How to Read Paintings: The Abbey in the Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich
A brooding masterpiece that explores the mystery of mankind’s position in the landscape
It can take a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the crepuscular light of this intriguing painting. The lustrous band of yellow that billows across the canvas tend to draw the eye upwards, away from the mist and shadows of the lower section.
If you look closely you’ll notice the tiny imprint of the moon above, a pale disc of light that hangs in the sky like a perfect droplet of water. Otherwise, the yellow bloom acts as a flawless backdrop to the brooding silhouettes of the winter trees that line up, leafless, in front of it.
The Universal Search of Man
Like many paintings by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, this work carries an implacable air of loneliness. According to the art historian William Vaughan, Friedrich’s paintings were attempts to capture the dilemma of “man’s yearning for the infinite and his perpetual separation from it.”
When looking at The Abbey in the Oakwood, it can take a moment to realise that there are actually figures in the lower half of the image.
A line of robed monks forms a funeral procession, led by the coffin bearers at the front. Friedrich’s works often contain contemplative figures situated in vast landscapes and, though not altogether lost, they often appear to be reckoning with a deeper search.
In The Abbey in the Oakwood, the silent line of monks moves towards an archway in the gate of a Gothic ruin. What was once a large abbey is now nothing more than a single crumbling edifice poked through with a tall lancet window. The glass of the window, perhaps once a rainbow of stained glass, is all gone, and the metal joints that would have held the glass in place are bent, broken or missing.