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Art and Images in Psychiatry
July 2013

Parsifal: Anselm Kiefer

Author Affiliations
  • 1Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(7):656-658. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.1993

What attitude is required if I am to be able to live in spite of evil? … [A] complete spiritual renewal is needed. And this cannot be given gratis, each man must strive to achieve it for himself.… The eternal truths cannot be transmitted mechanically; in every epoch they must be born anew from the human psyche.

Carl Jung, After the Catastrophe, 19451(p217)

Anselm Kiefer’s art is his vehicle for coming to terms with Germany’s wartime past. He was born March 8, 1945, as the last bombs were falling in Germany during World War II. Kiefer’s generation was protected throughout childhood from references to Adolf Hitler and Germany’s role in the Holocaust. For German society, 1945 was year zero as it started to rebuild from the wartime damage, to buildings and to the psyche. For his generation, the letters and belongings from the war years were put away, and the memories of Germany’s wartime past were stored in societal attics of the mind. The details of this past were kept from his generation.

Carl Jung’s examination of the psychological aftermath of Germany’s defeat, After the Catastrophe, was published the year of Kiefer’s birth. In it, Jung writes that each generation must determine for themselves how “to live in spite of evil” (epigraph).1(p217) When Kiefer learned of Germany’s hidden past, he sought to confront it using literary, philosophical, mythological, and theological sources. His search led to a series of paintings of the Parsifal legend. Like Parsifal, Kiefer was protected from exposure to aggression and war during his youth and was propelled to find a deeper meaning in his life as he matured. In his Parsifal paintings, Kiefer examines the mythological archetype of a hero who sought to heal an enduring wound; for Kiefer, that wound was the Nazi past.

The setting he chose to engage past tragedy was an attic. For him, an attic served as a metaphorical storage place to enter and confront discarded and repressed traumatic memories of the Nazi past. The first victims of that Holocaust were chronic mental patients and those with intellectual disabilities deemed “life unworthy of life”2 whose deaths in gas chambers were a rehearsal for what was to come later in the death camps. Only by experiencing another’s pain through empathy could Parsifal restore the Grail, and only through existential engagement through his art could Kiefer come to terms with the past.

Kiefer’s sources for the Parsifal legend were Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic story and Richard Wagner’s music drama. The tale is based on the ancient legend of a Holy Grail knight whose father, the knight Gurmanet, was killed in battle. Parsifal’s bereaved mother abandoned her royal life and retreated to the woods, taking him with her. There she resolved to keep her son from learning about aggression and war. Fearing his early death in combat, she tried to ensure that he would never learn about the chivalric traditions of hunting and armed conflict. So successful was she that the adolescent Parsifal was fundamentally naive about the world. Yet his innocence was lost when he encountered a group of knights in the forest and, unthinkingly, joined their quest without ever saying goodbye to his mother. Soon afterward, mourning his departure, she died of grief.

The key element in the Parsifal myth is how an innocent lacking in common sense is made wise by compassion. Kiefer sought to address the demoralization brought about when learning of the extent of Nazi atrocities by confronting the past in his art. He began at the age of 24 with his Occupations photographs, which were a series of photographs of himself giving the straight-armed Nazi salute as a parody to ridicule the Nazis in locations with historical significance in the different cities that the Nazis had sought to occupy.3 These provocative photographs are a reminder of what happened and the need to come to terms with the past. As the series progresses and is extended, the straight-armed salute depicted by Kiefer begins to waver, suggesting a sense of shame.

Kiefer completed 4 attic paintings of the Parsifal legend. The largest of these, Parsifal, depicts the final scene of Wagner’s music drama. The Knights kneel before Parsifal and sing “Höchsren Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser!” (“Highest, Holiest Wonder! Redemption to the Saviour!”); these words are inscribed above the Grail in Kiefer’s painting (detail). Parsifal’s birth and attainment of chivalric status as a knight are depicted in his other 3 Parsifal paintings, numbered Parsifal 1, 2, and 3.4 In Parsifal, the knight’s name is inscribed at the top center, and the name Amfortas, his predecessor as the leading Grail knight, is shown at the bottom. In the legend, Amfortas, long-time guardian of the holy relics (the Holy Grail and the Holy Spear), is injured by the Holy Spear when it is wielded by an evil sorcerer who has taken the Spear from him. Amfortas lost the Spear to the sorcerer when he succumbed to the temptations of Kundry, an enchantress, and was distracted. Thus, Amfortas bears a wound that will not heal. Afterward, Amfortas, guilty for having sinned, declares himself unworthy of performing the Holy Office and refuses to conduct the Grail ritual entrusted to him, one that physically and spiritually sustained his fellow knights. Without joining in the holy rites, spiritual desolation descends on the Grail knights. It is prophesized that only a fool made wise by compassion could regain the Holy Spear and heal Amfortas’ wound. Parsifal is the chosen innocent (lacking in common sense) who can heal Amfortas by regaining the Spear. Thus begins Parsifal’s quest to reclaim the Holy Spear. Yet Parsifal also falls under the spell of the same enchantress. In the midst of Kundry’s seductive kiss, Parsifal suddenly cries out in pain and rejects her. The pain he experiences, through empathy with Amfortas, is identical to that of Amfortas’ pain. Because Parsifal resists temptation through compassion for Amfortas’ suffering, he regains the Spear from the evil sorcerer. Cursed by the enchantress for rejecting her, Parsifal wanders for many years but eventually finds the Grail Castle. He heals Amfortas’ wound with the Spear and is anointed redeemer, the successor to Amfortas and Guardian of the Grail.

Anselm Kiefer (born 1945), German. Parsifal, 1973. Oil on textured wallpaper mounted on nettle cloth, 300 × 533 cm. © 2013 Anselm Kiefer. All rights reserved. Photograph © 2013 Kunsthaus, Zürich, Switzerland.

Although Kiefer’s painting seems to reenact the Parsifal legend, its setting in the attic of past memories and the way it is depicted give it a double-edged meaning. Despite the naming of the hero in the painting, the song of praise, and the depiction of the Grail itself (detail), something is amiss. For this Grail resides in an attic, out of conscious memory. How can this hidden Grail be restored to consciousness as a symbol of renewal? Unlike the traditional Grail, Kiefer’s Grail seems to overflow with blood. But is it the blood of the Savior or, instead, the unredeemed blood of past German atrocities? Must those atrocities be atoned for before the meaning of the Grail be restored by emotional confrontation with the wartime past? Kiefer’s art in the ensuing decades addresses this task of atonement.4

Detail of the Grail from Parsifal.

Carl Jung was attracted to the Parsifal legend long before Kiefer was. Jung’s engagement with the legend emerged during his midlife crisis in the years before the First World War when he recorded a series of inner dialogues and elaborated on them in his Liber Novus (Red Book).5 Jung wrote that those years of psychological turmoil resulted in all his later writing. Psychological Types (1921)6 was the first book he wrote after this prolonged period of active imaginative encounters. In Psychological Types, Jung interprets Amfortas’ wound as psychological, not physical. In this book, the wound itself takes on mythic meaning, as Jung addresses the human tendency to psychological dissociation and fragmentation when an individual is unable to master life experiences or come to terms with psychological trauma.

For Jung, the legend of Parsifal and the Holy Grail largely has to do with mastering and resolving enduring unconscious maternal ties. Jung used the term incest symbolically to describe psychological regression. In Jung's mythic view, the temptation to incest is not a literal or symbolic genital seduction by the personal mother; instead, it is a seduction to regress into a blissful dissolution of personal identity accompanied by fear of independence.

Jung described the mythic journey of the hero who must overcome the symbiotic relationship that results from overidentification with an engulfing, overprotective, archetypal mother. Such overidentification thwarts the drive for independence. The child must break free from symbiotic maternal overprotection to find his or her own identify.7 In the legend, Parsifal was so enmeshed in his relationship with his mother and so overly identified with her that he did not have a name. “Parsifal” is derived from Fal Parsi, which means “pure fool.” For Jung, Amfortas’ regression and breakdown result in an always open and never healing wound. His wound represents a failure in psychological differentiation.6,8 Sexuality and sexual seduction are not the major issues. Rather, Jung writes that Amfortas relapses into a “brutish attitude” that is the cause of his suffering and brings about his loss of power.”6(p219) The seduction is symbolic, and his psychological wound results from his ambivalent submission to a biological urge and results in a loss of vitality.

The issue is deeper than that of repressed sexuality. The Spear and Grail are not sexual symbols because the Spear is both the source of Amfortas’ injury and the means to cure it.6 What is important is an individual’s cognitive attitude toward sexuality or power. Our conscious attitude determines how we judge ourselves. Amfortas views himself as having sinned and is unable to act, not so much because of sexual seduction but because a value that determines his self-worth has been rejected (as a result of his behavior). By choosing to rescue himself from these restless sexual compulsive instinctual urges, Parsifal maintains his vitality and unites the opposites of the feminine symbol of the Grail and the masculine symbol of the Spear within himself.6

Parsifal is Wagner’s final completed music drama. Wagner first conceived of this work in April 1857 but did not finish it until 25 years later.9 For Wagner, Parsifal was the culmination of his inner journey. He took advantage of the particular acoustics of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Germany to perform it. It was finally performed at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882, the year before he died. So meaningful was it to him that it be produced in the Bayreuth Festival Theatre that he designed, it was only produced there for the next 2 decades after his death. What appealed to Wagner in creating his Parsifal was not a particular religion but religions as a source of myths and symbols. In them, he found his means to illustrate spiritual truths. In Parsifal, he draws on both Christianity and Buddhism for his views on compassion—action based on empathy that emerges from “suffering with” another person. What is awakened in Parsifal is “a sense of fellow-suffering.”10(p237) Through his identification with Amfortas, Parsifal has an astute insight into the first Buddhist Noble Truth, that of dukkha (suffering). This insight leads him to embark on a path to find its cessation. Through self-denial and empathetic reflection, Parsifal realizes the interconnectedness of all of life and restores the Holy Grail to its rightful place.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Note from the Author: This month the cover art for JAMA Psychiatry permanently moves inside to accompany the psychiatry commentary. The June issue was the last issue with art on the cover. Cover art, initiated in November 2002 (128 issues), was conceived as a Meyerian portal to each issue. Meyer’s psychobiology emphasizes that the person is the main subject of study in psychiatry and thus each cover has introduced an artist as the personal exemplar for a psychiatry theme. The introductory monthly commentary will now serve as that portal to introduce each issue and will continue the emphasis on the person. The journal contents that follow examine the underlying levels of psychobiological organization and experiences that influence the person, among them: molecular, genetic, neural circuitry, diagnostic, environmental, and interpersonal. I look forward to your comments in the months ahead.

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