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 h]istoric churches were lovingly restored, as the Allied authorities (above all the United States and Great Britain) incorrectly regarded the churches as having been politically uncompromised in the Nazi regime. Germans saw the churches as important symbols of Christianity and of Occidental culture. But the Christian churches were also important symbols of German national identity…. Where the churches were also constitutive of local identities, as in Catholic Cologne, there were added incentives to rebuild them as quickly and as completely as possible… Rarely did West Germany allow ruined churches to stand alone as reminders of German victimization (or sin?) amid the modernized hustle of rebuilt urban centers.

—Rudy Koshar
Professor of German and European Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison1

Germany’s lengthy postwar reconstruction ostensibly provided the unique set of conditions that fostered a significant conceptual departure in the design of large-scale glass installations generically, but inaccurately, known as “stained glass.” After 1945, thousands of churches and civic sites shattered or gutted by Allied bomb raids required provisional and eventually permanent restorations, including glass replacements. Similarly fragmented, the nation’s ideations of its own identity were radically, irredeemably ruptured, and demanded aesthetic responses across all artistic disciplines that diplomatically confronted its citizens’ witting or unwitting complicity in the Holocaust.

Contentious discussion about the most accurate portrayal of Germany’s identity and rootedness, interminably debated by historians and cultural critics for centuries prior to the war, skipped the tracks in response to the consequences of Hitler’s Final Solution.2 Harried considerations of an overarching moral imperative supplanted the traditional discourse, which in the past had ricocheted between the poles of German’s perceived historicity and regional distinctions versus technological prowess and advancement as a truly modern entity.3 The entire basis for the identity discussion seemed nullified by the larger moral implications; those elusive loopholes in the fabric of Germany’s morality that allowed Hitler’s brutal purging scheme to affect such damage. Germany’s moral and national crisis of conscience after its capitulation to the Allies constitutes one of the preconditions—in fact, probably the most essential precondition—that set it apart from the rest of the world after the war.

The Allied Strategic Bomb campaign leveled huge tracts of urban fabric, compromising important historical complexes.4 At first, Allied bomb strategies logically focused on the highly productive, industrialized areas such as the Ruhr valley region, and manufacturing centers such as Dortmund, Paderborn, and Düsseldorf. The nation’s network of port cities on rivers at Cologne, Bremen, and Frankfurt received extraordinary damage, pockmarked by RAF and Army Air Force bombs that did not always reach their intended targets. Border cities, such as Essen, Kleve, and Emden in the west, or Prenzlau in the east and Hamburg in the north, sustained heavy losses.

Unfortunately, Allied campaigns targeted significant historical centers towards the end of the war, partly in retaliation for the great loss at Coventry—as any German native who survived the shellings will quickly explain—and partly as an intentioned strategy to demoralize the German people.5 Bomb raids leveled entire medieval portions of ancient and Hanseatic League trading towns such as Lübeck and Osnabrück in the north, or the gemstone of Germany’s crown at Aachen, or Frankfurt’s city center, which harbored many prominent sites related to the coronation of German royalty. By some estimates, no city under 50,000 inhabitants remained untouched. Major cities or strategic sites, such as Mainz (western Rhineland), Hannover (north), and Prenzlau (east) lost between 75 and 91 percent of their urban and suburban fabric to air raids. The vestiges of destruction immediately become evident in the great volume of dreary, bland postwar housing units visible today in so many urban centers.

If any positive outcome is possible in war, one arguable benefit of the intense Allied firebombing in historic districts involved the exposure of medieval frescoes and foundations beneath the layers of imperial aggrandizement, Reformation whitewashing, and inaccurate baroque or neo-Gothic style restorations in Germany’s most important churches from the nineteenth century. It seemed as if a gigantic and haphazard archaeological expedition had leveled the nation’s centers in a matter of months. Replacing roofing, vaults, built-in artwork (such as altarpieces or historical murals), and glass programs—particularly in church structures—became a priority for West Germany’s reconstitution after the war. The severity of the destruction motivated many preservationists to fight for the reconstruction or refurbishment of the medieval fabrics underneath the overzealous eighteenth and nineteenth-century restorations. In essence, these advocates for historical authenticity wanted to put the structures back “correctly,” and to reclaim integrally medieval fabrics from the heavy hand of historically inaccurate Reinigungen (i.e. “purification” campaigns of recent centuries).6

Many of Germany’s historical churches display official bronze plaques listing virtually parallel building histories. Briefly summarized, these begin with a single-aisled ninth or tenth century foundation, founded by mendicant or missionary orders or Charlemagne, enlarged to three-aisled footprints in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries after the ascendancy of Charlemagne’s dynasty. Abandonment and eventual neglect during the plague years in the fourteenth century, natural catastrophes, and various fires in the seventeenth century, occasioned in certain regions by the Thirty Years’ War, the War of Palatine Succession waged by Louis XIV, inevitably destroyed portions of the original fabric. Eighteenth or nineteenth century “modernizations” all too frequently refashioned the early- to late-medieval three-aisled structures, and signature German hall churches in Baroque or neo-Gothic cladding, to suit the stylistic preferences of the time, and, in fact, to visibly enhance relevant sites as imperially-connected foundations.7 Damage after The Great War led to a spate of archaeological investigations during the interwar period, but after the RAF and Allied raids of 1943 to 1945—always marked by a specific date on historical plaques—the church building is often described as “destroyed,” suggesting complete annihilation, when in fact it might have lost its roof, vaults, and interior artwork. Most church sites in cities over 50,000, however, lost their windows to percussions blasts, if not direct hits. In any case, these programs were often eighteenth- and nineteenth-century replacements from the “purification” phase of restoration. Very rarely, medieval windows remained intact; even more rarely, townspeople had time to remove historic glazing (which was occasionally, and incidentally, mislaid).

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.

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.

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.

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

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.


1Rudy Koshar, in Max Page and Randall Mason, Giving Preservation a History (Routledge, 2004) 66.

2For excellent analyses of German identity issues, see Celia Applegate, A Nation of Provincials: The German Idea of Heimat, referring to the crucial German concept of homeland (1990), and Alon Confino, The Nation as Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National Memory 1871-1918 (Univesity of North Carolina Press, 1997).

3Additional texts that represent this growing area of academic interest include: Imaging Modern German Culture: 1889-1910, edited by Françoise Forster-Hahn (CASVA, vol. 53, 1996); Norbert Elias’ The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1996); and Rudy Koshar, Germany’s Transient Pasts Preservation and National Memory in the Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), as well as Koshar’s From Monuments to Traces: Artifacts of German Memory, 1870-1990 (University of California Press, 2000) and German Travel Cultures (Berg, 2000).

Blending preservation studies with identity as well as contemporary discussions of the role of memory in memorializing history also emerges in helpful observations from James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory (Yale U) and At Memory’s Edge (Yale University Press, 2000); and, The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture, edited by Alon Confino and Peter Fritzsche (University of Ilinois Press, 2002) Sources that focus particularly on art and architecture include Yule Heibel, Reconstructing the Subject (Princeton University Press, 1995), and Michael Z. Wise, Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy (Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).

4From the British side, see the bombing strategy explained chronologically and by city in entries from The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945, compiled by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1985). See also Records of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Inventory of Record Group 243, compiled by Marilla B. Guptil and John Mendelsohn (Washington, D.C.: General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, 1975); Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, vols. 6 and 7, edited by Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf, and Bernd Wegner (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1990); Dennis L. Bark and David R. Gress, From Shadow to Substance 1945-1963, vol. 1, A History of West Germany (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); or recent narrative accounts, such as Robin Neillands, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany, (Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2003), which often provide interesting new glosses on historical statistics.

5Bark and Gress, “The Hour at Zero,” from From Shadow to Substance 1945-1963, 30-46.

6Reinigung literally translates to English ‘purification,’ but often appears as a technical term for restoration in various guidebooks to Germany’s churches; artist Jochem Poensgen alerted me to this fact, and suggested that the word ultimately has the negative connotation of wiping the building free of its authentic past. In other examples, German speakers appropriated the English word “purification.” Interview, Soest, 19 August 2005.

7For many years, Frankish and German monarchs did not claim one capital, but moved about to strengthen their hold over wide regions of the Holy Roman Empire; consequently, although Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) always remained the kingpin, various sites became coronation and election centers until the process was tied to Frankfurt’s St. Bartholomäus, from 1538 to the nineteenth century, and to Frankfurt’s Pauluskirche.

8Walter Maas, Der Aachener Dom “Guide to Illustrations” (Aachen, 2001); and Ruth Schlotterhose, Die Chorfenster im Dom zu Aachen (Einhard, 2004).

9At this time, the largest installations by the square foot are the American Airlines terminal façade at J.F.K. InternationalAirport in New York, installed between 1961 and 1964, and designed by American Robert Sowers [312 feet wide x 22.5 feet high; 7,000 square feet]; see William Uhl, “A Storm Window for the World’s Largest Stained Glass Window” in Stained Glass, vol. 79:1 (Spring 1984) 57-58.

10Rainer Volp, “Unerledigt: Notitzen zum Heidelberger Fensterstreit,” in Lichteinfall: Zeitgenössische Kunst in der Kirche: Beispiele aus der Evangelische Kirche in Hessen und Nassau, (Frankfurt, 1995) 176-179.

11The Physics Window was installed in 1986. Schreiter donated a second version to the Provincial Museum of Alberta, BC, Canada, in 2001.

12Hans Gercke, July 1999 interview in Heidelberg.

13Confino’s preface repeatedly uses the term “peculiarity” to characterize Germany’s particular struggles with identity.

14The castle is presently, perhaps mistakenly, being reassembled by contemporary preservationists.

15Elmar Mittlar, et al. “Bibliotheca Palatina: Gründung und Entwicklung,” in Bibliotheca Palatina: Katalog zur Austellung vom 8. Juli bis 2. November 1986, Heiliggeistkirche Heidelberg (Heidelberg, 1986) 4-16. Ottheinrich instituted a yearly stipend for book buying at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and authorized the library’s first paid librarian.

16One can also see outlines of Calvin and Luther’s footsteps on the nearby University refectory’s steps, where they preached. Both occupied the pulpit of the University church, as well as Philip Melanchthon, whose exegeses were also included in the Bibliotheca Palatina.

17In 1816, the Vaticana returned the German language manuscripts from the Palatina, but this was a minute portion of its original holdings.

18Nave windows range between 104 cm. by 582 cm. high (roughly 3’ to 5’ wide x 19’). The towering choir windows measure 202 by 1224 cm. (approximately 6 1/2’ x 40 ‘ high).

19Heiliggeistkirche Kunstführer No. 1184 (Heidelberg,1992) 22.

20Eberhard Zahn, Die Heiliggeistkirche Zu Heidelberg: Geschichte und Gestalt (Karlsruhe, 1960), describes an excavation in the nave that uncovered the church’s Romanesque foundations, but the wall frescoes cannot all be recovered.

21Schreiter’s international installations or inclusion in collections include sites in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (Names Project, San Francisco; Pilchuck School of Glass; Corning Museum of Glass), where he has also led workshops or lectures in the past.

22Window themes from the apse to the narthex on the northern side: Gregorian music (a transition between apse and nave), Cartography, Medicine, Biology, Chemisty, and Economy; on the southern side, Resistance (the transitional window), Philosophy and Literature, Music, Computers, Media, and Physics.

23Choir windows from left to right: Creation, Torah, Prophecy, Sacrifice/Magnificat (center left), Lord’s Prayer (center, right), Ecumenism, Good Works/Social Welfare, Architecture, the Fall/Crisis, Reformation, Resistance.

24List main authors on Schreiter’s shatter lines.

25Heibel, Reconstructing the Subject: Modernist Painting in Western Germany, 1945-1950 (Princeton, 1995), 2.

26Interview, Langen, July 1996.

27Letter from Hans Gercke, Heidelberger Kunstverein, to Hermann Keller, 17 March 1988. Schreiter archive.

28Letter from Hans Gercke, Heidelberger Kunstverein, to Hermann Keller, 17 March 1988. Schreiter archive.

29Gerd Theißen, “Kunst als Zeichensprache des Glaubens” in Johannes Schreiter: Band II, 1987-1997 (Darmstadt, 1997) 9.

30From Richard von Weizsäcker, President of the Republic, to Father Eschel Alpermann, the minister who innovated the entire commission and later, lost his Heidelberg job when it was finally over. December 1986.