Cross in the Mountains (Tetschen Altar), 1808
Friedrich completed the first of his major paintings in 1807, at the age of 34. The Cross in the Mountains, today known as the Tetschen Altar (Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden). The altar panel depicts the crucified Christ in profile at the top of a mountain, alone and surrounded by nature. The cross reaches the highest point in the pictorial plane but is presented from an oblique and a distant viewpoint, unusual for a crucifixion scene in Western art. Nature dominates the scene and for the first time in Christian art, an altarpiece showcases a landscape.
The work was first exhibited on Christmas Day, 1808. Although it was generally coldly received, it was nevertheless Friedrich’s first painting to receive wide publicity. The artist’s friends publicly defended the work, while art critic Basilius von Ramdohr published a lengthy article rejecting Friedrich’s use of landscape in such a context; he wrote that it would be “a veritable presumption, if landscape painting were to sneak into the church and creep onto the altar”. Ramdohr fundamentally challenged the concept that pure landscape painting could convey explicit meaning. Friedrich responded with a programme describing his intentions. In his 1809 commentary on the painting, he compared the rays of the evening sun to the light of the Holy Father. The sinking of the sun suggests that the era when God revealed himself directly to man has passed. This statement marked the only time Friedrich recorded a detailed interpretation of his own work.
If nothing more were known of the painter, this painting, the so-called ‘Tetschen Altar’ would command attention for its boldness in creating a devotional image from the materials of landscape. It is both the first masterpiece of one of the greatest Romantic landscape painters and a manifesto for the art of landscape itself. It exemplifies two important achievements of early Romanticism: the elevation of nature to a kind of religion, and of landscape to equal or surpass history painting.
The 34-year-old painter was inordinately proud of the work. It was the largest he had painted so far, in a medium in which he was still far from proficient, and he had designed the frame himself - a Gothic arch with the eye of God and the wheat and vine of the Eucharist. He had intended the picture as a gift to the Swedish king Adolphus IV, in recognition of his resistance to Napoleon, but was persuaded instead to sell it to Count von Thun-Hohenstein for his castle in Tetschen, Bohemia. With its splendid frame it was transformed from political gesture to religious image, but still it remained a landscape. Nature itself was imbued with religious feeling.
The painting’s carved frame is based on a concept by Friedrich, but was executed by one of his friends, the sculptor Gottlieb Christian Kühn.
[Web Gallery of Art]