Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

The Influence of Jacob Böhme’s Theosophical Ideas on the ‘Farbenlehre’ (Theory of Colors) by Philipp Otto Runge

Melanie Öhlenbach – Germany

[This essay was first published in Masonic and Esoteric Heritage: New Perspectives for Art and Heritage Policies. Proceedings of the First International Conference of the OVN, Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in the Netherlands, October 20-21, 2005. Ed. A. Kroon, M. Bax, J. Snoek. The Hague, Netherlands: OVN Foundation, 2005. It is reproduced here in a revised form.]

Melanie Öhlenbach studied Study of Religions and German Literature at the Philipps-Universität in Marburg, Germany, and Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam and graduated in June 2007 (M.A). She works as a freelance journalist in Bremen, Germany, today. This paper is based on her article “Lilie, Licht und Gottes Weisheit. Philipp Otto Runge und Jacob Boehme” in Aries, Journal for the study of Western Esotericism 5 (2005) 2 (Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden).

Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) is considered as one of the most important artists of early German Romanticism. Even though his ideas of a new artistic direction were not unique to his time, he formulated a distinctive spiritual theory to create Wahre Kunst (True Art) and worked all his life to put these ambitions into practice.

Philipp Otto Runge



One of the central aspects of Runge’s Wahre Kunst is his Farbenlehre (theory of colors), published in 1810. It includes not only the explanation of the divine origin of colors but also instructions for their application according to his artistic theory. In this article I will give a short introduction to Runge’s comprehension of Wahre Kunst and briefly explain his Farbenlehre in three steps:
1)    the esoteric origin of black and white as well as all colors, including the symbolic content of the three primary colors;
2)    the effect of application; and
3)    the laws of harmony between colors.

In the second part I will show the influence of Runge’s Farbenlehre on his own works as well as on modern artists. Last but not least, I will raise the question whether the understanding of these works has to be supplemented with Jacob Böhme’s (1575-1624) Theosophical ideas.

Jacob Böhme

Böhme’s influence on Runge’s understanding of art has not been researched in a sufficient way until today. If scholars deal with its religious impact, most of them either refer to Christianity only or mention Böhme’s influence without providing satisfactory proof.1 I believe that an esoteric approach leads to a deeper understanding of both Runge’s works and of the painters influenced by him.1. Theoretical Background

Runge’s spiritual view on fine art is founded on his religious upbringing by his Protestant parents. During his education he became acquainted with current ideas such as Goethe’s programmatic demands in the Propyläen or the theories of early Romantics like Tieck and Novalis. The early Romantics propagated a religious understanding of the artists’ work. Yet, they do not reflect the Christian doctrine in a traditional way but from Jacob Böhme’s mystic and esoteric perspective: God as the creator of the world is perceived to be origin of all things. However, the whole creation became separated from God and fell into matter. Even though it is held captive in the physical world with its dualistic principles, creation still contains a glimpse of its divine origin that reminds of the original unity. Regaining this unity with God by leaving the world of matter behind is the main goal of all life. The understanding of the revelation of light (fiat lux) as it is described in the book of Genesis is central to and the most important key for this process. Therefore, it is not only the responsibility of the sciences but also of the arts to lead creation to its salvation, the so-called Golden Age. This perspective of art is therefore called Wahre Kunst (True Art).

Taking this esoteric cosmology into account, it is not surprising that Runge himself states Böhme’s theosophy as a major influence.

The Farbenkugel (color sphere) illustrates both his theoretical and his religious understanding of colors (fig.1). By borrowing the image of the globe from an edition of Jacob Böhme’s writings, he underlines his relationship to Böhme and his holistic ambitions.2 The Farbenkugel consists of twelve colors: the three primary colors blue, red and yellow, the mixed colors violet, orange and green and six Zwischenfarben which regulate the steps in between. Black and white are placed at the two poles.

The esoteric origin of black and white as well as all colors

Runge defines black and white as Nichtfarben (non-colors). While white symbolizes light and good, black stands for evil and the absence of light.

Fig. 1. Farbenkugel. Collection Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Just as the world is situated in the spheres of good and evil, the colors are arranged between the two extreme poles on the Farbenkugel. However, God has given colors to his creation in order to reveal the way to original unity. In this context, colors can be described as signature rerum, as indications referring to God and Light.

Even though Newton’s results could also have had an influence on Runge’s view on the connection between light and color,3 he owes the idea of the revelation of God and of religion to Böhme. He states that God consists of seven Quellgeister (‘spiritual qualities’) which evolve an eternal light, i.e. the Son.4
Just as Böhme assigns distinctive individual features such as color, qualities and sound to the seven Quellgeister, Runge equates the Holy Trinity with the primary colors. While blue indicates the Father, red symbolizes the Son (Jesus Christ) and yellow the Holy Spirit.

The effect of the application

Runge distinguishes two different types of the utilization of colors: transparent (durchsichtig) and non-transparent (undurchsichtig). With the help of the five original ‘elements’5 – blue, red, yellow, plus black and white – and their specific application, the artist is able to create a whole new world according to his ideas. The application itself bears a spiritual meaning: While non-transparent application only shows the immovable surface of things or the material world, transparent application reveals the vivid spiritual world and the divine origin.

Due to the fall of creation into matter when the divine aspect became enclosed in the dualistic world of black and white, the world can only show its divine origin through colors.

Runge totally agrees with Böhme’s opinion about color. Since the divine aspect is trapped in the material world, all beings will never be totally good or evil, but always remain in between the two forces, as color will never reach the brightness of white or the darkness of black. This condition is central to Runge’s view of the harmony of colors.

The harmony of colors

The mixture of all non-transparent primary colors produces a completely indifferent grey that can also be achieved by mixing black and white.6 Runge explains grey as the mixture of the two forces in the dualistic world – a medium (Mittlerfarbe) – that can neutralize the increasing disharmony by combining material colors. While the combination of two primary colors creates a conflict that can be calmed by grey, the combination of all three primary colors is unsolvable.7

While the combination of two neighboring  colors on the Farbenkugel create a monotone effect and only grey succeeds in lightening the individual features of both colors,8 the combination of two complementary colors which are situated opposite each other on the Farbenkugel – such as red and green, yellow and violet or blue and orange – have a harmonious effect. Runge believes that the boundary between these colors diminishes and is perceived as grey by the spectator.9

Still the phenomenon of disharmony of colors can only be observed with non-transparent, material colors. The mixture of transparent colors that are not bound to matter prove to be pure and white.10 He concludes that all transparent colors have to create a harmonious outcome, just like the original unity of God is harmonious

2. The Influence of Runge’s Ideas

Runge’s Der Kleine Morgen as an example of Wahre Kunst

Runge’s ideas should not remain mere theory. The painting Der Kleine Morgen (fig. 2) illustrates both his religious perspective of Wahre Kunst and his Farbenlehre. The esoteric impact of this painting has long been neglected by art historians.11 At this stage, I would like to give a short summary of its esoteric meaning.


Fig. 2. Der Kleine Morgen. Collection Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The painting consists of two separate parts, an interior and an exterior painting or “frame” that are connected to each other. The interior parting is dominated by a female figure that has often been interpreted as “Venus” or “Holy Mary”, while the child has been seen as “Eros” or “Jesus Christ”.12 Taking the exterior painting, I believe that the painting illustrates the Golden Age before the fall into matter as it is described in Jacob Böhme’s Aurora. The female figure illustrates Sophia, the divine wisdom while the child stands for the first man, the androgynous Adam. The idea of light, the fiat lux, is central to the painting. The top part is held in transparent primary colors, while the foreground already shows non-transparent features. The central axis of both the interior and the exterior picture is light and can therefore be understood as God (and his “female part” Sophia) being the central axis of all. The obvious reflection of light on the child’s body is mere a combination of internal and external light, of the sun and the divine glimpse inside the child.

The frame illustrates the fall into matter and the salvation of nature. At the bottom, the sun is darkened and two children – male and female – are fleeing from it, heading toward two other figures in the corners. Those are trapped under the roots of a plant, showing the entrapment into matter and their bodies fail to show the inner light. It is important to state here that even in this dark corner Runge does not use black, but only a very dark brown. He shows that, even in the darkest place, black (or evil) has not succeeded in taking over the world and that there is still hope for salvation.

Thus, the plant grows upwards, toward the lighter spheres and the red flower of the amaryllis bears a child, raising its arms. Its body reflects the light of the inner painting, the light of Sophia. In the top part of the frame you can see a lily and a winged child kneeling on its blossom. It has lost its sexual features and is bowing towards the top center of the exterior painting: Rays of light surrounded by small heads are reflected on a blue background. Taking the copper-print version of Der Morgen into account, which can be understood as an earlier work on the same theme, these rays symbolize God (fig. 3). In the copper-print, Runge uses the Hebrew name, while in the color version God “loses” his specific Jewish-Christian connotation and becomes a universal concept.

Fig. 3. Der Morgen. Collection Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

In this painting, Runge uses not only his Farbenlehre to illustrate Jacob Böhme’s concept but also a wide range of symbolic features such as flowers,  music and children in various positions, which cannot be discussed here in detail. Thus, taking Jacob Böhme’s writings into account provides the most important key to a holistic understanding of this painting. Most interpretations tend to neglect certain aspects, especially the connection between the exterior and interior painting. By concentrating on specific Christian iconographic symbolism, they risk providing a limited and therefore insufficient understanding of both the artist’s intention and the esoteric, religious and philosophical ideas of that time.

The continuity of Runge’s ideas

Both Träger and Matile state that Runge’s esoteric and theosophical ideas of art mainly continued in the art of the turn of the 19th - 20th century, focusing on the origin of color, its meaning and aesthetic effect.13 Matile claims that Runge’s popularity with some artists is due to their disapproval of the physical explanation of color.14 I would like to give some examples of the similarities between Runge and modern artists and raise the question whether the religious compound of these art theories is a distinctive dogmatically Christian one.

In Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) opinion, it is only color that brings life to things since the artist would fail in picturing the sun itself.15 Color reveals the true nature of things – in esoteric terms: the divine origin – while the surface only reflects their divinity.

Color is understood to be a place where soul and religion meet, where a distinctive religious, but not necessarily a Christian feeling is created.16 The importance of imagination and its psycho-spiritual content can also be traced in Franz Marc’s (1880-1916) ideas. He believed that there is no real and pure art without religion.17

The “religious” component is certainly most evident in Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) view. Art is seen as the expression of the vibrant human soul, its divine origin, which communicates with others. In his writing Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912) he claims that the immovable (unbeweglich) character of grey is due to its mixture of the two non-colors black and white. While white is perceived as a potential nothingness that existed before the creation of all things and in which all material colors are dissolved, black equals nothingness without any potential, death and an eternal silence without hope. The mixture of both symbolizes the balance of the two forces of good and evil, and depending on their proportions it  symbolizes hope and freedom.18

The freedom of art and its creator is also important for Kandinsky: The artist is free to create whatever he wants to, as long as it reflects his inner necessity and genuineness, his inner being. This principle does not only embody the principle of art and esthetics, but of life in general.

Only art founded on this principle is esthetically beautiful and something worth striving for. The revelation of the inner force, the divine spirit, is therefore Kandinsky’s most important request. His belief that only imagination creates perfect art comes very close to Runge’s romantic idea of Wahre Kunst. In fact, he does not oppose being called a Romantic as he is convinced of participating in building a new spiritual era (“Epoche des Großen Geistigen”19), a Golden Age such as Runge had demanded a century before. At this stage, it would be quite interesting to investigate the influence of Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society on Kandinsky’s view, but that would be getting too far away from the issue, even though Böhme has often been characterized as an early theosophist.

Wassily Kandinsky is certainly one of the best examples to prove that some of Runge’s spiritual ideas continued to exist in the 20th century – and were supported by aspects of other esoteric schools. However, I believe that he is not the only one. The term “religious” cannot and must not only be applied to strict Christian dogmas. The European History of Religion (Europäische Religionsgeschichte)20 proves that there have been major influences by non-Christian ideas, which have been adopted by religious philosophers, scientists and artists of the Fine Arts alike. Philipp Otto Runge’s life and works are not fully accessible without the knowledge of Jacob Böhme’s writings. Therefore, it is necessary to include the influence of esotericism in art history in order to review the understanding of the so-called “Christian” terms such as “God”, “Spirit(ual)”, “Soul”. “Nature”, etc. and provide a holistic understanding of an artistic work.


1 The works by Matile (1973) and Möseneder (1981) can be considered as exceptional. Matile, however, focuses on the Farbenlehre and its art-historical context, while Möseneder examines the influence of Böhme on several features of two paintings by Runge.

2 Runge 1981, p. 17.

3 Still, it seems that Runge might never have read Newton’s works, even though he was quite interested in the historical and current developments in his field. The probable ignorance is unfortunately due to his insufficient knowledge of foreign languages, physics and chemistry. Runge 1978, pp. 195 and 185.

4 Böhme 1997, p. 174.

5 Runge calls the three primary colors and the non-colors black and white Elemente (“elements”). Runge 1978, p. 198.

6 Runge 1965, p. 121.

7 Runge 1978, p. 208.

8 Runge 1978, p. 208.

9 Runge 1978, p. 208.

10 Runge 1978, p. 213.

11 As far I know, there are only two articles dealing with Boehme’s influence on the symbolic significance of Der Kleine Morgen. Möseneder (1981) concentrates on the figurative elements, especially on the female figure that he interprets as Böhme’s Sophia. For a more holistic interpretation of Der Kleine Morgen including the Farbenlehre and the copperplate version, see Öhlenbach (2005).

12 Träger 1975, pp. 159-62; Möseneder 1981, pp.61-3, 68-70.

13 Träger 1975, pp. 193-9; Träger 1977, p. 7; Matile 1973, p. 246.

14 Matile 1973, p. 257.

15 Cézanne 1957, p. 20.

16 Matile 1973, p. 251.

17 Marc 1978, p. 111.

18 Kandinsky 1952, pp. 96, 98-9.

19 Kandinsky 1952, pp. 142-3.

20 Gladigow 1995.


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