Epitaph for Johann Philipp Bethmann-Hollweg
Bertel Thorvaldsen


Height 91 cm



While travelling in Italy, Johann Philipp Bethmann-Hollweg died in Florence on 20 December 1812, at the age of 21, and was buried in Livorno. His funerary monument was executed by Thorvaldsen for the Bethmann-Hollweg family tomb in the cemetery in Frankfurt. On the left-hand relief panel, the bereaved mother is shown expressing her grief, together with her sorrowing daughters. The place of death is indicated on the right-hand marble tablet by the river god, an embodiment of the Arno, and the lion, the city’s emblem. A female spirit with her foot resting on the wheel of fortune records the deeds of the deceased.

On the central panel his younger brother hastens to the scene to press an oak wreath, symbolizing youth and strength, into the dead man’s hand. Behind Johann Philipp stands a youthful spirit, extinguishing the torch of life and extending a bunch of poppy heads over Johann’s shoulder as a symbol of sleep.

The reference to Greek models is obvious. In particular the standing figure of the sister, the hastening brother, the mourning spirit, the female spirit and the river god are derived from classical models. Through this manner of depiction, charged with symbols and mythological allusions, the death of the young man is transfigured.

The Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, whose artistic talent was discovered when he was only eleven, arrived in Rome on 8 March 1801, a date he celebrated from then on as his birthday. The classical statues in Rome had a lasting impact on his style. He and the Italian Antonio Canova (1757–1822) were the leading neo-classical sculptors. After Canova’s death, Thorvaldsen was regarded the most gifted sculptor of his day.