Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross

Around Christmas 1808 a young painter of no considerable reputation staged an exhibition of recent works in Dresden. The piece de resistance of the show was ‘The Cross’, which was given pride of place on an altar-like table at the end of the room, its gilded gothick frame (also designed by the painter) glimmering in the dim religious light. The subject of the painting – a crucifix such as a traveller might encounter anywhere in the mountains of southern Germany clearly had religious connotations. But there was something disturbing about the picture, which the passage of time has not diminished.

In what sense (if any) is Friedrich’s painting a religious image? The frame proclaimed its religiosity, with an unmistakable allusion to the altarpieces of the past. But this is not a crucifixion, such as might have been painted in the age of faith. It is a painting of a crucifix, turned obliquely away from the spectator. And though a religious object dominates the composition, it is surely the rocks and mountains which reveal what the painting is really about. Friederich’s canvas portrays neither history nor dogma, but seeks instead to elicit an indefinite ‘religious’ emotion.

Here is the romantic discovery of the sense of awe and mystery of landscape. ot an altarpiece, but a salon piece. The overtly religious symbols – the all-seeing eye of the sacred Trinity and the sheaves of corn and bunches of grapes, placed prominently on the frame – are mere allusions. This is no more ‘Christian’ painting than Poussin’s classical gods and goddesses are pagan’. And the dramatic shafts of light from the rising sun, which radiate across the threatening morning sky are not, as at first might seem, symbols of the resurrection overcoming the death of the cross. They are more akin to mood music. To a later generation they recall, perhaps, not the gloom of that Dresden salon, but the floodlights of a later Nuremberg.

Mark Stevens