acts as a counterpoint to the brightness of the sky and several tree branches glimpsed through the upper part of the window. The window does not open onto any “other side” stretching beyond the ruin. The visual function of the door below and the window above is to stress the verticality of the construction, which optically corresponds to the vertical elements of the ruin on both sides of the composition. As such, the ruins direct the gaze of the viewer to the edges of the painting, to the impassable boundary, all the more so because they are shaped like an altar triptych. In comparison with this painting, Ruins in the Giant Mountains seem supplemented with the mountain range in the background. Is this enough to warrant the conclusion that the painter meant it as a visual reflection of the “other side”? Nothing could be further from the truth. Both paintings show that he was able to suggest its presence with artistic means of quite another kind.

 Ruins of Eldena Monastery near Greifswald use some of the solutions employed in The Abbey in the Oakwood, painted during Friedrich’s stay in Greifswald and Neubrandenburg between April and July 1809. The restoration of the painting in 2013-2015 has allowed scholars to return to its interpretation.

A newly dug grave can be seen in the foreground, with a funeral procession behind it. Clad in dark frocks, Capuchin friars pass through a church portal with an inbuilt crucifix. Are they leaving a “defunct church”, now a graveyard, and passing on through to the “other side” of the crucifix, thus participating in an “amazing transformation” that leads to the “magical rebirth” of a “new church” built of “mist and air”?[36] Even before the painting was restored, it was easy to see that the friars are passing through a fragmentary facade, leaving behind the profane and entering the sacred,[37] and are headed towards the choir wall, as confirmed by the underlying sketch revealed by infrared photographs [fig. 4]. (Architecture composed of similar elements could also be observed in a destroyed painting of 1819, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow). Once the painting was cleaned, these shapes became even more conspicuous. It is also possible to discern a podium with an altar and two lit candles, and a human figure, but these are much less pronounced, which affects their semantics. Even on their own, these elements are already enough to suggest that no passage “to the other side” is taking place here, and this intuition is confirmed by other components of the painting.

            Just as in many other works, the landscape in The Abbey in the Oakwood is depicted in several bands that seem to extend beyond the frame of the painting, and through their accumulation send the gaze back to the pictorial plane. The land at the bottom and the mist above optically interpenetrate each other; they are both brown in color, completely cover up the horizon, and a mirror game plays out between their contours: the convex bend of the ground corresponds to the concave bend of the mist. At the same time, the latter outlines the almond shape of the luminous pink and gray expanse of the sky. This impression is further intensified as the contour of the mist finds its optical complement in the dark-colored band spreading out in an arch along the upper edge of the painting. The whole structure suggests that the mist belongs neither to the sky, nor to the ground, and, as a consequence, there seems to be no clear separation between the earth and the sky, of the kind that in earlier landscape paintings was ensured by the horizon. The mutual arrangement of all the bands is such that all spatial relationships cancel each other out and it is no longer possible to distinguish the mist from the earth, and, consequently, to separate this side, in front of the ruin, from the other side, beyond it. Differences in the luminosity of the sky, lesser on the left, greater on the right, which according to the artist represent “the setting sun”,[38] contribute to the interpretation of the uninterrupted course of separate bands as a symbol of the never-ending passage of time, which plays itself out “in” timelessness but remains in perpetual conflict with it.

            The ruin and the trees that surround it are perpendicular to the horizontal stretch of the bands. It has been pointed out that the rhythm created by the trees “in no way represents a self-generated, self-enclosed order of the landscape that would form a finished whole.”[39] Some have also pointed out that the two oaks that flank the ruin on both sides correspond to the division of the pictorial field in accordance with the principle of the golden mean. While I have no intention of denying this, I would like to point out that the logic of how the trees are distributed is far more complex. It begins in the lower left corner of the pictorial field, where the viewer’s gaze is directed by the procession that stretches up to the area to the left of the ruin and by the optical affinity between the minute figures and the tombstone crosses. The latter point towards the group in the corner, which reproduces the main ingredients of the depicted world in miniature: a leafless plant, a tombstone cross, and vertical architectural elements. The group is shaped like a fan, an effect achieved by spreading the stones and the branches out towards the sides. Together with the tombstone placed along the vertical axis, the group sends the viewer’s gaze upwards; subsequently, the gaze is subordinated to the horizontal strips of the mist and the sky. The opposition between the upward thrust and the subsequent movement along the horizontal dimension defines the basic dynamic that determines the further development of the composition, down to the smallest detail.

            The fan-like shape of the group in the corner directs the gaze, via the vertical boulder and the branches of a tall tree that point at it, towards the sequence of oaks surrounding the ruin. The first tree on the left belongs to a triad of tree trunks leaning towards one another. On the upper side, its boundary is marked by a diagonal descending to the right. Thus, the upward bulge of the trees directs the viewer’s gaze along a trajectory slanted in the opposite direction. The movement is reinforced by the presence of a small tree trunk that seems to splinter off the third tree and completely dissolve into the mist. On the lower side, the triad is outlined by the contour of the tombstone obelisk which connects the gaze to the horizontal line of the earth. The gaze only transcends this connection thanks to the soaring trees that grow beside the ruin. The human figures placed between the tombstone and the trees define the meaning of this transcendence as an effort to rise above a life determined by death. At the same time, the upward movement of the gaze is reinforced by the curious outline of the tree tops, whose branches gradually lose their vertical orientation and unfold towards the sides. The branch on the left acts as a trajectory, along which the eye tries to circumvent the unfolding branches, as well as the rightward-pointing diagonal that they form.

            Both the procession and the trees that blend into the ruin (whose remaining vault ribs resemble thick, broken boughs) direct the viewer’s gaze towards the central motif, where a very subtle relationship can be discerned between the small fragment of the facade that contains the portal and the much larger choir wall. The figures carrying the coffin pass through the portal. Human death is mirrored by the image of the death of Christ. At the same time, a formal analogy arises between the two tombstones enclosed in a semi-oval frame right in front of the portal and the portal itself, optically split in half by the outline of the ground. In this manner, the interior of the church comes to resemble a grave, which brings to mind the dark hut window seen in Ruins in the Giant Mountains. Just as the hut belonged to the forest, the portal now belongs to the mist spreading across the entire width of the painting. At the same time, the division of the portal cancels out the distance between the procession and the altar. The basic point of reference for the viewer is the vertical axis. At its lower pole, moved slightly forwards, is the grave. Its shape and the gray, slanting, snowy furrows direct the viewer’s gaze to the right and deeper into the painting. The architecture provides an alternative to this directionality. The move towards the pole that is opposite the grave begins because the facade is inscribed into the outline of the choir wall and its profile leads up to the base of the window. The abyss of the grave and the opening that leads into the dimmed interior of the church, itself quite like a tomb, turn into an opening to light thanks to the window, in whose tracery perches a little bird suggestive of “the soul of the dead man ascending towards the sky.”[40] The window indicates the center of an a-temporal plane, and the edges of the walls form its edges, which symbolizes the passage of finite time into timelessness. This, however, is accompanied by the fact that from the top, the ruin is embraced on both sides by branches that rest upon its cornerstones and reinforce the diagonal character of the tree tops.

            The gaze is also directed upwards by the tree growing to the right of the ruin; it turns towards the moon. The movement is additionally emphasized by an outgrowth that crowns the trunk and in a sense slows down the upward thrust by directing the viewer’s gaze to the side. Below, the tree is connected to a complex constellation of motifs. The viewer’s gaze smoothly flows on from the portal wall to the overlapping line of nave pillars. Further down, the slant of the wall is symmetrically reflected in the slant of the pyramid adjacent to the pillars and tilted to the right. As a whole, the constellation optically blocks and entraps the tree, and is continued on the right by pyramid-like triangular tombstones. Both the diagonal created up in the tree tops and the tombstones direct the gaze to the last triad of trees. The triad is likewise bounded on the upper side by a slanting line, which implies both the upward movement of the gaze and its retreat towards the previous forms. The last tree, which shoots upward, unbridled, turns out to be anchored in the ground by another optically conjoined tombstone shaped like a pyramid. At the same time, the triad is pointed to by a cross, which stands out from among the tombstones; it is placed in the foreground and connected to the slanting furrows of snow, together with which it sends the viewer off to another cross, placed in the background to the right. Together, both crosses direct the gaze towards the line of mist.

            The movement of the gaze is further reinforced by the motif of a leafless bush, an obvious pendant to the shrub at the left edge of the painting. The bush to the right is also connected to a tombstone motif, but with a distinct form. Its outline is as thin as the twigs of the shrub that seem to grasp it and curve it to the right and its shape resembles the tracery of the ruin’s window. The opening onto the luminous sky there corresponds to the opening onto the dark ground here. At the same time, all vertical dimensions disappear in this area, as if to dissolve into the streaks of time. For a viewer who would trace the visual logic of the painting, this translates into the extinguishing of perception and a sensation of the finitude of his own existence against the infinity of time.

            In an essay written around 1830, Friedrich describes an image of a ruined monastery; the scene is set in the morning (In den anbrechenden Tag erkennt man noch die weichende Nacht), and as such should not be uncritically interpreted as The Abbey in the Oakwood. However, Friedrich does seem to associate some of his own formulations with the painting in question: “At first glance, the ruins of the monastery seem reminiscent of a murky past. The past is illuminated by the present.” The trace of the present can be linked to the moon, which is pointed to by a tree, in a clear allusion to the ways in which the sacred was thought to manifest itself in the painter’s times.[41] Both the ruins of the church and the move towards nature exist within a common pictorial logic, which implies a constant upward movement of the gaze, followed by its return to the ground and the graves. The visual logic thus serves to emphasize the constant human effort to transcend temporality, finiteness, and mortality. Together, the ruin and the trees that enable that rising form an outline that corresponds to the shape of the image field. It must be noted, however, that both the wall and the trees only act as an intermediate element between the plane and the space, but never achieve the ideal status of the extraworldly, “the other side”, which cannot be visualized through any inner-worldly elements. In that manner, the painting aptly expresses Friedrich’s aim of depicting “the mystery of tombs and the future”, which “can be seen and known only through faith and will forever remain mysterious in the finite knowledge of man.”[42]

The density of structural relationships in Friedrich’s paintings makes their influence on the viewer’s eyes difficult to describe. Their simultaneity, at the same time, endows the images with an aspect of totality that acts as the source of the most important feature of symbols, i.e. as the “inherent force” and “power” that “sets them apart from mere signs”, the power of that which is “real”.[43]

Interpretation does not allow us to establish concepts commensurate with the reality of symbols, but that does not mean that symbols lend themselves to new attempts at explanation and induce new processes of symbolization.[44] The interpretation of the symbolic dimension of Friedrich’s paintings, constituted through  the relationship between the landscape and the plane expressed as the infinity of space, does not suggest one of many possible symbolization processes, but the original meaning of the work, which is symbolic at the same time.[45]


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.

Skip to content