A German museum has put on display the gravestone of a woman who has been put forward as the model for Snow White . It is the marker of a German lady who lived in the 18th century and had a very tragic life. The headstone was thought to be lost for years, but it survived by chance and was recently donated to a museum.
The burial plaque is that of Maria Sophia von Erthal, who was born into a wealthy family, who were members of the local elite in the German town of Lohr am Main, near Bamberg, in Bavaria. The young Maria Sophia was a very attractive girl and loved to help the many unfortunates in the district. Her life changed forever when her mother died, and her father remarried.
Lohr am Main castle where Snow While, Sophia, grew up. (Steschke / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Wicked Stepmother
Her stepmother was a very harsh woman and she appears to have hated her stepdaughter. The Daily Mail claims that she “had a reputation for being domineering and favoring her natural children”. It appears that that she would not let Sophia marry, so she eventually went to live with a poor woman and became blind.
She died in 1791 and had her own headstone which was an unusual distinction for a woman of her time. The church where she was buried “was demolished in 1804 and her gravestone was moved to the local hospital, which was founded by her brother” the Archbishop of Mainz reports Sky News.
When the hospital was renovated in the 1970s the headstone went missing and was thought to have been lost, but in fact, it had been retrieved by a local family. They donated it to the local Diocesan Museum in Bamberg.
Church official Norbert Jung with the gravestone of Snow White, which only resurfaced recently. © Press Office Archdiocese of Bamburg/ Dominik Schreiner / Fair Use.
The Real Snow White?
The Bamberg Museum director Holger Kempkens told the BBC, that “The story of Sophia’s life was well known at the start of the 19th century”. It appears that she was the model for the fairy tale Snow White.
This is the story of a beautiful young woman who is persecuted by a cruel stepmother and finds refuge with the seven dwarves. The evil stepmother gives Snow White a poisoned apple and upon tasting it the princess falls into a state of permanent unconsciousness. However, the tale has a happy ending, when a handsome prince kisses Snow White, wakes her, and they later marry.
Snow While and the dwarves. (Geagea / Public Domain )
The story of Snow White was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century. They traveled all over Germany and heard old stories which they later published in their classic book of fairy tales . It is entirely possible that the brothers heard the sad story of Maria Sophia and wrote her story with embellishments, which they did with many of their famous fairy tales.
Similarities with Snow White
Kempkens told the BBC that “there are indications – though we cannot prove it for sure – that Sophia was the model for Snow White”. There are some undoubted similarities between the story of Sophia and the princess in the fairy tale.
Lohr am Main, was a center of the glass industry and made many mirrors, which play an important role in the Grimm’s narrative . Then the young woman’s hometown was surrounded by a dense and dangerous forest, similar to the one in the fairy tale .
Snow White’s mirror on display at the Schloss. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )
Snow White in the story went to live with the Seven Dwarves. They play a very significant part in the tale. The area of Bavaria where Sophia was born and raised was also a mining area. The Daily Mail reports that “Dwarfs and children did historically work in local mines, as they could squeeze through small gaps”.
All of these elements along with the tragic fate of Sophia inspired the Brothers Grimm to create one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. Because of the similarities, Lohr am Main, has become knowns as “Snow White City” according to Sky News.
Another Snow White?
However, there is another tradition that argues that Snow White was based on the life of Countess Margarete von Waldeck , who lived in the 16th century, in Germany. Margarete’s father also owned a mine, where many dwarves worked, their growth stunted by hardship.
Her stepmother, like Snow White’s, forced her to flee her home and while living in Belgium she met and fell in love with the future Phillip II of Spain . The king of Spain Charles V disapproved of this relationship and allegedly had assassins poison the girl so that his son would not make a politically disadvantageous marriage with Margarete.
According to the fairy tale, the prince awakens Snow White with a kiss. (Handsdown.1 / Public Domain )
No one really knows the historic model for Snow White. However, the people of Lohr am Main are very proud of their alleged connection to the beloved tale. The Diocesan Museum in Bamberg hopes the headstone of the lady who was possibly the model for the fairy tale princess will boost its popularity.
Top image: The gravestone of the woman thought to be the source of the Snow White tale is on display in Lohr am Germany. Source: Mireia Llum / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan