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

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Schreiter’s first conceptual challenge involved unifying the visual jumble of the space, created by variously sized windows and window styles, the collage of restoration attempts, and the claustrophobic effect of the added library galleries. He elected to unify the nave with a restrained color palette limited to beige, white, and red, with black graphic components. Each of the fifteen nave windows was dedicated to a specific academic discipline, reflective of the disciplines included in the Palatine Library.22 Many of the beige parchment grounds suggest an update in the form of computer paper sprockets.

In startling visual contrast, the parchment-like scrolls featured in the seven choir windows pop out of a white ground, starkly punctuated by graphically accurate blood drops that occur at the level of the altar table. Each choir window displays scriptural passages or faithful reproductions of important theological manuscripts once housed in the church, in multiple languages—faithful, except that they extend over 40-feet high. The blood seems to squeeze out from between the parchment-colored veils, evoking the fact that many of these documents became doctrine only through the expense of sacrificial martyrdom.23 The sketches shown here feature the Magnificat and Pater Noster (“Our Father” prayer) lifted from Palatine library manuscripts in at least nine languages.

Schreiter anticipated a shifting internal sensation in viewers, as they moved from the warm red ambience of the nave into the quietly glowing white of the altar area. Flesh tones, for example, would change from a healthy-looking rosy palette to an almost blanched clarity in the apse, literally shot through with light; this is a perceptual experience that was meant to represent “being purified.” In his larger scheme, the red of the fifteen nave windows represents the blood of Christ in its theological role as a cleansing agent in human life, whereas the sacred space of the apse is marked by the purifying white of the Holy Spirit. White, incidentally, repeatedly appears as a visual allusion to the church’s name as the Church of the Holy Spirit or Ghost.

This stark division in the coloration between the nave and apse is inspired by the usual fact that the church operated by Palatine decree, as both Protestant and Catholic sanctuary, between 1705 and 1936. Catholics worshipped around the altar table in the apse, while Protestants used the nave as a preaching hall, and the impost blocks still bear signs of the thick masonry wall that separated them. This agreement settled a long run of rotating faiths, as sixteenth century Palatine electors were among the first royals to embrace Protestantism, but later descendents reconverted to Catholicism. As such, the sanctuary itself was repeatedly reamed by iconoclastic Lutherans (non-liturgical Calvinists), redecorated and gussied up with a sort of vengeance by the returning Catholics, and finally returned to its present state as a stripped-down Evangelical Lutheran hall church.

Shatter marks or broken lines signify the chaos and rupture of an “order-that-is-supposed-to-be” but is not—reflective of the biblical Fall of Man, as well as to generic notions that the world is not quite right, according to Schreiter’s critics.24 In some places, they are juxtaposed with textual ciphers or indicia that evoke Germany during Hitler’s regime. In other words, this visual grammar models a multivalent, multilayered conceptual approach that simultaneously alludes to the scriptural trope of the fissures in a broken creation, the specific violence of the building’s history, the modern memory of the brokenness witnessed by Germans during the war, and the general sense of brokenness implicit in life’s vagaries, which is the pessimistic modern narrative that is particularly apparent in twentieth century arts and literature. Schreiter’s Philosophy and Literature Window alludes to this with a list of influential modern book titles. However, he does not put them in a position of ultimate triumph; the fictional book titles Das Neue Sein (New Being) and Das Heilige (The Holy) top the list. Warte auf God (Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), cut off by the upper foil tracery, provides a visual “path” to this upper zone. Below, an appropriated segment of Karl Jasper’s typewritten “Treatise on the Atom Bomb” anchors the composition, accompanied by a platinum-lined labyrinth.

Signs of fire are significant in Schreiter’s iconography, in Heidelberg and elsewhere. As a natural occurrence, fire provides the essential tool for civilization’s advancement, but also causes massive destruction. In its biblical role, fire just as often purifies and refines as it destroys or winnows. Certainly, fire coming out of the sky caused many a Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”) in many a town and city, thereby creating collective national memory links of fire and shattered glass. Scorch marks in each nave window simultaneously memorialize the fires that threatened the Heiliggeistkirche, and the actual signs of earthly disintegration on Palatina manuscripts, as well as that larger context in modern German national memory. In the Physics Window, which show bible passages written in Blackletter calligraphy, proffer two tenuous possibilities: a promise that God will always love His people from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, but a foretelling that the world will end in a “fiery conflagration” in one of St. John’s New Testament letters. The composition offers no resolution for this contradiction.

The Physics composition most aptly captures Schreiter’s penchant for paradox, which is central to his concept in this case, but also represents a keystone of Germany’s intellectual heritage. The dialectical method, initially solidified by the Enlightenment philosopher, Georg Hegel, holds two opposites together in unresolved tension through the third component of a synthetic resolution. Dialectic logic influences modern thought well into the twentieth century, particularly through the works of theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, or existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. Schreiter is cognizant of this history, as is evident by his habit of quoting their works in his lectures. All the windows contain an unresolved paradox between the benefits and glory of human genius, and the negative consequences that applied human genius often creates. For example, in the Chemistry Window, Schreiter portrayed the formula for DDT, the chemical that has kept agricultural products safe from insects, yet has also proved fatally toxic if ingested by human beings.

In the Physics Window, Einstein’s relativity formula “escapes” through a blue rip in the parchment-like veil. Above, we see the mixed promises of God’s constancy and the world’s end, and below we see a fireball and the date, August 6, 1945, commemorating the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The paradox pivots on two outcomes of genius: while Einstein’s relativity theory indisputably revolutionized science, it also enabled the massively destructive capabilities of the atomic bomb. While the bomb effectively ended World War II in the Pacific, it did so at a devastating, lingering cost to innocent victims and Japan’s environment. Not surprisingly, Schreiter avoids any direct mention of the Holocaust, which is the most negative aspect of Germany’s modern identity. He intentionally focuses attention on America’s aggressive act; in essence, favoring a less explosive metaphor. As Yule Heibel suggested in Reconstructing the Subject, a 1995 analysis of postwar painting, immediately after the war, Germany’s opinion of itself and its culture “had to be re-grounded, because the twelve-year Hitlerian assault on the ‘image of man’ had provoked a crisis of belief in what constituted safe or normal or acceptable behavior.”25 Heibel, a German transplant to Canada, felt that the German conscience after the war needed distance to heal in a place she called “safe from harm.” Schreiter’s reticence to make direct references to the Holocaust might be seen as an expression of this safe remove. Like many Germans born before the war, he will not talk about his experience at that time, as a nine to fifteen year-old.26