Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, ca. 1817. Located at Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.
Where is God? Is he inside us, or somewhere else? Can he be seen? Can he be known? Does he reveal himself to us, or must we search for him? Indeed, does God exist at all?
Beginning with the Reformation, the answers to such questions—formerly imparted by catechism and creed and backed by the authority of the Church—came to be regarded by many as quaint and unworkable. This abandonment of traditional belief set in motion what has been called the modern spiritual crisis, for while those religious questions remain as pressing as ever, the answers must be now picked out somehow from the welter of responses advanced by a multitude of freethinking reformers, enlightened humanists, independent visionaries, and romantic “seekers.”
To consider just one example, the Romantics of the early nineteenth century (and their heirs down to the present day), held that God is to be found in nature and personal experience, not in a visible Church or in memorized prayers and revealed dogmas. God, they said, is immanent in his creation; one need only rouse up the innate spiritual sense to discover him. This “spiritual but not religious” attitude, still prevalent today, assures the individual that his subjective perceptions or feelings are the only guidance he needs to probe all matters moral, theological, or metaphysical. “Preserve a pure, childlike sensibility, and follow without question your own inner voice, for it is the divine in us, and does not lead us astray,” wrote German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) (qtd. in Schmied,Wieland, Caspar David Friedrich, 44-45).
The Inward-Gazing “I”
Friedrich’s statement epitomizes the self-reflexive approach to the search for God, and his paintings reveal it. His beautiful if melancholy landscapes, which were relatively unknown until just a few decades ago (in part because many of them were scattered in out-of-the-way museums and private collections in Germany or behind the Iron Curtain), are populated with isolated figures who gaze towards distant horizons and infinite skies in search of an invisible divinity. But the self-absorption they represent is symptomatic of the modern crisis.
Take the solitary hiker in Wanderer Above a Sea of Mists (1818). He stands with his back to us on a rocky outcropping and looks out onto a mist-enshrouded landscape. As the “clouds of unknowing” drift by, he contemplates an ever-shifting mystery, the God of nature, or rather, the God in nature. But there is no visible path or trail to lead the man farther into the landscape to help him understand it better or commune with it. It seems he has travelled as far as he can under his own direction and must be content to observe from a distance; indeed, there appears nowhere else for him to go but back whence he came.
Moreover, despite Friedrich’s optimistic statement that the “inner voice” does not lead us astray, how significant is it that the man is called a “wanderer.” Perhaps he has come upon this scene unexpectedly, with no design to have ascended the heights, and no preparation or ability to respond to what he might find there. How different from the pilgrim, who knows where he goes and what he seeks, assisted by an objective body of doctrine and a community of believers. Lacking these, the Romantic must have a self-confidence bordering on egotism to trust that his wandering emotional states are indeed the divine in him, and that his religious sensibility is unclouded by his own preconceptions.
Perhaps this is why the man hardly appears unsteady, still less awed or humbled by what he sees. He does not kneel, but stands with head held high, self-assured, at the apex of a triangular arrangement of forms—the artist’s favorite compositional trick for projecting strength and stability. He also is situated in the exact center of the composition, typically the first place one’s eyes go to when looking at a painting, and so the position of greatest importance. (Friedrich often used this potentially awkward composition, which is much deprecated by art teachers as the first resort of the amateur but which does lend a naïve charm to his works.) The landscape itself seems to respond to the man’s presence: It disposes itself as if to frame and focus all attention on him, the heroic inquirer. Those possessed of the Romantic temperament will find it unsurprising that the whole world seems to revolve around them.
The Divine Nature
This is despite the Romantic conception of nature as quasi-divine, wild, unknowable, uncaring. Nature is, to use the Romantics’ term, sublime. In its original sense the word denoted the terrifying and overwhelming immensity of the cosmos, which could inspire awe or even religious veneration. Hence the charge frequently leveled against the Romantics that they were pantheists who had mistaken creation for the Creator.
This is a sentiment far-removed from that evoked by the gentle and welcoming landscapes of the previous centuries, which are graced with strolling couples, riders on horseback, shepherds and their flocks, all set amidst rolling hills, pleasant woods, and cozy towns crowned with noble churches. In them a harmonious interplay between nature and man is on display, or—even more at odds with the Romantic sublime—a nature tamed and controlled by the hand of man.
Those earlier landscapes were secular in character; Friedrich’s great innovation was to show how landscape could be reconceived as a religious form and invested with previously unsuspected spiritual depths. But as religious paintings, his works are unlike any that had come before. In a traditional religious painting, where landscape appears, it is mainly as a backdrop for the narrative action—the miraculous deeds of haloed angels and saints acting out familiar biblical and historical set pieces. In these works a clear separation is maintained between the natural and the supernatural world, which manifests itself openly and unapologetically in physical form. Friedrich fuses the two realms, or rather, subsumes the former into the latter, and relies on the sensitivity of the viewer to detect the one in the other.
So while it’s true that a few overtly religious signs, like crucifixes set upon hilltops, appear in some of Friedrich’s works, it is unthinkable that he would have painted the actual Crucifixion, or the Annunciation, or any other remote episode that features the spiritual as a concrete presence. The men and women in his works are not saints, but contemporary figures, and the setting is all natural, if highly allusive and symbolic.
But there may be a nostalgia here for those former periods when the supernatural did take on a definite and visible shape—or could be depicted that way. The Romantics yearn to encounter a God who has withdrawn from the Church, the everyday world, and from art, and who must now be hunted for in the remote reaches of nature or the depths of the psyche. But even as they look for him, he recedes and slips from their sight. The alienated wanderer looks out onto a scene he cannot enter, which has no center or focus, unaware that he himself has become the focal point. Modern man searches for God and finds only himself.
A Universal Yearning
Such an event is almost inevitable when the seeker is required to attend so closely to his subjective “inner voice” for evidence of the divine. Furthermore, self-referential spirituality like this easily leads to the twin errors of gnosticism and aestheticism. Spiritual realities become accessible only to those adept souls whose awareness is sufficiently sensitive or developed to detect them; anyone else has no recourse. “The noble man (or painter),” wrote Friedrich, “perceives God in everything; the common man (or painter) sees but the form, not the spirit” (qtd. in Schmied,Wieland, Caspar David Friedrich, 44-45). And with no objective measure of truth outside of the person, transitory sensations and feelings are elevated to the status of oracles: “The artist’s feeling is his law” (qtd. in Schmied,Wieland, Caspar David Friedrich, 44-45).
But is all this criticism too harsh? Is there nothing to be said in favor of Friedrich’s vision?
Certainly, with his deeply-felt spirituality, derived from an Evangelical upbringing, Friedrich intended to repair what he saw as the ruins of post-Reformation Christianity and defend religion against the “dry” rationalism and practical atheism of the Enlightenment. And although he cannot escape his essentially Protestant outlook—man stands alone before the divine, with no mediating hierarchy or magisterium—viewed from another angle, Friedrich’s Wanderer is not incompatible with a Catholic understanding of man’s situation vis-à-vis God.
For like other Christians, Catholics believe that man stands at the summit of creation, “a little less than the angels,” even though he is but dust and ashes, infinitesimal before the majesty of God. We too look for God, and.aspire to be united with him—through the graces of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the sacraments, and yes, the contemplation of nature and art. Further, while we believe that God can and does reveal himself in obvious, tangible ways, we say that he also “hides” sacramentally and mystically within his material creation: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” in G.M. Hopkins’s words. Thus, those who find it spiritually beneficial to ascend a mountain in the wilderness should not be denied the opportunity. But we are still called to worship God in church.
And this suggests perhaps the best defense for Friedrich’s work: The same allusive natural spirituality that appealed to the Romantics could be used to direct contemporary unchurched seekers toward the fullness of the faith. Show them how their yearning for union with the divine spirit they obscurely sense in nature can be fully satisfied by communion with Christ. We might say to the admirer of Friedrich’s works, “Come with me into church, and you will meet God on the altar.”