Unlike the zealots of the Reformation, Schubert had no reason to blame the corruption and bigotry of the church on the worship of images; how could someone with his kind of imagination have been against imagery after all? It was the images which were beautiful and were misused by men to inspire fear rather than love. And Marian resonances went beyond Christian belief. Guided by classically educated friends, and perhaps having visited the museum of antiquities in the Hofburg, Schubert became interested in Greek and Roman mythology. The statues of gods and goddesses were also spiritual ideas turned into image. It might well have been pointed out to the composer that the ancient pagan worship of Venus or Ceres had played a large part in the growth of the Christian veneration (a word which in itself seems to derive from Venus) for the Virgin Mary.
In this song, the simplicity of the forest chapel, no more than an icon set in an oak tree, suggests a pagan shrine; on the other hand, the music for Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, a heartfelt pagan hymn, would not have been out of place in a church. In Schubert's music Christian and pagan, sacred and profane, are sometimes capable of interchange and reconciliation. The accompaniment is mostly in the rich tenor range of the piano and suggests horn music, the sound one may hear from the distant hunt in the middle of a forest. The tender chromaticisms of the vocal line, which suggest a votary's tentative awe, weave around the unblemished C major tonality, a key which often implies clarity and purity. (Schubert chose this key for the last of his settings of Salve Regina, D811, an unaccompanied work for four men's voices which has much of the mellow mood and tessitura of the accompaniment of Das Marienbild.) The repetition of the last line of each verse leaves the supporting harmony more or less unchanged, but miraculously suggests a two-way exchange between supplicant and goddess, a prayer answered in fact, simply by altering the shape of the vocal line, and bringing it to the fulfilment of the cadence. There is also a courtly quality to this strophic song, which in its simplicity of form and ornamented florid vocal line suggests the art of the troubadour, and the Marian cult of the crusades—a favourite epoch of Schubert's Lieder imaginings. It is also a manifestation of the so-called Nazarene movement in literature and painting. Blondel, Richard the Lion Heart's minstrel, is the protagonist of Schubert's song, Blondel zu Marien, D626 (September 1818) which is even more floridly melismatic. We might be tempted to place the shrine of Das Marienbild in Sherwood Forest, and to cast the aptly named Maid Marian as its singer, were it not the fact that the singer Johan Michael Vogl was only to introduce Schubert years later to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe where Robin Hood plays a part. The vocal lines of both Das Marienbild and Blondel zu Marien hint at Vogl's influence however, inclined as he was to 'improve' Schubert's vocal lines by ornamenting them in the eighteenth-century manner of his youth.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991