Ohlsdorf Cemetery features some of the most beautiful cemetery art in the world. One statue stands out from the others, however, not for its beauty, but for the intense emotions it evokes: “Destiny,” or the Cruel Countess as it is commonly called. Few who have seen this statue can forget it.
Hugo Lederer, an Austro-Hungarian-born German sculptor, created the statue in 1896. In 1905, the Hamburger businessman Eduard Lippert placed this art nouveau-style sculpture inside a pavilion in his garden. Although WWII bombs destroyed his house and the garden, on the banks of the Outer Alster Lake, in 1943, the sculpture emerged unscathed. In 1956, the city of Hamburg received Destiny as a gift and relocated it to Ohlsdorf Cemetery.
Hugo Lederer’s Depiction of Destiny
Lederer was strongly inspired by Classical Antiquity (8th century BC and the 6th century AD). In Greek mythology, “fate” described the inescapable destiny of man. Three goddesses, called the “Moirae”, personified it. The Moirae assigned the fate of each person, determining birth, death, and everything in between. Fortunately not everything was pre-determined. Other gods could intervene, however, with influences helpful or harmful.
The sculpture stands six feet, seven inches (two meters) tall and rests upon an eight inch (twenty centimeters) pedestal. Lederer sculpted the three-person group out of shell limestone. The female Goddess, with bare breasts and a flowing dress, drags a maiden and a young man by their hair. With closed eyes, the maiden appears to have ceased fighting. The young man — his face contorted with pain — appears to object and prevent his inevitable fate.
While many works of cemetery art are captivating, Hugo Lederer’s depiction of destiny is one of the most unique. The longer one stares, the more disturbing the statue becomes. My first thought while looking at the stern face, was: “I hope that’s not the treatment I receive!”
A Well-Suited Location
Ohlsdorf Cemetery is a well-suited location for the Cruel Countess, as many people buried here lost their lives in an untimely manner. Lederer’s dramatic sculpture challenges us to consider our mortality and the inevitability of destiny. It is also a reminder to enjoy the brief time we possess. If you have the good fortune to be in the area, make sure to visit the Cruel Countess. You will find her at the Westring, near chapel seven. And if you miss this opportunity, remember this: she will not miss the opportunity to visit you. Someday…
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