David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington's Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art
November 26, 2006 Sermon #1
"Winter Landscape with Church"
Caspar David Friedrich
It shouldn't be surprising as frequently as it happens, but many of us are still shocked when, in one of life's bleakest moments, we are subtly reminded of God's nearness. That should be one of the most joyous realities of our faith; yet, we have been culturally and religiously programmed to think just the opposite–namely that when bad things happen to us God is testing us or punishing us in some way or, at the very least, God has dozed off or for some UngodLY reason passively "allowed" our lives to be disrupted if not threatened. As a result, it is much easier for us to allow ourselves to feel God-forsaken when the tough times come rather than God-embraced. I am definitely inspired by those who can walk life's rough roadways with a special sense of God's nearness and who don't take their crises as God's meanness or carelessness.
I can't help but think of Jesus on the cross screaming out in his agony, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I don't by any means want to try to minimize his physical or emotional pain as he lived through his horrible Roman execution. I also think it's entirely out of order for us to try to make anything about Jesus' suffering a neat and tidy little package that was all cleaned up and made essentially inconsequential by the resurrection. Jesus' pain was as real as the pain of every other human being ever crucified by Rome; as he suffocated to death, suffocation being the ultimate cause of death in Roman executions, he was in horrible pain and fear, too, I think; it's definitely alarming when one can't breathe.
All of this real world stuff clearly in our minds, I do think it is worth thinking about the proposal of some scholars–and not all of them conservative by any means–who say the words that have been designated as Jesus' "cry of dereliction"–were indications that in his pain he was quoting the twenty-second psalm, which moves through real pain to praise of God anyway.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; "Commit your cause to the Lord; let [God] deliver— let [God] rescue the one in whom [God] delights!"
Notice the definite thought transition that now occurs in the psalm.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Back, now, to the reality of suffering, but suffering seen with the possibility of the nearness of God having been established.
Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
If the Romans actually did cast lots to see who would get Jesus' better-than-average toga, the parallel here with Psalm 22 is striking!
But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion!
The psalmist moves after all of this remembrance of pain to pure praise of God ANYWAY, in the hope for–not the demand for–deliverance.
I am reminded of the prayer Jesus is said to have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "God, if this cup can pass from me, let it be so; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done." I hate that Jesus had to think of his death as God's will if, indeed, that is what he thought, but my point is that Jesus hoped to be delivered from pain and death if at all possible. Back to Psalm 22:
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who [reverence] the Lord, praise [the Lord]! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify [God]; stand in awe of [God], all you offspring of Israel! For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; [God] did not hide [God's] face from me, but heard when I cried to [God].
This is a long way from, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," isn't it?
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who [awe God]. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek [God] shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before [God]. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and [God] rules over the nations. To [God], indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before [God] shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for [God]. Posterity will serve [the Lord]; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim [divine] deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that [God] has done it (NRSV, adapted especially for inclusive language).
From, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," to, "...in the midst of the congregation I will praise you," in the same psalm!
At first glance, there is much more bleakness to note than any cause for celebration in Caspar David Friedrich's "Winter Landscape with Church." With a little thought and reflection, though, bleakness is only a small part of the artistic story.
Caspar David Friedrich's oil painting, "Winter Landscape with Church," hangs today at the Stadtisches Museum, the City Museum, in Dortmund, Germany. Friedrich lived from 1774 until 1840. He was regarded by many as the leading landscape painter of the Romantic period. Our resident art historian, Mimzie Uhler–without whose tireless research and other support this sermon series could not have been possible–tells me that Friedrich "liked to paint Gothic ruins, contorted trees, bleak seascapes and craggy mountains, often using mysterious lighting effects. He often included lonely figures who were insignificant in the vast landscapes."
Romantic artists, and this is also true of musicians as well as writers of the Romantic period, were reacting against the constrictions of the Enlightenment era. Aesthetic types evidently felt that, among other misunderstandings, the Enlightenment had pressed people to rationalize nature–to think more about its scientific essence than to feel its beauty. The Romantics wanted to feel all that moved them; they were reclaiming emotions in a way, and what they felt, they felt deeply. One cultural historian has suggested that Romanticism stressed passion rather than reason, and imagination and intuition rather than logic.
Romantic literary heros were often rabble rousers; "revolutionaries" might be a nicer word for them. Whatever we call them, they were rebelling against social norms and conventions. In parallel, some art historians have said the Romantic artists were in revolt against artificial ideas of "acceptable" art form.
Romantic artists of all stripes were newly in love with nature; yet, they were largely discontented with everyday life in the world as they knew it. This surely had much to do with the fact that the Romantics turned their attention to remote and faraway, even exotic, places; to folklore and legends; and to nature along with a focus on common people.
Romantic composers challenged the formalism of the classical forms emphasized during the Enlightenment. Some of them gave their works a distinctively nationalistic character by using folk songs as themes within their musical compositions.
In terms of Romantic emphases in societies as a whole, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that people are naturally good; they are not naturally evil by any means. The problem is, human beings have been corrupted by the societal institutions. Rousseau, following the Romantic interest in common folk, idealized the kind of person who came to be known as "the noble savage," any individual unspoiled by luxury and sophistication.
The Brothers Grimm did their work during this same era. Their story collections were originally not children's stories at all–and, in original form, not even suitable for children! The stories they collected were stories the peasants of Germany passed down and around orally. Wilhelm and Jakob, for their part, simply wrote them down to preserve them in the spirit of the Romantic movement.
As for religion in the Romantic era, we have to step back one movement and pause to see how the Enlightenment weakened the hold of Christianity over society to the extent that some leaders, at least, no longer felt the need to engage in fierce battles with various religious establishments. In fact, by the time of Romanticism religion became like any other discipline; it was studied with care, but plenty of critics felt free to say so and even to poke fun at some of foibles of faith traditions.
In a sense, restraint and order were out, and spontaneity was in! There was a new preoccupation with what was exceptional and unconventional rather than what was well-ordered and universally true. Romantic painters often used bold lighting effects and deep shadows along with other techniques to cast a visionary quality over their scenes and subjects.
Romantics were yearning for the eternal or, at least, the infinite, weary of being limited in Enlightenment thought and art to what was strictly of this world. English Romantic poet, William Blake, for example, believed that, if we looked carefully enough, we could see the whole world in a single grain of sand, and heaven itself in a wild flower.
Now, let's see what stands out in the painting before us as distinctively "Romantic."
- I certainly think this would have to have been painted by someone who loved nature and its intricacies. Just look at the detail!
- It is not a typical scene someone up to that point in time would have wanted to remember in art. The weather and the setting are at least a little on the gloomy side, but to those who truly love nature even gloomy scenes are beautiful. A serious electrical storm isn't beautiful to me, but my freshman year college roommate, who is now a highly respected hospital chaplain in Knoxville, used to love horrible storms. He would go sit on a porch and watch the lightening and sheets of rain pouring down.
- The use of bold lighting and deep shadows is clearly evident. The contrasts are striking.
- Also, there is definitely a visionary quality to the piece. At first glance, anyway, this could easily be a part of someone's dream.
- The presence of the church in this picture is attention-getting, and we're going to think more about that in a moment. For now, though, I mention it as a tell tale indication of the Romantic concern with the infinite. Regardless of the extraordinarily simple name Friedrich has given to this masterpiece, "Winter Landscape with Church," there is surely much more to the meaning of the painting than meets any first glance. Such an elaborate church structure out in what appears to be the middle of no where seems entirely out of place; yet, in this picture, though not in the foreground, it absolutely belongs.
A small village church might seem just right for a setting such as the one Friedrich painted, but not a cathedral-ish structure with dramatic spires out in the middle of uninhabited space. We expect a cathedral to be in a city where lots of people can easily come and go.
Upon closer observation, we begin to wonder where the real spires are. I mean, can you see how much the spires of the great cathedral resemble the tops of the trees? And, surely it's no accident that the trees are more prominent and in the foreground, while the church is a background item. It's not that the church is unimportant, because the presence of the church building is certainly supposed to call our attention to God, but I have the feeling that Friedrich, a child of Romanticism, may be telling us that truer worship can take place outside the buildings especially erected for the worship of God.
The Romantic artists did not have the need or the desire to protect or preserve the institutional church; that church, in the minds of many of the Romantic thinkers and artists, had neglected humanity. There was no need to hold onto something that had failed. God is being praised in nature here.
Emily Dickinson's poem comes to mind:
The eighth Psalm is caught up in the wonder of nature, and the psalmist is driven to prayer and praise of the Creator of this amazing space we are privileged to inhabit and behold.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Here is a very powerful question! What is the basis for divine attentiveness to humanity? The psalmist answers the question, but not in a direct way. It's as if the writer is pondering the question in her or his mind before beginning to state facts that might have an impact on what has been pondered. What comes around is a two-part response.
- Yet you have made them a little lower than God [literally, "the gods"!], and crowned them with glory and honor.
- You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
What is the basis for divine attentiveness to humanity? It all rests in God's, the Creator's, confidence in humanity–not on logic or upon how well we've done keeping our part of the bargain to care for our world.
In any case, this whole spiritually uplifting moment began with the psalmist's observation of the beauty of nature. Because of nature's loveliness and intricacies, she or he was driven to feel gratitude and wonder and to ponder the reasons for divine favor toward all humanity.
"O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name [that is, your essence] in all the earth [in all of nature]!" We humans are a part of this majestic nature. We do not live over against it or outside of it. By God's own design we are an intricate part of the natural world–we with God, the Creator.
Look at the image of the painting again. One interpreeter believes that the snow we see is only a light coating and that here and there Friedrich intended for us to see sprigs of grass poking through their snowy covering. If this is true, those little sprigs of grass would be signs of hope, wouldn't they? The snow won't always be there. This very setting–repainted in a few days or weeks–could be green and lush, giving just the opposite message to what we see when we first look at this work of art.
The fact that the trees are evergreens is surely not a matter of happenstance, surely not an accident. These trees for all seasons are pointing God-ward as are the spires.
Even if the church in the painting is giving way to the trees as the true spires in the artist's message, it too is a sign of hope. Right in the middle of what may otherwise be bleak, there are visible reminders of God's presence.
The main message of Friedrich's work, then, has little to do with bleakness. The bleakness is real, indeed, but it is not the only word or the last word! The reality of God and God's presence is unmistakable. God is the architect of the true worship space. The darkness and the gloom will soon pass.
One more thing, we can't leave without pondering. In the bottom right section of the painting are two crutches that look as if they've been cast aside. But for the abandoned crutches, we might miss completely that a wanderer is kneeling in prayer before a crucifix nestled among the small collection of trees. This fascinates me. Having made it this far in the darkness and the cold, why in the world wouldn't the wanderer have gone a little farther to enter the cathedral for prayer along with a little warmth and protection from the elements?
She or he has chosen to pray before a symbol of Jesus on the cross–without a doubt, his own bleakest moment–with nature's most beautiful spires pointing God-ward. Jesus contemplated having been forsaken by God, but knew in the end that in his pain God was as near to him as at any moment in his life. We wonder if the person in prayer in nature's cathedral had the same epiphany as Jesus and if she or he would need the crutches to continue the journey.