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 Johann Michael Wittmer  (1802 - 1880)

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Lived/Active: Germany      Known for: painting

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Raffael, die Madonna della Sedia auf ein Fass zeichnend.
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Biography from Kunsthaus Lempertz:
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Wittmer spent fifty years of his life in Rome and belonged to the famous circle of German painters and authors residing in this city in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Born in Upper Bavarian, he was taught - among others - by Peter von Cornelius at the Munich Academy.  He accompanied the Bavarian Crown Prince Maximillian on a sojourn to Sicily, Greece, Constantinople and Asia Minor in 1833, and married the daughter of Anton Koch - the intellectual leader of the German-Roman painters - in the same year.

Wittmer was primarily a narrative painter, covering historical, mythological and religious motifs.  The artist belonged to the later generation of the Nazarenes, and as such his style is most closely related to theirs.  Among other illustrious patrons, his works were collected by the Royal houses of Bavaria, Württemberg and Great Britain.  A brilliant comprehensive study of historical sources carried out by Brigitte Salmen provides us with a wealth of information on the development of the painting Saint Boniface Felling Donar's Oak.  According to this study, the artist began planning the motif as a possible subject for the decoration of the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, which had been reopened in 1855.  Although he never received an official commission from the museum, he still continued working on the painting and completed it in 1861.  A sketch of the motif in ink which Wittmer sent to the Bavarian King Maximilian II in 1860 is now considered lost (cf. Salmen ibid., p. 298, no. 274, illus. 217).

St. Boniface, who is venerated as the “Apostle of the Germans“, worked as a missionary and church reformer in the Frankish Empire during the early 8th century.  He founded numerous abbeys and bishoprics, always making sure the churches he erected were built facing Rome.  One of the most well-known events in the life of the Saint is his felling of Donar's Oak, a tree sacred to the God Thor which grew in the area around what is now Fritzlar, possibly in the spot where the Cathedral stands today.  After Boniface cut down this symbol of pagan faith, many feared the vengeance of the Germanic God which it stood for. However, when the wrath of Thor never came, Boniface took this as a sign of Christianity's superiority over the old Gods and the heathen faith. In a letter of 20.05.1861 to Ottilie, the daughter-in-law of Wolfgang von Goethe, Wittmer writes of this piece: “I am currently working on a large and opulent painting of Saint Boniface thanking God after the felling of Donar's Oak, and the Christian joy at the fall of the heathens. It is one of the most successful and wonderful moments in our history. I hope to have the luck of finding a place for this work in our fatherland someday.” (from the German, in a letter from the Goethe- und Schiller- Archive in Weimar, GSA 40/XX,3,9, cit. from Salmen, ibid. p. 80). Sadly, the artist's wish has as yet not been fulfilled.

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