Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail).
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail). Wikimedia / Schloss Weimar

The two graves of Ulrich von Hutten

Humanist, reformer and freedom fighter Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) died on the island of Ufenau in Lake Zurich, to which he had fled as a victim of religious and political persecution. The urge to dedicate a monument to him has inspired poets and artists alike.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

“Hutten’s Grave” is the title of a famous 1823 painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The painting depicts a stone sarcophagus in the chancel of the heavily overgrown ruins of a Gothic church. Friedrich’s highly realistic style of painting could tempt one to seek out this place in reality. However, that’s not possible: the scene, containing a wealth of historical and symbolic references, is a composition devised by the artist. It is a painterly fiction. Let us look first at the facts against the backdrop of which this fiction came to be created, and to which it makes reference. The actual grave of humanist and church critic Ulrich von Hutten lies next to the Church of St Peter and Paul on the island of Ufenau in Lake Zurich. According to tradition, Hutten, born at Castle Steckelberg at Schlüchtern near Fulda, was already seriously ill with syphilis when he fled to Switzerland. The immediate reason for his flight was the imperial ban (Reichsacht) pronounced against him, after he had defied both ecclesiastical and imperial power not only as a pamphleteer and propagandist, but also by preparing attacks on the Electorate of Trier. The reformer Huldrych Zwingli took him under his wing in Zurich and made sure that Hutten found a safe haven with a pastor on Ufenau. This reveals something about relations during the Reformation, because Ufenau had always belonged (and still belongs today) to Einsiedeln Abbey.
Ulrich von Hutten. Painting dating from 1750.
Ulrich von Hutten. Painting dating from 1750. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
But today, Hutten’s grave on Ufenau is marked only by a simple gravestone which wasn’t erected until 1959. The date is explained by a skeleton find in the 1950s which was thought to be Hutten. A second skeleton found in 1968 revealed that the first conclusion was wrong. The clue was mercury, as Hutten had used it to treat his syphilis. This second skeleton was interred under the same headstone. Today, the scores of daytrippers who visit Ufenau scarcely notice Hutten’s grave. It would be rather alarming if they did. Because Ulrich von Hutten is one of those historical figures who, because of their activities during the Reformation, were appropriated for nationalistic purposes. In particular, his partisanship with the (German) empire, which rose up against the papacy, caused the National Socialists to deem him an appropriate namesake for military units. And since the 1980s a number of right-wing extremist groups have adopted Hutten as a rallying figure.
On the island of Ufenau in Lake Zurich is the Church of St Peter and Paul, next to which Ulrich von Hutten was buried.
On the island of Ufenau in Lake Zurich is the Church of St Peter and Paul, next to which Ulrich von Hutten was buried. ETH Library Zurich, photo archive / Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz
This increasingly problematic appropriation, which makes it difficult to get an unobstructed picture of Hutten as a historical figure, has a complex backstory. Swiss writers have also had a hand in creating this situation – among them Gottfried Keller with his poem Ufenau (1858), a homage to Hutten as a freedom fighter from the perspective of students, and especially Conrad Ferdinand Meyer with his poem cycle Hutten’s Last Days. It was this work that brought Meyer his breakthrough as an author in 1872, against the backdrop of the founding of the German Empire. In the student context, veneration of Hutten culminated in the founding of an “Ulrich von Hutten Association” at the University of Zurich in 1888, a group with social democratic sympathies. In the early 20th century, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting then played a key role in a rather morbid cult of Hutten. This was notably so after the painting entered the public Weimar art collection in 1919, from the private collection of Duke Karl-August of Saxe-Weimar. Nazi art historians were only too willing to seize upon Friedrich’s penchant for depictions of graves and ruins. They freely interpreted graves and ruins as symbols of willingness to make sacrifices and of a yearning for death. In a society streamlined for military aggression, both were considered ideals. The original historical context of Friedrich’s work, and in particular his interest in Hutten, was completely misappropriated.
Portrait of Caspar David Friedrich, 1836.
Portrait of Caspar David Friedrich, 1836. Wikimedia / Galerie Neue Meister
A brief flashback also makes this clear. Friedrich’s choice of subject can only be understood against the backdrop of Hutten’s veneration by intellectual circles, which began in the late 18th century. The translator, poet and cultural philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a key exponent of the cultural awakening of Weimar Classicism, was the first to fully express this veneration. Herder first published references, anonymously, to Hutten in 1776 in the magazine Teutscher Merkur, together with the magazine’s editor Christoph Martin Wieland. His plea Denkmal Ulrich von Huttens (Monument to Ulrich von Hutten) appeared in 1793. In this piece, Herder begins by lamenting the fact that no monument marks Hutten’s grave on Ufenau. But at the same time, he stresses that in Hutten’s case the ideal monument would be made not of marble, but of an edition of the humanist’s works. Previous efforts in that direction had come to nothing. Herder considered that Hutten’s significance lay in his activities as a champion of freedom, as an important comrade-in-arms of the Reformation. He also saw him as a role model, a “spokesman for the German nation, freedom and truth”. In the contemporary context of the French Revolution and the struggle against royal absolutism, Herder was thus recognising Hutten’s role as an emancipator. In the wake of the wars of liberation against Napoleon’s occupation of Germany, Hutten became a figure around which nationalistic aspirations could rally. This is due in part to the fact that Hutten, in his work Arminius, celebrated the so-named Hermannsschlacht in the Teutoburg Forest as a decisive Germanic victory over the Romans. Arminius’ exploits began to be seen as a historical model for the contemporary struggle against Napoleon’s troops. It’s no coincidence that poets such as Heinrich von Kleist chose the Hermannsschlacht as their subject matter.
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823.
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823. Wikimedia / Schloss Weimar
If we take a closer look at Friedrich’s 1823 painting, some of the later interpretations, a number of which were ideologically influenced and misused, can be more precisely broken down. Several names with year dates are noted on the faces of the sarcophagus, including “Jahn 1813” (referring to Friedrich Jahn, the man later known as the “Turnvater”, and another to whom the Nazis laid claim because of his paramilitary culture of physical strength and perfection), “Arndt 18132”, “Stein 1813”, and “Görres 1821”. These people were well-known figures who suffered under the restoration after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and were in some cases persecuted as former freedom fighters. Friedrich places them in the tradition of the rebellious Hutten. By immortalising their names on Hutten’s grave, he pays homage to them as well.
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail).
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail). Klassik Stiftung Weimer
The date of Friedrich’s painting is also significant. He painted it in 1823-24, thus marking the tenth anniversary of the start of the anti-Napoleonic wars of liberation. In this context it’s worth taking note of an earlier painting by Friedrich depicting ruins, which until 2018 was privately owned and had previously been considered only a preparatory sketch. Especially in comparison with the later work, the painting Monastery ruins at Oybin, dating from 1812, has the feel of a stage from which both the props and the actors are as yet absent.
Caspar David Friedrich, Ruins of Oybin, around 1812.
Caspar David Friedrich, Ruins of Oybin, around 1812. Hamburger Kunsthalle
In Hutten’s Grave further pictorial elements also contribute to this theatre of the patriotic, in addition to the allusion to Hutten and the freedom fighters referred to above. A striking element is the figure of a man standing in a bent over posture, looking at the sarcophagus. His clothing, the uniform of the Lützow Free Corps, would have been clearly recognisable in Friedrich’s time as a reference to a particularly heroic unit in the war of liberation against Napoleon; for the contemporary viewer this attire, and the sword on which he leans, give the figure the role of the melancholic Hutten pilgrim as a rallying figure. Certainly if the viewer, too, saw himself as disillusioned by the restoration after the Napoleonic wars. It’s impossible to miss the sculpture on the right, beside the windows, in an alcove in the wall. It is a representation of Fides, handed down from Roman times as a symbol of trust. However, the fact that her head has been knocked off could reinforce this interpretation of hopes dashed. In addition to the vegetation (thistles, withered bushes, overgrowth of all kinds), the fading light was perceived as pregnant with meaning – an allusion to the twilight of approaching nightfall. Something could also be said about the Gothic windows, the upper sections of which have been demolished with such precision that profiles of heads in the style of Lavater’s physiognomies, even elongated stylised figures, seem to emerge through the gaps.
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail).
Caspar David Friedrich, Hutten’s Grave, 1823 (detail). Klassik Stiftung Weimer
A more open-ended reading by art historian Johannes Grave has recently been added to the interpretations influenced by contemporary history, which see Hutten’s Grave as a monument to Hutten and as a statement of political partisanship by the artist Friedrich. Its starting point is the multiplicity of references and possible interpretations offered by this painting, its central and defining point being the observer figure painted in the picture. Grave begins by observing that the various figurative elements and the historical allusions associated with them cannot so easily be reduced to a common denominator, and are even, in fact, contradictory in some aspects. This is best illustrated by the most prominent element in the picture, the ruin: “Whether the ruinous state of Gothic architecture is regrettable or whether it signals that a problematic epoch of feudal and ecclesiastical rule has been overcome cannot be inferred from the picture with absolute certainty”. It is also telling that Friedrich exhibited the work several times between 1824 and 1826 under different titles; titles such as “Überreste einer alten Kapelle” (Remains of an old chapel) and “Durchblick durch eine Ruine” (Vista through a ruin). It wasn’t until 1926 in the Berlin Academy exhibition that it was presented as “Ulrich von Huttens Denkmal” (Ulrich von Hutten’s Monument), with the additional note that any proceeds from its sale would benefit the victims of the Greek wars of liberation. In particular the figure of the observer of Hutten’s grave, who alternates between a contemporary of Hutten and one of Friedrich, can be thought of as highlighting for us the “simultaneous presence of different pasts in the picture” and their intertwining. From this perspective, the hypothesis can be advanced that in Hutten’s Grave, Caspar David Friedrich was attempting primarily to open up a space for reflection. There is much to be said for interpretations that seek to see in the painting, first and foremost, a specific political agenda, due to the realistic, highly detailed painting style. But such interpretations run the risk of overhastily diminishing the picture’s intriguing conceptual scope.

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