I 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.