Bokelmann’s shade

I am in North Frisia right now, spending a few days by the North Sea shore with my son. I fell in love with this primordial landscape when I was a child myself (rather longer ago than I care to admit).

Today, among other things, we paid a trip to Husum, the district capital and birthplace of famous German novelist Theodor Storm. In Husum’s church of St. Mary, a building otherwise most austere, I encountered the following memorial:


The frame, as a German inscription at the top reveals, was restored in 1901 by one Wilhelm Jensen ‘der ursprügl. Bemalung getreu’, i. e. faithful to its original decoration.

The monument’s central piece is a painting of a man who is identified by an added Latin poem (a rather inelegantly formed elegiac distich) as well as a date and an indication of his age at the time of his sitting:

Ista Peteri Bokelmanni pastoris imago est
hunc precor ad formam, Christe, refinge tuam.

Anno Christi

Anno aetatis
suae 68.

This is the image of Peter Bokelmann, the priest:
Christ, I pray: shape him in your likeness.

A. D. 1572.

Aged 68.

Peter Bokelmann (1505–1576) was a Lutheran theologian of the first generation. He came to Husum in 1527 as a teacher and then, after a period of absence, again in 1552 as a preacher.

After his death, as a number of old books reveal, the following lines were added to the painting (again in the form of elegiac distichs, and again without much metrical skill):

Umbra Bokelmanni datur hic tibi conspicienda:
membra cubant infra, mens tenet astra poli.
Quinque fuit lustris in coetu pastor Husensi:
laus post fata eius vivida semper erit.

Bokelmann’s shade is here for you to behold:
his bones rest below, his mind grasps heaven’s stars.
For twenty-five years he was the priest in Husum’s parish:
his praise will live forever after his demise.

While the two hexameter (= odd) lines give specific information, the pentameter  (= even) lines of the poem consist of segments in common use in contemporary funerary poetry; they express the belief in a divide of below (as permanent dwelling for the mortal remains) vs. above (for the immortal soul, here thought of as the mind – a mind that reaches for the stars) as well as the desire for eternal praise.

What struck me, however, was the image (no pun intended) created in the first hexameter: the painting is referred to as umbra Bokelmanni, Bokelmann’s shade, for the beholder to see.

Umbra, ‘shade’, when it comes to paintings, is a term that in ancient sources is used specifically to refer to the dark elements of paintings, but also to denote a faded appearance, a semblance, something of lesser quality than an effigy. On the other hand, umbra can refer to shades in the sense of apparitions, ghosts – the dwellers of the underworld.

In an otherwise rather pedestrian poem, use of the loaded, multifaceted term umbra – just ahead of a line that, just like death, separates the physical remains (membra) from the spirit (mens) – referring to a dark painting that captures likeness of the late Peter Bokelmann, seemed rather imaginative.

And yet the umbra, the shade from the other side, is fixed and under control: datur … conspicienda, it is presented here, ‘is here … to behold’ – nothing creepy about it.

What is imagined as alive and thriving alone is his laus, his everlasting praise.

A fair judgement: 441 years after Bokelmann’s death, we still get to commemorate him.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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5 Responses to Bokelmann’s shade

  1. Lovely memorial. He looks like a very serious, thoughtful man. I read Theodor Storm as a teenager and remember how he brought the landscape and people to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. chattykerry says:

    North Frisia looks beautiful. Happy Easter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very Happy Easter to you too!

    Liked by 1 person

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