Friede sei mit Euch!

Seven years ago today, the re-built Frauenkirche in Dresden was reconsecrated.

When I first saw the church it was a very tall (I’d guess thirty or more feet) pile of black-stained rubble, with two hunks of burned stone wall sticking out. It stood all alone in the middle of a very wide open space, the new market. It was February, 1986, and although no one could know it at the time, the whole German Democratic Republic thing had only three-and-a-half more years to run before it got irretrievably stuck in the ditch. 

The church, the second on that site, had been built between 1726 and 1743 and was designed by the city’s municipal master builder, a boy name of George Bähr. He’d been born in 1666, in Füurstenwalde out in the sticks, and then moved to Dresden to make his bones in the city. Augustus the Strong – sufficiently strong that he was rumored to have fathered some 300 children (not by the same woman, I understand) – had become King of Poland (and converted to Catholicism for the occasion, he perhaps agreeing with Henry IV on the point) and wanted a proper residence city. What the people who were going to pay for his building schemes had to say is not well-recorded. Perhaps they weren’t asked (poor old Augustus; he lived before people knew to label that sort of thing “stimulus”). 

The city of Dresden had joined the Reformation. The original Frauenkirche of course pre-dated all that and had thus begun as a Catholic church, but was converted to Protestant use when the city made the jump. It was a municipal church; that is, it belonged to the city and not to any particular organizational unit of the Protestant church. And it was in very, very bad shape. In fact by the second decade of the 1700s it was more or less unusable. 

Money was the hang-point, as it always is. But they could plan. They invited proposals from Matthäus Pöppelmann, the builder of the Zwinger (a summer palace down by the river), from several others, and from their newly-appointed master carpenter. [N.b. Bähr was appointed municipal master carpenter before he was actually a master carpenter, a pretty high compliment, when you think about it.] Bähr’s proposal, for an enormous stone octagon supporting a stone dome, got the nod. 

Inside the lay-out is very much in tune with the Protestant emphasis on preaching the Gospel, and in baptism as the becoming one of God’s children. The pulpit juts out towards the congregation like the prow of a whaling boat, the baptismal font just behind it, and both well in front of the altar. The main floor for the congregation is arc-shaped in a rounded space formed by the eight pillars which support the 12,000 tons of inner dome and double-shell outer dome. Above the main floor are three galleries in a horseshoe shape. The effect is as nearly as possible to project the central function of the church – preaching – front and center into the physical space occupied by the congregation. 

They’d finally scraped up enough money to start by 1726. During construction the money kept running short, however, prompting Bähr to spend his own money to keep the work going. He ended up impoverishing his family with the effort, and worn down by intrigue and mounting criticism of his church’s stability, he died the day after his birthday in 1738. It wasn’t until five years later that the final touches were added. 

Dresdners promptly fell in love with their church. The loved her magnificent beauty indoors, play of light off copious gilding and the almost luminescent paint of the interior; they loved how she towered above their city, visible for miles around. They loved how people from all over Europe came to marvel at it (it was and remained for over 200 years the largest domed structure north of the Alps). They loved the magnificent pipe organ, designed by the great Gottfried Silbermann and played by no less than Bach himself. Silbermann and Bähr had got cross-ways on the design of the organ case. Silbermann was accustomed to design everything about the organ (which he in fact had done for the church at Forchheim, also built by Bähr), but Bähr decided that the organ was part of the architecture of the space and so insisted on his prerogative. They loved the paintings on the inner dome, four representing the evangelists, alternating with four showing the virtues of faith, hope, love, and mercy (the virtues are represented by females figures, all of which showed the same face; the speculation is that the artist might have used Bähr’s third wife as the model). 

Shortly before midnight on February 13, 1945, the Lancasters of Air Marshal Arthur Harris appeared above the city, in two waves. Dresden had not been bombed yet. Her medieval inner city streets, tightly packed with ancient buildings, was a tinder box. The bomber fleets that night carried almost no high explosives; the British just set out to see how big a fire they could start. The flames were visible to the aircrew over 200 miles away. In the morning the 8th Air Force B-17s showed up and added of their plenty. 

The city was full, and was known to be so, of civilian refugees from points farther east, fleeing from the Red Army. No effort was made, at all, to target the few military or quasi-military targets (thermite bombs will not wreck a railroad switching yard, or drop a stone or steel bridge into the water; the few armaments factories in the area were at the edge of town or completely across the river, well outside the attack’s target zone). Depending on whom you ask, between 35,000 to 150,000+ people died that night. Many of them were so completely incinerated by the firestorm that no trace of them was left to count when the stones had cooled. The firestorm generated winds sufficiently powerful that they sucked streetcars through the air towards the core of the flames. 

The Frauenkirche was not hit by any high explosives, and of course the incendiaries couldn’t penetrate the dome (the outer shell is 30 or more inches thick, depending on precise location). But the thermite lit the fires of hell; the temperature inside the church is estimated at close to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The eight pillars supporting that massive dome glowed bright red, until the sandstone itself disintegrated. 

And the church came down, late morning of February 15, 1945. There she lay for the next 45 years. The locals kicked up enough fuss to prevent the ruins from being cleared off in the immediate aftermath of the war, and eventually the whole site was declared a war memorial. 

By 1985 the city had decided to rebuild, once they finished with the palace and its church (the latter sporting its own Silbermann organ) and the opera building (designed by Gottfried Semper). Reunification caught them first, but the idea had taken hold, and shortly after the Wende (the “turn”) a group of a dozen or so citizens put the word out. What sort of church should they re-build? Being Germans they worried that question half to death, with some designs being suggested that were as hideously ugly as only modern architecture can be. In the end, though, they decided that it should be as it originally was (which was somewhat different, by the way, from how it looked in 1945; for instance the interior pillars had been re-painted a sort of greenish color at some point, while their original was a multi-hued faux marble appearance). 

Reaction started modestly, but boy howdy did it grow. The eventual reconstruction cost €180 million, of which €100 million was raised by public subscription. The Dresdner Bank chipped in €7 million of its own, and raised another 70 or so through sponsoring various fund-raising drives. An American doctor (born in Germany, as a young child he’d been one of the refugees who made it through Dresden before the bombing and had seen the church) gave his entire prize money for his Nobel in medicine to the effort. The British paid to re-build the cross atop the church, and by ironic happenstance the silversmith who got the commission was the son of one of the men at the stick on one of those Lancasters. A Polish survivor of the resistance drummed up the cash to sponsor one of the vase-and-flame structures on an exterior tower. There were charitable trusts set up in Britain, the U.S., Switzerland, and France. Masons and other craftsmen came from all over Germany (and from even further afield; one of the apprentice stone cutters was American). 

Being German, when they began unstacking the rubble, they mapped out exactly where in the pile they found each re-usable stone and measured it, compared it to the original plans (which, being German, they also still had), ran it through a computer simulation in 3-D to see how it would fit, and then, as and when they could, being German, they put it exactly right back where it came from. According to the chief builder Eberhard Burger, of the roughly 21,500 cubic meters of rubble they were able to salvage approximately 7,000 of it for re-use, which when added to the remaining structural components would yield about 40% or so original material in the re-built church.

The original stones are still stained black, and so it lends a curious speckled appearance to the fassade, the balance of which is a sort of light honey colored sandstone. 

On October 30, 2005, they reconsecrated their Frauenkirche. The prime seats on the main floor, other than those reserved for dignitaries, were allocated to surviving members of the congregation, with preference for those baptized or married in the church (two older women participated in the service itself; one had been baptized 81 years before). Ludwig Güttler, the world-famous trumpeter and professor, lead the musicians from the organ loft (I don’t see how he could have the breath to blow; I’d have been too choked up, were I in his place). Eberhard Burger likewise participated, and in places if you watch you can see him choking back tears. The three bishops who had superintended the whole process were the chief celebrants. 

Here’s an excerpt, from immediately after the consecration of the entire church (they had done the pulpit, the baptismal font, the altar, and the organ separately). The chorale is “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr,” one of the very earliest Protestant hymns, dating from the mid-1520s. 

One of the nice things about running a blog is you get to write about stuff that interests you, even if no one else. This day I claim my rights in that regard.


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