The Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, Künsthalle, Hamburg

I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or a maggot.

The Bible says that God has made himself known to all men at all times through the voice of His creation.  The glorious sunrise and the complexity of DNA speak to God’s existence.  This is known as General Revelation, and it is a wonderful gift, but with it comes danger.  The book of Romans says that man turned from God, worshiping the created instead of the Creator.  This tipping point which exists in each of us is represented beautifully by our masterpiece today.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Friedrich’s landscapes were not so much intended to be beautiful as they were to be sublime. That which is sublime is awe-inspiring rather than just pretty. Friedrich’s landscapes tend toward the dramatic, capturing the wild and untamed aspect of nature, and sometimes its forbidding gloom. They create a mood: melancholy, reverence, longing, or some combination of these. His best work captures the overwhelming immensity of the created world, and, by comparison, the smallness of the human being who experiences it. And the generally small human figures we find in his work are not saints, as in older religious art, but just ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary mystery of the natural world and the God who created it.

Friedrich’s canvases are intended to promote a meditative state, arising out of the vision and spirit of the artist and communicated to the viewer as an object for contemplation. “The artist,” he wrote, “should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.” Thus he gave these directions to would-be artists, “Close your bodily eye so that you see your picture first with your spiritual eye. Then bring what you saw in the dark into the light, so that it may have an effect on others, shining inwards from outside.

How do you experience God when you encounter the glory of creation?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R

Caspar David Friedrich

(1774–1840). The vast, mysterious landscapes and seascapes of 19th-century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich proclaimed man’s helplessness against the forces of nature. Friedrich helped establish the idea of the sublime as a central concern of the Romantic movement.

Friedrich was born on Sept. 5, 1774, in Greifswald, Pomerania (now Germany). He studied from 1794 to 1798 at the academy at Copenhagen but was largely self-taught. Settling at Dresden, he became a member of an artistic and literary circle that included the painter Philipp Otto Runge and the writers Ludwig Tieck and Novalis. His drawings in sepia, executed in his neat early style, won the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s approval and a prize from the Weimar Art Society in 1805.

Friedrich’s first important oil painting, The Cross in the Mountains (c. 1807), established his mature style. This painting was characterized by an overwhelming sense of isolation and was an attempt to replace the traditional symbols of religious painting with those drawn from nature. Other symbolic landscapes, such as Shipwreck in the Ice (1822), reveal a fatalism and obsession with death. Though based on close observation of nature, his works were colored by his imaginative response to the atmosphere of the Baltic coast and the Harz Mountains, which he found both awesome and ominous. In 1824 he was made professor of the Dresden academy. By the time of his death on May 7, 1840, in Dresden, his work was largely forgotten. His reputation grew, however, as 20th-century artists recognized the existential isolation in his work.

Romantic art

The Romantic sensibility in art explored the sublimity and ferocity of nature and the sensitivity and horror of the human spirit. The most iconic image of Romantic art is Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774–1840) The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818, Figure 6.6). With this brooding mountainscape Friedrich evokes the mystical religious intensity of nature. His figure is not hiking or travelling but wandering, an unsystematic pursuit outside modern society’s controlling constraints and drive for productivity, implying a certain abandonment to the forces of nature. As the wanderer contemplates the dreamlike fog and the stark, upwardly thrusting rocks of this sublime landscape, the composition of the canvas invites the viewer to experience for ourselves the same communion with nature. The sublime is one of the legacies of the Romantic sensibility to the West. A sublime experience overflows the neat systematising of the rational mind, evoking both pleasure and fright as it overwhelms both intellectual or perceptual faculties. In Immanuel Kant’s influential account of the sublime in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), it seems ‘to contravene the ends of our power of judgment, and to be ill-adapted to our faculty of presentation, and to be as it were an outrage on the imagination’.

For the Romantic ethos it was not only the natural world that harboured dark and menacing forces. The human imagination was also haunted by powers that disrupted the systematised world of the Enlightenment. The unconscious mind was portrayed as an inaccessible place exempt from the rule of reason, a place of dreams, visions and reveries like those found in medieval romance. In Francesco Goya’s (1746–1828) powerful and haunting etchings in Los Caprichos (The Fancies, 1799) and Los Disparates (The Nonsense, 1815–1823), the unconscious was privileged both as a potential site for dark forces and as a locus for the bursting forth of their destructive power. In The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Caprichos 43, Figure 6.7), the sleeping subject is assailed by unnamed and uncontrollable elemental forces.

Sources and Resources

“Friedrich, Caspar David,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011), 138–139.

Rewald, Sabine. The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Russo, Raffaella. Friedrich. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1999.

Vaughan, William. Friedrich. New York: Phaidon, 2004.

Wolf, Norbert. Friedrich. Köln: Taschen, 2003.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life