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

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One proposal for twenty-two new windows in Heidelberg, along these conceptual lines, stirred up the most intense controversy on record involving twentieth century stained glass. The story began with artist’s sketches in 1977, and ended with cancellation in 1989 after a prolonged series of violent debates. Die Heidelberger Fensterstreit (literally, “Heidelberg’s squabble”) put commissioned artist, Johannes Schreiter, in Rhineland newspapers for nearly a decade.

The call for twenty-two new large-scale windows constituted a commission of monumental importance. First, if completed, it would distinguish its host site, one of few remaining Romanesque church foundations, with an entirely unified window program. Second, it would constitute the largest glass commission ever granted to a single artist. Third, it would have ranked as one of the largest twentieth century glass installations in the world.9 Yet, what some heralded as an international landmark in the history of glass design, the most original modern theological statement in glass, or the most fascinating intellectual concept ever elucidated in the medium of glass (literally), others decried as morally debased, unpatriotic, and even blasphemous.10

On all sides, the question of the appropriate expression of German identity—subjectively filtered through the eyes of its beholders—provided the fuel for a rancorous twelve-year debate about the iconographic content of these windows as it compared to the national sense German self-identity. In the end, only one window was installed at the site as a trial in 1986,11 and the sketches that illustrate this presentation have become collectible art forms in their own right.

University of Virginia history professor Alon Confino makes the observation that the reunification of East and West Germany in 1989 more or less dredged up many of the same sticking points regarding what citizens and commentators felt constituted the nation of Germany; a fact that other scholars have noticed in the recent flood of texts that analyze German identity developments. Rather than seeing the nation made ostensibly “whole” again, many West Germans privately abhorred the reattachment of the renegade, non-democratic limb of the East, which would despoil the perceived economic and governmental unity of the West. At Heidelber, a more timeless battle of wits persisted between the so-called cognoscenti (variously listed in the press as the intelligentsia), the elite, and the experts, versus the so-called Philistine garden gnomes, the vox populi of the Mittelstand (middle class), the Kleinburgtüm (the educated lower to middle class), the rank-and-file German layperson (or, in this particular case, the Old Heidelbergers), and a group described by the “elite” as “a Mafia-like mob”.12 Each weighed into the discussion of what constituted an appropriate expression of “Germanness,” especially when validations and rationales were called in to justify the arguments against the window design’s rejection of the traditional and historical, or its embrace of that perceived as progressive, intellectual, elite or futuristic. Part of Germany’s so-called “peculiarity,” as Confino calls it, is the vehemence in the rhetoric that supports each side.13 In reality, these binary oppositions create a dialectical formulation that contains both parts, in constant tension, in its sum. Today, the neurosis that this persistent bipolarity causes is not unlike its impact in effect a century ago, regardless of the fact that the nation’s self-identity has since been strained through the sieves of two World Wars, two mediated capitulations, post-Holocaust propitiation, the triumph of technology, the Euro-ization of Europe, and Germany’s recent reunification in 1989.

In Heidelberg, rather than several validation systems co-existing in dialectical tension, the controversy’s product only left a residue of unresolved tension. In the specific circumstances of the Heidelberger Fensterstreit, architecture provided the stage for a unique passion play, each character played their part as a facet of German identity, and something was crucified in the end—namely, the artist’s concept. The drama unfolded at the collegiate church of the University of Heidelberg, which is Germany’s oldest university, founded as the world’s third German-language institution after Vienna and Prague. The University was founded in 1386 by one of the powerful Palatinate electors, or rulers, from a royal dynasty that claimed lineages from the emperor Charlemagne. Over a five-century span, the Palatine electors built Heidelberg’s iconic castle, which Louis XIV’s troops virtually destroyed in 1693.14 When Goethe was not idolizing the castle ruins with his cadres of Romanticists, he slept in Heidelberg many times; judging by the numerous plaques dedicated to his nocturnal whereabouts, and his circle made the castle ruins an enduring Romantic trope for sublime beauty.

The founding elector expanded the footprint of an early medieval Dominican foundation, which in turn covered a ninth or tenth century church, to create a collegiate church in the fourteenth century, and this relatively modest hall church operated as a University convocation hall until the early twentieth century. In the fifteenth century, one Palatine royal chopped up the hall church configuration—an indigenous German church form represented by a nave and two aisles of equal rather than staggered height—by adding northern and southern upper galleries. As attentive bibliophiles and antiquarians, the Palatines eventually assembled a collection that rivaled Oxford’s Bodleian, comprising at its peak in 1584 an estimated 6,400 books, 8,200 prints, 1,000 parchment manuscripts, and 1,400 paper manuscripts, making it the largest library in the Western world, north of the Alps and the Vatican.15 In one of the earliest examples of academic endowment, they charitably decided to make their priceless library available to the University community.

The upper galleries accommodated bookshelves and lecterns for priceless manuscripts and folios ranging from ancient Greek literature and Arabic medical texts, to Charlemagne’s ninth century Lorsch monastery holdings, to contemporary Reformation scrips. It contained the signature texts of every European language and discipline, in addition to exotic Byzantine, Ethiopian, Syrian, Japanese, and Egyptian manuscripts. The earliest surviving parchments from Ptolemy, Cicero, Seneca, Galen, Aristotle, and Pythagoras among others complemented important examples of early German printing, stellar examples of early cartography, and key theological treatises by Augustine, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, and other church patriarchs. The collection also included the unpublished papers of Reformers like Martin Luther, who were close personal friends of the Palatine electors. The Palatines were among the first German royals to embrace Protestantism, even commissioning the influential Heidelberg Catechism, which was first disseminated in the church in the 1560s.16 Today, however, this priceless legacy in manuscripts is but a pentimento, an asterisk in Heidelberg’s history.