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

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Germany’s emperor, Maximilian, rashly offered the collection to the covetous Pope Gregory XV during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1628) as an incentive for military assistance. In 1622, Vatican troops led by Bavaria’s Catholic League opportunistically absconded with the entire collection, which by Catholic reckonings had no right to be housed in an upstart Protestant church. They hauled 54 oxcarts over the Alps to Rome in crates scavenged from the church’s pews and planking. The books were folded into the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana.

In light of this history, as the University of Heidelberg prepared to celebrate its 600th anniversary in 1986, the temporary loan of 600 significant Palatina manuscripts from Rome’s Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana represented a huge cultural rapprochement.17 This anticipated momentous occasion provided an opportunity to replace windows that were declared too worthless to repair in the 1950s by Otto Bartning, one of Germany’s leading postwar architects and most recognized modern church designers. Wars and fires had reduced its medieval program to fragmental shards by the seventeenth century.18 Slumping glass, hastily installed during eighteenth and nineteenth century restorations, featured drab geometric patterns in grisaille. It was not only inconsequential in design, but also slumping and pulling itself out of its lead cames. Although Heidelberg was largely spared by Allied bombers, clear glass panes provisionally replaced northern windows lost to a percussion blast in World War II.

Assessing the church’s actual historical value, versus its perceived significance, is a challenge in light of successive wars, fires, changing town fortunes, and overly ambitious restorations. Consequently, very little “authentic” fabric remains intact. The site’s first significant damage occurred in 1693, during the War of Palatinate Succession, when a raft of Louis XIV’s poorly paid mercenaries looted zinc coffin linings, stripped jewelry from the royal corpses, and absconded with religious artifacts. Although the nave survived these depredations, rain dripped through its artillery-damaged roof for decades as Heidelberg languished. By the late eighteenth century, creeping dampness completely penetrated its soft sandstone trim and plaster, requiring the replacement of many pillars, arches, and vaulting ribs. Massive octagonal pillars were so extensively damaged that renovators sanded them into round columns. Overzealous nineteenth century renovators obscured or destroyed medieval frescoes (now partially restored) with abandon, and slathered the walls in bright baroque patterns with gilded accents in emulation of Viollet-le-Duc’s job at Sainte Chapelle in Paris.19 It was probably meant to convey the church’s connection to royalty, at the time. For the most part, this vigorous restoration effectively subverted any future authentication of the original building’s interior archaeological record.20

Architecturally-informed stained glass design, innovated by German designers after the war, takes one of three conceptual approaches in historical settings: it either echoes actual architectural elements or color palettes in the building; alludes to elements and decorative schemes that had once been in the building but are no longer visible; or forms an iconography out of events and personages from the building’s historical narrative. In this case, because the fabric was so piecemeal, and the Vatican had stolen its main defining aspect, the artist attempted to fold the significance of the site and town into a visual dialogue about Germany’s intellectual achievements, combating the brutal legacy of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The commission panel—composed of ten recognized experts in the fields of architecture, architectural history, art history, and theology, as well as two parishioners representing the church—chose Johannes Schreiter, who was a Frankfurt-based artist born in 1930 and was widely considered one of the top ten living stained glass designers in the world. Since 1959, he has installed over 150 large glass programs in mostly German churches, cathedrals, city halls, synagogues, clinics, schools, hospitals, and houses built in every style from medieval and baroque to Brutalist and Minimalist.21 In 1979, West Germany granted Schreiter its highest civilian honor, the BVK (Bundesverdienstkreuze, or National Cross of Merit). Now 75, Schreiter and his constant partner—his wife, artist Edith Diedrichs-Schreiter—recently completied monumental window installations for cathedrals and synagogues in Ulm, Essen, Köningsbuhl, Chemnitz, and Berlin. On average, the Schreiters have industriously developed and fabricated fifteen commissions per year since the late 1980s. Both are active participants in their local evangelical church.

Like many historical European churches, the Heiliggeistkirche, or Church of the Holy Spirit, is largely underwritten by the entrance fees of a dutiful stream of international tourists on their way to Heidelberg’s famous castle. It offers a spiritual base to a dwindling parish of a few hundred local members and a largely disaffected, transient student population. Schreiter’s regard for the Heidelberg church’s primary function as a tourist destination and a repository for cultural patrimony, rather than a worship site, led him to bypass traditional religious imagery. After all, given the specific history of the site, how would prewar religious symbols or traditional, fictitious portraits of saints be relevant to two disparate audiences? First, the German constituency: a people who had been through, were atoning for, or felt complicit in fostering the living hell of the Holocaust. Secondly, how could the concept simultaneously celebrate the town’s rich intellectual and religious history in a way that would be comprehensible, in passing, to swarms of summer tourists from all backgrounds, nationalities, and religions, ostensibly disengaged from Germany’s lingering Holocaust conscience at a personal level?

To engage the tourist clientele supporting the church operation, Schreiter’s design approach incorporated globally familiar or vernacular ciphers from everyday life, such as stock market quotes, EKG strips, traffic signs, and scientific formula. He juxtaposed these with graphic excerpts from influential ancient manuscripts once housed in the space, using the synthesized signage as a metaphorical pointer to overarching ontological themes such as temporality, the vanity and glory of human genius, and the diminished presence of the Divine in modern philosophy.

The actual window concepts can be summarized by several main elements: the symbolism of the intentionally limited color palette, shatter lines, signs of fire, the underlying conceptual framework of a particularly German appreciation for paradox or dialectical method, a mapping aspect, and visual allusions to famous Germans. Each of these has distinct ties to significant aspects of the building’s history, and an ultimately positive sense of German identification with history that trumps the horrible memory of Hitler’s Third Reich. Specifically, Schreiter included allusions to historical celebrities—like Kant, Hegel, Bach, and Einstein—not only because they were great Germans (or Austro-Hungarians), but also because they actually visited or attended the church; which, after all, provided the auditorium space for Germany’s finest University until the twentieth century when the University community outgrew both the physical space and the notion of Christianity. Schreiter’s glyphic repertoire also commemorated fathers of the Christian faith, Reformers, the Romanticists who hovered lovingly around Goethe and the castle ruins, local luminaries like Karl Jaspers, musicians like Mozart, and, more recently, Nobel prizewinner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who performed organ benefits for his African medical mission in the Heiliggeistkirche. Schreiter assumed that these inclusions conceded to Heidelberg’s civic pride as a powerful cultural and intellectual contributor to an important nation. As we will see, Heidelberg was having none of it.