The crux of the cross

17 min read

In May 2017, a press release triggered a controversial and passionately led debate about something as simple as an eidetic graphic symbol of two lines crossed at right angles. Under the heading “Palace cupola to be created in its old glory with lantern”, the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss foundation announced that, in the course of the current construction efforts, it would be possible to realise “an almost completely reconstructed cupola including lantern and gilded cross” thanks to generous individual donations.

It was particularly the announcement of the future fact that a monumental, five-metre-high cross would grace one of the largest and highest cupolas in Berlin’s historic centre at a height of 70 metres that fired this divergence of opinion. The reason for this is that the way the symbol can be read changes depending on whether it is viewed from the internal or the external perspective or in an attempt to combine both: all over the world, the sign of the cross is considered one of the main symbols of Christianity and of cultural and religious significance; some see it as the crowning glory or at the very least a consistent completion of the historical part-reconstruction of the Berlin Palace; many reckon that it is one of the “most essential and popular identification points of this reconstructed building”.

Critical voices, on the other hand, state that the Christian cross, due to its unequivocal denomination of the building, sends out a signal that is inappropriate for the Humboldt Forum, as it should give these historical looking, formerly dynastic walls a new meaning often in contrast to its exterior. They argued that the cross was also a reminder of the close, for Germany’s history fateful, alliance between the Prussian monarchy and the Christian church. In European colonial history and in consequence of proselytisation, it had become a symbol of suppression. Others again do not understand the commotion caused by this cupola finial, because the sign of the cross has no meaning for them.

Schinkel did not plan a cross but an opening

The double perspective of interior and exterior already characterised the palace’s sacred building: whilst the idea of the palace chapel was “primarily inspired by a personal, dynastic agenda”, the “exterior impact of the cupola […] was aimed at the view from a distance.” The cupola and cross were two of the last architectural changes to the palace Frederick William IV ordered around the middle of the 19th century. The cross-sectional view of Carl Friedrich Schinkel’s design sketch for the chapel in the space beneath the cupola above Portal III has survived.

Taking the Pantheon in Rome as inspiration, Schinkel apparently did not plan a cross on the top of the highest point of the cupola but an opaion, a circular opening as a natural source of light for the chapel space. Although Friedrich August Stüler was ordered to keep to Schinkel’s design, a hand-drawn sketch by Frederick William IV from 1841, the year Schinkel died, reveals that a year after his accession, the king apparently already envisaged the roof of the palace chapel as a monumental cupola topped with a cross. With his design, Stüler went far beyond Schinkel’s idea. He increased the height and width of the cupola volume across the entire span of the portal. In 1844, a cabinet order approved the ambitious building project; ten years later, on 18 January 1854, the anniversary of Frederick I’s coronation, the chapel was consecrated.

The 36-metre-high chapel space is divided into four parts, the lower octagonal choir, the wall with the fenestration, which was octagonal on the outside and elliptic on the inside and featured a row of 24 windows, the base (tambour) and the cupola itself with the lantern and the cross set on a copper sheet ball. Eight angel sculptures or cherubs, with their wings spread wide, on a round balustrade gallery held aloft a second dome fashioned from eight palm leaves on which the cross stood. In view of the extremely tense political and social situation and the bloody events on the palace forecourt on 18 March 1848 that preceded it in the course of the March revolution, William IV decided not to gild the lantern and the cupolas ribs – the cross and the ball on which it sat, on the other hand, were covered in golf leaf. At almost the same time, Frederick William IV turned his back on the “perfidious city” and moved permanently into his second residence in Potsdam.

The historical palace chapel took less time to build than the decision-making and reconstruction realisation process regarding the cupola and cross as an architectural option at the beginning of the 21st century. It was decisively influenced by Wilhelm von Boddien’s initiative. He is the founder and secretary of the Friends of Berlin Palace association for the reconstruction of Berlin’s former royal palace. In its 2001 final report, the international Expert Commission “Historische Mitte Berlin” (Historical Centre of Berlin) explicitly refrained from making a recommendation regarding the ‘cupola from 1856 which once overarched a church space and the former baroque western facade’: “The architectural design development must clarify what is possible and appropriate here.” The possibility that a cross might be installed is not even mentioned here.

Following this suggestion, the resolutions passed by the German Bundestag concerning the rebuilding of the palace on 4 July 2003 and 13 November 2003 also already exclude the reinstallation of a cupola: “With regard to the architectural design, the German Bundestag concurs with the Commission’s recommendation to reinstall the baroque facades on the northern, western and southern sides of the new building and to rebuild the Schlüterhof of the former city palace. The specific architectural design of the building, particularly the relationship between its use and the interior design, must be clarified within the scope of a future design competition.”

Designs without cupola were excluded

Ultimately, the invitation text for the competition process in 2008, for which the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR) took over the responsibility on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development (BMVBS) on the basis of a “concept for the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace” specified this stipulation: “The design must include the installation of a cupola in the area of the former main portal.” All competition submissions that did not feature a cupola were excluded from the process – the cross on the top was not an element of the invitation. Granted, Franco Stella’s winning design included the cupola and cross, but at this point in time, most of the general public had not really noticed this – the cross is missing on the wooden model of the competition winner which jury chairman Vittorio Lampugnani and German Minister of Transport, Building and Urban Affairs Wolfgang Tiefensee presented in 2008, and it is also hardly recognisable on the architect’s drawings that were published afterwards. It blends into the azure blue sky of the background.

Rendering des Architekten: Ansicht des Humboldt Forums von der Nord-West-Seite (© SHF / Architekt: Franco Stella mit FS HUF PG)
Ansicht des Humboldt Forums von der Nord-West-Seite

In 2011, the Bundestag approved the 590 million euro budget, which took 80 million euros worth of donations for the historical facade design as well as the so-called “architectural options” such as the building of the rooftop cafe, the reconstruction of the historical cupola and the inner courtyard portals at an estimated cost of 28.5 million euros and also to be financed through donations, into account. The first priority was the acquisition of financial donations for the completion of the facades. In March 2013, the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss foundation announced the complete reconstruction of the cupola had been made possible by the receipt of an anonymous large donation. Inga Maren Otto’s major contribution of one million euros was received on 23 April 2015. The widow of the founder of the mail order company of the same name donated the sum for the historically accurate reconstruction of the cupola cross. However, this announcement drew hardly any comments from the press. It was the already mentioned press release by the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss foundation on 9 May 2017 that finally triggered the cupola cross debate.

Why at this point in time? How had the climate changed within two years? One possible logical explanation would be that, with the establishment of the Humboldt Forum Kultur GmbH as a subsidiary of the foundation and the appointment of the founding directors Neil MacGregor, Horst Bredekamp and Hermann Parzinger in January 2016, the development of the cultural programme of this new cultural institution aroused the interest of the public. With numerous events and a first exhibition entitled Extreme. Natur und Kultur am Humboldtstrom that was displayed in the “Humboldt Box” from November to May 2017, the Humboldt Forum’s content concept had already been hinted at, and it had proved successful. The public engaged with the varied, in part conflict-laden, global, highly topical issues and questions that primarily concerned the presentation of the non-European collections. It now became much more obvious to associate them with the symbolism and ideology of the structure, which was counter-balanced by the contents as a new hub – and this provided a source for conflict.

Manfred Rettig, former founding chairman of the Stiftung Humboldt Forum, had already been tempted to successfully manage the challenging balancing act between a historically accurate reconstruction of the structure and its content programme with pragmatism: in an interview on the occasion of the topping out ceremony in June 2015, he succinctly summarised the problem: “When I acquire funding for the facade, I talk about the palace. When it’s about the contents, I talk about the Humboldt-Forum.” Interestingly, Franco Stella’s design reveals how difficult it can be to link the conditions of the structure (palace) and the contents (Humboldt Forum) particularly with regard to the example of the cupola space.

Kuppelraum mit Zwischendecke aus Beton

One of the Humboldt Forum’s most prominent exhibition halls will be created directly below the cupola, on the level of the palace’s former chapel space. Due to the conservation requirements associated with museum spaces – protection against exposure to light and climate control – a suspended concrete ceiling was added at a height of fourteen metres that starts exactly on the level of the fenestration wall below the tambour and therefore blocks the view of the open, light-flooded cupola. The 36-metre-high space below the cupola is therefore divided into two levels, which was not the case in the historical palace building.

Whilst the upper, overarched space will not be open to the public for the time being, a fascinating second cupola space opens below this concrete cover in the form of a Buddhist cosmos: the “Cave of the Ring-bearing Doves”, created in the first millennium before Common Era at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains in the Turpan region, once formally under the authority of the Quing government in Beijing. A German researcher team removed the frescoes from the walls over a century ago and transported them to Germany. The externally visible cupola of the reconstructed palace and the space below the cupola on the inside of the Humboldt Forum therefore tell completely different stories. Maybe they will be perceived as entirely separate from each other, but maybe, they will also be linked in future.

A thunderous comment

More than other German cultural institutions, the history of the site, the architecture of the building and the contents newly united in the Humboldt Forum as levels that are superimposed on each other are charged with symbol politics. Here, the future cross does not merely serve the purpose of crowning the tip of the cupola roof but also as an intensifying element of the inherent competitive relationship. This impression is intensified by a thunderous comment that will also be an element of the reconstruction. So far, the discussion has hardly focused on the 34 centimetres high gold-edged letters of the inscription on the tambour below the cornice, even though they could harm the principle of the Humboldt Forum, if taken literally: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given to men, than the name of Jesus, to the glory of God the Father, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.” Frederick William IV himself composed the inscription, citing verses from the Acts of the Apostles 4:12 and the Epistle to the Philippians 2:10.

Architectural shapes and building sculptures are solid entities, whereas the way they are dealt with – whether this takes the form of appreciation, rejection or ignorance – is always subject to constant changes in all eras. They have an impact, as the eventful history of this site with its closely timed sequence of destruction and reconstruction illustrates. Once the building has been completed, the cross and inscription are bound to attract a high level of attention and will be controversially discussed all over the world. It is up to the Humboldt Forum to generate added value from this by offering itself as a forum for these debates and actively participating in the discussion of this issue, as this is not least also accompanied by the weighty charge to also highlight the inherent contradictions that are due to historical, political and cultural reasons, and to allow multiple voices to be heard.

What is certain is this: with the Humboldt Forum, it is not a palace that will be opening at the end of 2019, nor a Christian sacred liturgical space but a new, secular, cultural meeting place in the centre of Berlin. In many different and previously untried ways, the Humboldt Forum will offer the world’s art, cultures and sciences room as well as connect aspects of the history of this site with each other: on their exhibition spaces, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin will be presenting the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) and the Museum für asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum, Berlin). As an interdisciplinary exhibition and experimentation space on the basis of historical as well as contemporary science collections, the Humboldt Laboratory of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin will be a space that will serve as a lively breeding ground for new ideas. Berlin’s local government contribution is the Berlin Exhibition, which will highlight and critically question the capital city’s close links with the world in the past and in the present through a wide range of different thematic strands. It will be possible to experience the eventful, fragmented history of the actual site where the Humboldt Forum now stands, with all of its contradictions, in the spaces of the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss.

Due to the diverse exhibition and event concepts, there will be a clash of sensitive, historical as well as currently highly charged social issues, a clash that will be typical for the venue. This includes confronting the colonial heritage, but also addressing the question of how tolerance towards other religions can be actively demonstrated. Visitors can look forward to a multilayered exploration space where a wide range of different cultural characteristics and worldwide interrelationships can be discovered. It stands for an approach to getting to know and appreciate the diversity of the various cultures and perspectives unencumbered by values and hierarchies, and for encouraging an international mindset. The decisive question of whether this exploration space can also develop without conflict below the cross-topped cupola will only be answered in the near and more distant future – once the construction of the building has been completed, once the Humboldt Forum has opened and together with its audiences, an international public, representatives from the originating societies, with everyone that will curate the venue’s exhibitions and programme.
Alexander von Humboldt, one of the name-givers, of whom even his brother Wilhelm was not able to tell whether he “had religion or not”, maybe would have preferred a universal cross-less cupola building reflecting the Earth and the cosmos, and also the different cultures equally, but who knows?

The article was first published in: Kunst und Kirche, Magazin für Kritik, Ästhetik und Religion, 2/2019.

Photo by Laura Goldenbaum
Laura Goldenbaum

The art historian Dr. Laura Goldenbaum is the academic advisor to the General Director and Chairman of the Humboldt Forum Foundation in the Berlin Palace, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Dorgerloh.