The crux of the cupola

6 min read
It doesn’t hurt to address your present’s past. You can only learn from a history you understand.

PRO: The cross as a stamp of origin

by Alexander Kissler

When football trainers have lost particularly spectacularly or politicians are in a particularly foul mood, they sometimes snap extremely impolitely at a journalist who asks them a perfectly innocuous question: “That was the wrong thing to ask!” I am neither a trainer nor a politician, my equilibrium is reasonably settled, I know nothing of major defeats. However, I was tempted to respond to the question regarding the appropriateness of the cross on the cupola of the Berlin Palace: “That was the wrong thing to ask!” The cross is back where it was. There can be no alternative.

What, after all, would be the alternative, dear concerned public and history twisters? That the Berlin Palace and its facade should just be rebuilt vaguely, that it should be sort of reconstructed and then, like a parody of itself, be left to paddle up a well-known creek whilst we ridicule it in the certain knowledge of the superiority of our contemporary sensitivities? Indeed, you will soon see a small cross, as installed by Friedrich August Stüler in the past, on the cupola, and once upon a time, this covered Emperor William II’s residential quarters as well as a chapel. Tempi passati. A lantern and a cross, both certainly interpreted in a modern design language, graceful, not ostentatious, will now crown the Humboldt Forum with its collections that showcase non-European art, the history of the city of Berlin, humankind’s global culture. Excluding the cross from the reconstruction would be, as Horst Bredekamp once put it, “a politically/religiously motivated act. (…) Historic reflection only ever makes sense if you measure the current situation against the past, through the symbols left by the past.”

As soon as you see the whole building, it is immediately obvious that the Humboldt Forum is not a church. No Te Deum will ever be heard here, no bells will ring. The cross, however, signifies the spirit the Protestant Hohenzollern also wanted to be associated with, the spirit of Christianity. The cross is a stamp of origin. It identifies the era the palace was built in and the traditions of those who built it. Those who share those traditions today – there are some Christians in Berlin, apparently – are delighted. Those who do not share them, should view them as a greeting from Then to Now and think to themselves: so that is what it was like back then, here, in the centre of Berlin. It doesn’t hurt to address your present’s past. You can only learn from a history you understand.

There could hardly be a more abrasive way to symbolise Christianity’s presumption to rule over predominantly non-Christian cultures.

CONTRA: The wrong sign

by Nikolaus Bernau

There is no apolitical beauty. A prime example for this is the installation of a shiny golden Latin cross high above the Berlin cityscape on top of that new building which is often simply referred to as the “palace”, even though it is unlikely to ever be the home of a monarch, but is in fact a modern exhibition, event and museum centre with decidedly multicultural aspirations.

So far, no other national museum anywhere in the world features a religious symbol on its roof – unless it is a building that was once a religious space and has now been converted into a museum, like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. After all, museums, like libraries or archives, all are traditionally instruments of enlightenment beyond religion. To install a religious symbol on top of such a building, regardless of what kind, therefore contravenes the secular character of these institutions, and in this particular case also ignores the Old Testament’s Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”; i.e. you should not use it for non-religious purposes. After all, there won’t be anything even closely resembling a Christian chapel underneath this cupola.

This cross has always been a highly political symbol of power. It was installed under Frederick William IV as a triumphant symbol of the Hohenzollern monarchy after the German revolutions of 1848/49, to signify the catastrophic Prussian alliance between the state, the monarchy and the Protestant Church. The fact that the king chose to build the new palace chapel above the western portal, of all places – which was never designed for a chapel! – and then demoted the old palace chapel to a study was a political sign: he fantasised about a restored mediaeval world ruled by the monarchy and the Protestant Church.
Catholics, Jews, basically anyone of a different faith or with no faith at all had to bow to this symbol.

Some maintain that this cross is an “architectural characteristic that is there for historical reasons” (Frank Jahnke, SPD). Would they say the same if it was a facsimile of a national emblem of the GDR? The architect Franco Stella claims that cupolas are Christian per se and the cross therefore logical. In architectural history terms, this is balderdash: cupolas can communicate all kinds of messages; they also overarch temples, palaces, libraries, museums, memorials, foyers or even parliaments like the Reichstag. They say that the cross is part of the reconstruction of the palace facades. However, the eastern facade of the Humboldt Forum or its interior are an exercise in hardcore Italian neo-Rationalism, the pseudo-modernist coffee house addition above the north-western corner ruins the entire line of the Lustgarten facade, the passage is a completely new element, the Eosander courtyard has been covered. In all of these places, the historical photographic image has been pushed into second place in favour of contemporary ideas. This palace is a new building, not a facsimile.

If the palace had survived with the cross, no one would clamour for its removal. It was a symbol of its times. However, it is a completely new addition to a completely new building, above an exhibition hall with Buddhist (!) wall murals. There could hardly be a more abrasive way to symbolise Christianity’s presumption to rule over predominantly non-Christian cultures. The comment that “the cross is a symbol for the universal message of Christianity” (Cornelia Seibeld, CDU) is certainly true. However, under this symbol, millions of people in America, Africa and Asia were suppressed, murdered, enslaves and exploited, their cultures and their belief systems attacked. The cross above the Humboldt Forum is pointing them in a fundamentally wrong direction.