Johann August Nahl, The Tomb of Madame Langhans
First impressions are too revealing, especially mistaken ones. When I first laid eyes on this porcelain copy of Johann August Nahl’s The Tomb of Madame Langhans at the Getty, my eyes over-saturated with snapshot impressions, I registered the gowned Gothic lady breaking through the crust of her marble tomb, saw the swaddling infant at her breast, and thought: horror. She’s dressed like a Mary Shelley character, but it was Bram Stoker’s Lucy who sprung to mind, the nocturnal lady in white creeping from her crypt in search of children to devour. Puzzled, I stood by the plexiglass case to take in all the details. What was I looking at? Night of the Living Dead: Sturm und Drang Edition?
Reading art through the lens of genre is not so unusual. The established patterns and precedents give us a leg up in making sense of new experiences. When we get the genre cues wrong, though, the miscategorization can result in surreal unintelligibility, as in my case. I wasn’t misreading The Tomb of Madame Langhans. That’s not a strong enough term. It was as if I were reading an alternate, wholly different work––and even now, studying the photograph, it doesn’t line up with my memory at all. The Tomb in my head is more macabre, reimagined to better fit the assigned pigeonhole.
My mistake is too revealing because it shows that, in my mind, the best fit for a work like Nahl’s is in the horror genre. This is strange because I am a Christian, and The Tomb of Madame Langhans is in fact a depiction of the Christian hope of bodily resurrection.
Maria Magdelena Langhans, a pastor’s wife, died in childbirth on Easter Sunday. The death of mother and child on the day Christians celebrate Christ’s victory over death inspired the hopeful vision commemorated on the tomb. Together they are raised on the last day in triumph. The pathos of the scene struck a chord with eighteenth century audiences, too: porcelain copies like the one in the Getty circulated far and wide, exercising an influence on the budding Romantic Movement reminiscent of the craze inspired by Goethe’s Werther. The original audience, Enlightened though they were, did not see the tomb and think of Mary Shelley but rather St. Paul. They possessed a cultural category by which they could properly assess the cues, one that over time has come to be overshadowed even in the minds of those of us who still believe in the doctrine of resurrection.
Can the doctrine alone constitute a hope? Can I call it hope in the fullest sense if it is incapable of recognizing its own reflection in art? Perhaps more is required.
I take a perverse delight in introducing the topics of bodily resurrection and St. John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth by first assuring Christian audiences that “you will not spend eternity in heaven.” Their eyes flare in astonishment. Yet the disembodied future we’ve been taught to anticipate would have been thin gruel to early believers, who expected a future in the flesh. Am I much farther down the path of understanding, if my mistaken my first impression of Madame Langhans’ tomb is anything to go by? Perhaps not. I have eyes that see horror when they look on hope, when I’d be better served with eyes that can see hope when they look on horror.