Der Nibelungen Leid (The Sorrow of the Nibelungen)
Anselm Kiefer, German, born 1945
Oil and charcoal on burlap
118 1/4 × 173 1/4 in. (300.3 × 440 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy


6, 7, 8


Social Studies

Patterns Across Societies

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

The title of this important early work by German artist Anselm Kiefer is a pun on The Song of the Nibelungen, an epic poem from the 13th century whose plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule. The Sorrow of the Nibelungen (Der Nibelungen Leid) is one of the “attic paintings,” a series of works that Kiefer painted in 1973 in his attic studio in Odenwald at the edge of the Black Forest. The painting depicts a wooden room with heavily grained bare floorboards and rafters, much like the artist’s studio.

The 13th century German epic poem, The Song of the Nibelungen, tells the story of the Burgundian ruling family. German composer Richard Wagner, one of Kiefer’s heroes, retold the story of the Nibelungen in his operas Der Ring des Nibelungen, a series often referred to as the Ring Cycle. During World War II, Adolf Hitler used the Nibelungen Lied—along with Wagner’s music—as propaganda.

Kiefer’s work frequently addresses the issue of coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past. In this painting, he has recorded the names of the fallen rulers of the Nibelungen next to their own pools of blood—transforming the popular legend into an elegy for the dead. The naming of the victims makes their plight more real and more personal, memorializing their deaths and the deaths of all those who have been killed unjustly. The swirling lines of the wood grain and the dramatic illusion of deep space create an animated stage on which a violent drama has just come to an end, the visceral remnants and the pain of its effects still fresh.

With its allusions to the Nibelungen and to Nazi horrors, the painting conflates the glory of Germany’s mythic past with the tragedy of its more recent history. Kiefer also created a searing pun in his title: by substituting “Leid” for “Lied,” The Song of the Nibelungen becomes The Sorrow of the Nibelungen.

In one sense, Kiefer works in the grand tradition of history painters. This painting is rendered on a monumental scale that emphasizes the importance of its subject matter. The realistic and detailed representation of the enormous room creates a sense of awe and reverence, while also reinforcing the actuality of events. Kiefer is well known for his innovative techniques and unusual materials. Here, he puts a contemporary twist on the history genre by scrawling names on the canvas, applying paint freely, and employing unusual media. Kiefer chose burlap rather than canvas and added charcoal drawing over the oil painting. The charcoal lines create an effect similar to that of woodblock printing. However, the rough texture of this painting is more immediate than the smooth surface of a print. These unconventional materials and technique reinforce the painting’s emotional power.


  • What do you notice about this drawing? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
  • Why do you think Kiefer chose to render this room on such a large scale and in such careful detail? How does this affect the emotional impact of the painting?
  • What types of colors are used throughout the work of art? What associations do you have with these colors?
  • Why do you think Kiefer has written names beside the pools of blood? What effect does this have?
  • Kiefer chose burlap, rather than canvas, and added charcoal drawing over the oil painting. What does his choice of unconventional materials add to the painting?
  • How would the effect of the painting change if he had used more traditional materials?


  • Keifer’s work frequently deals with the issues of coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past. How is this idea of reconciliation with the past represented within this work of art?
  • In this painting, the artist has recorded the names of the fallen rulers of the Nibelungen next to their own pools of blood. What does the inclusion of their names add to the work?
  • Keifer chose to depict an empty room where the action had just come to an end. How does the deception of the aftermath create a tone of despair? How would the tone change if the artist instead depicted the brutality of war by painting violent action?
  • What is the legacy of the war for the German people today? What about for Jewish people?
  • This painting conflates the glory of Germany’s mythic past with the tragedy of its more recent history. Imagine you are a contemporary German citizen. How do you think it would feel to deal with these issues?

Connecting to the Classroom

  • What stands out most? What does this painting remind you of?
  • How does this painting relate to colonization or conflict?
  • Based on what you see, what might have preceded this scene? What makes you say that?
  • Consider two cultures in conflict. How would each culture interpret this painting?
  • How is the enclosed space like a border? How do the details affect the quality of this border? Is this border economic, social, political, or environmental? What observed evidence makes you say so?
  • To what extent could this painting relate to reform movements?


  • Write a speech or create a multimedia presentation from the point of view of a group of people that were conquered or colonized.
  • Juxtapose with a primary text (written or alternative) of a historical event that addresses conquest or colonization, and have students compare or contrast with a graphic organizer the main ideas inferred.

Subject Matter Connection

In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas—whether economic, social, and or/political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas/principles. In Social Studies, we want our students to critically extrapolate the big ideas that transcend societies.  As students are examining details in this work of art (blood stain, borders, etc.), we want them to take what they visually see and connect them to the ESPN concepts (i.e. conflict between societies, governments, nature).

Resources Available to Order

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.