A New Old Church Both Reverential and Self-Referential

by Julia M. Klein 

The reconstruction of Dresden’s Frauenkirche—a Lutheran church completed in 1743, destroyed in 1945 and reconsecrated 10 years ago this month—evokes past and present.

The architecture of contemporary German cities can inspire a trompe-l’oeil confusion of the old and the new. Leveled by Allied bombs during World War II, many picturesque town centers have since been meticulously rebuilt, with only their perfection signaling their inauthenticity. Dresden’s restored Frauenkirche, which on Oct. 30 marks the 10th anniversary of its consecration, has avoided this trap—by embracing rather than erasing history.

The Baroque, octagonal “Church of Our Lady,” where Johann Sebastian Bach once played the organ, has always been central to the city’s image. Designed by George Bähr and completed in 1743, the Lutheran church retained the name of the Gothic Catholic one it replaced. Its outstanding feature—a soaring, pillared dome nicknamed the “Stone Bell”—dominated the city’s skyline and symbolized its artistic splendor.

On Feb. 13, 1945, Dresden was firebombed by the Allies, and two days later the Frauenkirche collapsed. The destruction of Dresden became central to German postwar victimology and was memorialized by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

But there were counter-narratives, too: The German novelist and essayist W.G. Sebald associated Dresden with repressed memory and guilt, and the diarist Victor Klemperer wrote that the chaos after the Allied air raids saved him from deportation to a Nazi death camp.

For decades, the Frauenkirche, reduced largely to a deteriorating pile of rubble, served as an antiwar memorial. In the 1980s, it became a locus of protest against East German political oppression.

On the 45th anniversary of the bombing, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crosssection
of Dresdeners published an “Appeal From Dresden” calling for an international foundation to rebuild the church as a “House of Peace.” Renouncing the guise of innocence, the appeal stated: “We are painfully aware that Germany started the Second World War.”

Dresdeners, revering tradition, wanted their old church back—but with a transformational twist or two. Using the original plans, surviving remnants and modern engineering, they performed an act of reconstruction that turned out to be precise and reverential, but also self-reflexive.

In its mission and its architecture, the Frauenkirche now manages to look both backward and forward. About 45% of the church is made of historical materials. The façade is the most striking example. The charred sandstone pieces of the ruined building were salvaged, cataloged and, to the extent possible, returned to their original locations. The gaps were filled by newer, lighter stones from the same quarry outside Dresden. The effect is of an abstract stone tapestry, an uneven mottling of dark and light that simultaneously evokes past and present.

The church dominates the cobblestoned Neumarkt, a rebuilt city square where a statue of Martin Luther presides. Walking around the building one encounters a chunk of the old dome, one of several memorial features.

Entering the church precipitates a sudden lift in mood: The Baroque interior is spacious and exuberant, a symphony of unexpected light and color. Windows admit abundant sunlight; galleries ring the gracefully curving wooden pews. The organ and the altar, depicting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, are gilded and intricately carved.

The eye inevitably drifts upward to the bright-hued frescoes on the inner dome. Painted by Christoph Wetzel in replication of Giovanni Battista Grone’s originals, they depict the four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and allegories of Faith, Hope, Love and Charity. Climbing the dome for a city view, visitors encounter fragments from the cathedrals of Cologne, Aachen and Strasbourg, also casualties of war.

Meticulous as the reconstruction has been—the altar was almost entirely pieced together from shards of the original—there are deliberate reminders that this is not the prewar church. On the altar is a newly forged Cross of Nails, a link to a similar cross at the rebuilt cathedral in Coventry, England, destroyed by German bombers in 1940. The pillars alongside the altar, displaying wartime damage, are missing the angel-head carvings visible elsewhere.

The church’s old pinnacle cross, charred and twisted, sits in the south nave, where visitors may light a memorial candle and inscribe their thoughts. The gilded cross—an exact replica—that now crowns the bell tower was a gift from Britain, fashioned by Alan Smith, the son of one of the bombers of Dresden.

The church today functions powerfully as a symbol of postwar reconciliation, with devotions, musical performances, lectures and tours. Its 10-year anniversary celebration, through the end of this month, features concerts, talks and other events.

With its many reconstructed Baroque buildings and plazas, Dresden arguably remains a city in thrall to its storied (pre-Nazi) past. The Frauenkirche both exemplifies that nostalgia and transcends it.

- Ms. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic at the Forward.

@2015 The Wall Street Journal