'Heaven is an idea, a piece of ancient internal knowledge. It is not a physical construction'
(Anselm Kiefer, 'Interview with M. Auping, 5 October 2004, Barjac in Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exh. cat., Fort Worth, 2005, p. 168).
Painted in 1977, Maria is one of a major series of forest paintings made in the mid-1970s and early 1980s in which Kiefer drew on ancient Christian themes and intertwined them with other mythologies and mystic beliefs to create a richly personalized iconography outlining Germanic history and his own artistic and spiritual evolution. 'I think a great deal about religion' Kiefer said at this time, 'because science provides no answers' (Anselm Kiefer, quoted in M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, Chicago, 1987, p. 26). Maria is a work that embeds a fiery vision of the Virgin Mary into the Teutonic forest iconography that distinguished so much of Kiefer's art during this radical and defining period of his career when he was engaged in a direct confrontation with the ancient Germanic myths and the Romanticism that had led to his country's descent into the abyss of National Socialism.
Emerging from his cathartic reinvoking of the myths that had been appropriated to a nationalistic purpose by Richard Wagner in his operatic retelling of the legends of Parsifal and the Holy Grail for example, Kiefer came also to draw on Christian theology and its themes of redemption and resurrection. In a series of major paintings that equated the great Teutonic forest of myth with the destiny of the German soul, he interwove these themes with archetypal symbols to create a series of works whose central theme seemed to be that of life as an eternal cycle of tragedy and redemption. Painterly invocations of a dark forest or of the attic-like interior of a wood cabin reminiscent of the artist's own studio which was itself situated in the forest at this time, these great paintings, among them Ressurexit (Sanders Collection, Amsterdam) and Quaternity of 1973 (Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth) for example, often include a representation of Satan in the form of a snake. As in Maria, this snake's powerful symbolic presence in these works is not simply as a representation of evil or of the anti-Christ. It, like the mystic spiral or the artist's palette used in other works from this time, is a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between redemption and destruction as well as between good and evil. In these early paintings, the snake represents Satan as a chthonic earthbound creature, the 'fallen angel' who is a primordial link between heaven and earth and the fourth component of a celestial hierarchy that includes, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Like so many of Kiefer's dramatically-scaled and epically-themed paintings, Maria too is one of the artist's earliest works to invoke the theme of the cosmic and hermetic link between heaven and earth, between the celestial above and the earthly below, between spirit and matter, mind and body and of an individual's life being a link between them. This is a theme and a motif that runs throughout much of Kiefer's work from this period onwards - the representation of personal existence as being like Jacob's Ladder, one that leads from the earth to the stars. It is a motif that is in fact hinted at in the structure of this painting, with its flames rising from the black 'nigredo' of the earth, through the spiral of the coiled snake and the bark patterns of the trees to become flames and then the fiery celestial body of Maria seemingly burning amongst the archangels, Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel, Michael, Seraphim and Cherubim. This highly painterly depiction of the rising energy from the black earth to become the red spirit, mirrors the alchemical transformation of matter into spirit and the rising of 'kundalini' -- inner spiritual energy -- through the body and into the mind as taught in Yoga.
Maria is one of the first of a series of works that Kiefer has continued to make periodically throughout his life, centered on the theme of the order or hierarchy of the angels -- a sense of celestial ordering inspired by the writings of Dionysus the Areopagite (the First Greek convert to Christianity). Depicting a hierarchical ordering of angels in the heavens and a coiled snake lying on the earth below, these works symbolize the eternal law of all mystic philosophy as originally set down by Hermes Trismestigus, of the mystical union between heaven and earth -- 'as above, so below'. It is a union usually symbolized in later paintings by strips of lead interconnecting the angel's names with the earth below. In Maria, this interconnection between the celestial angels and the dark chthonic forces of the forest floor have been represented by thick black lines of paint that like the bars of a cage seem to echo the verticality of the trees in this dense dark forest. The naked fiery figure of 'Maria' represents a pictorial coming together of all this complex network of mystical references. She is the divine feminine presence that exists in almost all myths and archetypes. Drawing on alchemical and kabbalistic iconography, Kiefer presents her here, not as the Virgin Queen of Heaven, but as 'Shekinah', the Kabbalistic concept of God as a divine feminine presence. Physically she forms the fiery body of spirit that like Yggdrasil, the World Tree, interconnects the ground with the sky, man with the angels, the Teutonic forest with Valhalla and the German Soul with its redemption. While departing to some extent from its Christian origins therefore, Maria is a painting that remains as its title indeed suggests, a powerfully devotional work invoking a strong and universal sense of spiritual hope and belief in the powers of redemption. RB