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.
This is the image of Peter Bokelmann, the priest:
Christ, I pray: shape him in your likeness.
A. D. 1572.
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.
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.