One very important feature of the Romantic convention was a deviation from conventional religious iconography. This is not to say that the principles which sustained the Christian faith were abandoned – rather, they were adapted to fit the social climate of the era. The first timid steps toward industrialisation saw the gradual (yet inexorable) decline of hereditary aristocratic power. Resurgent against the repression of irrational sentiment (emphasis of emotion was the defining aspect of Romanticism), the Romanticists utilised natural landforms and inspiring natural phenomena as parables for concepts and conditions of humanity. For instance, the mountain (contrived so as to appear to reach toward the sky) represents stolidity and unwavering faith. The three radiant beams emanating from an unknown source beyond the summit of the mountain symbolise intangible and mysterious divinity. The pine trees clustered around the crucified body of Christ suggest the rallying of faithful masses around a pivotal principle or symbol.
Not all symbols in Romanticist works are of natural origin. Often, ruined temples, abbeys and palaces are contrasted with nature to produce an air of transience and human arrogance. In this instance, the crucifix (set firmly into the rock as it is) – and the figure crucified thereupon – bears evidence of Caspar David Friedrich’s own fervour, substantiated by the fact that the three most prominent light beams and oak trees are intended to be representative of the Trinity (as the lower portion of the frame – designed by Friedrich himself – in which this painting is inset indicates).
It would, however, be callous to dismiss the use of the human figure as merely another piece of the landscape. Frequently avoiding scenes deficient in human life, Friedrich added a personal touch to the generic Romantic style by contrasting surging waves, blankets of mist and endless fields with diminutive (and frequently anonymous) human figures. Often, this is designed to achieve a pensive effect, insinuating that the figure (a component of dozens of paintings, often considered to be Friedrich himself) is lost in reverie. This creates a tangible isolation, for we never see the face of the figure in question – quite beyond reach of human communication (contemplative to the extent of obliviousness of the viewer’s presence), yet markedly apart from nature (by virtue of distinctiveness). Given this, we can see that the figure of Christ is facing the origin of the enigmatic light beams, the subject of eternal wonderment for the viewer, revered despite their incomprehensibility.
The motivation for the scene and theme of this work may stem from the fact that Prussia (now Germany) was, at the time, annexed to the ascendant French Empire under Napoleon and, as such, Friedrich (an ardent patriot and liberal thinker) entered one of many melancholic periods over the condition of society. When one considers that such works as ’Abbey in the Oakwood’ and ‘Monk on the Seashore‘ (which poignantly – perhaps even morbidly – espouse the futility of man and his exploits) were created during the same period in Friedrich’s life, the case grows stronger. As aforementioned, Friedrich had an abiding tendency to revert to expression of morose sentiments under pressure.
Not yet offered any titles (he was later to be named a Professor at Dresden’s Academy of Fine Arts), nor enjoying political favour (usually the exclusive province of the famous – a luxury accorded only posthumously to him), Friedrich’s earlier work tended to attract criticism. This stems in part from a stylistic analysis: as Basilius von Ramdohr (an art critic of the time) noted, this work defies some very basic principles of perspective – the clear delineation of the rocks is not realistic at the distance from which the scene is viewed (as with all Friedrich’s works, realism is a secondary consideration). The vast majority of criticism, however, came from the source which plagued all early theocentric romantic artists: the use of nature in place of conventional religious artifices. It was considered slanderous to place the Saviour’s body amidst wild, barbarous nature.