Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 24, 2010
Cordula Grewe Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism Burlington: Ashgate, 2009. 436 pp.; 100 color ills.; 4 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780754606451)

Scholars will be grateful for the meticulous analysis in Cordula Grewe’s Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism, which demonstrates that “any real understanding of European art’s development in the nineteenth century must involve an understanding of the Nazarene movement” (1). In 1809, an overtly Catholic group in Vienna, consisting of Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, and four companions, founded the Lucasbund, the Brotherhood of St. Luke. By 1810, the comrades were in Rome and lodged in the former Franciscan cloister of San Isidoro, secularized during Napoleon’s occupation. Others joined them: Peter Cornelius in 1812, Wilhelm Schadow in 1813, and Ferdinand Olivier and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld in 1817. Grewe’s book focuses on the ideology of and internal relationships among the artists and their society. She argues convincingly against what she sees as the validation by modern art historians of painterly form in contemporaneous French art (such as Ingres and Delacroix) and the marginalization of the thoughts and beliefs that animated German artists.

Grewe explores a restricted number of signature pieces by Overbeck, Schadow, Orsel, Schnorr van Carolsfeld, and Olivier in a series of separate chapters. The first deals with Overbeck’s Shulamith and Maria, later called Italia and Germania, of 1828, and Old and New Testament typology, a subject frequently explored by the Nazarenes. She next focuses on gender and moralizing via an analysis of two works by Schadow and Orsel. Schadow’s Pietas and Vanitas (1841) shows female personifications, a theme that Grewe might have connected to the tradition of Hercules auf dem Scheidewege known from the art of Rubens and Veronese and a host of others. Orsel, a Frenchman, arrived in Rome in 1822 and was soon drawn into Overbeck’s sphere. His Le Bien et le Mal (1832) contrasts a virtuous marriage to an illicit affair and the happiness of the family foyer for one and suicide for the other. Here additional context would be welcome. Despite a three-page summary of the medieval precedents, Grewe does not directly establish Orsel’s knowledge of such models. The theme of the male lover socially admired as the scorned woman succumbs to madness might also merit a longer review of art linked to female subjugation. A generation later, it emerged as a staple of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, exemplified by Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853).

Grewe is thorough in her analysis of Catholic doctrine in Overbeck’s Seven Sacraments (1862). Announced to the public in a forty-five-page pamphlet, the work confronts German Protestant reluctance to recognize anything but Baptism and the Eucharist as a Christian ritual. Here typology is again articulated in the illustrated frames to each image. Grewe makes telling associations to Poussin’s seventeenth-century series of the Sacraments now in the National Gallery, Edinburgh, as well as to Philip Galle’s engravings of 1576. She is particularly effective in her exposition of the neo-Thomist polemical discourse and papal politics of the era.

The following chapter, “The Bible in Pictures: History Lessons and Popular Culture,” addresses the immense impact achieved by Schnorr van Carolsfeld’s 240 woodcut illustrations to the Scriptures, published between 1852 and 1860. They were, and still are, ubiquitous in global Christian culture. Another chapter follows with less-studied issues of the avant-garde, anti-Judaism, and artistic identity, focusing on a series of prints by Olivier that use typology with a decidedly contemporary slant. Such discovery is innovative, allowing the reader a much greater understanding beyond the artist’s more commonly cited picturesque landscapes.

In her introduction and conclusion, Grewe laments scholarly neglect of so influential a movement. Contemporary scholars, however, should prove to be more receptive. A postmodern artistic climate often validates subject matter and political purpose over the pleasures of form. Art movements parallel to the Nazarenes are receiving recognition, as demonstrated by the National Gallery’s 2010 exhibition in London, Painting History: Paul Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey. Despite its great depth of discussion, Grewe’s study seems strangely aloof from the Nazarene’s long impact on popular culture, especially in church decoration and civic propaganda. We do not see much attention to large-scale architectural installations such as Wilhelm von Kaulback’s frescos honoring Ludwig I, whose models are displayed in Munich’s Neue Pinakotek. Similarly, readers will miss consideration of Schadow’s later career as leader of the Düsseldorf School, a training ground for many Americans painters and site of the Society for the Propagation of Good Religious Pictures.

The influence of Nazarene art is particularly strong in stained glass, where the silky finish of the Nazarene style suits the medium. Art historians have not yet, it seems, completely accepted the genre as a form of painting on another surface. What on an opaque support is often flat and toneless glows in transmitted light. Nazarene ideology also mirrors the didactic and symbolic purposes of saints’ lives and scripture that are traditional in glazing programs. The Nazarene painter Heinrich Hess, for example, directed the Royal Bavarian Manufactory (Königlichen Glasmalereianstalt) founded by Ludwig. One of the first commissions was the glazing of Ratisbonne cathedral from 1826 to 1829. Two windows, the life of St. Stephen and St. Beno converting the Slavs, were exhibited in Munich before installation. Windows for Our Lady of Help (lost) in the new suburb of Au outside Munich and those of the south aisle of Cologne cathedral (gloriously extant) date between 1834 and 1844. Results of royal largess, they were promulgated across Europe through lavish publications. The art shows brilliant draftsmanship, precise attention to detail, and harmonic contrasts of often acid colors. The Mayer studio of Munich retains design books containing numerous printed images from Nazarenes, especially Overbeck, as well as photographs of the full-scale cartoons developed from the prints. Similarly, early designers in the Tyrolese Art Glass studio, Innsbruck, such as Franz Pernlochner, produced works worthy of Overbeck, as evidenced, for example, by Pernlochner’s Sacrifice of Isaac for Providence Cathedral, Rhode Island, of 1886. These beloved icons of nineteenth-century piety number in the thousands. If Grewe and scholars such as Lionel Gossman are justifiable distressed at the paucity of Nazarene painting in American museums, consider the threatened existence of Nazarene-inspired stained glass by contemporary church closings.

Grewe argues convincingly for the social and political relevance of the Nazarenes, but a richer visual reference to precedents would have been helpful. She shows several illustrations from Conrad of Hirsau’s tree of virtues and of vices of about 1200 with Le Bien et le Mal. But borders with supportive imagery, often typological, also have a long tradition, as in the sixteenth-century print series of the Passion after Jacob Corneilisz van Oostanen. Grewe cites the Biblia Pauperum’s tradition of widely disseminated didactic prints as well as the struggle to reclaim this tradition after the rupture of the Reformation. She might also have explored the influence of Renaissance illustrated Bibles (Bilder Bibeln) including Hans Holbein’s Historiarum veteris instrumenti icones of 1538 and Tobias Stimmer’s Neue künstliche Figuren biblischer Historien of 1576 (fortunately reissued in 1930). Some additional bibliography is also recommended: the catalogue and essays edited by Johannes Erichsen and Michael Henker, “Vorwärts,vorwärts sollst du schauen”: Geschichte, Politik und Kunst unter Ludwig I (Munich: Bayerische Staatskanzlei, 1986), and Elgin Vaassen’s essential Bilder auf Glas: Glasgemälde zwischen 1780 und 1870 (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1997). Michaela Giebelhausen’s Painting the Bible: Representation and Belief in Mid-Victorian Britain (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006) is to be commended as presenting a further exploration of the intense interest in religion by the arts in the nineteenth century. Keith Andrews’s pioneering The Nazarenes: A Brotherhood of German Painters in Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) should also receive a mention.

In Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism, Grewe seeks to explain the strength of the artists’ belief in a rebirth of painting’s capacity for didactic power. Her overview of “religious revival and the rebirth of pictorial meaning” is invigorating, as it encourages the reevaluation of other movements such as the Neoclassical painting exemplified by David and Ingres. Ingres, not surprisingly, held a high opinion of the movement. Like the Nazarenes, he was drawn to Raphael’s models. The Nazarene movement is clearly aligned with numerous post-Napoleonic conservative expressions that looked to a religious past to revitalize an increasingly diversified, secular world. It seems inevitable that after the French suppression of Catholicism and its aristocratic privileges, followed by the substitution of the goddess of Reason, which in turn was soon supplanted by the cult of Napoleon (loathed by Overbeck), counter movements to rescue religion would develop. To varying degrees, in England with Pugin and the Catholic Emancipation, and in France with the drive to preserve national heritage (and monarchy), these movements share the substrata of fixation on an idealized past. In the still-divided Germany, the deeply Catholic Boisserée brothers of Cologne collected “primitives” that form the core of the present Alte Pinakotek. Grewe’s book is a most welcome addition to the growing scholarly literature about nineteenth-century religious art, and it should encourage further studies.

Virginia C. Raguin
Distinguished Professor of Humanities Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross