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Mary ascends the Mountain

The Virgin ascends the mountain

Joseph von Führich (1800-1876). Österreichische Galerie Belvedere – Vienna. 1841.

‘The Virgin Mary ascends the Mountain’ of Joseph Führich is a picture of the theme of the road to holiness of the Virgin. Other images of this kind are Mary ascending the stairs of the temple and of course her proper Ascension and Coronation in the heavens. The theme also symbolised the road to spirituality in a life of love of the pious. The symbolic value of Führich’s painting is heavy and the artist brought full romantic sentimentality in his scene.

Mary is on the path that leads to the mountains. She will visit there Elisabeth, who is also pregnant. Mary could not be more traditionally dressed. She wears the red robe for love, her blue cloak for the heavenly and a white headdress for purity. She wears a staff to keep her steady and she supports the child in her. The staff helps her on the road, but it is also a symbol of the sceptre of her dignity and place in the church. A group of angels precedes her. They are singing from a large, open book of musical notes. One of the small angels looks upwards and brings our eyes to three hoovering, elder angels. These angels too are three, like the Trinity. They are flying in the air and they let roses and rose petals fall gently over Mary. The roses fall on the path and Joseph behind Mary picks up one of the roses. Here also we find obvious symbolism. Joseph picks Mary’s rose since he is her husband. Behind the whole scene is a beautiful soft mountainous landscape.

Mary is entering the woods; she walks into a protective environment and a more closed world. This is a frequent theme and symbol also associated with the Virgin. Mary and Joseph are leaving the open, dangerous world into an intimate mystic land. Right behind Mary in the background is an enormous tree and Mary is shown walking just in front of its large trunk and plain, green foliage that reaches upwards. Bringing such mass behind the main figure of a scene was an image used by many painters to indicate the importance of the figure.

The tree divides the picture exactly in two halves, in the open world and the closed world. Führich painted symmetrically the group of children-angels to the left and the stooping Joseph on the right. Now we understand why Joseph had to pick up a rose. The stooping Joseph also seems to kneel to Mary but by this gesture Joseph’s figure remains of the same height and mass as the singing angels. The effect brings balance of surfaces on the figures and also a solid grounding to the mass of the tree. The angels flying in the air fill the surface of the tree foliage above Mary so that Führich tried here also in a natural way to build his composition to nice harmony.

The whole picture is in soft tones in which the browns and soft reds dominate. These colours hardly contrast the indefinite green of the slopes of the hilly landscape. Führich thus made a picture of sweet composition and colours. But of course, we are only barely touched by the sweet feelings of tenderness and immediate sentimentality that pervades this painting. We perceive no force of spirit, no power of representation. Führich’s picture comes to us as a tender image of feelings that do not go deep. We see his painting as an exercise in sensibility.

Joseph Führich was a romantic artist. He was born in Bohemia, Czechia, in the town of Kratzau in 1800. He studied in Prague and Vienna. Bohemia was then part of the Austrian Empire and Führich received a grant from Prince Metternich to study in Rome. He stayed there with the Nazarene community of artists.

The Nazarenes were a group of German and Austrian artists of the romantic generation. Led by Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) this group had left Vienna, where they had already founded a Guild of Saint Lucas in the old tradition of painters’ guilds. In Rome they lived in a secularised abbey, the abbey of San Isidore. They wore their hair long and plaited in the middle so that the more pragmatic Romans soon called them ‘Nazarenes’, the name by which they became known in the history of art. Overbeck wanted to revive fresco painting and Führich worked in Rome also with other Nazarenes at a project of decoration of a Roman villa, in this case the Villa Massimo. Führich did not stay long in Rome however. He returned to Prague in 1832, and then back to Vienna in 1834 so that his picture of ‘Mary ascends the Mountains’ was a painting of his later Vienna period. Führer taught at the Academy of Vienna and he was a conservator of a gallery of paintings in the Austrian capital. Emperor Franz-Joseph even knighted him in 1861.

Führich’s painting ‘The Virgin Mary ascends the Mountain’ shows one of the reasons why the Nazarenes returned to Rome. These romantic artists were not in search for classical Rome, its ruins, its sculptures and imperial past. The Nazarenes returned to the spiritual values of the Christian Middle Ages and of the Renaissance and they thought to impregnate themselves with spirituality in the core of Roman Catholicism. They sought to renew a mystical contact with a past in which society was built on Christianity, in which Christianity was the basic framework of European civilisation. The Enlightenment had broken this framework and the Nazarenes reaffirmed the values and images of old.

Many of the Nazarenes like Overbeck, Peter von Cornelius and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld painted clear messages in which the old Florentine ‘designo’ was emphasised. Führich also drew before he coloured. His picture is crisp in lines like a neo-classicist painting. But he obviously accentuated the sentiment. In that he either linked to past German traditions of rococo decoration or he was a precursor of the later Biedermeyer style. Because of this, Joseph Führich holds a separate position among the Nazarenes with whom he was connected in Rome for a few years from 1827 to 1829.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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