From the Mirror of the Infinite to the Broken Looking Glass: Unveiling Beauty in German Glass Installations after the Holocaust

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Depending on the site’s relative importance, war reparations took place between 1949 and 1959, although major renovations still occur today. Restoration at Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen (Germany’s most historically important complex) began relatively quickly, in 1949. By 1951, all the windows in Aachen’s so-called Glashaus (a fourteenth-century choir borrowed implicitly from Paris’ Sainte Chapelle) received new glazing in a neo-Byzantine type of expressionism, by Walter Benner, and patterned geometric designs by Anton Wendling. The Glashaus glass covers an area of an estimated 1,000 meters (10,764 feet), at a height of 27 meters (88.6 feet); these are risky proportions that represent one of the highest window formats of its kind.8 Presently, many of Germany’s porous sandstone churches require sandblasting and resealing, complete tower restructuring, and stone restorations that even restore the postwar reparations, since the original masonry, and its hasty replacements in the immediate postwar period, have already eroded.

Naturally enough, the pattern of postwar restoration campaigns directly parallels the number of modern glazing replacements. An independent phalanx of postwar glass artists began to propose radically new design concepts for placement in Romanesque or Gothic contexts. Challenged by the post-Holocaust climate, they skirted traditional religious iconography or pictorial solutions and bible themes, and instead explored conceptual anchorages in each site’s architectural context. Avoiding traditional pictorial or narrative approaches, they appealed directly to the historical narrative, physical aspects, and building records of the host site for inspiration. Rather than providing figurative or didactic illustration that merely filled architectural apertures, even in the putatively updated expressionist or neo-Byzantine styles popularized by Marc Chagall, Briton John Piper of Coventry fame, and others, the most influential proponents of the “new glass” approach approached glass design as an applied art, rather than a solely decorative art, generated by architectonic connections and spatial conditions. Their iconographies emblematized architectural elements or color hierarchies excerpted directly from the physical fabric of the host site, alluding visually to features demolished over the centuries by wars, natural catastrophes, and overzealous nineteenth-century restoration campaigns. This response emerged from a combination of preconditions that were unique to Germany at the time, and therefore developed independently and without parallel in other countries rebuilding after the war.

The concepts driving “new glass” installations tied directly into the pressing issues of physical as well as moral reparation in Germany after the war. Recovering a sense of Germany’s “true” identity, rather than the “modern” identity distorted by Hitler’s Reich, meant that reverting to old forms and symbols in art, and particularly religious art, might be construed as glossing over the moral implications of the Holocaust. On the other hand, adopting the modernist visual vocabularies of expressionism and abstraction might have played into the modern conditions that fomented the war, such as fragmentation or alienation in the case of Germans seeking to reconstitute their identity after World War I.

More pressingly, what could possibly constitute authentic or redemptive beauty in such a pessimistic context, and simultaneously engage the yawning wounds in the nation’s spirit? How were detached religious symbols or traditional portraits of saints and holy figures, in particular, going to matter to people who had been to, or inflicted on others, a living hell? Would not aesthetic beauty rub salt in the psychic wounds of a country confronted by its own moral ugliness? What could address the widespread sentiment that God, perhaps, had abandoned Germany? Or, if God had not abandoned Germany to punish its perverseness, perhaps God was not a very moral deity in the end. Alternatively, perhaps God was a concept that needed to be discarded altogether in this brutal modern era—simply a vestige of another age.

Emulating the medieval regard for light as a metaphysical force filtered through the screen of glass, German designers initially experimented with the anesthetic effect of meditative abstraction directly after the war, but soon moved to a visual language that targeted a broader audience; which was just as well, since many significant cathedrals and churches with dwindling members morphed into tourist destinations rather than places of worship, and began to attract an international and largely secular clientele. To communicate globally without simply playing to the lowest common denominator, German designers began appropriating universal signs, ciphers, and slogans into their design concepts for Gothic window replacements; yet this solution aroused as much ire as admiration in the sponsoring agencies. They began using glass grounds at a higher acrylic contents, meaning that the traditional leaded lines were no longer necessary as supports for the glass inserts, but could become expressive lines by their own right. They appropriated everyday symbols or signs to point to metaphysical meanings, and incorporated the German enlightenment schema of dialectic logic in their conceptual platforms. Nothing like this had ever been seen in glass.

For example, to signify the shattered interruption of German history as a consequence of Hitler’s Third Reich, many artists created breaks, lined in lead, within their compositions. Others created burn marks, or scorch marks, which were occasionally conflated with the wounds of Jesus’ passion in window designs. Others appropriated direct visual excerpts from woodcuts by Rembrandt or Dürer, or famous medieval manuscripts, to suggest that history was on a continuum. Juxtaposing international traffic signals with bible notations transformed such signifiers as “dead end,” “bumps in the road,” or “do not park here,” into visual tropes for the vanity of human knowledge, life’s difficulty, or human temporality in this realm. A graphically accurate, 12-foot high thumbprint simultaneously conjured up associations to God’s presence, individuality, and diversity within a unified group. Stock market quotes excerpted from a daily newspaper represented the temporality of human values, since such information becomes useless within hours after its publication. Bar codes were used to suggest the grooves in classical pillars on one hand, and the dispensability yet distinctiveness of material things on the other. Most frequently, German designers began emblematizing architectural features within historical sites, not only excerpting visual items or color hierarchies, but referring to the building’s archaeology and historical narrative. These commemorative elements or functions had once been extant in the space, but were no longer present as a result of wars, fires, attrition, and in general, the advance of historical time. In a sense, such designs preserved the site’s history.