Amid our daily interactions and pursuits, we may dream of a quiet life out in the middle of nowhere, a place where there’s no social media and no mention of politics but instead harmony and peace—a place where we might simply get away from it all.
I recently came across “A Player With a Hermit” by the Austrian-born German painter Moritz von Schwind, and this painting reminded me of our need to rest our minds, bodies, and spirits.
The Romantic, Moritz von Schwind, and ‘A Player With a Hermit’
Schwind, a 19th-century Romantic painter, sometimes took elements from fairy tales and folk legends to craft painted scenes of an idealized Austrian and German land and culture.
It is interesting to note that the Romantic movement occurred in response to the heavy scientific rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. Known as the Age of Enlightenment, these philosophies allowed for the fastest material development of production in our known history: the Industrial Revolution.
Many of the Romantic artists, however, thought that a profound spirituality was missing from the scientific focus of the Age of Enlightenment. Romantic artists often focused on the mysterious aspects of life, things that science could not explain.
In 1846, Schwind painted “A Player With a Hermit.” It shows the seclusion offered by a rocky valley, and two people meet: a hermit who has withdrawn into this barren, narrow spot in order to lead a godly life far from civilization, and a minstrel who seems to be staying at this hermitage. The musician has has settled on a rock and blows his bagpipe. The hermit, possibly returning, is completely wrapped in a brown cloak, with his face covered by a hood, so that we cannot tell whether he is happy to greet this visitor or not.
The focal point of the painting is the “player” or “minstrel,” as the German is translated both ways. Modestly dressed, the musician has placed his bindle and hat outside a cave, against a wall where he sits and plays music. He looks toward the left of the composition as he plays his tune.
To the right of the musician is the hermit, who carries his bindle across his shoulder and opens a makeshift gate. Irrespective of the hermit’s face being hooded, he leans toward the musician.
On the left side of the composition, we see into a cave where there is a fire blazing and a pot, which may be used for cooking.
Both figures are surrounded by nature. The arrangement of tree trunks, branches, and leaves harmonize with the angles of the cave to guide our eye throughout the composition.
A Spiritual Need for Rest
To me, “A Player With a Hermit” reveals the Romantic understanding of art’s purpose. The musician is the focal point for a reason; let us say that the musician represents all art. And we can presume, then, that Schwind wants us to know just how important art is.
But why is art important? Let’s first ask why the musician is settled in this spot. This spot is not the musician’s home but the hermit’s home, and the hermit, we must remember, has left civilization to lead a godly life.
The wandering musician appears to have stopped at the hermit’s house to play a tune on his journey, and this tells us that the musician has also left civilization.
The steps at the bottom right are the only visible path the musician could have taken to where he now sits. We can presume that the steps lead back to “civilization.” The steps, however, lead to the bottom of the picture plane, which is one of the darkest areas of the composition.
Is Schwind suggesting that civilization is overrun with darkness? Is this why the musician needs to escape for a while?
The musician escapes to a hermitage, a religious refuge not only outside of civilization’s darkness but also above it. It’s here that the musician can rest and is inspired to play a tune. Is it the case that the artist must rise above the darkness of civilization not only to rest but also to gather the inspiration to create?
Is it the natural setting that supports the “godly life” of the hermit and the inspiration for the musician? The hermit gets everything he needs from nature: His home and food are integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting. As a hermit, he is more concerned with godly ways than he is with material gain.
Though the hermit’s hood hides his face—intentionally, I believe, by the artist to reassert the mysteries of life in contrast to the Age of Enlightenment’s desire to know and explain everything—I think the hermit opens the gate to welcome the artist to his home. How else would a hermit who harmonizes with nature behave toward a guest?
But this leads us back to our question about why art might be important. To me, this painting suggests that the artist who rises above the darkness of civilization, who harmonizes with nature, and who finds rest and inspiration in godliness can create a work of art that does the same for us. In other words, perhaps art can lead us outside and above the darkness of civilization so that we may harmonize with godliness, and there, we find rest.
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.