Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dies Cinerum

Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
~ Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday. Carl Spitzweg, German.
Oil on panel, c. 1860.

Image from MuseumSyndicate: Experience Art and History

Carl Spitzweg painted several versions of "Ash Wednesday," as he was captivated with the theme of the lonely outcast harlequin for a number of years circa 1860's. The composition in each of the versions are similar, in that they depict the isolated clown, contemplating the passing hours in a dark, shadow-filled cell, with only a slight ray of light to sustain him.

Ash Wednesday figures in this work as a metaphor for this isolation. Spitzweg was a devout Christian, who grappled incessantly with the notion of transience in life. In the Christian church, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and it was the practice in Rome for penitents to begin their period of public penance, obliged to remain apart until they were reconciled with the Christian community on the Thursday before Easter. When this practice became outdated, the beginning of Lent was symbolized by the placing of ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation.

The notion of separation without reconciliation or redemption was not lost on Spitzweg, consequently symbolized in his harlequin series. In Spitzweg's diary, he recalled the ceremony of Ash Wednesday and the intensity of his priest's words, "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." Indeed, in the Old Testament, ashes were used as a sign of humility and mortality, sorrow and repentance for sin. For Spitzweg, the harlequin in jail offered a way to reflect on humanity in general, and expose the constant struggle between moral and immoral tendencies within the self. The figure of the harlequin was celebrated in many European countries through traveling theater productions, and Spitzweg had the opportunity to specifically watch the festive and colorful Commedia del'arte. Additionally, he read much literature on the topic of the harlequin in its manifold symbolism. The harlequin's pointed cap, and bright costume sets up a strong contrast to the sombre cell, presenting a most poetic and powerful work.

Text from Artfact


Cynthia said...

Good to know...

Anonymous said...

very informative! i just learned of this painting today and fell in love.