Light by Gabriel von Max

Light by Gabriel von Max


Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max 

Prague, Czcechia, 1840 — 1915, Munich, Germany

Licht, Blinde Öllampenverkäuferin in römischen Katakomben zur Zeit der Christenverfolgung.

(Light, Blind oil lamp seller in Roman catacombs at the time of the persecution of Christians) 
c. 1872. 
Oil on canvas. 28 x 22 1/2 in. 


Private Collection
Pasadena Museum of Fine Arts (Norton Simon Museum)
Collection of Alex Trebek

A blind Roman slave girl sits quietly at the entrance to the catacombs, dispensing oil lamps to Christians hiding from Roman authorities. On the left, a woman of high birth risks her life by worshiping secretly with the lower classes. The artist Gabriel von Max painted this work, simply titled Light (1873), for the Vienna International Exposition (i.e. World’s Fair).

 Gabriel von Max, c. 1873

Gabriel von Max & Licth (1873)

The son of the sculptors Josef Max and Anna Schuman, Gabriel von Max showed a precocious talent for art, winning a place at the prestigious Prague Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 15. From Prague, Max continued studies at the Munich Academy of Art, where artists like James McNiel Whistler, Emmanuel Leutze, Albert Bierstadt, and Eastman Johnson were also drawn to learn from some of the best figural painters in Europe. Throughout his career Max was drawn to spiritual subjects, often working with archeologists to depict the stories of early Christian martyrs and saints in the context of new archeological discoveries, such as the catacombs of Rome. After distinguishing himself with gold medals from the World Fairs in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna — along with dozens of other contests such as the Paris Salon — Max was made Professor of Historical Painting at the Munich Academy. 

His painting Licht (1873) was shown at the Vienna World’s Fair (aka Universal Exposition) of 1873, where it was highly regarded and widely reproduced in photogravures, lithographs and publications — both religious and historical — on the plight of early Christians throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 Gabriel von Max. Licht (1873) Photogravure. Goupil & Co., Paris.

The work even became a popular subject for nineteenth century tableaux vivant — live recreations of paintings with people and costumes — that were held in public celebrations during last quarter of the nineteenth century among art enthusiasts and during Christian festivals. 

Unknown photographer. Tableau vivant of Licht by Gabriel von Max, held at Villa Todesco, February - March 1893, 23.8 x 16.2 cm. Tate Museum, London.

Writing in 1890, the critic and art historian EP Evans wrote about Max’s “blind girl in the catacombs” that “no one knows better than Max how to infuse a profound and peculiar pathos  of spiritualism . . . into modern life.” (Source:  EP Evans, “Artists and Art Life in Munich” The Cosmopolitan, Vol IX, No. 1, May 1890, 10.)

The painting was quickly acquired by the newly established Museum of the City of Regensburg, Germany (a few miles northeast of Munich then home to many artists). As was the custom of the time, Max was commissioned by prominent collectors to make two more versions of the painting. One is now in the Ukrainian National Museum of Odessa, and this version was given to the Pasadena Museum of Art, now known at the Norton Simon Museum. (It was later de-accessed and purchased by the TV host Alex Trebek, a devoted Christian, who displayed the work prominently in his home.)

In 1909, representatives from Oberlin College and the Brooklyn Museum of Art travelled to Munich to interview Max, both to acquire works and learn how to establish their own schools of art using his teachings. They reported:

For many years [Max] has been deeply interested in spiritualism, and it has been his chief aim to portray in his art the spiritual element in life, as distinct from the merely psychological. The material for this he has found in the introspective faces of nuns, in the devoted nurses of great hospitals, and in all the self sacrifice and devotion to duty which brings great spiritual insight. In so far as his art does not teach the fundamental spiritual meaning of life, he feels that it has failed of its purpose.  (Source: Mary H. Wright “Interview with  Herr Gabriel von Maxx,” Annual Reports of the President and the Treasurer of Oberlin College for 1908 - 1909. Oberlin Ohio: College Press, 1909,  136-137.)

Early Christians in Rome

The full title for Max’s painting is “Light, Blind oil lamp seller in Roman catacombs at the time of the persecution of Christians.” Although no specific person or time for the subject is given, from his personal writings, it is well known that Max was enamored with the book Fabiola, of the Church of the Catacombs (1854) by Nicholas Wiseman (Irish, 1802 - 1865), the first Catholic Cardinal of England and Wales appointed after the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy. In his book, Cardinal Wiseman combines contemporary excavations of early Christian religious sites in Rome with the stories of Saints during the first two hundred years of Christianity.  

At that time, the Roman Empire was officially polytheist public sacrifices to the Gods and, often, Roman rulers, compulsory. While they represent less than .5 percent of the Empire, Christian refusal to participate in ritual sacrifices made the small community an existential threat to the ruling class. During the rule of four  emperors — Nero (54 - 68 AD), Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180 AD), Decius (249 _ 251) and Teronianus Gallus (251 - 253) — Christians were jailed, enslaved, deprived of property, and publicly killed. But, with Roman rulers often seen as deities with their religion deemed illegal, anyone caught openly taking Christian sacraments or professing the faith were persecuted by the pagan rulers of Rome, unable to worship openly in Rome.

In his novel, Wiseman tells the story of a blind Christian slave girl, named Cecælia, who knew by memory the passage of the miles of labyrinthine passages where the faithful met. Cecælia was captured by Roman soldiers after the girl guided the Emperor’s wife, a secret Christian, to a meeting of the faithful. 

Max shows the girl in pure white and holding a lamp, conjuring the parable of the faithful virgins awaiting the bridegroom. 

The palm leaves, reminiscent of Christ’s triumphal entry before the Crucifixion, at the girl’s feet prefigure her own triumphal entry to heaven, along with red flowers representing the martyr’s blood.