20. Ruined Tomb, by Wilhelm Schubert von Ehrenberg

by Rachel Coombes – 3 December 2020
Rachel Coombes looks into the finer details of a depiction of an ancient, crumbling tomb
Ruined Tomb.jpg Ruined Tomb, Wilhelm Schubert von Ehrenberg, H 67.3 x W 55.9 cm, oil on canvas

There is something decidedly ‘Romantic’ about the character of this painting. The depiction of an ancient, crumbling tomb, entwined with ivy - its stability threatened by the encroachment of foliage - might elicit from the viewer reflections on transience, death, and decay.  The contrast between the memorial’s luminosity and the dark, mysterious recesses of the grotto that encloses it lend the scene a striking melodrama. Yet the painting, completed in the latter half of the 17th century, prefigures the Romantic period by well over a century. Its creator, the Dutchman Wilhelm Schubert von Ehrenberg, was known primarily as an architectural painter, and seems to have been most interested in rendering in detail large interior scenes, both real and imaginary. The diaphanously illuminated, colossal built environment of Interior of a Church (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) reveals the artist’s savouring of intricate Baroque architectural detail. Although far more modest in scope, Ruined Tomb demonstrates a comparable sensitivity to the theatrical play of light and treatment of staffage (human or animal figures within scenes, which were added for visual interest and as indications of scale).

The warm glow of the stone is facilitated by a light source emanating from the left of the scene - perhaps the setting sun. This glow not only lifts the tomb from the shadows of its stony environs, but also puts into relief the two figures engraved in its central oval. Who are these figures? We will never know. Even their gender is difficult to establish, although the flowing garments on the erect figure suggest a feminine identity. Perhaps she is administering help to an afflicted loved one, whose swooning posture portentously foreshadows his (or her) demise.  What we do know is that throughout the course of the 17th century a number of Dutch painters – including Charles and David de Hooch, Abraham van Cuylenborch and Rombout van Troyen – travelled to Italy to take artistic inspiration from the country’s grottos and caverns, many of which contained ancient Roman ruins and tombs carved with mythological subjects. Van Cuylenborch’s Landscape with Ancient Ruins (Städel Museum, Frankfurt) is a fine example.  Even if Von Ehrenberg did not travel to Italy himself, he may have been inspired by these scenes, flooded with warm Southern evening light, of vanity and decay.

But these two engraved bodies are not the only figures in the scene. To the lower right-hand side we can make out a man, dressed in contemporaneous garb, who, on initial inspection, appears to be reclining respectfully at the foot of the tomb. A closer look reveals a fishing rod in his right hand; his left hand shields his tired eyes from the sun, and his whole demeanour indicates workaday weariness. He seems oblivious to the imposing classical structure that rises magnificently behind him, being intent solely on what he can find in the waters that flow beneath the bridge-like structure on which the monument sits. We have a curious coinciding of the classical and contemporary, the Arcadian and the quotidian. This humble character seems to have been transported from a more traditional Dutch Golden Age landscape painting, in which incidents of everyday life punctuated and animated panoramas of fields and sky.

Of course, the fisherman is also a useful indicator of scale, revealing to the viewer that this tomb was almost as vast as some of the buildings that von Ehrenberg delighted in painting. Its shape, reminiscent of a church façade (with its central part representing the nave and its two stone ‘wings’ the aisles), emphasises its architectonic nature.

Ruined Tomb has a smaller companion piece on the same theme (confusingly it shares the same name), which also belongs to the College. Both works were given to St John’s by Mrs Anne Derham, the mother of William Derham, who was  President of the College from 1748-57. Other gifts from Anne Derham include Landscape with Tree and River Scene by Anthonie Jansz van der Croos, which Dr Jennifer Johnson has discussed in an earlier blog post. Ruined Tomb underwent substantial restorative treatment in 1986, involving the delicate removal of large areas of repainting which had been added in a slightly lighter colour than the original paint - thereby giving the original a somewhat misleading ‘misty’ look. What we see now is a canvas restored as closely as possible to its original appearance.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Rachel Coombes.jpgRachel Coombes is a third-year Art History DPhil student at St John's, where she is writing a thesis on the post-Impressionist French painter Maurice Denis, under the supervision of Professor Alastair Wright. Her broad research interests lie in the interrelationship between music and the visual arts in 19th- and 20th-century France.