Already 400 years ago, it must have been a spectacular view: Sebastian Münster, the great German Cartographer and Scholar, described it as “a terrifying thing to look at: water turns to foam and white smoke (sic), and no boat, no fish is able to overcome this obstacle” (1).
It is the Cataracta Rheni, or the Rhine Falls (“Rheinfall”) as the cataract is called today. Situated along the Swiss-German border, the largest water fall in Europe is still an impressive sight: The Rhine river drops by 23 meters to form a miniature version of the Niagara falls – both places nowadays a popular tourist attraction featuring those little boats bringing the intrepid visitors to the spectacle as close as possible.
Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) published the first edition of his Cosmographia in 1544. It was the first description of the world in German, and featured a cornucopia of illustrating woodcuts: maps, portraits, plants and animals, not to forget the ubiquitous monsters. Although the description of the waterfall is rather precise, including the height of 12 “klafter” equaling roughtly 21 meters, the woodcut itself is rather schematic, depicting the river as a tongue-like, solid shape.
Nevertheless, this small woodcut has been long held as simply the first pictorial representation of the Rhine Falls. Not any more.
Prof. Felix Thürlemann (University of Konstanz) recently showed that the Flemish artist Joachim Patinir (1480-1524) painted an astonishingly precise view of the Rhinefall twenty years before the publication of the Cosmographia. In the upper background of the oil painting Baptism of Christ back we can detect the familiar rocks between the twirling water with the Laufenburg castle looming above the cataracts.
Joachim Patinir: Baptism of Christ, oil on oak, 59.5 x 77 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The main theme of the painting, the Baptism of Christ, is located in the foreground, where the Rhine is depicted as a calm surface, the cascades frame two other scenes from the life of Christ: John teaching the Jewish people, while Christ himself is waiting nearby, separated from the others. The rumbling, chaotic water of that time will turn into a calm haven one day.
Three hundred years later, another visitor was not very impressed when seeing the Rhine Falls. James Fenimore Cooper (of The Last of the Mohicans fame), during his first stay in Switzerland in 1828 (2), was even disappointed by the view and complained especially about the nearby mills not offering the adequate backdrop settings for the waterfalls:
“[…] whereas these Falls of the Rhine are nearly reduced to the level of a race-way, by the spirit of industry. We were less struck with them than ever, and left the place with the conviction that, aided by a few suitable embellishments, they would have been among the prettiest of the pretty cascades that we know […] We saw no reason, in this instance, to change the impressions made at the former visit, but think, the volume of water excepted, that Switzerland has cascades that outdo this cataract.” (3)
(1) “Ein viertheil meil oder minder von der Statt [..] laufft der Rhein duch viel Felsen und Schrofen / und da er zum understen Felsen kompt / falt er oben herab durch ettlich staffelectige Felsen / etwan zehen oder zwölf Klaffter hoch. Es ist ein grausam Ding anzusehen, Dieser Fall heisst zu unseren Zeiten Am Lauffen. Es wird diss Wasser so es oben herab falt / zu einem ganzen Schaum / es steubt übersich? gleich wie weisser Rauch. Da mag kein Schiff herab kommen / anderst es zerfiel zu Stucken. Es mögen auch keine Fisch die höhe dieses Felsen übersteigen”. Cosmographia by Sebastian Münster. German edition; Basel printing house of Sebastian Heinrich-Petri 1558. Book III (“Von dem Deutschen land”), pages dlix-dlx (559-560).
(2) Aurel Schmidt, 2002: Lederstrumpf in der Schweiz. James Fenimore Cooper und die Idee der Demokratie in Europa und Amerika. Verlag Huber und C. Frauenfeld, p.77.
(3) James Fenimore Cooper: A residence in France with an excursion up the Rhine, and a second visit to Switzerland.1836 edition, p.53. Available under https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7149875M/A_residence_in_France