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Friedrich, Monk by the Sea

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808 or 1810, oil on canvas, 110 x 171.5 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

In so much 19th century paiting, figures and act of narrative are kind of a story before us, and we watch them as if we were an audience looking into the space. But with the work of Caspar David Friedrich , so often he gives us a small lone figure. And instead of looking towards that figure we instantly become that figure. We begin to see what the figure sees. And that is excatly what we have here in the "Monk by the sea", which is in so many ways a really radically modern pared down image. We have this vast sky and it takes up the preponderance of the canvas. It looks cold and it is clear at the top. These whisps of the clouds, but then it becomes much darker, and much more menacing. The ocean below looks freezing cold, it is almost black. We could just make out large swells of the waves and then below that the cold winter dunes presumably near Greifswald in northern Germany. This is the Baltic coast and we see that monk below the sea's horizon line. And because the figure that we are looking at is a monk we associate that figure we questions of the spiritual. And so we immdediately turn our thoughts in that direction. He is caught in those narrow bands of the earthways. He is below the horizon line, but he is aware, and we then become aware of the vastness of the spiritual room of the sky above, but also the threatening nature of the world, which we inhabit. Those whitecaps are just picking up the tops of the really substantial waves and we can feel the power of nature, the power of that ocean. I think that notion of the sublime was a very important idea at the end of the 18th and in the 19th century. This is an ancient idea that was revived probably most famously by Edmund Burke, England. The idea was that there is a kind of beauty that is actually all inspiring through its power and its terror. And that was a way of directly confronting God's presence in our world. It is both the vastness of nature and smallness of man and powerlessness of man. And this figure, it seems to look towards the right. We know originally that Fredricio painted a ship on the horizon, which certainly would have made the scene much more moundane. You know, the idea of the 19th century is, the time most associated with the man's control over nature. And this is a kind of antidote to that. This is saying no in fact, nature is far greater than us. Our technological advances are allowing us to feel as if we have conquered nature. Here is a humble reminder that the opposite is really true. It is right around this time that Mary Shelly is writing Frankeinstein, where man has the ultimate power of creating life like God and doctor Frankeinstein is punished for the pride that makes him think he can rival God. So I think it is really true that at this moment, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have the sense of our own power, and at the same time we question that power. You know the 19th century, I think one of the key questions is how can the grand power of God of spirituality be represented in our more scientific, more industrialised culture. So the "Monk by the sea" is meant to be seen with a pendant. In fact it is currently hung in the Museum just to the left of the Abbey in the Oakwood. It is a wonderful pair of paintings, because they are both deep winter the monk that is so contemplative and the monk by the sea is thought to have been the figure that has been carried in the coffin in the Abbey in the Oakwood.