“The German school is a soul without a body; the French school, a body without a soul,” declared the French critic Alexandre de Saint-Chéron in 1836. “If only these two arts could study each other, unite, and complete each other, we would see the new art of the nineteenth century rise at last.”1 The date of Saint-Chéron’s statement is symptomatic. For it was only then, more than twenty years after the fact, that France discovered a contemporary German ‘school’. And to the chagrin of many German artists, this discovery identified the ‘école allemande’ almost exclusively with the Nazarene movement.2 Certainly, few of de Saint-Chéron’s French colleagues shared his enthusiasm or accepted the premise that French art could learn from its Teutonic other. But even the most vehement detractors of the ‘école allemande’ agreed upon its importance as a laboratory for modern art. The German School’s conception of art was, admitted Théophile Gautier, the poet-apostle of l’art pour l’art, altogether new to the French. It therefore provided “a curious subject of study for French painters, whose way of seeing is so different and who have always been attached to form.”3 Whether advocate or opponent, no French critic failed to point out the exceptionalism of the Nazarene movement.

As we examine this French debate of the 1830s, a realization emerges: any real understanding of European art’s development in the nineteenth century must involve an understanding of the Nazarene movement and its place within this development. Yet until now, the scholarship on this important school has remained a mostly German affair, while the French narrative has more or less dominated our perception of the course of nineteenth-century European art in general.4 This book aims to contribute to a fuller understanding of that European history, one that even nationally self-centered art critics or artists in the period itself intuitively recognized. If the body of nineteenth-century arthistorical scholarship has been predominantly French, this study seeks out its ‘soul’.

What, then, made German art so different from its French counterpart? Let us hear again the voice of Alexandre de Saint-Chéron: “The arts in Munich have that which they lack in Paris: belief, thought, and science; but the arts in Paris have what they lack in Munich: proficiency, perfection of process, the painting the sacred in the age of romanticism cult of form.”5 Germans did not paint, they thought. “Les peintres qui pensent,” Charles Baudelaire jabbed, “l’art philosophique.”6 Gautier agreed. Not painters, but scholars. Not paintings, but poems. Vast panoramas unfolding the epic of “humanity’s destiny, the migration of races, the myths and apocalypses of religions, or even symbolic and philosophical systems, where figures impose themselves like hieroglyphs rather than like representations of individuals.” A visit to Munich in 1854 confirmed Gautier’s impression that the Germans despised color, the skill of the paintbrush and the charms of the brushstroke. Because of this disdain, the German was a wholly intellectual school. “It does not paint, it writes ideas” (Gautier 1.6). French critics, in short, identified the German school with a kind of conceptual art.

The French perception of Nazarene art as conceptual was consistent with the self-image of the German movement. Johann Friedrich Overbeck stated in no uncertain terms that art should be hieroglyphic.8 He thus defined as the essence of painting what Baudelaire had characterized as its anathema: “Everything is allegory, allusion, hieroglyph, rebus.”9 This conception of a modern symbolic art implied a fundamental reshaping of the humanist doctrine ut pictura poesis, which, in turn, was at the heart of the battle over the modernist paradigm of ‘pure painting’. Even by mid-century, the basis for these debates remained an entrenched distinction between the logics of painting and of poetry outlined by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his famous treatise of 1766, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry.10 Yet the terms for this binary opposition were new. Lessing’s differentiation between painting and poetry had built upon the opposition between spatial and temporal form and the distinction between natural and arbitrary signs; its updated version was rooted in a contrast between nonverbal, plastic expression and the linguistic presentation of ideas. This new pair reflected the decisive move from a mimetic to an expressive theory of art.

The Romantics re-conceptualized the relationship between the “sister arts” by replacing the older notion of similarity with one of homology. Accordingly, painting and poetry were redefined as analogous but different products of the same creative force, the imagination. Romantic expressive theory thus shifted the earlier focus on content or the external nature of the aesthetic sign to a focus on structure and the expressive means of the medium itself. Color and form in painting, like rhythm and rhyme in poetry, came to be understood as a pre-linguistic language or, to cite Madame de Stael, a language “above thought.”11 Delacroix’s art comes to mind as a paradigmatic embodiment of this new ideal of nonverbal and plastic expression, an art that Baudelaire declared exemplary in soliciting an emotional response even from a distance great enough to preclude any identification of subject matter.12 “This shift in emphasis from Lessing’s space/time dichotomy to one of plastic expression/ discursive presentation,” Michael Driskel has noted, “is one of the most significant changes in the theoretical infrastructure of nineteenth-century art criticism” (Driskel 217). It was, indeed, also one of the most significant changes in art practice.

The conceptual art of the Nazarenes carved out a novel and uncompromising position within traditional approaches to the relationship of word and image, text and picture. While the Nazarenes emulated past styles and revived symbolic sign systems handed down through centuries, their solution to the problem of representation with its emphasis on selfreflection, reflexivity and citationality molded these traditional elements into a consummately modern language. In contrast to the academic tradition of ut pictura poesis, the Nazarene concept of what I will call ut hieroglyphica pictura tended toward an erasure of narrative and rhetoric in the classical sense.14 It dispensed largely with the seventeenth-century idea of a visual language composed of codified gestures and facial expressions. (By rejecting on the whole the heritage of Le Brun’s expression de passions, the Nazarenes located themselves not only opposite the nascent French paradigm of l’art pour l’art but also outside the established tradition of the French academy.) Nazarene images sidelined the academic doctrine of evaluating the logical and ‘historical’ consistency of paintings according to the Aristotelian ‘Three Unities’ of action, time and place; the Nazarenes disregarded the conventions of costume.15 Instead, they heralded an anti-academic revival of medieval techniques to make visible the contents of speech and thought, introducing indirect narration back into high art.

Exploring the artistic possibilities of thought-images, daydreaming, visions and the like, the Nazarenes, as Sixten Ringbom has remarked, paved the way for Symbolism and the innovations of the twentieth century: “the scenes of ‘inner life’ in expressionist paintings, the fantasy images in Chagall and the pictorial profundities of Saul Steinberg, not to mention the innumerable experiments with reported content in the most important visual media of the present day, film and television” (Ringbom 51). Heinrich Wölfflin, who dated the birth of modern art to Peter Cornelius’s arrival in Rome in 1811, would have agreed.17 But few have adopted this view and most art historians prefer to begin this story with movements more palatable to the modern taste, like Realism or late nineteenth-century Symbolism. But to do so is to ignore the importance of an earlier generation. The Nazarenes’ conceptual art took a decisive step toward restructuring the expressive means of non-narrative figuration. This book traces this step by demonstrating, via the examination of key works, how Nazarene hieroglyphics functioned and what consequences the adoption of a “reading” rather than “viewing” stance had for processes of perception and interpretation (Driskel 221).

But why this insistence on reading rather than viewing, on intellect rather than sense perception? Why would an artist want to write ideas rather than paint? The answer is not located in aesthetics but in politics, in this case, the politics of faith. Not coincidently, “belief” is the first word Alexandre de Saint-Chéron listed among the qualities Munich possessed and Paris did not; “belief” first; only after it “thought” and “science.” Reading, for the Nazarenes, implied praying. Painting was a form of worship. The linguistic presentation at the heart of the Nazarene doctrine ut hieroglyphica pictura painting the sacred in the age of romanticism reflected a need to translate complex theological debates into visual form. To that end, the artists became archeologists. Rediscovering the long tradition of Christian symbolism, they set out to reconceptualize what Christian iconography could do and say. Their stylistic revolution was driven by a missionary impulse, a crusader mentality. A disenchanted world was in need of re-enchantment, and art was the maiden warrior to lead the way.

It was the inseparability of stylistic revolution and religious fervor that made Overbeck’s metaphor of art as hieroglyph so apt. As an object of interpretive speculation, the hieroglyph had long been regarded by Western culture as a magical, ideographic script, a secret form of divine writing.19 Overbeck wanted art to return to this state. It was an ambitious goal, and one whose outcome challenges any facile opposition of autonomous versus heteronymous art. Certainly, the Nazarenes resubmitted art to the service of religion. But they were also dedicated Romantics faithful to the notion that art must convey the subjective experience of the self. Devoted to a translation of doctrine into pictorial expression, the Nazarenes claimed for themselves the authority to perform biblical exegesis. This self-assertive engagement demanded a constant negotiation between convention and invention, institution and subjectivism. The ensuing results are marked, as I will show, by unexpected twists and nuances. Even the most doctrinal works, like Overbeck’s cycle The Seven Sacraments, developed a highly personal, even idiosyncratic approach.


Grewe, Cordula. Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Last modified 11 July 2016