A young woman, scantily dressed in a wafer-thin veil, looks into the distance. Her left hand on her forehead signals feelings of awe and disbelief. An old man with a long beard, half-hidden in the shadows, grasps her right wrist. A portal frames the two figures. A part of a boat is visible, suggesting a river below.
The family grave Diederichsen in Ohlsdorf Cemetery tells a story. But what is it?
The Art Nouveau Influence
The combination of an old man and a young maiden in a cemetery artwork is depiction of the classic “Death and the Maiden.” Such art expresses the transience of earthly vanities. The female figure represents earthly life and pleasures, while an elderly male figure symbolizes Death.
The artistic style indicates it belongs to Art Nouveau, an art historical movement popularized at the turn of the 20th century. Art Nouveau emerged from the English Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s in Britain, and peaked around 1900. The erotic nature of many Art Nouveau works is one of the most prevalent features of this style.
“What is it, Art Nouveau?… Art can never be new.”
Alphonse Mucha, Alphonse Mucha: The Master of Art Nouveau
The Hamburg-born sculptor Caesar Scharff (1864–1902) created this bronze relief in 1901. Scharff was a member of the Hamburg Artists’ Association, but was also in contact with the more modern Hamburg Artists’ Club. The Diederichsen tomb, consisting of a portal-like grave wall with a pointed gable, is one of his most famous works. Made out of granite and bronze, the grave stands 310 centimetres (10 feet, 2 inches) high. Two sphinxes adorn the side pillars. The middle section reveals the central motif through door and window-like openings.
Above the two figures is an inscription that translates as: “You all have to take this path.”
Scharff died at the age of 43, just one year after the completion of this iconic sculpture.
A Time Of Change
Art Noveau was born when the role of women in society was undergoing a significant change. In line with these cultural developments, many Art Nouveau artists portrayed women as symbols in mysticism. The famed Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, influenced many artists of the day with his theories about the interpretations of dreams and the role sex played in our subconscious.
Caesar Scharff’s maiden is an excellent example of Art Nouveau. At 180 centimetres (5 feet 11 inches) tall and wrapped in a sheer bronze veil, she is the dominant feature of the tomb. The sculptor caused a sensation with the revealing portrayal of his characters. Many visitors found their erotic charisma to be inappropriate for cemetery art work.
“As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close a luxurious new style was taking Europe by storm.”
Stephen Smith, Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau
The Greek Mythology Influence
Scharff’s imagery, depicting the transition from life to Death, comes from ancient Greek mythology. The large portal behind the figures represents the gateway to the underworld, guarded by two sphinxes. The idea of a sphinx as a guardian of tombs and temples originated in ancient Egypt, and is visible in Greece culture from the late 7th century BC. The ancient Greeks depicted sphinxes with female heads. Scharff’s versions are masculine.
“You are afraid of me, because I talk like a sphinx.”
― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Shown half-hidden in bas relief, Death — represented by the ancient mythological ferryman Charon — reaches out for a young girl, the symbol of life. Charon is the son of Erebus, personification of darkness, and Nyx, goddess of night. His duty is to ferry the souls of the deceased over the river Styx and into the realm of the dead.
“The problem with Fate is that no matter how many times you call out to her, she has her own timing that’s irrelevant to whatever anyone else happens to be doing.”
― Amy Neftzger, The Ferryman
Goddess And River – Styx
Styx is considered a river as well as a goddess. Her river serves as a border, separating the land of the living from that of the dead. She ensures no one enters the underworld without experiencing death and receiving the proper rites of burial.
The crossing, however, was not for free. As servant of Hades, god of the dead, and king of the underworld, Charon requires payment for his services. For this reason, a coin (obolus) was placed under the tongue of the deceased. Those without enough wealth or whose families refused to follow proper burial rites were forced to wander the banks of the river as ghosts for one hundred years, at which point they were allowed to cross over.
“Death is permanent. There’s no coming back if you get off the ferryman’s boat.”
― Martha Sweeney, Killmore
The river, the ferryman, and his boat remain popular symbols in modern culture. Styx, the rock band formed in 1972, continues to produce music today. In his 1982 song, Don’t Pay the Ferryman, Chris de Burgh warns the passenger not to pay Charon until the boat arrives at its destination on the other side.
The Power Of Expression
The slender body, large, expressive eyes, and latent sensuality of Scharff’s young woman reinforce the notion that she still belongs to the land of the living, even as one of her feet has already entered Charon’s boat. She appears to be overwhelmed, perhaps dazzled by the sight of the unknown in front of her. Few artists have captured the step from life to Death in such an impressive manner. Let’s hope that she or her friends paid the ferryman.
“Some people believe that when you die, you cross the River of Death and have to pay the ferryman. People don’t seem to worry about that these days. Perhaps there’s a bridge now.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
For those who want to know more about Art Nouveau, this decorative, sensual, and uncompromising style, I recommend the book, Art Nouveau (The World’s Greatest Art), by Camilla de la Bédoyère.
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