Kościół wśród odbudowanej zabudowy Neumarkt. Fot. Geo-Loge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Frauenkirche in Dresden – destruction and reconstruction of one of Europe’s most famous churches

St. Mary’s Church in Dresden (German: Frauenkirche) is a baroque Lutheran church located on the Neumarkt (New Market). This monumental building is one of Europe’s best-known and most recognisable monuments of Protestant church architecture, and the largest sandstone building in the world next to Strasbourg Cathedral. It was badly damaged during the Second World War and finally collapsed on the morning of 15 February 1945. Under the GDR, it remained a permanent ruin as a reminder of the horrors of war. It was not until the 1980s that a decision was made to reconstruct it. The reconstruction, which lasted from 1994 to 2005, was financed by the Dresdner Bank, associations of lovers of the city and individual donors from all over the world.

As early as the 11th century, there was a small Romanesque church dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the site where the Frauenkirche now stands. It was renovated several times in the Middle Ages: at the end of the 13th century it was converted into a Gothic hall church, and at the end of the 15th century it underwent another renovation, this time in the late Gothic style. In 1722, Dresden’s city council decided to demolish the old church and build a new one in its place. The project was commissioned by the city architect George Bähr. Construction work began in 1726 and lasted until 1743.

Design drawing by George Bähr. Photo: Library of Congress Washington, DC

The construction of the dome’s outer shell was originally intended to be made of wood and covered with copper, but Bähr pushed the idea of making it of stone, as it would have been much more impressive in this version. This idea was supported by the Elector of Saxony, August III Saxon, who dreamed of having a structure similar to the Venetian church of Santa Maria della Salute in his capital city. Eventually, the idea was accepted. A cross was mounted on top of the lighthouse and thus the construction was completed. The Frauenkirche was one of the most significant Protestant religious buildings of the German Baroque. The church, designed on a central plan, was crowned by a dome made almost entirely of sandstone blocks. It was a unique construction, comparable to works such as the dome by Michelangelo on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Frauenkirche on Neumarkt (circa 1898) Photo Library of Congress – Library of Congress catalogue : https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017660049 Original URL: https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca .52545

The outline of the outer walls formed a roughly square, with only a semi-circular recess for the choir breaking out of it. A two-wing fan-shaped staircase led up to the raised floor within, flanking the pulpit-cum-chancel, behind which was a monumental Baroque altar crowned by an organ prospect. The proportions of the slender pillars and tall, narrow windows were reminiscent of those found in Gothic cathedrals. The church had an overall height of 91.23 m, 41.96 m wide and 50.02 m long. During the Seven Years’ War, the dome was shelled by Prussian artillery in 1760. However, it proved strong enough that the shells bounced off it and the church survived the siege without major damage. In the following years, many measures were taken to stabilise the building’s structure, as over the years mistakes made during construction came to light, resulting in cracks in the walls.

The church at the end of the 19th century and today. Photo: http://www.bildindex.de Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and Netopyr, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the notorious raids by American and British bombers on Dresden on the night of 13 to 14 February 1945, the church was completely burnt out. Although some of the windows had been bricked up earlier, the rest were destroyed or severely damaged by bomb blasts and flames. The Frauenkirche was defenceless against the raging fire consuming the city centre, where temperatures reached up to 1,200 degrees Celsius. Virtually not a single house survived after the raid on Neumarkt. On the morning of 15 February, the temple collapsed with a huge bang as a result of the different temperatures acting on the not very resistant sandstone. Only two sections of the side walls did not collapse. The building disappeared from the city’s skyline and the blackened stones waited in a pile of rubble for 45 years, while the Communist authorities ruled East Germany.

Panorama of the city in 1910 and 1972, with the Frauenkirche visible on the right. Photo bybbisch94, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Already shortly after the war, the citizens of Dresden began rescuing and cataloguing the remains for use in later reconstruction. In 1947, the remains of the altar were secured and walled up to protect them from the harmful effects of the weather. The 850 surviving stones were also inventoried and placed in storage. For 40 years of GDR times, the Frauenkirche remained as a memorial ruin in the middle of the city, much like the ruin of Berlin’s Memorial Church. Many of the surviving residents commemorated family members killed in the bombings here, who had no graves.

Ruins of the Frauenkirche, October 1985. Photo by Hajotthu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, when the reconstruction of the Semper Opera House was being completed, the Dresden city council drew up a long-term plan for the reconstruction of more monuments, which also included the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. Among the main reasons given were the progressive decay of the ruin and the consequent degradation of its monumental character. After the political changes, the final decision was made to reconstruct the dilapidated monument. Donations from a wide range of sources helped to cover around two-thirds of the construction costs, totalling 179 million euros. The missing 65 million was provided by the City of Dresden, the State of Saxony and the Federal Government.

Cranes help clear the ruins, circa 1993. Photo by Anne-Marie Steenbergen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In line with the assumptions that the reconstruction would use historical materials as well as contemporary knowledge and construction technology, several technological issues had to be clarified regarding, among other things, the statics of the church and the weather resistance of the building material. Surviving historical plans and sketches were used as the basis for the project. The ruin itself, as it contained both large and small surviving fragments of the structure, also provided a huge source of information. A three-dimensional model of the building was created using the latest computer technology available and the information obtained. A weatherproof shelter was developed specifically for the reconstruction, which could be raised using hydraulic jacks once the construction phase was reached. This enabled uninterrupted work to be carried out in all conditions and in all weathers, even in winter.

May 2003. Photo by Sir James, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In early 1993, stone-by-stone removal and documentation of the ruin began. All the pieces that were still reusable were measured, catalogued and stored. From the position in the rubble, using specially developed computer geolocation programmes, it was possible to determine the approximate original position in the building of many of them. In total, more than 8,000 elements were recovered; 3,539 were used for the subsequent reconstruction, which was incorporated into the outer façade. The surviving remains of the corner towers and choir were also incorporated into the new construction. Quite a few of the large elements found were returned to their approximate place – using a computer simulation that allows objects to be moved in a three-dimensional environment in countless combinations, the original position of the individual surviving elements was examined based on their position in the ruins. In the end, the elements from the ruin represent approximately 34% of the new construction.

View from the south, showing the largest surviving section of wall incorporated into the new construction. Photo by Ingersoll, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because of the dark patina covering the old building, created by heat and years of exposure to the weather, which induces a natural process of discolouration of the sandstone through oxidation of the iron it contains, the new and old elements contrast strongly, making the building resemble a jigsaw puzzle. The new elements will also gradually darken over time, but the difference between the old and the new building will remain clearly visible for many years after the reconstruction. on 13 April 2004, the last piece of the dome was placed in place, completing the construction proper. In June of the same year, the wooden structure of the copper-clad finial together with the cross was set on the lantern above the dome, bringing the Frauenkirche to a height of 91.24 metres and making it the most striking symbol of Dresden. During the reconstruction of the interior, benches were inserted and new paintings were made. Thousands of old photographs, recollections of the faithful and church dignitaries and other documents were relied on for their reconstruction.

The altar with organ in 1909 and today. Photo by Paul Schumann (1855-1927), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and Andraszy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An organ with 4873 pipes made by Daniel Kern, an organ builder from Strasbourg, was installed in 2005. The bronze statue of Martin Luther, the work of sculptor Adolf von Donndorf from 1885, survived the bombing. It was restored and returned to its former place in front of the church entrance. Finally, all the work was completed in 2005, a year ahead of schedule for the town’s 800th anniversary. 30 October 2005. The Frauenkirche was re-consecrated, thus restoring its former function as a church. Bishop Jochen Bohl of Saxony consecrated the baptismal font, the pulpit and the church as a whole. During the ceremony, the liturgical furnishings were also returned to the church. The ceremony took place in the presence of 1,700 invited guests, including the Duke of Kent, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, the United States and France, and thousands of people gathered at Neumarkt. German President Horst Köhler and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also attended the ceremony.

Frauenkirche Dresden with Martin Luther memorial, 2024. Photo by Toniklemm, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the church ceremony, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Horst Köhler, delivered a covenant in which he referred to the Frauenkirche as a symbol of German unity. Bishop Jochen Bohl then expressed his thanks to those responsible for and supporting the restoration. Further celebrations took place the following day, 31 October, which is Reformation Day.

The reconstruction of the Frauenkirche has become part of a major campaign for the mass restoration of Dresden’s damaged monuments. It is the largest undertaking of its kind in Europe.

Source: podrozepoeuropie.pl, frauenkirche-dresden.de

Read also: Metamorphosis | Monument | History | Sacred architecture | Germany

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