Connect with us – Art History Stories

Philipp Otto Runge: The Seer of the Mysteries of God

Philipp Otto Runge, Rest on Flight into Egypt, 1805, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Wikipedia.


Philipp Otto Runge: The Seer of the Mysteries of God

Runge died of consumption at the same age as Christ, which to those who believe in signs might be crucial since Philipp Otto Runge was a mystic who claimed to “see through the mysteries of God” and provided Brothers Grimm with a horrifying tale. Art critic Robert Hughes described him as “the closest equivalent to William Blake that Germany produced”.

A scissor-cut Romanticism

Philipp Otto Runge, Rest on Flight into Egypt
Philipp Otto Runge, Rest on Flight into Egypt, 1805, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia commons.

Because he was a sickly child, Philipp Otto Runge often needed to stay home and his mother had to keep him busy. Therefore, she taught him scissor-cuts, an art which stayed with him all his life. His older brother Daniel supported his artistic talent by financially aiding Philipp when he went to Copenhagen and later to Dresden, where he met Caspar David Friedrich. Unfortunately, there are very few surviving paintings of Runge’s from this time. This is due to the great fire which overtook the Glass Palace of Munich in 1931, which destroyed most of them.

One Gesamtkunstwerk, please

philipp otto runge Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning,
Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1808, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Web Gallery of Art.

Like many Romantic painters, Runge was into Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. This was meant to be the ultimate masterpiece, as it fused painting, sculpture, architecture, and sometimes even music and literature. Runge therefore intended to exhibit his work in a specially designated building. He planned a series to contain four paintings, representing times of the day. These were meant to be viewed with a music and literary accompaniment. Runge began with large-scale engravings of the works, which turned out successful. However, apart from the two versions of the painting you see above, he never painted other parts.

Color Theorist

Philipp Otto Runge, The Color Sphere, 1810,
Philipp Otto Runge, The Colorsphere (Farbenkugel), 1810, published in Hamburg, Germany. Wikipedia.

Although the great writer and poet J.W. Goethe did not appreciate Runge’s Romantic painting, he definitely saw potential in his scientific writing (by the way, the two were good friends since their first accidental meeting in Weimar in 1803). In fact, the treatise on colors “Farben-Kugel” (Color Sphere) that Runge managed to publish in Hamburg just few months before his death, was appreciated by both his contemporaries and a later generation of artists and art theoreticians, represented by Marc, Macke, and Klee. The latter described the essay as the “teaching essential for the painting yet to come.”

The Juniper Tree

Philipp Otto Runge, Birth of the Human Soul, 1805
Philipp Otto Runge, Birth of the Human Soul, 1805, private collection. Arthur.

In the 1812 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, one tale bears an annotation that it had been provided by Philipp Otto Runge. It’s one of the most terrible and frightening ones, dealing with murder, child abuse, and cannibalism (!). I’m not going to tell you the plot, but what is important to emphasize is the centrality of the titular juniper tree around which all characters’ actions revolve. For Philipp, inspired by the writings of a German Christian mystic Jakob Böhme, the tree symbolized the cosmic harmony between the spheres of the Sky, the Earth, and the Men. “The spirit is found in trees,” he wrote. While searching for harmony, Runge found it in the unity of colors, forms, and numbers. Blue, yellow, and red were to symbolize the Trinity: blue stood for God the Father and the night, red for morning, evening, and Jesus Christ, while yellow represented the Holy Spirit.

A mystic

Philipp Otto Runge, Self portrait,
Philipp Otto Runge, Self portrait, 1802, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany. Wikipedia.

Runge was a Christian mystic who deeply believed that science was imbued with symbolism, in which mathematics holds hands with Kabbalah, chemistry with alchemy and physics with occultism. He once wrote that

“Science has reached the clarity of opinion. Yet the thoughts and experiences stretch their wings towards a country of nostalgia way further than Japan.”

Author’s translation of the quote found in Il pittore che scriveva le fiabe dei fratelli Grimm, StileArte – Quotidiano di Cultura Online.

If you’re looking for beautiful masterpieces to beautify your wall – here is the DailyArt 2021 calendar for you!

Discover more artists interested in spiritualism:

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


More in Romanticism

  • Animals

    Dog Breeds in Famous Paintings


    When we see a dog in a painting, we always try to guess which breed it is. Motivated by this curiosity we have selected some works that show representations of different breeds of dogs in famous paintings. Additionally, we have gathered some works that carry with...

  • 19th Century

    Story of Pygmalion and Galatea by Sir Edward Burne-Jones


    Read more about art of the Pre-Raphaelites: If you find any joy and inspiration in our stories, PLEASE SUPPORT DailyArt Magazine with modest donation. We love art history and we want to keep going with writing about it. $5 $10 $25 $50 $100 MONTHLY

  • 19th Century

    Somewhere at Sea: Ivan Aivazovsky and his Marine Art


    Many artists painted the sea, but only Ivan Aivazovsky was completely devoted to it. Over his long life (1817-1900), he dedicated thousands of canvases to the sea. Sunsets and sunrises over the sea, storms, calm, shipwrecks, sea battles, and even a worldwide flood – we welcome...

  • 19th Century

    Capturing Light: The Pioneers of Photography in France


    It all officially began in 1839 in two countries at once: in Britain, the British Royal Academy announced the discovery of a method of capturing images on paper by the action of light; in France, the government awarded Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre an annuity for his invention of...

  • 19th Century

    The Mysterious Pinturas Negras Reveal Goya’s Darkest Secrets


    There are already several articles that treat in detail the life and works of Francisco Goya. If you want to learn about his career or most famous works, look them up in our magazine because here we’ll dig for Goya’s darkest secrets, once hidden in the...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy