Monday, June 29, 2009

Goethe and the Christian Legends

When I began writing my dissertation on Goethe, people asked whether everything had not already been said. No! was my reaction. I was bored with the deconstructive, postmodernist, cultural studies approaches that were current at that time (the mid-1980s). No one seemed to look at secondary literature then, unless it was the work of a post-structuralist. I had been intrigued by the idylls in Goethe's works, genre-like scenes portraying human contentment. Some of these idylls were small, like the portrait of Philomen and Baucis at the end of Faust, and some were larger, as, for instance, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the entire novel being an extended idyll. These and other idylls in Goethe's work are either destroyed or threatened with destruction (Hermann and Dorothea). I thought at the time that this preference for an ancient literary form indicated that Goethe was not the "modern" he is often interpreted to be, but that his literary roots lie in much older traditions.

One traditional form that I did not consider when I wrote my dissertation was that of the legend. Goethe mentions the Ursula legend in Kunst und Altertum am Rhein und Main (on which I wrote  in my March 27 posting in connection with the Veronica icon).  Basically he used the legend to transition from the influence of Byzantine art in the Christian West to a discussion of Netherlandic and Old German art.

I recently encountered this wooden sculpture of Ursula (at the top of this post) at the Metropoplitan Museum. As Goethe rightly indicates, Ursula was said to be a Breton princess. Her association with Cologne comes from a 4th-5th century inscription that says Clementius restored a church in that city in honor of a band of virgin martyrs. According to Goethe, she arrived in Cologne with her retinue of virgins (said to have been 10,000 in number) at the same time as a group of young Christian men, led by Gereon, whom Goethe calls "an African prince." Gereon in Christian martyrology is associated with the Theban legion, an entire legion that had converted to Christianity.


At the height of the artistic development Goethe was describing, the 14th and 15th century, these legends offered rich artistic themes. During his visit to Cologne he saw the "K├Âlner Dombild" by "Master William of Cologne," who has since been identified as Stephan Lochner. The two wings portray Saints Ursula (left) and Gereon (right), which may have given Goethe the idea of combining the two legends in his discussion of the contribution of the "cultural physiognomy" of the Cologne region to the Christian art.

According to Nicola Tumparoff's 1910 study (Goethe und die Legende), it was Goethe who introduced the legend into German literature as a self-sufficient modern genre. "Der Gott und die Bajadere," for instance, derives from Indian legends. Ottilie in Elective Affinities becomes a legend in her own time, a treatment by Goethe that I find, at the least, tongue in cheek. The lovely image above, by the Austrian artist Marian Stokes (1855-1927) is, of course, not of Ottilie but of Snow White. The Christian legend in particular was popular with the Romantics, but it was Goethe and Gottfried Keller, according to Tumparoff, who created "living types" (lebendige Typen). The legend, like the idyll, offered Goethe rich thematic material. In both cases, he departed from the genre's originating conditions -- the religious veneration of the saint in the legend or the domestic security represented by the idyll -- to problematize the past. In that way, Goethe is indeed a modern, but he crafts this status from traditional material.

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