Church Politics and Buildings

My business affairs took me to the prosperous Düsseldorf suburb of Pempelfort the other day, so I decided to drop by the Kreuzkirche (g) one of the landmarks of this area.

At first glance, the Dorf appears to be full of ancient churches, but it ain’t so. Most of the churches which appear antique were actually built at the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries in various historical revival styles, mainly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque. Back then, confessional differences between Catholics and Protestants were still important, and affected architectural styles. The Catholics tended to go for the neo-Gothic style when they built new churches, the Protestants chose neo-Romanesque, since Romanesque was the earlier style (ca. 700-1200), and thus reflected the Protestants’ claims to be returning to an earlier, “truer” form of Christianity stripped of Papist fripperies.

Let’s be frank about this: this is all a horrible missed opportunity. The late 19th century was a time of innovation all over Germany, but Düsseldorf’s bourgeois classes were too conservative to finance Sezession or Art Nouveau  or Jugendstil-style churches, which would have been more interesting than a bunch of copies of 500 or 1,000-year-old models. Kaiser Wilhelm the II hated Jugendstil, and loved neo-Romanesque buildings, so prosperous Düsseldorf Protestants built largely in the neo-Romanesque style. The fact that KW II was a thoroughly mediocre reactionary who certainly didn’t give two shits what kind of churches Düsseldorf burghers built doesn’t seem to have dimmed their enthusiasm. What an odd institution monarchies were.

Anyhow, the Kreuzkirche is a fine example of a neo-Romanesque church. It was designed by Carl Wilhelm Schleicher, a local architect, and built between 1907 and 1910. Here’s the view from outside:

Bildergebnis für kreuzkirche düsseldorf

The church was built as a Protestant parish church, with financial support from the prosperous merchants living in what was then a leafy northern suburb of Düsseldorf. They spared no expense, outfitting the towers with expensive green copper cladding, and filling the interior with marble accessories and lavish church implements. They hired local artists to decorate the interior domes with Byzantine-inspired reliefs. The church itself is in the shape of a Greek cross, with equal-length arms. Because of the unusual dimensions of the piece of donated real estate (the church is at a crossroads where 5 roads meet), it is not pointed toward the east — which, in German, is called being “easted” (geostet).

Much of the interior decoration fell victim to World War II bomb damage and various restorations. In 1974, the massive marble altar was removed from the chancel, and replaced by a simple lectern. standing in front of the chancel. The pews were removed from the ground floor and replaced with ordinary chairs. The naves both feature raised galleries to accommodate more visitors. The windows were designed in the late 1950s by Ernst Otto Köpke.

I took the old wide-angle lens for a spin, here are a few of my photos:

Kreuzkirche view of SW window
Kreuzkirche view of organ loft and SW facing window from NE gallery

I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful, but it’s handsome. The unadorned sandstone is historically accurate, and in keeping with Protestant aversion to decoration (although the crucifix is a copy of Donatello). The regularity and repetition of the forms makes a harmonious overall impression. The church has been a designated historical landmark for decades now, which seems like a proper decision.

You can visit the church every weekday from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, just to pray, meditate, or look around. A friendly church lady will greet you, and you can basically have the run of the place. Nobody else visited while I was there, which seemed a bit unfortunate. But then again, Germany’s official Protestant church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate, so there’s no surprise there.

Iceland’s Comfy Jesus

While we're on the subject of Iceland, a Facebook pal writes: "a friend of mine traveled extensively through the country and came across this fresco of a tanned male supermodel Jesus in a woolen turtleneck sweater. In comparison to this vision of The Utter Beyond, Michelangelo's Last Judgment or Bernini's St. Theresa just evaporate into insignificance. I name it Comfy Jesus:"

Img_1681

Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed — maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him — as a repeat offender and blasphemer — to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?

Where German-Jewish Surnames Came From

One thing I've noticed about Germans is that they are often surprised when I assume that an American named Goldberg, Rosenthal, Friedman or Rosenbaum is Jewish. I don't know any precise statistics, but I'd be willing to bet that 95% of Americans named Goldberg are probably Jewish.* Yet many Germans, even fairly worldly ones, don't associate these names with Judaism.

I've had to explain the 'Jewish names phenomenon' over and over to Germans. My explanation, which I've given a couple dozen times, was based on a hazy recollection of something I once read in one of those things that consists of a bunch of pieces of paper glued together inside a cardboard cover. I decided recently to try to see whether I was right, and came across this informative website:

Before the 1800s most German Jews who lived in cities had already either a fixed surname, or a double name (examples for such double names: Amsel Abraham, Löw Baruch, Ascher Simon). On the country side, Jews were often recorded in German documents solely by their given name (examples: Abraham, David, Jakob, Seligmann). In older documents one may find references to “Jacob Jude”, “Isaac Jude”, “Abraham Jude”, Jude simply meaning “Jacob Jew”, “Isaac Jew”, “Abraham Jew”.

During the Emancipation, some government officials misunderstood the legislation, and demanded that even previously appropriate surnames should be changed. A number of such examples can be found in the Duchy of Baden: In the District Administration of Lörrach (Rötteln), even the “acceptable” surnames Bloch and Braunschweig were changed. There had been 14 families with the Bloch surname, and 7 by the surname of Braunschweig. None of them kept their old surname. The Braunschweigs changed their names to: Beck, Braun, Dornacher, Graf, and Keller. The Blochs adopted the following family names: Dietersheimer, Dornacher, Dreher, Geißmann/Geißmar, Kaufmann, Kirchheimer, Mock, and Weil.

A number of the official name change lists still exist in Germany, as well as other documents that can help clarify what a family’s surname was before the official name change, and reveal if they actually changed their surname or were able to hold on to the family’s original name. Birth registrations in Naugard, Prussia, for example, list a Nathan Friedländer with the added remark: “by the name Silberstein”. Some records show him as Nathan Friedländer Silberstein, while he only appears as Silberstein after 1821. Between 1800 and the 1820s many “double names” can be found in documents – usually they reveal the family's surname before the name change, however in a few cases the families had adopted a new surname they didn’t care for after a while, so they changed again…

Please note: Jewish families were required change their names everywhere in Germany. Subsequently many families who were not related at all chose the exact same surnames: if your family came from the same town as another family with the exact surname as yours, it does therefore not necessarily mean that you are related to that family! …

While some of the newly chosen surnames are the same as the surnames of their Christian neighbors, others reflect the sensitivities of Romanticism, leading many to think of such names as “typical Jewish names”. Plant names such as Mandelbaum, Rosenbusch, Rosenbaum, Rosenstihl, Rosenstock, Rosenberg, Weinstock, or professional names such as Goldschmidt, Krämer, Mahler, Eisenhändler, may come to mind.

There were however numerous German Christian families, especially so in East and West Prussia, who had carried the surnames of Rosenberg, Rosenbaum, Rosenkranz, Goldschmidt, Goldberg, etc. already for many centuries. It is therefore extremely important to research one’s family history carefully, and once again, not to jump to any conclusions simply based on a surname.

In other words: a “Jewish sounding German surname” does not necessarily mean that ones ancestors were Jewish if one’s parents and grandparents were Christians! The same applies to German surnames mentioned in Jewish surname databases. When entering those same names into a regular database, one will very likely come across the same names among Christian families.

To prove this point, here is another example of Jewish name changes in the early 1800s from the District Administration of Durlach, in the Duchy of Baden: 17 Jewish families lived in the village of Weingarten (plus 6 individuals who were not married). Before the name change there were 3 families with the surname Esaias, obviously relatives or brothers, however each of them changed to a different surname! Among the 17 families the following names were chosen: Bachmann, Bär, Baum, Blum, Fuchs, Hirsch, Holz, Klein, Krieger, Löwenstein (previously Löw), Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, Schmidt, Schwarz, Sommer, Stahl, Stein, Stengel, Weidenreich, Winter. While Löwenstein, Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, indeed sound like “typical Jewish surnames”, all of the other surnames are in most cases not “Jewish names”, with a large number of German families who already had carried those surnames for centuries.

* One of the benefits of learning German is being able to tell acquaintances or friends what their names mean in German. The Himmelfarbs, Goldbergs, and Rosenbaums are usually pretty happy; the Schwarzes, Kleins, and Totenbergs, not so much.

Lichtenberg Aphorisms in English

From a website called Mangan's (Adventures in Reaction), I stumbled on a nice collection of Lichtenberg's aphorisms translated into English. A selection:

  • "I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one's opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us."
  • "Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever."
  • "He traveled through Northeim to Einbeck and from there through Mlle P. to Hanover."
  • "With my pen in hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed."
  • "Proposal: in a cold winter why not burn books?"
  • "Truth will find a publisher at any time, complaisance usually only for a year. That is why when you write you should always do so with courage and candor."
  • "I forget most of what I read, just as I do most of what I have eaten, but I know that both contribute no less to the conservation of my mind and my body on that account."
  • "It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody's beard."
  • "Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.""We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages, and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world."
  • "The world offers us correction more often than consolation."
  • "Since this life is no more than an evanescent point of time, I find it incomprehensible that the state of unending bliss and glory does not begin at once."
  • "There are people with so little courage to assert anything that they dare not say there is a cold wind blowing, however much they may feel it, unless they have first heard that other people have said it."

Catacomb Saints

About a month ago, I took a short bike tour in the Allgäu, starting in Ulm and going down to Rot and der Rot, where I gave a speech. Taking the bike on an IC train turned out to be pretty straightforward, as long as you reserve everything first. The landscape down there, at the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, is idyllic: rolling hills, verdant meadows, cool deciduous forests, and fat, lazy cows and sheep everywhere. Perfect for biking: The hills are just high enough to add some variety to your ride, without being too intimidating.

The entire area is filled with baroque monasteries and churches. I usually find baroque churches a bit tedious: after a while, the hovering angels and ornate columns and rays of light remind me of a Mexican cab-driver's dashboard. So I was a bit surprised to find myself really liking the South German baroque on display. In the really fine churches, such as the spectacular Ottobeuren monastery church, the pleasure comes from the consummate skill on display. The sculptural groups — in particular, the Baptism of Jesus located above the pulpit — are minor masterpieces, as are the ceiling frescoes by Januarius Zick. Riotous blasts of juicy Counter-Reformation drama.

Ottobeuren Baptism of Christ Above Pulpit (Joseph Christian 1763)

Ottobeuren Main Altar
But there's also a charming, folk-art aspect to many of the churches. St. Verena, the monastery church at St. Norbert in Rot and der Rot, is a soothing blend of neoclassical columns and baroque ornamentation. It has paired groups of side-altars topped by ingenuous sculpture groups created by F.X .Feichtmayr II in the 1780s:

St. Verena Sculpture Group Moses and Copper Snake (F.X. Feichtmayr II 1779-86)

St. Verena Sculpture Group Crucifixion (Feichtmayr 1779-86)
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these churches is the phenomenon of the so-called Catacomb Saints (Katakombenheiligen). Beginning in the 16th century, the catacombs under Rome were re-discovered. Someone had the ingenious idea of locating skeletons buried on or near Christian symbols (cross, monograms, lambs, martyrs' palms) and declaring them to be early Christian martyrs. The skeletons could then be sold to interested buyers, of whom there were many in Germany.

After arriving from Rome, the skeletons would then be draped in the most precious finery the local community could afford, and displayed in ornate glass-enclosed altars. Sometimes the skeletons are propped on pillows, holding martyrs' palms, sometimes they are standing up. The bones are usually held together in fine white gauze. To make them more life-like, the faithful might place wigs on them, or even entire reconstructed model faces. Nevertheless, their clothes are always made with cunningly-placed openings showing a shinbone here or a ribcage there, to make sure the faithful know they are seeing an entire skeleton. A few pictures:

St. Verena Reliquary Altar St. Domitia (Feichtmayr 1779-86)

St. Verena Detail of Head of St. Benedictus

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius Detail of Head-1

It goes without saying that the attribution of entire life histories to these anonymous remains was almost always spurious. The practice was finally ended in 1860. Tour guides and brochures often gloss over them or ignore them entirely, as if they were faintly embarrassed by the whole charade.

I found them fascinating. The German artist HAP Grieshaber, known for his monumental woodcuts, was born in Rot an der Rot. As a child, he was also drawn to the catacomb saints, as his wife recalls:

He rode to Rot an der Rot. After a half-century he saw the place of his birth again…. There, Helmut Andreas Paul (HAP) had been born to Protestant parents. His first steps led to the monastery church, which was his playroom. Immediately, he found his childhood, and himself, again. Some visitors might have thought him very pious as they saw him on his knees in front of the side altars, to see everything from the perspective of a four-year-old, before his nose these glass cases* with their martyrs' relics, these macabre delights, whose ivory-shimmering bones are draped so richly in pearls, embroidery, sequins, and glimmering semi-precious stones. A skull blooms like a bouquet of roses, some were covered with plaster and painted to a doll-like sheen. Some hands held swords, and some had embroidered shoes over their delicate ankles. Grieshaber recognized everything once again. He remembered how he had felt as a child, and saw everything he had previously kept covered and hidden in his conscious life. And over him arched the round, figure-strewn heaven of the Baroque.

(source: Kirchenführer Pfarrkirche St. Verena, p. 27).

* The German word in the original is Petrellen. I couldn't find a translation anywhere. Little help?

From the Annals of German Labor Law

Yes, but I'm not.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine brings us this delightful story (g): Call center employee, let's call him Christian, ended every conversation with a customer by saying "Jesus loves you! Thanks for your purchase." Employer: 'Where do you think you are, Alabama?' Not amused, fires employee.

Christian files lawsuit seeking reinstatement, citing his right to religious freedom. The Bochum labor court agrees. This will not surprise anyone who knows German labor courts, or Bochum. Employer appeals to the State Labor Court in Hamm, which decides that no, Christian's right to religious freedom doesn't include a right to tell strangers that Jesus loves them. An employee's religious freedom only outweighs an employer's right to control the employee's performance when job duties would cause 'conflicts of conscience', and Christian hasn't shown that refraining from telling customers that Jesus loves them would do so.

Interesting side note: A Muslim employee does have the right to refuse to handle alcohol on the job (g).

The Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables

No, it's not the title of a cloyingly cute independent film, but a neutral description of this post.

I just returned from a second short visit to Vienna (Thanks, UM, for putting me up!). I will post much more on the weekend, but as a teaser, this is what I found at a flea market in Hietzing:

Gypsy Dreambook Cover-1

It's the "Complete Gypsy Woman's Dreambook — With Lotto Numbers and Many Illustrations." Published by Gustav Swoboda Brothers, Vienna, District XII, no date (1920s?).

The book contains 90 pages of explanations of what various images and ideas in dreams signify, drawn from "the oldest Babylonian, Assyrian, and Arabic-Egyptian manuscripts, and revised according to the experiences of old Gypsy women." I'll translate a few entries and post them later.

In the back of the book, there is a table of lucky numbers and days, and then 10 pages of eerie "picture tables" illustrating various types of dreams. Here's an example (click to enlarge):

Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables 3

The full set is here.

An interesting sidenote: the German edition of this book was banned (g) by the Nazis.

I'm not sure how these picture tables are supposed to be used. Do we have any experts on Central European folk culture here? If so, enlighten us please in comments.

Quote of the Day

From the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, Book 57 (pdf), a Soto Zen text:

My former master, the Old Buddha of Tiantong, on one occasion when old acquaintances among the elders from all quarters assembled and requested a lecture, ascended the hall and said,

The great way has no gate,
It springs forth from the crown in all quarters;
Empty space ends the road,
It comes into the nostril of Qingliang.
Meeting like this,
Seeds of Gautama’s traitors,
Embryos of Linji’s misfortune.
Ii!
The great house topples over, dancing in the spring wind;
Startled, the falling apricot blossoms fly in crimson chaos.

Lutheran Food and Liquor and in Wittenberg

Wittenberg is a small East German town quite close to Berlin. It's most famous, of course, as being the place where Martin Luther, according to legend, nailed his 95 Theses (g) to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). Wittenberg was a university town before that, and remained one for generations. Many of the houses in the city center bear large white plaques with the names of famous scholars who lived or taught there. Wittenberg University has now been absorbed into the Martin Luther University of Wittenberg-Halle (g), and, judging by the how utterly mouse-dead it was on a Saturday night (to Englishize a German expression), all of the student life seems to have decamped for Halle.

The town apparently built a shiny new visitors' center after the Wall fell, anticipating an influx of protestant tourists which doesn't seem to have materialized. Wittenberg is nevertheless filled with Reformation-related museums and Luther-kitsch. You can visit the permanent exhibition on Luther's life, and the house where his colleague, Philip Melancthon, lived and worked (Melancthon's original name was Schwartzerdt, or 'black earth', he later 'grecianized' it into Melanchthon). Local stores sell 'Luther Burps' schnapps, Luther beer, and Luther bread. As you see in the slideshow, you can even get 'lutheran food' in Wittenberg (bland and rigid?). Martin Luther marital aids are apparently so common that we saw one discarded near a construction site.

What's odd about Wittenberg is the cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions in the city center. You'll pass a row of trendy shops in carefully-restored buildings, and then encounter an abandoned, boarded-up hulk. A faded legend identifies the building as a former soap store or brewhouse, but the bottom floor is now encrusted with tattered posters, and the windows on the upper floors are shattered. The alleys and courtyards around these buildings offer numerous poignant still-lives of decay and abandonment. One building featured an impressive set of deer antlers nailed atop an ancient-looking carved-wood deer head, presumably the former emblem of a pub, or taxidermist or hunting shop.

Signs of East German material culture, such as Barkas trucks (g) (the 'Mercedes of East Germany', the owner proudly informed us) and typical elongated-oval streetlamps, are everywhere. Not to mention the 'Kramladen' (junk store) that offered 'Soviet childrens' gas masks' and displayed an Obama 'yes we can' T-shirt with a gun muzzle pointing at it. The local Sparkasse Bank was recently vandalized, leaving an oddly beautiful pattern of fracture planes in the front windows. Graffiti was everywhere, much of it of thoughtful or enigmatic.

Overall, Wittenberg left a somewhat somber and desolate impression, despite the fine churches and friendly people. Perhaps it's more inviting in the summer…