Symbolism politics. Frederick William IV’s cupola for the Berlin Palace

20 min read

The cupola above the western facade of Berlin Palace was not built during its original baroque construction phase but was in fact an addition made in 1845-1853. It was commissioned by King Frederick William IV, who charged Friedrich August Stüler with the realisation of his very exacting ideas for this project. However, what was his motivation for the building of the cupola? A historical classification.

One of the fundamental principles of urban development is that a city’s tallest silhouette-defining buildings are equated with the importance of those who erect them. In Berlin, this dominance of the urban landscape between the 18th and the 20th century is strikingly obvious. For example, looking down the street Unter den Linden after 1871, the first building to catch your eye would not have been the cupola of the palace but the tower of the Rotes Rathaus, the town hall. That is why, during its construction, it was hotly debated whether it was acceptable that the town hall, which served the city’s populace, would be higher than the cupola of the royal palace. In the 1890s, Wilhelm II, German Emperor, was equally incensed by the fact that the Reichstag building for the parliament was to be higher than the palace cupola – and in response commissioned the construction of the Berlin Cathedral, which towered over everything in early 20th century Berlin. You could argue that there was no clear winner in this competition to build the tallest and therefore most domineering building until the television tower was constructed in 1969. In all cases, the crux of the matter was the question of who was permitted to leave their mark on Berlin.

It would seem likely that this question did not actually arise in the 18th century. Who else, if not the royal palace, could dominate Berlin’s cityscape? However, illustrations from this time show that there were no clearly dominant tall buildings in the city, but rather that its silhouette was still as defined by numerous church towers as it had been since mediaeval times. This situation was the result of unfortunate circumstances. The designs for the new royal palace which Frederick I commissioned Andreas Schlüter to build from 1698 onwards envisaged a clearly domineering height with the mint tower. With its, at the time, huge height of more than 90 metres, it would have dwarfed all of Berlin’s other towers and clearly marked where the centre of the city was to be found. However, during its construction, the tower began to lean at half this height and had to be torn down in 1706. This embarrassing disaster ended Schlüter’s career. His successor Johann Friedrich Eosander also designed an enormous tower topped by a cupola above the triumphal arch of the western portal that would even have been 100 metres high – however, for cost reasons, it was never realised. The palace therefore remained a recumbent horizontal block that was hardly visible from a distance for 150 years. The palace had not only never made it past a torso architecturally; in urban development terms, it also did not reflect its social importance.

The man who commissioned it

The palace residents were certainly acutely aware of this. Even in the 1820s, before he inherited the crown, Frederick William IV (1795-1861) already showed a keen interest in plans for the redesign of Berlin’s palace district. The heir to the throne was enthusiastic about architecture and considered the situation inadequate both from an urban development as well as a symbolism perspective. Numerous sketches drawn by the prince have survived that pursued the idea of a new, domineeringly tall building in the centre of Berlin. This was never about a purely formalist solution. It is characteristic for the heir apparent that he was not interested in realising the failed 18th century tower plans. These tower projects were purely worldly gestures of triumph, as their highest points as planned by Schlüter and Eosander clearly illustrate: both intended to top their towers with monumental female sculptures that held the Prussian royal crown aloft and were also designed to serve as a wind vane. Like the entire iconography of the baroque palace, it was therefore all about celebrating the elevation of the Hohenzollern dynasty to royalty.

Frederick William, on the other hand, wanted to make a different statement with his architectural emphasis of the palace through a cupola – the cupola was to house the palace chapel and therefore place the entire palace in a sacral context. All designs intended to create a forum that surrounded the Lustgarten where, besides the monarchy (palace), the military (arsenal) and culture (museum), the role of religion in the state was to be appropriately expressed. The sketches show both initial ideas for a cupola above the palace’s western portal as well as numerous designs for a reconstruction of the cathedral.

In order to fully understand the role of the palace chapel, the palace at Potsdam holds some clues. When Frederick William became king in 1840, he charged ahead with plans for the construction of a church in the park of Sanssouci. The king appreciated Sanssouci as the artistic creation of his ancestor Frederick II (“the Great”), but felt that the complete absence of Christian elements was a major deficit. In a highly symbolic gesture, he therefore ensured that the construction of the Friedenskirche (“Church of Peace”) at the foot of Sanssouci hill began exactly one hundred years to the day after the foundation stone for Sanssouci had been laid, on 14 April 1845. In the same year, he explained his objectives thus:

“It seems fitting to me to dedicate a church that belongs to a palace district and carries the name of Sans-Souci, ‘without worries’, to the eternal prince of peace and to therefore counter or counterbalance the worldly negative ‘without worries’ with the spiritual positive ‘peace’.”

The construction of the Friedenskirche was therefore to be interpreted as a kind of “healing” of Sanssouci: whilst Frederick II, the enlightened creator of Sanssouci who viewed religion with scepticism, contented himself with a worldly “being without worries”, his deeply religious descendant put his trust in a higher, divine peace. It is therefore no coincidence that the tower of the church was positioned in such a way that its golden cross could be seen from the terrace of Sanssouci palace, and it is consistent that Frederick William also chose the Friedenskirche as his burial site – as the antithesis to Frederick II’s plan to be buried in a grave in unconsecrated ground on Sanssouci’s upper terrace.

The pervading symbolism of the building project in Potsdam exemplifies Frederick William IV’s mindset. His edifices were never designed to serve as mere aesthetic improvements, but were always complex and imbued with a deeper meaning that expressed the king’s view of the world and his convictions. Thanks to his own artistic ambitions, Frederick William was able to map out his building projects down to the smallest detail – an effort which he considered to be intensely political, as the king was amongst those who believed that architecture could change society, as Gerd-H. Zuchold concluded in 2010: “He intended to revitalise the enthusiasm for the Christian faith […] during his times, and this enthusiasm was also to be expressed in a new way architecturally through a revival of the design language of early Christian architecture.”

The palace chapel

In view of this background, it is plausible to interpret the construction of the Berlin Palace chapel, which started around the same time in April 1845, as a parallel to the Friedenskirche. The residential palace in the capital, too, must have seemed all too worldly to the king. The building’s iconography and decorations made hardly any connections between God, throne and church, but rather celebrated the achievements of its creators in a heraldic form borrowed from antiquity. By then, the mediaeval palace chapel had been profaned by Frederick II with a false suspended ceiling, whilst Frederick I’s plans for a baroque palace chapel had been abandoned by his son in favour of a banqueting hall, the Weisser Saal, on the same site. In the early 19th century, the main residence of the kings of Prussia therefore lacked a sacral space.

It was no coincidence that Frederick William chose the Gothic vaulted remains of the old palace chapel as his private study when he was still only the heir apparent in order to emphasise his deep bond with the site’s sacral traditions. However, as soon as he came to power in 1840, he was finally able to realise his idea of completing the palace with a chapel above the western portal. The location was ideal in several respects: as a cupola that could be seen from far away, it would at last make the residence stand out in Berlin’s cityscape. At the same time, it would be the grand final destination of the ceremonial processions inside the palace. Previously, the series of magnificent chambers that formed the processional route had led from the Schweizer Saal on the river side of the Schlüterhof via the Rittersaal and the picture gallery in the Lustgarten wing to the Weisser Saal on the western side. The processions could now continue upwards to the higher grand room inside the chapel beneath the cupola. It pleased the king greatly that the church was now the final destination of all court ceremonies, rather than a profane ballroom.

The design of the chapel can also be interpreted in a similar symbolic way. Even its basic shape, an octagonal central building with a cupola, was modelled on such eminent buildings like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which the king particularly admired. It was built during the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who established the concept of a state church, and Frederick William considered it to be the perfect embodiment of the close relationship between the monarch and Christ. The magnificent artistry on the interior details of the Berlin chapel emphasises this aspect: the portraits of 96 men and women who contributed to the establishment of the Christian Church were painted on the pillars that support the cupola – metaphorically speaking, the church building therefore rested on their shoulders. The group began with apostles, prophets and martyrs. They were followed by mediaeval Christian monarchs and – logical in a Protestant church – 16th century reformators. The circle was completed by a group of members of the House of Hohenzollern: from Frederick II, Elector of Brandenburg, to Joachim II, the founding father of the Reformation in Brandenburg, all the way to the creator’s father, Frederick William II. The chapel was therefore a monument to the dynasty’s Christian rule, which was represented as a completely natural element of the 2000-year history of salvation.

This message was aimed at those who used the chapel, the royal family and courtiers, to remind them of their responsibility for the perpetuation of the Church and the religious faith.

The celebration of its completion is also in line with this interpretation of the chapel as a dynastic monument. Although the last finishing touches to the interior were not completed until 1854, the king did everything he could to ensure that the chapel was ready for temporary use on 18 January 1851. This date marked the 150th anniversary of Frederick I’s coronation as the first King of Prussia in 1701. The chapel was hastily made usable at great cost to ensure that Frederick William would no longer have to make do without a fitting church for the festivities, and was able to present the palace of his ancestors as finally complete, both in an architectural as well as a programmatic sense.

The exterior of the chapel, already largely completed in the autumn of 1848, was also designed in a way that was imbued with meaning – however, this message was not addressed to the court but to the whole of society. An extensive range of depictions was created that now also added a Christian theme to the existing decorative sculptures on the palace, gods, heroes, muses and geniuses. Depictions of Old Testament prophets were positioned on the corners of the structure on which the cupola rested, whilst Christian virtues were to be depicted on the portals – however, these were not realised until the rule of William I. (Link Hegholz) At the top, the cupola ended in the lantern, which was carried by angel sculptures. With folded hands, scrolls and a chalice, they presented the symbols of the Christian faith. The lantern, in turn, was crowned by a 4.7 metres high gilded cross. The new domineering height of the palace was therefore not due to the worldly regalia of the monarchy but to a symbol of absolute faith in God’s divine rule. This was additionally emphasised by the inscription, which ran around the entire foot of the cupola. Frederick William IV himself assembled the words from several Bible passages (Acts of the Apostles 4:12 and Philippians 2:10):

“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.”

The extent to which this cross was associated with the person of the king is therefore hardly surprising. On 15 October 1848, the Königliche priviligirte Berlinische Zeitung von Staats- und Gelehrtensachen reported: “Yesterday evening, the golden cross that graces the palace chapel was finally unveiled at last so it may shine down from the new building in all its glory on the King’s birthday today”.


The political dimension

The construction of the palace chapel was therefore – regardless of the king’s undisputed personal devoutness – by no means a “private matter” for Frederick William but was intended to emphasise the Christian religion as a fundamental principle of the social order.

It is a long-held misunderstanding to depoliticise the rule of Frederick William IV, the “romanticist on the throne”, just because he was an accomplished draughtsman and designed buildings, rather than waging wars. Numerous studies have long since confirmed how deeply the king’s edifices were linked to his policies as a monarch. This also applies particularly to the palace chapel during the time of its construction before and after the German revolutions of 1848. The inscription explicitly emphasises Christianity’s universal entitlement to rule, and for Frederick William, this therefore equally represented the basis for his own absolute sovereignty as ruler. After the cataclysm of the French Revolution and the German Campaign of 1813, the Hohenzollern saw their legitimation to rule widely challenged. Frederick William IV countered this with an even more fundamental emphasis on their divine right: the Church, the state and the people were to regain the unity that had been destroyed by the Enlightenment and the Revolution. For Frederick William, any questioning of Christianity therefore equalled a real threat to his rule. The king made this perfectly clear when he wrote:

“The enemies of the gospel are becoming well-nigh too brazen. One must and should take most dignified and decisive steps against them […], wherever there is a scheme to depose God in order to swiftly afterwards depose the King.”

Frederick William was by no means paranoid. Even though the institution of the monarchy had been fundamentally questioned by only a minority of the population in the 1840s, the majority still believed that its legitimation ought to be enshrined in law and based on a constitution. The roots of this conflict reached far back to the king’s childhood. The citizens felt that it had not been the actions of the Hohenzollern that had ended Napoleon’s rule of Prussia from 1807 to 1813 but a war of liberation fought by the people which Frederick William III had joined only hesitatingly, and at a late stage. These events had made the citizens realise their own power. At the same time, a bitter disappointment with the traditional form of government set in as the king refused to honour the role which the populace had played. He ignored two promises, made between 1810 and 1815, to establish a constitution for Prussia. As the 1815 Constitution of the German Confederation obliged all German states to ratify a constitution, the confrontations between the old elites and the citizens over the next decades therefore focused perfectly legitimately on the constitution issue.

Frederick William VI had a far more decisive opinion on this than his father. On the opening of the Confederation’s first parliament session in 1847, he said:

“No power on Earth shall succeed in persuading me to transform the natural relationship between ruler and populace into a conventional, constitutional one, particularly as We are made so powerful by its inherent truth, and I will neither now nor ever permit a written piece of paper to come between us, like an apparent second providence, to govern Us with its paragraphs instead of the ancient sacred loyalty.”

This unapologetic dismissal of the constitutional principle in favour of the divine right to rule as the “sacred” foundation of the state made the demonstrative simultaneous construction of a chapel on top of the Berlin residential palace a highly political and provocative gesture. A precise summary written by the author Ernst Dronke in 1846 illustrates that the populace understood the king’s politics precisely as intended:

“The current king intends to establish the rule of his personage (absolutism) on the basis of the faith of his ancestors’ theological Christianity. [This] Christian principle has reached the highest exponential of its expression in the current king, it can go no further; the king will always bring forward the Christian principle to prevent the education and enlightenment of the masses.”

This feeling of having to shake off the yoke of a completely outdated, old and unjust system was extremely strong – and finally erupted in the German revolutions of 1848. A striking contemporary depiction illustrates the situation: even as the king’s troops march in long rows towards the protesting citizens in front of the palace, the gigantic scaffold for the new palace chapel, whose silhouette is already vaguely emerging, towers over the scene – at this point in time, Prussia’s future was also a construction site. Would the old world of the monarchy’s divine rule be resurrected, or was it still possible to transform it into a democratically legitimised, constitutional monarchy?

The outcome is well-known – a German state governed by a democratically drawn up constitution seemed almost within reach in 1848/49 but ultimately failed not least due to Frederick William IV’s refusal to accept the imperial crown legitimised by the Frankfurt Parliament. Whilst the German constitution was being debated in the Paulskirche, the king ordered the demonstrative unveiling of the cross on the finished chapel in October 1848. However, despite this gleeful gesture, a wide gap remained between claim and reality, even for the king. Grudgingly, he had to ratify a Prussian constitution on 5 December 1848. Granted, it was certainly not democratically legitimised and gave the king extensive authority, but on the other hand, for the first time, the fundamental rights of the populace were set down in writing, and it gave the parliament important rights when it came to the national budget.

Frederick William IV’s other major building project in Berlin’s Lustgarten therefore ground to a halt due to this constitution: the new cathedral, a huge basilica with integrated burial chamber for members of the House of Hohenzollern whose construction had already begun, was never finished. Parliament refused to provide further funds for yet another symbol of the ruling dynasty’s divine right. Frustrated, Frederick William increasingly withdrew from the Berlin Palace, and henceforth divided his time between Sanssouci and the Charlottenburg Palace. For the next forty years, until 1893, “the capital’s most expensive grass”, as the people of Berlin mocked, sprouted amongst the ruins of the abandoned cathedral construction site.

Photo by Alfred Hagemann
Alfred Hagemann

Dr Alfred Hagemann is head of the History of the Site Department at the Stiftung Humboldt Forum. His research focuses on the architectural and cultural history of the Berlin court in the 18th century, historical women's studies and the state self-representation of the GDR. Over the past fifteen years, the art historian has curated a series of cultural-historical exhibitions on the history of Prussia and the GDR in Berlin and Potsdam.