Above the Saxon spa-town of Oybin, not far from the czech border, there rises an outcrop of volcanic rock with a ruined castle and medieval monastery on top. With wooded hills all around, it is hard to imagine a site that could be more appealing to a Romantic painter, and it became a place of pilgrimage for Caspar David Friedrich and his followers. In this fairly late painting by Friedrich, probably dating to the second half of the 1830's, a young man can be seen dreaming there in the arch of a Gothic window. Naturally at the twilight hour.
The rock viewed from below.
The ruins that are draped across it.
Following in his master's footsteps, Carl Gustav Carus painted this view of the cemetery on Mt Oybin in 1828; for Carus, who was really just a Sunday painter, this shows an unusual degree of technical assurance.
An impression of the ruined abbey by Friedrich from 1810. His disciple Ernst Ferdinand Oehme later used this study as the basis for an oil-painting:
A drawing of the same scene by Carus, 1820; one can see how he has exaggerated the tallness and slenderness of the arch.
Carl Blechen, in his usual fashion, was more interested in painterly effect than romantic uplift.
A slightly more romantic view of the ruins by Blechen from 1822 (but not quite as good I think).
Another drawing by Carus, made on the same occasion as the previous one.
And another painting by Carus, a couple standing at a window in the moonlight, 1828.
The cliff below the monastery came to be known as the Jungfernsprung or Maiden’s Leap. Such names were quite commonly attached to such cliffs in Germany and elsewhere, and stories would be invented to explain why. The Brothers Grimm record three such tales that were recounted to explain the name of the cliff at Oybin (I’ll first cite the German text, not having a translation):
“In der Lausitz unfern der böhmischen Grenze ragt ein steiler Felsen, Oybin genannt, hervor, auf dem man den Jungfernsprung zu zeigen und davon zu erzählen pflegt: Vorzeiten sei eine Jungfrau in das jetzt zertrümmerte Bergkloster zum Besuch gekommen. Ein Bruder sollte sie herumführen und ihr die Gänge und Wunder der Felsengegend zeigen; da weckte ihre Schönheit sündhafte Lust in ihm, und sträflich streckte er seine Arme nach ihr aus. Sie aber floh und flüchtete, von dem Mönche verfolgt, den verschlungenen Pfad entlang; plötzlich stand sie vor einer tiefen Kluft des Berges und sprang keusch und mutig in den Abgrund. Engel des Herrn faßten und trugen sie sanft ohne einigen Schaden hinab.
Andere behaupten: Ein Jäger habe auf dem Oybin ein schönes Bauermädchen wandeln sehen und sei auf sie losgeeilt. Wie ein gejagtes Reh stürzte sie durch die Felsengänge, die Schlucht öffnete sich vor ihren Augen, und sie sprang unversehrt nieder bis auf den Boden.
Noch andere berichten: Es habe ein rasches Mädchen mit ihren Gespielinnen gewettet, über die Kluft wegzuspringen. Im Sprung aber glitschte ihr Fuß aus dem glatten Pantoffel, und sie wäre zerschmettert worden, wo sie nicht glücklicherweise ihr Reifrock allenthalben geschützt und ganz sanft bis in die Tiefe hinuntergebracht hätte.”
The first of these, which became the dominant tradition, is the only one that need concern us. Long ago a maiden came to visit the now ruined monastery. One of the brothers showed her around and took her to see the picturesque cliffs. As he was doing so, her beauty awakened sinful desires in him, and he reached out his arms to grab hold of her; but she fled along a little path that leads along the cliff face, and jumped ‘chastely and boldly’ over the side. This is the exact spot (in a postcard from the 1950’s):
An angel of the Lord caught her, however, and carried her gently down to the bottom. Or alternatively (bringing in a motif that Grimm records in a separate story in his third tale), her ample skirts served as a parachute and brought her safely down to earth. It was sometimes said that she even calculated that this would happen. This is the version that appears in postcards from the 1890’s onward:
This legend reminds one of local tales in which Victorian girls or women are said to have escaped death by just the same means. I used to live near Bristol, where the favourite suicide spot was the Clifton Suspension Bridge (designed by that prince of Victorian engineers I. K. Brunel), which passes 250 feet above the Avon Gorge.
Only three people have survived that fall, two young children (who presumably reached a lower terminal velocity, like cats falling from a tower block) and a young woman called Sarah Ann Henley, who jumped from the bridge in 1885 and was saved by her billowing crinoline skirts. So such tales are not always entirely mythical. Here is a contemporary account, from the ‘Bristol Magpie’ of May 16, 1885:
‘The young woman, Sarah Ann Henley, who jumped off the Suspension Bridge and marvellously escaped instant death, is, strange to say, still alive in the Infirmary, and may possibly recover. We believe that out of the 16 or 17 persons who have jumped off the bridge, only one, on being approached, exhibited any signs of life; death in every case have been apparently instantaneous.
There being a slight breeze blowing on Friday the young woman’s clothes were inflated and her descent was thereby considerably checked and the wind also prevented her falling straight into the water, and she was carried into the mud on the Gloucestershire side.
The rash act was the result of a lovers quarrel. A young man, a porter on the Great Western Railway, determined to break off the engagement, and wrote a letter to the young woman announcing his attention. This preyed on the girl’s mind, and she, is a state of despair, rushed to end her life by the fearful leap from the Suspension Bridge.’
Further details can be found in this article by Brian Gearing from the ‘Bristol Evening Post’ of 2 May, 2000:
‘Friday, May 8, 1885, was the day that broken-hearted Sarah Ann Henley made the history books. She was 22, lived in Twinnell Road, Easton, and had just been jilted by her sweetheart, a Great Western railway porter. He had written, breaking off their engagement after she had stormed into his workplace and harangued his foreman about what a rogue he was and how she had dozens of suitors, all of a higher standing than a mere porter. This had been the last straw in a stormy relationship, during which they argued constantly. Even so, when Sarah’s father learned of the letter, he punched the young man on the nose. But Sarah, it seems, was unprepared for the end of the relationship.
Thomas Stevens, resident inspector of Clifton Suspension Bridge, was watching visitors walking across in a brisk breeze when he saw Sarah climb over the railings and on to the parapet. Before anyone could reach her, she threw herself off. She was blown by the wind across the Bristol side and then turned a complete somersault so that she was now falling feet first to the ground 250 feet below. But the wind blew under her wide skirt and her clothes acted like a parachute, gently slowing down the rate of her fall. That saved her life. The tide below was receding, and Sarah landed in thick mud.
John Williams, of Ashton Gate, and George Drew, who had seen her fall, rushed to her aid, dragged her out and into a railway station refreshment room. Sarah was alive and conscious and able to answer questions but a Dr. Griffith, who was passing at the time, advised that she should be rushed to Bristol Infirmary. A detective called Robertson requested a local cabman to rush Sarah to the hospital but he refused, saying that she would make his cab dirty. Robertson argued with him and even offered him payment, saying Sarah would die if she wasn’t treated urgently. The cabbie replied: “I don’t care - let her die.” He wouldn’t budge, so men were sent were sent to Clifton Police Station to fetch a stretcher and carry her to the infirmary.
It was over an hour before she reached the infirmary where she found to be suffering from shock and severe internal injuries. Sarah recovered slowly but her fame spread rapidly as the girl who had fallen from the Suspension Bridge and lived. She received several offers of marriage while in hospital, and one wealthy suitor bribed a hospital official to ensure that Sarah received his offer of a life of luxury as his wife. Showmen also showed interest in her - one offered her a contract to tour, with £400 down and a share of the profits; another approached her father with an offer of £1,000.
The callous cabby was widely vilified and wrote to the Bristol Times and Mirror to justify his refusal to help. His reason was that he had only just had his cab cleaned and repaired, during which it was off the road and he was unable to earn a living. He called for a fund to be set up to assist cabbies in these circumstances and pointed out, reasonably enough, that the corporation should have had an ambulance available for incidents like this.
Sarah survived her injuries and all the publicity and went on to marry, becoming in later years Mrs. Lane of Croydon Street, Easton. She died, aged 84, on March 31, 1948, and was buried at Avon View cemetery.’
P.S. This is the poem on the second of the Oybin postcards!
Der Jungfernsprung auf dem Oybin
Es war einmal ein Jungfräulein
Aus einem nahen Städtchen,
Die war so nett, so zart und fein,
Es war ein hübsches Mädchen!
Die ging einst nach dem Oybin hin,
Um sich dort umzuschauen.
Auch wollte sie mit frommem Sinn
Im Kirchlein sich erbauen.
Dort sah das schöne Jungfräulein
Ein junger Mönch aus Schwaben.
Der glaubt' es wär' ein Engelein
Und wollte es gleich haben.
Das Jungfäulein erschrack gar sehr
Und machte sich von hinnen.
Der Mönch jedoch lief hinterher,
Als wär' er nicht bei Sinnen.
Und fort ging es im schnellsten Lauf.
Da plötzlich Halt sie machte,
Ein jäher Abgrund that sich auf,
Doch resolut sie dachte:
"Ach was, nur Muth, bald ist's gethan,
Ich spring hinab zu Erden.
Ich hab' ja einen Reifrock an,
Das kann so schlimm nicht werden!"
Und kaum gedacht, war sie auch schon
Hinab mit einem Satze.
Der liebestolle Klostersohn
Zerkratzte sich die Glatze.
Dem Jungfräulein der Sprung gelang,
Sie eilte rasch nach Hause. –
Der Mönch schlich sich mit leisem Gang
In seine stille Klause.
Another maiden's leap (in German, with pictures):