Richard Littlejohns assesses the significance of Runge’s Times of Day drawings in relationship to German Romanticism:
“Runge, then, stands at a pivotal mediating point in the development of German romanticism, and in particular in the complicated history of its return to religion. In the Zeiten [Times of Day] he gives visual expression to the nature mythology which Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis and other early romantics had tried to create, regardless of the classicist style in which he worked. With the late romantics on the other hand he shares an interest in folk art and in the Märchen [fairy tales] and the intense patriotism of the period of French occupation. Through his many literary connections – the Schlegels, Tieck, Steffens, Brentano, Arnim, Schelling, Görres – he helped with his Zeiten drawings to transmit early romantic nature philosophy to the late romantics. In so doing he incorporated, whilst barely suspecting it himself, those potentially irreligious elements which the early romantics had failed to recognize. Yet unlike his contemporaries the Nazarene painters, who in their own way were also intensely influenced by romantic writers, Runge retained his traditional religious convictions and did not seek to convert Christianity into a predominantly aesthetic experience: religion is not art, religion is the highest gift of God, it can only be expressed more gloriously and more intelligibly by art. Unconsciously, however, the Zeiten in their assimilation of contemporary nature philosophy reflect the latent ambiguity of the romantic religious revival.”
Richard Littlejohns, “Philipp Otto Runge’s Tageszeiten and Their Relationship to Romantic Nature Philosophy, Studies in Romanticism, vol. 42, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 73-4.
William Vaughan explains the symbolism of Runge’s illustrated frame:
“In this small version of the painting, even the frame has become a drama of light, showing an enactment of the Böhmeian* concept of sunlight as the liberator of the soul. As the sun rises above a blackened earth (burnt by the Devil, according to Böhme), two genii fly out to offer a freeing hand to two images of the human soul encaged beneath the ground in the roots of the amaryllis. The reddish flower of this plant – whose color symbolizes passion – is being opened by the light, and the twin souls are breaking free, their upstretched arms prefiguring the forms of the pure white lily above, upon whose blossoms two angels kneel in adoration of the eternal sun of Jehovah.”
*Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) was a Lutheran mystic whose ideas were influential in Runge’s native province of Pomerania in the late eighteenth century.
William Vaughan, German Romantic Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 63