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