Gladius Dei

by Merrick Doll

Gladius Dei (1902) is a novella by Thomas Mann. It follows the story of a radically religious and ascetic youth, Hieronymus, as he attempts to eradicate a painting of a Madonna that he finds especially sacrilegious. The story takes place in Munich in the early 1900s and raises the question of art’s relationship to religion, a theme that Mann develops in later works as well. The work reaches its climax as Hieronymus experiences a vision of the sword of God (Latin: Gladius Dei) as it destroys the art found everywhere in Munich at this time.

Munich as Florence

The story and first section begins with a lengthy description of the city of Munich, which Mann describes as being “luminous.”[1] The choice of Munich as the background for this story is extremely fitting, as in the early 1900s it had the reputation of being a city of art.[2]The first section devotes itself to setting up a comparison between Florence and Munich. The weather in Munich is reminiscent of Florentine weather, and many of the buildings mentioned in the description are built after originals in Florence. Mann also chooses to mention “picturesque oldsters, youngsters, and women in the costumes of the Alban Hills” (p.86). Mann’s allusions to Italy work to blur the line between Florence and Munich and the 15th and 20th centuries, which becomes important later in the story.

Art manifests itself in all aspects of the city, from the architecture of the buildings to the vast number of art boutiques with display windows full of sculptures and paintings to the men whistling the Nothung motif as they walk down the street. This motif is from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner is well known for his use of the leitmotif, which had a significant influence on Mann and his writing style. This story contains multiple literary versions of this technique. The most noticeable of these is his subtle but frequent references to swords, such as his choice of the Nothung motif. Nothung is the name of the sword from Wagner’s opera.

Amongst these many boutiques, M. Blüthenzweig’s stands out, located on the famed Odeon Square. The description of Blüthenzweig’s boutique endorses it as the most outstanding of all the shops and gives the reader some idea of the art displayed there that will later serve as the conflict of the story. As the description of Munich draws to a close, Mann repeats the assessment that “Munich was luminous” (88), bringing the introduction full circle and ending the first section of the four-section novella[3].

Hieronymus as Savonarola

The second section begins with the entrance of the story’s main character, Hieronymus. Mann’s description of Hieronymus is highly reminiscent of a particular historical figure, Girolamo Savonarola, although this name is never actually mentioned.[4] Mann achieves this comparison by adding at the end of the description that Hieronymus’ face “thoroughly resembled an old portrait painted by a monk and preserved in Florence, in a harsh and tiny monastic cell, from which, long ago, a dreadful and devastating protest had been uttered against life and its triumph…” (88-89). Girolamo Savonarola was a 15th century monk known for his radical stance against art, whose portrait greatly resembles the description of Hieronymus, having also an “angular protuberance of his low forehead” (88) and “dark eyebrows [which] grew extremely bushy at the narrow root of his nose, which jutted, big and bulging, from his face, and his lips were strong and blubbery” (88). Savonarola resided in Florence, and his famous protests and movements against art took place there. As the story continues, the connection between Hieronymus and Savonarola develops further.

Hieronymus finds his way into an empty church and while there stares intently at a crucifix, remaining motionless until finally genuflecting and leaving the church. Ludwigskirche, the church Hieronymus enters, has a large fresco, which depicts an apocalyptic scene. This painting foreshadows the final scene in which Hieronymus experiences a vision of the apocalypse.

After leaving the church, Hieronymus makes his way to “the beauty emporium owned by M. Blüthenzweig” (90). There, he observes the painting that sparks the entire conflict in the story; it is a painting of Mary and the Christ child, a Madonna, and one painted so as to be fairly promiscuous. Hieronymus listens in on a conversation occurring between two young men standing next to him. They discuss the painting, and its effects on them are obvious. One of them even states that the painting makes one question the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Christian idea that Mary was born and remained pure for the entirety of her life. These statements are blasphemy to Hieronymus, who is inwardly disgusted with the painting, and he stares intently at the painting, paralleling the way in which he earlier stared that the crucifix. Hieronymus eventually turns to leave, ending the second section.

Hieronymus Decides to Act

The third section begins with an explanation that Hieronymus remains plagued by the painting, even after departing the shop, so much so that “no prayer could drive it away” (92). Three days have passed, during which Hieronymus makes a transition from an observer to an actor.[5] He experiences a call from on high bidding him to raise his voice against the blasphemous artwork. Hieronymus claims that he is slow of tongue (yet another reference to Savonarola, who was known for his poor oratory skills) but in the end decides to depart for Blüthenzweig’s boutique, determined to enforce “God’s will”, just as Savonarola had attempted 500 years earlier (92-93). The very short third section ends with Hieronymus leaving for the popular art boutique.

The Confrontation and Vision

The fourth and final section begins with an impending storm, paralleling the eventual storm of fire, which Hieronymus envisions at the conclusion of the story. After a glance at the infamous painting, he enters the shop. Upon entering he makes note of the patrons already inside. Among these is Blüthenzweig’s assistant, who later contributes to the ensuing argument with Hieronymus, sparking the discussion of art’s relationship with religion, during which Hieronymus makes clear his position that sexually promiscuous artwork has no place in God’s world.

When Hieronymus first enters, the proprietor of the shop is busy. When Hieronymus finally gains his attention, Blüthenzweig airily inquires as to his business in the shop. Hieronymus explains that he wants the Madonna removed immediately, never to be exhibited again. At first, Hieronymus is somewhat shy in his requests, but as time goes on, and so does the ensuing argument, he becomes a fiery opponent, paralleling his transition from shy observation to strong action. Blüthenzweig refuses to remove the painting, and the more he refuses, the strong Hieronymus becomes in his resolve, eventually calling for the art to be burned. Here, the parallel between Hieronymus and Savonarola reaches its highpoint, as the Italian radical monk is well known for having burned artworks in a massive bonfire in Florence. Hieronymus’ calls for the incineration of the Madonna reflect Savonarola’s actual incineration of artwork in Florence in the 15th century.

Hieronymus’ arguments include the assessment that art has become too obsessed with so-called beauty and is no longer used for its purpose of glorifying God. He exclaims, “It is criminal to pursue the exaltation and blasphemous adoration of Beauty in order to confirm, strengthen, and empower the ignorance of shameless children and audaciously heedless adults, for they are remote from suffering and even more remote from Redemption!” (98). Finally, after the argument has worn on too long for Blüthenzweig to tolerate Hieronymus any longer, the proprietor has his assistant Krauthuber, a man of massive proportions and minimal intelligence, toss Hieronymus out the door to crash down upon the doorstep.

Hieronymus stands up and looks around, seeing everywhere blasphemous works of art. As he looks around, he begins to experience the final climactic vision, that of the flaming sword stretching over the city. This vision links him once again with Savonarola, who claimed to have experienced a similar vision.[6] His exclamation at the end of the story “Gladius Dei super terram…Cito et velociter” (102) are the words of Savonarola, who claimed to have seen them with the sword in the sky during his own vision.[7] The fourth section and entire story ends here, leaving the reader to wonder at the authenticity of the vision as well as to contemplate the struggles of Hieronymus, whose exploits in Thomas Mann’s Gladius Dei provide an interesting analysis of the conflict between art and religion as well an intriguing juxtaposition of a 15th century ascetic monk into the society of early 20th century aesthetic Munich.

  1. ↑ Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), p. 85. All subsequent parenthetical references are to this volume.
  2. ↑ Vaget, Hans Rudolf. Thomas Mann-Kommentar zu sämtlichen Erzählungen (München: Winkler, 1984), p. 102.
  3. ↑ Ernst Fedor Hoffmann, Thomas Mann’s “Gladius Dei”, PMLA, Vol. 83, No. 5 (Oct., 1968), pp. 1353-1361. Published by: Modern Language Association, Stable URL:
  4. ↑ Hoffman, p. 1354.
  5. ↑ Hoffman, p.1354.
  6. ↑ Hoffman, p.1357.
  7. ↑ Hoffman, p.1357.