Artful Restoration of St. Stephan’s, Mainz

What makes a restoration successful? Must it be a faithful reproduction of the original? How does one restore a church built 700 years ago that went through many modifications and then was nearly completely destroyed? What if little is known about the original furnishings or paintings? What if artifacts from any relevant period are rare or extinct? Perhaps it is easier just to do something completely modern. There is no simple answer.

St. Stephan’s Church of Mainz is a church that must have presented such a conundrum, but the answer turned out to be quite satisfying. The unique restoration there is at once modern, conveying an important message to today’s world and yet compatible with the historical architecture and sensibilities.

The church was founded in the 10th century by Archbishop Willigis, who also was the builder of the initial phase of the Mainz cathedral. It stands on a hill on the western side of the Old City. The present Gothic structure replaced the original building between about 1290 and 1340. The walls and piers however are all that remain of that church. An explosion in 1847 and several air raids in WWII gutted the church and adjacent cloister. Many historic furnishings are removed at that time. Since then the church has been in a nearly continuous state of restoration.

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The most remarkable aspect of the restored church lies in the windows. Marc Chagall was engaged to create them in 1973 when he was nearly 90 years old. Collaborating with with Charles Marq, a long time associate, and Klaus Mayer, the parish priest, he created a distinctly modern set of windows that harmonize perfectly with the 700 year old building. Chagall was Jewish and desirous to provide a work that would heal the wounds of the war and bring Jews and Christians closer together. The result is a set of windows that demonstrates the reliance of Christianity on the history and writings of ancient Israel and celebrates the shared heritage of creation. The windows in the apse are the focal point, depicting scenes from creation, the lives of Abraham, Moses, David and others. The booklet written by Klaus Mayer waxes quite poetic on the windows.

_D6A59351kBeyond the obvious, what struck me was the compatibility of the windows with the Gothic style. Though not geometrically regular, there is a balance to the design that mirrors the balance of the building. The flowing curves and sharp points echo the flow of the multi-shafted piers and pointed arches. The blues lend a peaceful atmosphere and complement the red sandstone. The impact is facilitated by the height of the aisles, which equals that of the central nave and all the windows can be viewed from any location by turning around.

 Chagall originally engaged to provide the windows in the apse, but apparently became so interested in the project that he continued to work on additional windows for the transepts and aisles until his death in 1985. He left sufficient instructions for his associate, Charles Marq to finish the remaining windows. Thus the entire set of windows constitutes a unified whole.

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The organ was being played as we visited, filling the building with sound. The adjacent window cast the entire area in a blue glow.

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The cloister adjoining the church is striking for its intricate vaulting and its leaning walls. Changes in the flow of groundwater over the years have compromised the foundations. Fortunately modern techniques for injecting concrete into the foundation and other modern measures have strengthened the vaults from above.

Throughout the history of Israel, they were instructed to erect memorials and institute festivals to remind themselves of their heritage. St. Stephan’s church functions as such a reminder to our age.

Klaus Mayer, St. Stephan in Mainz, Regensberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-7954-4310-8

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The Cathedral of St. Martin, Mainz

Dominating the Skyline

The Mainzer Dom or Cathedral of St. Martin looms over the relatively small city of Mainz. The staircase towers on the east, shown below, date to 1009. The  east choir and nave were complete by about 1137. East Front

Though the building has too often suffered from fire, neglect, war and now the ravages of modern civilization, it remains in use as a center of Christian worship. As a point of comparison, by the time the Roman monuments were 1000 years old, they were ancient ruins, looted for their stone and their original purposes of little interest to the new residents of Rome. In addition to its age, the size of the building is hard to grasp. It is 109m (357ft) long and the nave is 28m (98ft) high. With the aisles the church is 32m (104ft) wide. Though a bit smaller than its Gothic successors, it till whelms the senses. Western Dome

The core of the building is in the Romanesque style, marked by round arches and heavy, thick, flat walls. The windows are small, letting in but little light. The overall effect has been considered gloomy, but I’m not sure that gives proper credit to where this style fits in the development of architecture. If one had never seen a gothic church, with its skeletal frame and glass walls, this would seem spacious and light enough. Beam of Light

The blind arcade between the nave arches and the clerestory windows, which is adorned with paintings from the Gospels, was an innovation at the time. Triforum and Clerestory

The original building had a flat ceiling. The ribbed vaulting was installed in the late 12th century. This innovation seems to have come late to the Rhine churches. Such vaulting was already in use as early as the 11th century in England. The half-cylinder columns added to the inside of the rectangular columns support the vaults. Ribbed Vaults

A number of german churches built in this time period had chancels/apses on both the west and east ends. In the case of Mainz the more elaborate chancel, is in the west and the pews face that direction. West Chancel

The Romanesque core has been obscured somewhat by later accretions. Numerous monuments and decorative additions come from the high gothic and baroque ages. The transepts especially have numerous memorials in later styles (note also the early 21st century push-broom resting against the column in the background). _D6A5852

Chapels, funded by noble patrons who wanted to memorialize themselves, were added in the 13th century with large gothic windows, seen from the cloister in the image below, but many of these are shaded by buildings around the cathedral and do not add much light to the interior. This issue of patronage also gives one pause to consider the mixed personal and religious motives of donors.Cloister and Gothic Windows

Still today there are further additions, including a number of modern colored glass windows that to my eye clash a bit with the older elements. _D6A5701

Most other large churches from this age in western Europe were replaced at one time or another with newer, gothic structures. Together with Speyer and Worms, this church is a special representative of an important architectural style and a testament to the faith of those who built and rebuilt it.

Information Sources:

  • Ernst Gall, Cathedrals and Abbey Churches of the Rhine, NY,  Abrams, 1963
  • St. Martin’s Cathedral, Mainz, ISBN 978-3-7954-4383-5
  • http://www.mainz-dom.de