Abbey in the Oak Forest

7:00 AM

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey Amidst Oak Trees, 1809

Caspar David Friedrich stands apart from other artists of his same artistic movement and time period.  He still displays the elements of romanticism -- stylized, not quite realistic imagery, drama, and emotion -- but his work clearly differs from that of Turner or Goya.

The last wall of an ancient abbey dominates the center of the painting, but the taller surrounding trees cloak it in shadow.  Graves litter the foreground and, almost indistinguishably from the headstones, a line of monks enters the still standing door with a coffin.  Maybe the people amount to nothing more than populating the cemetery, Friedrich's almost existential statement of the futility of human existence.  The faraway moon reaches its last phase as life and monument decay.

But Friedrich also delivers an unclear message about the future.  Is there hope, in the now freestanding testament of stone?  Does the cross in the foreground seem to fall or ascend?  The Gothic window seems almost an arrow pointing to God, and light bathes it from above.  But is the sun rising or setting on the scene?  The arrow of the window could indicate the souls' destination, or force the viewer's gaze upward, or point accusingly to a God that may or may not exist.  Time passes under the eye of the observer.  It is unthinkable to survey the painting without pondering its future.  Maybe oak trees will grow stronger with the passage of seasons and the turning of the moon.  Or maybe the land has been too scarred for it ever to yield life again.  The trees may be dormant in the snows.  They could be past repair.

Friedrich's paintings draws my attention because they seem to tap into some sphere of knowledge beyond nation-building and the accumulation of wealth, where life is fragile and primal.  They call into question our existence.  Who are we, and who is our God?  Why are we here?  Why do we even bother, and where is our purpose?  Abbey Amidst Oak Trees does not make people smile at its humor or wonder at its detail.  The ruin's last wall, as much as any intact sacred place, commands respect and thought.

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