A museum in Germany has discovered the gravestone of an 18th-century aristocrat who is believed to be the inspiration for the Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White.
Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal is said to be the real-life fairytale heroine Snow White. Born in 1729, Maria grew up in her family's castle in Lohr am Main, a medieval town in northwestern Bavaria. Sophia was the daughter of Philipp Christoph von Erthal, special ambassador to the Prince Elector of Mainz. She died in 1796 at a convent in Bamberg, about 60 miles east of Lohr. Her gravestone was lost after the church where she had been laid to rest was demolished in 1896. A family has since discovered the gravestone at a house in Bamberg and donated it to the city's Diocesan museum.
According to museum director Holger Kempkens, Sophia's life was "the nucleus" for the Brothers Grimm fairytale which was published in 1812. "The story of Sophia's life was well known at the start of the 19th Century," he told The BBC. "The Brothers Grimm made literature out of the stories they heard from local people. There are indications – though we cannot prove it for sure – that Sophia was the model for Snow White."
As a child, Sophia was described in local archives as a "girl of unusual loveliness" who was "charitable toward the poor and the suffering." When she was in her teens, her mother died and her father married a "markedly domineering" widow called Claudia Elisabeth von Reichenstein who, by all accounts, wasn't very fond of her stepdaughter and excluded her as much as possible. Sophia never found a husband and later moved to Bamberg, where she went blind and died later aged 71.
The town of Lohr is proud of their alleged connection to the Brothers Grimm fairytale, hence its monicker 'Snow White City.' Local scholar Dr Karlheinz Bartels has found parallels between Sophia's life and that of the fictional Snow White. The town of Bieber, to the west of Lohr, was famous for its mines. Its tunnels were only accessible to children who were presumably hired to "work all day and get no pay." A magic mirror referred to as 'The Talking Mirror' can still be viewed today in the Spessart Museum in Lohr castle. It was seemingly a present from Sophia's father to his second wife and possibly the inspiration for the "mirror mirror on the wall" in the story.
While the fairy tale reference to Sophia is "more of a gag" for Bamberg's Diocesan museum, Kempkens says that the discovery of the gravestone is still very important. The fact that a woman in a male-dominated society at the time got her own gravestone was something rare and special.
The Diözesanmuseum am Domplatz 5 is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Further information can be found here.