Johann Kaspar Lavater

Johann Caspar Lavater (* November 15, 1741 in Zurich, † January 2, 1801 ) was a Reformed pastor, philosopher and writer from Switzerland in the Age of Enlightenment.


Lavater was born in 1741 as the son of a doctor in Zurich. He first visited the German school, the Latin school, from 1754 onwards, the Collegium Humanitatis and from 1756 to 1762, the Collegium Carolinum in Zurich, where, inter alia, Johann Jacob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger his teachers were. In 1762 he was ordained. In the same year he made ​​and the later painter Johann Heinrich Füssli with calls attention to the unjust and bustle of the former provincial governor Felix Grebel.

1763 Lavater took together with his friend Johann Heinrich Füssli an educational trip to northern Germany in order to train with the enlightened reform theologian Johann Joachim Spalding in Barth in Swedish Pomerania for the ministry further. On the trip there over Berlin, he was with many eminent men of his time ( including Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Moses Mendelssohn, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock ) known and started in Barth, where he spent eight months ago, his writing career initially with critical work.

After his return to Zurich ( 1764) Lavater founded several companies and published the first important texts. In 1769 he became a deacon, 1775, priest at the orphanage church deacon in 1778 and priest in 1786 at St. Peter church in Zurich.

1769 translated Lavater Charles Bonnet Idées sur l' état ​​futur of êtres vivants, ou palingenesis Philosophique as Philosophical investigation of the evidence for Christianity and dedicated this font Moses Mendelssohn to move this to either a refutation or move over to Christianity. This was the beginning of an epistolary debate between Mendelssohn and Lavater, which was followed by the learned public in Europe. Lavater received in support of this dispute by the jurists and theologians Johann Balthasar Kölbele.

In 1774 he met on a trip to the Rhine, among others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Bernhard Basedow and Johann Gerhard Hasenkamp know. Goethe wrote about a meal with Lavater and Basedow a little verse that was a dictum: " Prophete right, prophets left, the child of the world in the middle ". He was accompanied by a native of Ludwigsburg draftsman and engraver Georg Friedrich Schmoll, who stabbed a lot of made the trip portraits for Physiognomische fragments in copper after returning.

1786 Lavater took after he was appointed preacher at St. Ansgariuskirche in Bremen, a trip there. Although he had rejected the spot and remained active in Zurich as a pastor, he was received on the trip and in Bremen with enthusiasm. In 1793 he took on the minister Bernstorff invitation a trip to Copenhagen.

The last years of his life were determined to a large extent by the political events. As Lavater critical of the effects of the French Revolution turned and also strongly criticized the invasion of French troops in Switzerland, he arrived at the Helvetic government under the suspicion of an agreement with Russia and Austria. On 16 May 1799 he was arrested and deported to Basel.

On June 10, he was released and returned to Zurich. When he by André Masséna on 26 September the same year made ​​the wounded soldiers on the street help in the conquest of the city, he was hit by an enemy bullet. 15 months later, he died as a result of his injuries.

Work and significance

Lavater was his " physiognomy fragments to convey the knowledge of human nature and human love" ( 4 volumes, 1775-78 ) are known in which he gave instructions to recognize different characters based on the facial features and body shapes. With this theory of physiognomy, he contributed greatly to the popularity of the silhouette in the second half of the 18th century in Germany. Lavater's theory of physiognomy was lively discussion at that time, among other things, Lichtenberg, Goethe and Humboldt.

In addition, Lavater wrote the " Swiss Songs" ( 1767) the work published in four volumes " prospects in eternity " ( 1768-1773/78 ), the "secret diary. From an observer of Himself " and the " Unaltered fragments from the diary of a observer of his own ", various theological, educational and patriotic works as well as the " Pontius Pilate " (1782-1785) and the " Nathanael " (1786 ). Further, he was also known for his numerous published sermons and various faith-based epic poems like Jesus Christ, or the coming of the Lord (1780 ) and Joseph of Arimathea (1794 ) as well as the religious drama of Abraham and Isaac (1776 ).

After Lavater a street and a school building is named in the Zurich city circle frames. In 1954 ( 22nd District ) was named after him in the Lavaterstraße Vienna Danube city. In addition, the asteroid ( 19263 ) Lavater bears his name.

At his workplace in Zurich a collection is created to his life and work in Lavaterhaus at St. Peterhofstatt 6. There are guided tours and events.



  • Johann Caspar Lavater: Selected works in historical-critical issue. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich Band I / 1: Bettina Volz- Tobler (eds.): early writings 1762-1769. 2008, ISBN 978-3-03823-059-5.
  • Volume II: Ursula Caflisch - Schnetzler (ed.): Perspectives in eternity 1768-1773/78. 2001, ISBN 3-85823-865-1.
  • Volume III: Martin Ernst Hirzel (ed.): works from 1769 to 1771. 2002, ISBN 3-85823-961-5.
  • Volume IV: Ursula Caflisch - Schnetzler (ed.): works from 1771 to 1773. 2009, ISBN 978-3-03823-537-8.
  • Supplementary Volume: Horst Weigelt (ed.): Bibliography of the works of Lavater. Bibliography of books published during his lifetime publications. Scientific Editor Niklaus Landolt, 2001, ISBN 3-85823-864-3.
  • Supplementary Volume: Christoph Eggenberger, Marlis Stähli (ed.): Johann Caspar Lavater ( 1741-1801 ). Lists of correspondence and of the estate in the Central Library Zurich. 2007, ISBN 978-3-03823-354-1.
  • Supplementary Volume: Ursula Caflisch - Schnetzler, Conrad Ulrich (ed.): Anna Barbara von Muralt ( 1727-1805 ) Andekdoten from Lavater's life. 2 volumes, 2011, ISBN 978-3-03823-687-0.