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The Introduction of Christianity in the German Forests

Joseph von Führich (1800-1876). Schack Galerie – Munich. 1864.

Joseph von Führich was born in 1800, at the turn of the century, in Kratzau in Czechia and he became a student at the Prague academy in 1816. In 1826 he travelled to Rome and added works to the series of frescoes of the Nazarenes. This group of German-speaking painters had been founded in Austria in 1809, when six students from the Viennese academy had assembled in the ‘Lukasbund’ or Brotherhood of Saint Luke, and established in Rome. They lived in an abandoned monastery of San Isidoro in Rome and they were soon called ‘The Nazarenes’ by the Romans in gentle mockery of their style of clothing and wearing of their hair. The Nazarenes were romantics and they were very catholic. They sought inspiration in religious, spiritual themes and in the style of painting of the early Italian renaissance. They favoured fresco painting over oil paintings. Joseph von Führich joined this group of idealists, but only a few years later already, in 1831, he was back in Prague and married. He conformed well to the establishment of the Austrian empire. In 1834 he was called to Vienna by the powerful Count Metternich, to preside over the famous collection of art works of Count Lamberg. In 1841 he was appointed professor of composition at the academy of painting of Vienna. Von Führich had to flee from Vienna during the revolution of March 1848 but he returned from Czechia in 1851 and taught once more at the academy there. He had many students at the academy of Vienna and ha was made a knight by Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1561 so that his name should be Joseph Ritter von Führich. He went on a pension in 1872 and died in 1876. Von Führich painted vast series of monumental scenes from 1854 to 1861 and his ‘Christianisation in the German Forests’ shows the same epic breadth of those paintings.

In his painting, von Führich shows a scene of the adoration of the Virgin, but it is as if this adoration is not of a sculpture of Mary and her child but of the real throning Madonna and child, appearing in the German forests. Von Führich shows how the Christian missionaries convert the German pagan tribes. The warrior-knight, the priest and the monks are at work. One should read the story from left to right. Deep in the German forests the tribe hunters live from killing forest animals such as stags and boars. They hunt fowl, and dwell inside the forests. They live in the wild, prepare their meals in small spaces amongst the trees. The women cook and the men spend their time hunting and sleeping. They also like to hear heroic stories. They are interested in what a Christian knight is doing, for warriors interest them. This knight, a von Führich version of Saint Georges, prays to a statue of the Virgin that has been erected at the end of the forest by priests. The priests use the natural curiosity of the tribesmen, and especially of the children, to teach about Jesus Christ who died on a cross for the redemption from sin of mankind. The priest reads from the bible and teaches the word of God to the children. Monks in the meantime, on the right in the painting, change the habits of the Germans. They save babies that have been abandoned to the waters of a river from certain death. They clear the forests and introduce agriculture to the hunters. On the far right, in the upper part of the picture, we see the end of the process of introducing Christendom: a settled village of Germans, and a church whose bell tower dominates the landscape. Not only do the monks till the land; they also gain land on the forest. We see monks sawing down the trees and pushing back the forest.

Von Führich’s structure and story moves in the form of a crescent from left to right over the whole frame. The structure of the composition is an ‘Open V’, with the praying knight at the lowest angle of the V. The knight occupies the central position of the structure. In this way, a large panorama evolves for the viewer. In an ‘Open V’ structure one finds often a deep open space and far view of a landscape. Joseph von Führich placed the Madonna in this space, against the background of the threatening German forest. The statue blends with the trees and seems protected by the massive but broken trees that surround it. Such views of nature, of dark and mysterious forests with open spaces among the trees, were of course a main characteristic of German romantic painting. Von Führich strengthened the structure of his picture around the Madonna, for he drew a very strong, heavy pyramid on the throning Madonna. The lines of the pyramid are formed by –on the left – the German warriors, and on the right by the group of the priest and the children.

There are a few sought-out details in von Führich’s picture. The German tribesman on the Virgin’s right (left for the viewer) might be a druid. The man wears a staff and a long, white beard. He also wears a cap or a helmet with horns, and so could represent the devil, the evil that still haunts the forests. The knight below the Virgin is praying and so he has deposed his helmet. That helmet is not of a traditional European design but of oriental faction. Von Führich may have reminded here of the crusaders. Indeed, it took a crusade to convert to Christianity the last of the heathen tribes to Catholicism.

In fact, the Christianisation of Germany started with the conversion of Clovis, the king of the Franks, in what is now a place in France. The headquarters of Clovis were north of Paris and thus closer to Germany than the current capital of France, and the territories controlled by the franks went deep into Germany. The ranks occupied vast territories in the large area north of the Alps and they conquered gradually more land under their successive kings, among which the greatest finally was Charlemagne. Under the influence of the Frankish kings the tribes of Germany were converted to Christendom. Conversion to Christendom proceeded not only from the West however. Christendom also advanced from the East, from the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, and among the Goths. It was Ulfilas, the apostle of the Goths, consecrated bishop in 348 at Constantinople, who invented the gothic script and alphabet that was in use in Germany until at least the first half of the twentieth century. Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic also. But he was an Aran and Aryanism spread among the Goths, the Burgundians and the Vandals. The conversion of the Franks to Catholicism led to the abandonment of Aryanism among the German tribes in the sixth century. The last Arians in Western Europe were the Lombards of Northern Italy and these were definitely subdued by Charlemagne. German paganism continued in the most northern territories around the Baltic Sea. The Scandinavian territories and the Baltic areas were only converted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Around the turning of the twelfth into the thirteenth century, the Teutonic Order was established in the example of the Hospitaller knights of Saint John to convert the north-eastern tribes, such as the Wends, to Christendom. The Teutonic Knights conquered vast areas and they also ruled over these lands. The praying knight in von Führich’s picture might hint at this crusader order. From out of the lands of the Teutonic Knights would emerge Prussia, whose capital was Berlin. Thus, von Führich also seems to remind the viewer of the history of Germany and especially of the history of the eastern territories, the lands that were closer to Vienna than to Paris.

The ‘Christianisation of Germany’ by von Führich was painted for Count Schack. Adolph Friedrich Count von Schack, born in 1815, possessed vast lands in Mecklenburg Schwerin and he was at first a diplomat. Already in 1850 however, he left the state service to travel, to study, to write, and to collect art. Von Führich showed Count Schack drawings of several designs but Schack let von Führich choose two pictures to be painted in oil, among which this ‘Christianisation’, made in 1864. Von Führich was also sixty-four years old by then. We wonder how a man like the old, acclaimed, famous, established and rather conformist artist von Führich, so much linked to Habsburg power and pomp, would imagine a religious theme and develop on it, that went back to the origins of Christendom. The painting must have reminded Count Schack of the wild and pagan origins of Germany. The uncorrupted wild was an eminently romantic theme, of course, but societies do not always like to be reminded of their pagan origins. However, von Führich was a Bohemian, a Czech, not a German, and he worked in Austria. He worked for an empire that was in constant strife with Prussia. There is something of a political pamphlet undertone in the painting, made by a very civilized Austrian courtier. Von Führich told in his picture how civilisation was brought to Germany, and may have hinted that that process was not necessarily finished, even if only he told that in an unintentional and subconscious mood. Count Schack was of German descent, but not Prussian, and when von Führich painted his ‘Christianisation’, Schack had been living for about ten years in Munich, in Bavaria, and he intended to stay in Munich. Schack had bought a large house in Munich and installed his collection as a gallery in it. He collected a great number of works of romantic art, which was contemporary art for him. The Schack gallery received a new home by Emperor Wilhelm II in 1908. Did Wilhelm II see von Führich’s painting then and did he wonder what that painting was about?

Von Führich’s painting exposes all the characteristics of a Nazarene and romantic work. Its colours are hard and pure, and the colour surfaces are well separated in contiguous, contrasting areas. Von Führich separated the areas of colours as if he had been working on a fresco, the preferred medium of the early Nazarenes. The theme is eminently romantic, historical and religious. The structure of the picture is very strong, as it should be for a work of a professor in composition at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Von Führich was too old however for dreamy and languid atmospheres of foggy scenes of woods and ravines and wild rivers. There is no fog in his landscape to hide parts of the scene, no emerging mountains, no churchyards, and no vastness that imposes on man. Von Führich was a great storyteller in his historical scenes and he loved grand, epic views. Some of these preferences show in his ‘Introduction of Christianity’. Von Führich’s structure, lines and colours show complete mastery of the art of painting. He certainly was a great painter, though not one that could remain in the favour of modern viewers. His representation of scenes is disciplined and formal. We can guess form these features of his art the character of the artist, who stayed faithful to the style of his youth. This style influenced Austrian and even more Czech painting way into the first decades of the twentieth century.

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