Redemption and Transformation

Making Sense of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal

in Religion and the Arts
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The article discusses Richard Wagner’s last music-drama, which today is the traditional Good Friday “opera” in New York, Vienna, and other venues around the globe. I argue that Parsifal utilizes traditional Christian symbols and thereby transforms them, in order to help transform the world of the audience. The first part of the article summarizes the dramatic conflict and analyzes how the work appropriates the Christian symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. I also look at Wagner’s essay “Religion and Art,” which was written during the composition of Parsifal and presents an ethical critique of Christianity in the name of “true religion.” The second part of the article presents two assessments of Parsifal, both of which acknowledge its inherent religious symbolism but come to different conclusions regarding its significance (Christian versus atheistic). The third part of the article offers an alternative interpretation and implies trajectories for further research.

Redemption and Transformation

Making Sense of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal

in Religion and the Arts




400. In a letter from October 1858Wagner explains that the affect of pity is not determined by the individual condition of the suffering person but by one’s own perception of the suffering. Only “in our co-suffering we encounter suffering as such” so that “my co-suffering turns the suffering of the other into a truth” (Golther 51–52). As Parsifal shows this occurs not instantaneously but as a process.


C. Wagner 1. 1072; 26 September 1877. “ ‘Parsifal’ has nothing to do with a church or a dogma for here the blood turns into bread and wine whereas the reverse is the case in the Eucharist.” Cosima Wagner “Letter from February 20 1878” cited by Borchmeyer in “Erlösung und Apokatastasis” 146.


C. Wagner 1. 537; 20 June 1872. In 1880 Wagner commented: “It always is the same: people see what happens in the churches and confuse it with [genuine] Christianity. […] The path from religion to art is bad but the path from art to religion is good” (C. Wagner 2. 475; 13 January 1880).


Cf. Friedrich NietzscheSämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe 1. 47 (henceforth: KSA).


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    Figure 1

    Richard Wagner, Parsifal (1882), Beginning of Prelude

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2

    Richard Wagner, Parsifal (1882), Prelude, final bars

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