Caroline on the Stairs (Woman Ascending to the Light) by Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Caroline on the Stairs (Woman Ascending to the Light), c.1825, Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 51.5 cm, Pommersches Landesmuseum, Germany, Pommersches Landesmuseum, Germany / Bridgeman Images

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What Kind of Light is This?

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Johann Hinrich Claussen

Caspar David Friedrich created this small painting in 1825. It is called Woman Climbing up to the Light and shows his wife Caroline going up the steep stairs in their house—seemingly an everyday scene. But there is a provocation in this motif. These stairs are a deeply undistinguished part of the house: narrow, cold, dark, ugly—not worthy of being painted. And yet there is a sense of magic, of mystical enchantment in this painting. A secret force, it seems, elevates the woman from the dark and depressing depths to a higher and brighter level. The light is clear and warm—but apparently without a source. There is no lamp, torch, window, or open door to be seen. It is a light from nowhere. Or is it an inner light that only the painter—or the woman—can ‘see’? She does not look up to the light, but her bearing is unusually upright and easy. There can be just one explanation: she is ‘in’ the light.

The first Christians lived in a paradox. They had received God’s redeeming grace and yet continued to lead a modest or even miserable life. Ephesians 5 stresses the newness of Christian existence: ‘You were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord’ (v.8). What kind of a light is this? It must be an inner force that transforms an existence that outwardly may not change all that much. In this sense, Friedrich’s painting can be seen as a modern commentary on this ‘inner light’. It gives an idea of what it means to live in the light, to be light in the Lord, overcoming the barriers between dark and light, down and up, depression and hope, death and life, the immanent and the transcendent. 

 

References

Hofmann, Werner. 2000. Caspar David Friedrich (New York: Thames and Hudson)