Painting Goethe’s Faust: 7 Gretchen sentenced to death

Joseph Fay (1812-1875), Illustration for Faust (1846), colour lithograph, in 'Faust - the Tragedy Part 1', Paris 1846, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

After Faust and Mephistopheles have attended the Walpurgis Night gathering in the Harz Mountains, and following a brief intermezzo, they are seen talking together on a gloomy day, in open country.

Faust laments that his love Gretchen is now imprisoned, and blames Mephistopheles for that, and for concealing the fact from him. Faust wishes that Mephistopheles was turned back into the black dog, as he was when they first met, and calls on the devil to free Gretchen, which he refuses to do. Faust says that he will free the girl himself, but Mephistopheles warns him that, following his killing of Gretchen’s brother, that would be very dangerous.

Mephistopheles offers to take Faust to the prison, where he will disable the guard and steal the keys, for Faust to rescue Gretchen and all three to fly away on the devil’s horses.

In the subsequent brief scene, the pair of them pass the gallows at night on their horses, where witches are engaged in ritual, perhaps in preparation for Gretchen’s execution.

The final and climactic scene in the first part of Faust is set in Gretchen’s cell in the jail. Mephistopheles has stolen the keys as promised, and Faust uses them to unlock and enter the girl’s cell, where she is heard singing a grisly rhyme. At first, Gretchen mistakes Faust for her executioner, and asks to be allowed to feed her baby first, then reveals that she murdered the infant.

Faust calls out her name, and her chains fall off, but she still doesn’t recognise her lover. Then it dawns on her, and she throws her arms around him. Faust tries to take her away with him, but she only wants to embrace and kiss him. He has turned cold, though. He tries to persuade her to go with him, but she is full of remorse for her actions.

Gretchen tells him that she poisoned her mother, and drowned her baby when it was born. She then talks of their graves, and tells him that she can’t leave, can’t escape, and is still haunted by the terrible deaths. Faust tries to carry her out, but she is resigned to her imminent execution.

Mephistopheles appears at the door, warning Faust and Gretchen that dawn is approaching and his night-horses must be on their way before sunrise.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Faust with Margarete in Prison (detail) (1828), lithograph, 26 x 22 cm, Musée national Eugène-Delacroix, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

This is the instant shown in Eugène Delacroix’s illustration of Faust with Margarete in Prison from 1828.

Gretchen says that she awaits God’s righteous judgement, and calls on angels to receive and protect her. Mephistopheles says that she is condemned, but the voice of God declares that she is redeemed.

Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861), She is Judged! She is Saved! (1835), lithograph in ‘Faust’, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Wilhelm Hensel’s lithograph She is Judged! She is Saved! from 1835 shows Gretchen throwing her arms up at an angel in her moment of redemption, as the two men are falling over one another to get away before the sun rises and seals their fate too.

Joseph Fay (1812-1875), Illustration for Faust (1846), colour lithograph, in ‘Faust – the Tragedy Part 1’, Paris 1846, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Fay’s superb illustration from 1846 is also a fine colour lithograph for its time. Gretchen surrenders herself to the divine light pouring in from the upper left. The unmistakable figure of Mephistopheles is pulling Faust away, in flight. Gretchen’s chains, and the jailer’s keys lie scattered on the flagstone floor.

Mephistopheles and Faust exit hurriedly, leaving Gretchen calling for her lover, “Heinrich! Heinrich!”

That is the end of the first part of Goethe’s Faust, his novel story of Faust and his lover Gretchen. It is surprising how few of those who had painted earlier episodes of this story saw it through to this dramatic conclusion in which God intervenes with the girl’s redemption, which finally thwarts the actions of Mephistopheles.

In the next article in this series, I will look at some of the paintings and other graphic art covering the second part of Faust.