Artistic Diversion

Winter-Landscape-(1)-1811I can still remember the first time I saw this painting. I was fifteen, on a school trip to the National Gallery, and I fell in love. I wasn’t supposed to be looking at 19th century German Romantics, but at 18th Century English – think Hogarth (oh, wow, Hogarth!), Gainsborough, Reynolds.

“Winter Landscape” by Caspar David Freidrich shows a bleak snowy landscape, of rocks and fir trees, with a wooden crucifix nestled into the lee of the tree. A boy sits against a rock in front of the shrine, praying. His crutches are discarded – begging the question of whether he has deliberately abandoned them and crawled to this spot, or whether he is giving thanks for recovery. There is a sense of loneliness – there are no crowds here, no obvious footprints or detritus of humanity. Just a boy, a rough shrine and his ambiguous prayers.

Food enough for thought perhaps in the foreground. But we cannot ignore the misty background, with a church or even cathedral looming out of the mist. It’s obviously very grand, it’s obviously very solid, but the way it is obscured by mist makes it feel unattainable, forbidding and remote. We can just make out a bridge (or is it a gate?) linking our bleak¬†landscape to this huge edifice, planned and constructed by humans to the glory of God.

Ever since I first saw this painting, I have been convinced that the boy would never ever make it to the church. That even if he is healed and walks to the entrance, he would be turned away. For me, this painting contrasts The Church – made up of people, and The Church of bricks, mortar, and immoveable objects.

Of course, it could be read differently. This wayside cross could be the last prayer station of pilgrims before they attain their objective in the church. It could be a reminder that the church reaches out to the most marginalised. But somehow for me, those interpretations don’t work. For me, here is a boy, in relationship with God, a relationship which doesn’t rely on all the structures and trappings of human church. Here is someone in fervent prayer, prayer which isn’t being heard in the formal church, only on the fringes, but which is heard by God.

I like the ambiguity of not knowing whether there is healing or not. This is a painting of tension between knowing and not knowing, between the cold of winter and the love of God, between relationship and formal structure.

Have a look, see what you make of it.

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5 responses to “Artistic Diversion

  1. I’ve never seen this image before, but find it profoundly moving (and I’m not prone to such things with pictures), especially on a day when I’m horribly aware I don’t ‘fit’ any of the traditional labels of church, and suspect that my ‘transit point’ may be a permanent home. I wonder if sometimes the crutches we use (like churchmanship ‘labels’) actually stop us from sitting at the foot of the cross with those left ‘out in the cold’. But perhaps he wants to be alone.

    Sorry, not making much sense today, but thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Great picture and I see Rachel got there first. I noticed that everything was in threes: three spires, three rocks, even the clumps of trees have three trunks to them. What about ‘you don’t need crutches with Jesus?’ Or ‘leaning on the rock is better than trudging aimlessly?’ The mist for me creates a separation from reality: is the church really there or is it part of a dream? Is it a metaphor for heaven? It’s interesting that every image of this on the web has been scanned differently: some don’t have the bridge in it at all, some have the church more solid.
    Thanks for posting this!

  3. So, reading into images needs imagination. Putting things into a persepective of how they strike you. Essentially I think that this is about Grace. The Trinitarian theme noted by Grahart is the imponderable, unless we know what was in the Artists’s mind at the time of painting.

    I see this as a pilgrimage picture. The boy discarding his crutches in hope and prayer that he can reach the Cathedral on foot, without assistance, but having that assistance there to steady him on the path to the destination – but his hope appears to be strong enough for him to be a risk taker in hope of a cure.

    It might be that this particular Holy place depicted is somewhere that a Saint’s shrine or relics are held, and to which miracle cures have been attributed. The significance of the snow and mist, for me depict the dangers and risks of the journey to get to the way side prayer/rest place and that which he’ll need to do to get to the Holy Place where his expectations may or may not be fulfilled – but hope sustains him, but rest is needed before that final effort – that ultimate drive or strive to reach heaven.

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