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Friedrich, Abbey among Oak Trees

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey among Oak Trees, 1809 or 1810, oil on canvas, 110.4 x 171 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and we're looking at Caspar David Friedrich's "Abbey in the Oakwood." It is a large painting, and it was one of a pair that included "The Monk by the Sea." This is a very somber image, and it really is a perfect example of the way Friedrich used landscape in order to represent issues of human life and of the divine. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. In this painting, we see the ruins of an abbey, an old abbey, and a procession of figures entering this ruined abbey carrying a coffin. And so immediately we have a sense of the passage of time, of the transience of human existence. We're also looking at, it seems, the dead of winter. And perhaps it's sunset. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: If you look at the remnant of architecture that's left, you have this-- first of all, this very forlorn sense from the ruins themselves. But you see this old lancet window that's fallen into disrepair. No glass remains. Then you have a real sense of the grandeur of the original space, but now what's left is just the futility of human experience, the futility of human effort. DR. BETH HARRIS: And what we see is that nature is eternal, but what man creates is transient. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You have the monks themselves going through their ancient ritual of burial. But you see that the cemetery that surrounds them in the snow is not well tended, is haphazard, and seems to be itself falling into disrepair. The abbey refers back to the medieval tradition, but that's now fallen away. Older than that are the oak trees, which might have represented for Friedrich the Druidic traditions, the pre-Christian traditions. These truly ancient oaks, gnarled and terrifying in their silhouettes, but that speak of a tradition as witnesses that are even older than Christianity, and then beyond that the crescent moon and the sky. When you were speaking, that's the nature that I was looking at, that is permanent, that is trans-historical, that moves beyond even the growth and death of the trees, certainly of the architecture of man's efforts. DR. BETH HARRIS: The moon having a sense of the cosmos even beyond the seasons of the Earth. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. And so you have this sense of human time. You have this sense of nature's time. And then you have this sense of the time of God's space. And in fact, if there's any optimism in this image, it is that moon. It is the faintest crescent, and it might wane even more and become a new moon, but then it will regenerate. And there is this possibility for rebirth. You mentioned that it's the dead of winter, but spring will come. And so even if it seems quite distant now in this sort of bleak twilight, there is the sense that there will be renewal. DR. BETH HARRIS: So we may have a suggestion of resurrection in the cycles of the moon. We have the crosses that are part of the cemetery. We have the cross that forms part of the ruin of the abbey and that suggestion of resurrection. I think what's so interesting about Friedrich is that he's imbuing a landscape with this very, very serious meaning, almost the way that in the past, people had looked to the iconography of Christian paintings. Friedrich is looking for a modern language with which to express these trans-historical human feelings contemplating our role in the universe, and trying to make sense of all of those layers of time that you referred to before. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's exactly right. Friedrich is finding a new way of representing these eternal issues. And it makes sense that he would have to, because this is now the beginning of the 19th century. Friedrich is now living in a rational culture, and the idea of using the iconography of the Renaissance or even of the Baroque would feel implausible. It wouldn't make sense. And so Friedrich, this artist who was trained in Copenhagen, who grew up in Greifswald, which was then part of Sweden on the southern coast of the Baltic, is looking towards the very extreme, cold, northern landscape as a way of expressing these ideas of the eternal.