Painting Goethe’s Faust: 6 Walpurgis Night

Fritz Roeber (1851-1924), Walpurgis Night Scene from 'Faust' (c 1910), oil on canvas, 186 x 206 cm, Museum Abtei Liesborn, Wadersloh, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

After Gretchen has attended a mass for the dead at the cathedral, and fainted there, Faust and Mephistopheles head off to celebrate Walpurgis Night in the Hartz Mountains.

Saint Walpurga, an abbess in France in the eighth century, is reputed to have fought many of the people’s problems such as rabies, and stood against the practice of witchcraft. According to legend, the night before her feast day became a celebration by witches, particularly at an event claimed to take place on the highest peak, the Brocken or Blocksberg, of the Harz mountains in central Germany. Among non-witches this is also an occasion for lighting bonfires to ward off evil spirits.

At Faust’s insistence, he and Mephistopheles walk up the Brocken rather than flying on broomsticks or riding goats.

Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869), Faust in the Mountains (c 1821), oil on canvas, 48 x 38 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Goethe’s friend the polymath Carl Gustav Carus painted Faust in the Mountains in about 1821, but curiously shows Faust alone, avoiding direct allusion to Goethe’s story in the form of Mephistopheles.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Faust and Mephistopheles on the Blocksberg (1826), brush and grey and black ink over pencil on vellum, 24.5 x 18.5 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix’s illustration in ink on vellum of Faust and Mephistopheles on the Blocksberg shows the pair ascending the slopes.

Mephistopheles summons a will-o’-the-wisp to light their way, and the three sing a song as they reach the middle peak, from where they get a good view of the main summit being lit like one huge bonfire. A strong gale almost blows them from the mountain.

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Faust and Mephistopheles II (1922-23), woodcut published in ‘Walpurgis Night’, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1923, the German Expressionist Ernst Barlach published a book containing forty of his woodcuts showing scenes from Walpurgis Night. Here he shows Faust and Mephistopheles II (1922-23) as they stand together watching the witches assembling.

They then hear the chatter of the witches as they converge for their gathering. Mephistopheles declares himself to them, so that he and Faust can make their way through the seething crowds. Faust says that he’d rather be experiencing this on the summit itself.

Mephistopheles talks with a group of men: a general, a minister, a parvenu and an author. A pedlar-witch tries to sell them her goods, then Mephistopheles spots Lilith, an ancient wanton spirit whom he describes as “Adam’s first wife”. Faust sees two of them, and dances with the younger, exchanging quips about apples with her. Mephistopheles cavorts with the older, making ribald anatomical jokes. Others join in, notably a ‘Mr Arsey-Phantarsey’.

Richard Westall (1765–1836), Faust and Lilith (1831), oil on canvas, 248.4 x 174 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Westall’s painting of Faust and Lilith from 1831 was shown at the Royal Academy that year. A beautiful and very naked young Lilith is cavorting with Faust, as a thoroughly malevolent Mephistopheles looks on from the left. Behind are orgiastic scenes set on the mountain. Westall marks the evil of the occasion with a snake, snail and lizards in the left foreground.

Although Westall is now little-known, at the time that he painted this he was Queen Victoria’s painting teacher, and had an established reputation as both painter and illustrator. He also painted several portraits of Byron.

Faust then spots a young girl standing alone, who he recognises as Gretchen. But Mephistopheles warns him that she is but an apparition. Faust expresses regret at what he has done to Gretchen.

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), Gretchen II (1922-23), woodcut published in ‘Walpurgis Night’, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Barlach’s woodcut of Gretchen II from 1922-23 shows her walking past a large boar, with Faust and Mephistopheles in the background.

Fantasy Based on Goethe's 'Faust' 1834 by Theodore Von Holst 1810-1844
Theodor von Holst (1810-1844), Fantasy Based on Goethe’s ‘Faust’ (1834), oil on canvas, 111.6 x 75.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1990), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Several artists have produced composite fantasy views of Walpurgis Night which centre on the figure of Gretchen. Theodor von Holst’s Fantasy Based on Goethe’s ‘Faust’ (1834) puts Mephistopheles beside her as she stirs a witches’ cauldron. Holst was a Latvian who settled in London in 1807. He became a pupil of Henry Fuseli, and followed his teacher’s themes and style.

Fritz Roeber (1851-1924), Walpurgis Night Scene from ‘Faust’ (c 1910), oil on canvas, 186 x 206 cm, Museum Abtei Liesborn, Wadersloh, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Fritz Roeber’s Walpurgis Night Scene from ‘Faust’ from about 1910 shows Gretchen standing in white, with her eyes shut tight. To the left of her are Mephistopheles, in red, and Faust. They are surrounded by flying witches holding pitchforks, and in the background are the rocky slopes of the Brocken.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), Marguerite at the Sabbath (1911), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée municipal de Cognac, Cognac, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s Marguerite at the Sabbath from 1911 shows a composite in which Gretchen is lit by the bonfires, and clutches the limp body of her baby. This anticipates the conclusion of part one of Faust.

The scene ends, and there is an intermezzo sub-titled The Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania, in which many different characters speak in turn as if in a play being peformed to the Walpurgis Night gathering. This ends, and Faust and Mephistopheles return to find Gretchen in prison.