A man seen from behind contemplates mountain scenery materializing from the receding mist. It is early in the day and the wanderer must have set out before sunrise to reach the elevated viewpoint on top of a mountain. Like him, the viewer is invited to admire this awe-inspiring scene.
This icon of German Romanticism was composed by Caspar David Friedrich from various features of the natural landscape the artist had studied in Saxon Switzerland, an area not far from Dresden, where Friedrich lived for most of his life.
According to specialist Werner Busch (2014: 18) most of Friedrich’s paintings have a spiritual connotation. Protestantism combined with a pantheist outlook on the world have been described as the origins of his religion (Hoch 1990: 71). While in earlier landscapes Friedrich often included a cross to allude to the ubiquity of God, later compositions, like the Wanderer, express it in the evocative, well-balanced sequence of mountain ranges that seem to lose themselves in eternity. The work helps us picture what it might mean for the ‘words’ of the heavens to reach ‘to the end of the world’ (Psalm 19:4). In a way that resonates with the ideas of German Romantics Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder—and with Psalm 19:1–4—Friedrich combines elements studied en plein air that he feels elevate the mind. Nature is the language God uses to make himself understood by humanity (Liebenwein-Krämer 1977: 4).
His compositions are structured according to geometric shapes that in their abstractness and perfection have become symbolic of God for many Romantics (Busch 2012: 298). Geometry as well as truth to nature are Friedrich’s tools to express his feelings at the sight of God’s creation, which to him is the principle of art. As nature shows forth God’s presence, Friedrich sees the artist as a mediator between his creation and humankind, able to convey the essence of the visible world that cannot be expressed in words (Hoch 1987: 60).
Busch, Werner. 2012. ‘Schleiermacher als Inspiration für Caspar David Friedrich’, in Religion als Bild—Bild als Religion, ed. by Christoph Dohmen and Christoph Wagner (Schneller & Steiner), pp. 287–304
————. 2014. ‘Friedrich und Dahl: Thematische Verwandtschaften und bildnerische Differenzen’ in Dahl und Friedrich: romantische Landschaften, ed. by Petra Kuhlmann-Hodick et al (Dresden: Sandstein-Verlag), pp. 16–23
Hoch, Karl-Ludwig. 1987. Caspar David Friedrich in Böhmen: Bergsymbolik in der romantischen Malerei (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer)
————. 1990. ‘Zur Ikonographie des Kreuzes bei C. D. Friedrich’, in Caspar David Friedrich: Winterlandschaften, ed. by Kurt Wettengl (Heidelberg: Braus), pp. 71–74
Liebenwein-Krämer, Renate. 1977. Säkularisierung und Sakralisierung. Studien zum Bedeutungswandel christlicher Bildformen in der Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts (PhD diss. Frankfurt am Main)
19The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.
7The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12But who can discern his errors?
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
13Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.