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Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 349-353

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Isis Has No Veils

Translated by Michael Chase

In 1814, when the archduke Karl August returned from a trip to England, there was a celebration at Weimar to mark his homecoming. Goethe had the town's drawing school decorated with eight paintings that were intended to symbolize the various arts and the protection Karl August accorded to them.1 Among these symbolic figures executed in the style of emblems, there was one that represented "Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature," with Nature represented in her traditional aspect as Isis/Artemis. In the distant background, behind the figure, a landscape could be seen, which contrasted strongly with the somewhat artificial atmosphere created by this statue of Nature unveiled. Goethe used these same pictures to decorate his own house for the jubilee of Karl August on September 3, 1825, and for his own jubilee, or more precisely for the anniversary of his entry into the service of the archduke, on November 7 of the same year.[End Page 349]

"Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature"

It is very interesting to observe how the same emblem is susceptible of contradictory interpretations. Contemporaries, referring to the notion current at the end of the seventeenth century and during the eighteenth century, interpreted the gesture of Genius unveiling Nature as an allusion to Goethe's scientific activity. On the occasion of Goethe's jubilee, the poet Gerhardt, commenting on this emblem in verse, praised the alliance of poetry and science in Goethe: "Not content with sounding the golden lyre, the poet penetrates within Nature, and dares to raise the magic veil of Isis."2 The illustration that Alexander von Humboldt had placed at the beginning of his 1808 Essay on the Geography of Plants had already alluded to this traditional representation of the unveiling of Isis. Ultimately, however, for Goethe, as we shall see, Isis had no veil.

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Figure 1
Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature, in Goethe, Weimars Jubelfest am 3ten September 1825 (Weimar: Hoffmann, 1825). Frankfurter Goethemuseum, Frankfurt am Main

In fact, Goethe himself, when he imagined this emblem, was thinking of something quite different from the traditional cliché of Science unveiling Nature. In the first place, in the group of pictures painted to honor Karl August and intended to represent the various arts, this emblem was symbolic of sculpture. The brochure published at Weimar in 1825, which was anonymous, but probably inspired by Goethe, gives the following description of it: "A young boy, kneeling [End Page 350] in a modest attitude, unveils the bust of Nature, which is represented symbolically. This bust of white marble alludes immediately to sculpture, as the most perfect representation of creation's most perfect product."3 Here, the bust of Isis/ Artemis symbolizes both sculpture, the art that "represents" Nature perfectly, and Nature herself, who sculpts forms.

It was Goethe himself, however, who revealed the true meaning he attributed to this figure. He composed a series of poems, related to each of the eight pictures I have mentioned, and collected under the title Die Kunst (Art).4 Around March 1826, he devoted three quatrains to "Genius Unveiling a Bust of Nature" that reveal his genuine attitude with regard to the notion of a secret of nature and the metaphor of the veil of Isis. Not long afterward, he took up one of these quatrains in another collection of poetry, titled Gentle Epigrams, in a context that gives a fairly good idea of the meaning these figures and quatrains had for him. I first quote the three quatrains:

Respect the mystery;
Let not your eyes give way to lust.
Nature the Sphinx, a monstrous thing,
Will terrify you with her innumerable breasts.

Seek no secret initiation
beneath the veil; leave alone what is fixed.
If you want to live, poor fool,
Look only behind you, toward empty space.

If you succeed in making your intuition
First penetrate within,
Then return toward the outside,
Then you will be instructed in the best way.5

The second quatrain is reproduced in...


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