The arts, that is. Over at Ricochet, Dave Carter asks, “Whither the Arts?” in the context of his visit some years ago to the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) and in response to an article by Camille Paglia. It seems as though he was quite simply gob-smacked, like many people when first confronted with the tangible evidence of a piety that we modern Americans have been . . . well, “indoctrinated” is about the only fitting word, to believe not only ought not exist but cannot exist in polite society.
Been there, done that; know exactly what he’s talking about. Cologne was a city in Roman times. It has always been important. As impressive as the cathedral there is, and as true as is every word in Carter’s post, what has impressed me every bit as much, if not on a purely aesthetic level, is the same piety expressed in the churches in small towns all over Europe. Cologne has been an archbishopric for centuries (you can tell because the cathedral has two spires; a mere bishop got only one, although sometimes when a bishopric got fleeted up while the cathedral was under construction, they left it with one, as with the Münster in Freiburg). As an archbishopric it could access comparatively vast wealth. Smaller towns, not so much. The admittedly lesser artistic treasures to be found there came from the locals.
There are still craftsmen, and piety, and selfless devotion out there. Oddly enough, so I read recently, church membership and attendance is highest in the former East Germany. It’s as if, you know, having lived under religion’s sworn enemy for 45 years, they know to appreciate what the rest of us, in our oh-so-jaded worldly sophistication, view as being quaint at best, per sé offensive at worst.
In February, 1986 I visited Dresden in company with a passel of other college students. They’d already re-built some of the baroque show-pieces, such as the Zwinger. But the Frauenkirche was still a 40-odd foot tall pile of rubble, with two chunks of charred, gouged wall sticking up.
It had been built between 1726 and 1743, and at the time was the largest domed structure north of the Alps. Its architect, George Bähr, was among the very first in the central European area to self-identify as an “architect.” The church was built as a municipal church, by the city. The court of August the Strong (sufficiently “strong” that he was rumored to have fathered some <ahem!> 300 children) was Roman Catholic, he having been elected King of Poland in 1697. He warmly supported the church’s building, and granted concessions where he could afford them, but in the end it was the people of Dresden, through their city fathers, who built it. It was considered the crown jewel of the city known as Florence on the Elbe.
We fire-bombed it during the night of 13-14 February, 1945. No one really knows how many people, nearly all civilians and refugees from the Red Army’s onslaught, were incinerated. The Frauenkirche was not actually destroyed by the bombs. What brought her down was the heat of the flames, which caused the stones in the supporting columns to collapse under the 12,000 tons of the double-shell dome. And there she lay for another 45 years.
Right around the time that East Germany was packing it in, a group of prominent citizens decided it was time to re-build, and to use as much original material as possible. Being German, after all, they’d saved the plans. And so as they unstacked the rubble, one stone at a time, they mapped out in 3-D exactly where they found each usable original stone, and used a computer program to determine as exactly as possible where in the original structure that stone came from. And then, being German, they put it right back where it belonged. They re-built the altar from over 2,000 separate pieces they dug out. The result on the outside, by the way, is an intriguingly speckled appearance, the originals being stained nearly black with 200 years of soot as well as the residue of the 1945 fires, and the new stone being a light honey color. Being German, they also decided to re-build it as exactly like the original as possible, using materials identical to the original as well.
The reconstruction cost roughly €180 million. Approximately €100 million of it was raised through private subscription, from all over the world. The largest individual donor was an American who won the Nobel for medicine and donated his entire prize money. The British ponied up for the new cross, and by wonderful irony the smith who actually fashioned it was the son of one of Arthur Harris’s bomber pilots who flew that mission in 1945. A survivor of the Polish resistance movement organized his town to sponsor one of the vase-and-flame thingies on a corner tower. The local taxi drivers contributed through each fare they got called from central. The organ builder was a French firm from Strasbourg.
And being German, they made an astounding documentary of it. I stumbled across this on YouTube and ran the DVD to ground from the publisher in Leipzig. Shipping, handling, and purchase price it cost me just over $50, but thanks to the wonders of PayPal she’s mine (the second disc in the set has a biographical documentary on Bähr, showing some of his other surviving works, mostly churches, including some in those tiny towns I described above).
One needn’t understand a word of German to get this documentary, because there is zero narrative, and almost no question-and-answer. It’s just the people doing what they’re doing, with camera men standing by. Man-on-the-street commentary here and there, but by and large the work, and the workers, speak for themselves. And of course baroque music as the score. Settle back; it’s just over three hours and twenty minutes, but it’s worth every moment of watching:
So Dave Carter and Camille Paglia, here are your artists. Here is your simple piety, expressed in stone. They’re alive and well, just driven into a sort of quasi-hiding.