In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture). Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.
Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes. Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether). By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence. He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War. Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch. Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.
Friedrich came back to this theme again and again. Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald. The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees. The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation. Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness. Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.