This painting shows an episode from the German poem the Nibelungenlied: King Etzel enters the city of Vienna on horseback.
The Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) is the great story of the Burgundian people, who had settled in the city of Worms in the 5th century, and of their tragic fate. By the start of the 13th century, this tale has been immortalized as an epic poem, popular throughout the courts of Germany.
THE MARRIAGES OF SIEGFRIED AND GUNTHER
Siegfried, a knight from the city of Xanten on the lower Rhine, hears of the great beauty of Kriemhild, sister of the Burgundian king, Gunther, and decides to woo her. Upon his arrival in Worms, only Hagen, Gunther’s most powerful vassal, recognizes him, and relates his heroic deeds: Siegfried firstly won a great treasure from the Nibelungs (two princes and brothers named Schilbung and Nibelung), by slaying them. After taking the Tarnkappe (a cloak of darkness) from Alberich, the dwarven treasurer of the Nibelungs, he rose to become ruler of Nibelungland. Hagen also tells of how Siegfried had killed the dragon Fafnir and bathed in its blood, after which his body became invulnerable. (In fact he had only one vulnerable spot, between his shoulder blades, where a large leaf had rested on his skin as he was soaked in the dragon’s blood.)
King Gunther allows Siegfried to marry Kriemhild, on the condition that he helps him to gain the hand of Brünhild, the legendarily strong queen of Iceland. Siegfried agrees, and upon their arrival in Iceland, Brünhild is most disappointed that it is Gunther, instead of Siegfried, who has come to woo her. Nevertheless, she agrees to marry Gunther if he can best her in three contests of strength. With the use of the Tarnkappe, Siegfried manages to substitute himself for Gunther in the contest, and deceive Brünhild into thinking that Gunther has bested her. Returning to Worms, a double marriage is arranged: Gunther with Brünhild and Siegfried with Kriemhild. Of these four, only Brünhild is unhappy, since she is in love with Siegfried instead. Gunther’s marriage immediately hits difficulties, as his new wife overpowers him on their wedding night and hangs him up on the wall. Siegfried again helps Gunther, and takes his place in the bedchamber, overpowering and restraining Brünhild, so that Gunther can deflower her. Brünhild loses her great strength, which relied on her maidenhood. However Siegfried also takes Brünhild’s ring and girdle, and gifts them to Kriemhild. He returns home with his new wife, where he becomes king of the Nether Lands, and they live happily for ten years.
THE DEATH OF SIEGFRIED
In Worms, Brünhild remains unhappy in her marriage to Gunther, still unaware of how he cheated to gain her hand. Siegfried and Kriemhild return for a festival, at which Gunther treats him as an equal. Brünhild, however, thinks that Siegfried is a vassal of Gunther, and treats Kriemhild as her inferior, leading to a quarrel between the two queens. Kriemhild claims that Siegfried is braver and stronger than her brother Gunther, which she proves by revealing that it was Siegfried who had overpowered her in her bedchamber. She claims (wrongly) that it was Siegfried who had claimed her virginity, and reveals the belt and girdle. Brünhild is mortally embarrassed and Gunther has no choice but to confront Siegfried. Siegfried swears that he never claimed to be Brünhild’s first man, which Gunther accepts.
Brünhild’s humiliation lingers, and she conspires with Hagen (who is jealous of Siegfried’s wealth and prowess) to kill Siegfried. Hagen persuades Gunther, with reluctance, to agree. He then deceives Kriemhild and manages to learn of Siegfried’s sole weakness. Hagen goes on a hunt with Siegfried in the Odenwald, and challenges him to a race. As Siegfried quenches his thirst at a spring, Hagen seizes his javelin and thrusts it between Siegfried’s shoulder blades, his only weak spot, and slays him. Kriemhild is inconsolable at the death of her husband. At his funeral, as Hagen and Gunther move around the bier, Siegfried’s wounds run anew, revealing the traitors.
THE TREASURE OF THE NIBELUNGS
Kriemhild stays at Worms, and after three years she is eventually reconciled with her brother Gunther. He persuades her to bring the Nibelung treasure to Burgundy, to which she has a right, as Siegfried’s widow. Thus Kriemhild becomes fabulously wealthy, but her acts of generosity do not sit well with Hagen. Hagen also fears that she will use this money to raise an army to attack him. He therefore steals the treasure, and prevents Kriemhild from regaining it by sinking it in the Rhine. Gunther does not punish Hagen for this; apart from Hagen, he and his brothers are the only ones who know of where the hoard is sunk.
Some years later, Etzel (Attila), king of the Huns, decides to seek the hand of Kriemhild, who is still the most beautiful woman in the world. She is initially reluctant to marry a heathen, and she still mourns for Siegfried, yet she sees that the marriage will finally allow her to take revenge on Hagen. Etzel and Kriemhild marry in Vienna and travel to Etzelnburg, Etzel’s capital in Hungary. After winning the trust of her new husband’s vassals, she invites her brothers to a midsummer festival in Hungary, knowing that Hagen will also attend. Hagen however persuades Gunther to take an escort of a thousand armed men. In crossing the River Danube, Hagen encounters water sprites who warn him to turn back, foretelling that they are all doomed to die, bar one (a priest). Hagen tries to disprove the prophecy by murdering this priest, but he fails and the churchman escapes. Gunther and Hagen arrive at Etzel’s court but are given a cold reception by Kriemhild. After a day, fighting breaks out, and many Huns are killed. Gunther allows Kriemhild and Etzel, with his vassal Dietrich of Bern, to leave the hall.
Hagen foolishly taunts Etzel, and the battle is renewed. Dietrich manages to overpower and capture Gunther and Hagen, but honorably offers to return them safely to their home. Kriemhild, however, confronts the imprisoned Hagen, demanding the return of Siegfried’s treasure, in return for freedom to return to Burgundy. Hagen responds with mockery, so Kriemhild has Gunther beheaded, and brings his head to Hagen. Kriemhild again demands that he tell her the location of the treasure; when he refuses, she takes up Balmung (Siegfried’s sword) and decapitates him. Upon discovering the bodies of Gunther and Hagen, Hildebrand (Dietrich’s man-at-arms) retaliates by killing the queen. Thus the tale ends in tragedy with the death of all the leading participants, and the treasure of the Nibelungs remains lost.