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

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In summation, these unique design concepts seem to point to personal, German, and international points of commonality or distinction in human experience and history, related to the achievements of the intellect in life, the burden of consequences in life, and the subtle but pervasive presence of the Divine in life, all pivoting around apparent paradoxes and in essence, waiting for resolution in a realm beyond this one. The mounting criticism against the window program, which peaked in 1984 and completely overwhelmed its supporters, may be categorized as a series of binary oppositions hinged on a religious dispute, a historical debate between ideations of traditional versus progressive views of identity, a class struggle between so-called experts and laypeople, a political argument between conservatives and liberals and socialists, and yes, a major brawl between Philistine garden gnomes and the cultural cognoscenti of Heidelberger. The timbre of these complaints far exceeded any discussion of the aesthetic merit or cultural significance of the assemblage, which satisfied the commissioning panel.

The persistent contentions against Schreiter’s windows revealed a greater disjunction, involving timeless oppositions that are particularly reinforced by Germany’s educational placement system: those identified as elite or expert, versus the ‘regular’ people on the street. As the director of Heidelberg’s contemporary art museum wrote to a priest being brought in to mediate at the church in 1988, well after the University’s anniversary deadline of 1986, “You probably know that almost all the experts enthusiastically support this project, but that the ‘media clique’ and the ‘Old Heidelberger club’ are just as vehemently against it.”27 If Schreiter’s advocates ever openly insinuated that laypeople were not equipped to judge the aesthetic quality of Schreiter’s scheme, they would have brought violent public accusations of cultural snobbery on themselves. Yet, paradoxically, Schreiter specifically included symbols from everyday life, like traffic signs, precisely to appeal to children and adults of all backgrounds. Simultaneously, Schreiter wanted to reinforce the church’s rich blend of intellectual achievement, Reformation scholarship and responsible royal sponsorship of knowledge, but to do so in terms that could engage the international tourists who coursed through the church —tourists who, incidentally, bankroll the facility’s operation with their entrance fees.

Some of the commission’s advocates still weep in frustration when they recall the rancor of the debate, and the loss of opportunity; some claim to suffer from stress related illnesses related to the controversy. “This project is exceptionally courageous and qualified,” the director of Heidelberg’s contemporary art museum pleaded. “It would be a terrible tragedy if it were hindered by fear or incompetence.”28 A leading Heidelberg theologian, Theo Sundermeier, remarked, “The designs…show us what theology really is—its dimensionality and its perplexities, its opportunities and its dead ends. By theology, I do not mean what is being done in theology today. I mean what theology could be. The art…is ahead of our reflections, which will have to catch up later.”29 The issue went right up to the top. In Bonn, President Richard von Weizsäcker, who had garnered international attention in 1985 by diffusing Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic faux pas during a trip to Germany’s concentration camps, wrote to the minister in charge of the project, “I regret that the circumstances have not made it possible for Heidelberg to receive this beautiful gift…The strength and power of its concept compel me to respect it greatly.”30

None of this is to say that Schreiter’s designs languished in a padlocked flat file. In constant demand, Schreiter moved on to other projects and possibly even benefited from ten years of constant press coverage. In subsequent years, the popularity of the window sketches as exemplars of contemporary culture has soared, judging by their reproduction on hundreds of book covers and textbooks, in particular. Several windows designs have been sold separately, or donated at the fabrication cost of approximately 45,000 marks [$62,000 USD] each to various museums, clinics, universities, hospitals, and cultural centers in Germany and abroad. At 75, Schreiter shows few signs of slowing down—and his recent design schemes still present a wide variety of conceptual approaches, none of which emulate the Heidelberg windows.

Dissenting Heidelbergers ultimately demanded their right to an art that was completely comprehensible at one glance, as we expect the public to do in art controversies. Some feared that Schreiter’s startling new iconography would somehow mutilate a traditional ideation of identity that, in reality, might be more ideal than real in its religious beliefs or perceived political alliances. What remains of the intense Heidelberg controversy is the memory of a passionate and relatively high-level public discourse about contemporary art, in a church setting, on a national level–possibly for the first time in modern German memory. The concerns reflect on questions about contemporary ecclesiastic design, national patrimony, and the preservation of history, as well as the classic divisions between town and gown. If anything, the labored debate proved in no uncertain terms that art really does still matter to the public. It also reveals that the artist and his supporters underestimated the power of the vox populi, assuming that the sheer genius and of the design concept, with its inherent goal to elevate great Germans and Germany’s contribution to modern thought, might carry the day. No one anticipated the great stir about clashing iterations of what constituted appropriate or true depictions of the German identity. As Alon Confino and others note, German nationhood has yet to be fully understood simultaneously as a sum and a collection of disparate parts, or an ideal as well as a reality in the continuing ripples of the postwar era. While merely a small vibration in this overarching national discourse about identity, the Heidelberg controversy exposed the travails of a nation that is still trying to locate cohesion in the shattering aftermath of the Holocaust and Hitler.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.