Bergerkirche Düsseldorf, Altar

Posted by MadScientist (Düsseldorf, Germany) on 28 July 2008 in Art & Design.

Many thanks to your interesting thoughts of yesterday about Düsseldorf's Bergerkirche, the church with the somewhat different look. Most of you seem to like it, I didn't expect such a definite result. However, I don't like the design of that church and I want to tell you why. For me this church is an expression of a severe crisis. But let's take one thing at a time.

Let me first describe you some technical details I didn't mention yesterday. The altar I'm presenting today is made of plexiglass and a lightsource itself, therefore the glowing effect. Additionally, the altar is digitally connected with other churches and changes its light intensity based on their musical 'output' (I don't know the details but you might keep in mind that the glowing might become more or less intense). The stained-glass windows are remnants of the 1950s, when the church was rebuilt after the war. In 2003, the artist and professor of statuary at Frankfurt University Tobias Rehberger was commisioned to do a complete redesign. That's what we can see today.

I think everybody has peculiar expectations when visiting a church of a greater community of believers, especially when you're in Europe. There's a common sense of understanding a church building as something with a hall or nave and with an altar at the end of the nave or perhaps in the middle of the hall. Usually some seats or benches are arranged around or before that altar and often there's a musical instrument, preferably an organ. With the exception of the instrument you can find everything else in this church. But where's the religion?

When Protestantism did arise in the 16th century, it virtually shook the earth. The struggle between the Catholic and the Protestant world eventually culminated in the Thirty Years' War, a terrible bloodbath whose consequences are still detectable till this day. Protestantism was the only force to break the Catholic hegemony. But can we feel this furor in this church? Is the energy of early Protestants still noticeable?

The membership decline of the big churches does not come to an end. (This statistics shows the number of secessions from the Protestant and Catholic church in Germany). Due to a peculiarity in the German tax system you may save money from the tax by leaving the church (churches are tax-financed here). But many people don't leave their church only for pecuniary reasons but also for a feeling of disinterest. 'The Church' for them no longer works as landmark in their lifes. Especially the Protestant churches in Germany are affected by this development.

For the churches there are two possible solutions to act against this: a small community of believers returns to the roots and becomes orthodox (in its most extreme variety this leads into fundamentalism), or, if the church is too big to fall, the church iteself changes into something different. German churches usually took this second solution. Especially the Protestant churches in Germany are trying hard to get a modern image. The church is no longer meant to be a source of authority and imperturbable faith but an offer to society to choose God as a friend, to put it briefly.

The design of the Bergerkirche is a result of this new policy. It's a soft, pleasing place, quietly located in a backyard and you might come as you are. The panels of fabric and the glowing altar make you think of visiting an art exhibition. Because this church isn't only used for church service but also for conferences and various churchly events, it's not a bad idea to have a room with good acoustics and without fixed benches. This article describes the design in detail, especially the artist's desire for making the design part of everyday life. Rehberger wants the church to have a "feelgood" atmosphere, a pleasing room you like to enter and that communicates social warmth. By omission of all Christian imagery and transforming the iconography into a light metaphor (represented by the altar) the artist creates a quite radical approach. However, this light symbolism is too much Manichaeism for me.

Some early Protestants were iconoclasts and liked to burn things like this, because, accourding to their doctrine, God was not in pictures but in the word. That's why the Protestant mass doesn't contain the Eucharist. I hope that the liturgy of the Word in the masses at Bergerkirche are sufficient, because without even the slightest optical hint that you're in a Christian church the word has to compensize a lot! However, I'm not sure about this, when I read articles about 'sleep-ins' in that church, where beds were arranged and visitors were invited to lay down and have a rest while listening to Bible verses about rest and peace. Too much feelgood for me.

Another Protestant virtue and tradition is inwardness. That means basically that you have to find the worth of things, the way to God (or enlightenment) in yourself because it's hidden there. Usually this thinking is in a sharp contrast to all forms of outwardness (ornament, decor, icons etc.) as this is thought to be vain, superficial and an obstacle for finding the right way. However, there's no guarantee that God is in your innermost. What if you find nothing, or worse: something evil in you?

When Germany celebrated its reunification in 1990, it was said that the republic would become more Protestant, as the capital was moving from sleepy, Catholic Bonn to exciting, sexy, Protestant Berlin. This is true and it is also not. True in so far as the remnants of a Protestant bourgeois culture are still present and lead to a society that puts emphasis on things like 'personal responsibility' and 'provision for the future'; this is pure Calvinism. It is not true, as the number of atheists and agnostics is still rising. But I guess that many people are still asking the old question what their life is all about, and what's the meaning of it. And does the church of their parents and grandparents have an answer for this?

We're living in a capitalistic world. Especially the Protestant church tries to communicate its message by means of supply and demand. To raise the demand the message has to be modified. And that's why the Bergerkirche got its design: there's nothing that hurts you. Soft colours that match the recent 70s retro trend, no rememberings of suffering or the duties of a believer, no confessions, no questions asked. But so faith decays to just another offer in the big drugstore of life, it becomes a pure matter of lifestyle. But this is not an option for the one who wants an answer for the old questions. Or who is looking for comfort. And that's why I see a severe crisis when I visit this church room.

Agreement, protest? Let me know!

Lorraine from Gatineau, Canada

Well, now what a text. You know how to write, and you get your point across very well. So many ways, so little time. So that's my introduction to your -quite pleasing photo-, my main text is simple. True Love Is. Everything else is irrelevant. That's my 2 cents, thanks for the great conversation ;)

28 Jul 2008 9:58am

@Lorraine: Let Love Rule! But is that always enough? And possible?

Observing from West Cheshire, United Kingdom

Having read that I believe this is a modern form of church. And what appeared to be a cheapo 1970's lamp could possibly represent the candle to indicate 'His' presence ? For me it is too futuristic, has God gone digital, probably with hymns on MP3 !

I prefer the more traditional style church (not that I go) but that's beside the point.

28 Jul 2008 10:07am

@Observing: For me that red lamp looks like a caricature of the sanctuary lamp :-) No, honest, all you can see here is - emptyness. That's not necessarily bad, one might argue that they try to use sort of Zen approach. But we have also to take into account that Zen Buddhists have a long lasting experience and apprenticeship in meditation techniques. I don't know how well trained Protestants in Germany are in this.
I like to lean back and have all the saints around me. :-)

Michael Skorulski from Cigel, Hong Kong

A simple elegant but stunning composition, MS. One of your best. Well done.

28 Jul 2008 11:43am

@Michael Skorulski: Now you made me smile. :-)

Steven from Chicagoland, United States

It would be very hard for me to be prayful and submissive in this church. And I am so used to kneelers in a church.

28 Jul 2008 12:35pm

@Steven: Me too. :-) I have a problem with the noncommittal attitude here: there's nothing to see, not even hard benches or kneelers ache your body, and the spoken word is vanishing after mass is over. Their message isn't made accessible, it's fugacious. And you're sitting there and think: why am I here? What should I do now? Shall I leave?

Tracey from White Hall, United States

My only opinion is this: God is found in beauty and this is beauty. I actually gasped out loud when I saw this. It is breathtaking!

28 Jul 2008 1:15pm

@Tracey: Maybe I'm just an old-fashioned geezer, but is it always about simplicity and reduction? What does that absence of imagery mean if not a noncommittal attitude towards the 'message'? Doesn't faith become a mere accessory, another attribute to make me feel good? I was really puzzled there, not because I felt the presence of God but about the banality of this room.

ManuelaR from Hainburg, Germany

I find the emptiness a bit disturbing... traditional churches regardless of the religion are in my opinion more interesting and photogenic. They tell a story, regardless if you believe in it or not. There is not too much story here... :)

28 Jul 2008 2:19pm

@ManuelaR: I think that too. The void expects you to do something, as there is nothing special to look at. That would mean hard work, because excercises in meditation are not easy. In contrast to that is that 'feelgood' approach of the designer who wants you make feeling home. That doesn't fit, I think.

Shuva Brata Deb from Hyderabad, India

Very simplistic shot and well composed.

28 Jul 2008 3:04pm

@Shuva Brata Deb: Thanks very much!

JoeB from Brampton, Canada

I just had a look at both shots, overall i find the church cold and hollow and maybe too modernist for its own good. The larger shot seems more like a hall where students might write exams.

28 Jul 2008 3:32pm

@JoeB: Totally agree. This was sort of a spiritual happening. You were invited to take some time and write a letter to somebody. The church then would send your letter on your behalf. Unfortunately, they don't do that with larger packets.

Ina from Krugersdorp, South Africa

Great information, I liked reading it :) Great shot, like the contrast in colors, like the composition too :)

28 Jul 2008 5:19pm

@Ina: I think you're in a majority :-) Thanks very much, Ina!

António Pires from Lisbon, Portugal

The strange thing in this Christian church is the absence of the symbol of Jesus Christ, the cross. This can be a meeting room, and a church is indeed a room where believers meet, but they meet also with Jesus. The early Christians, in the Roman Empire, they had "churches" as simple as this one, but I don't believe that in each of those churches a cross was missing. I don't like the churches with altars with images of saints to which people pray; it seems a form of polytheism. However, a cross is not an image but a sign that who is there believes in Jesus Christ.
If my words are un-orthodox excuse me, for I'm not religious, although I was born and live in a Catholic country.

28 Jul 2008 5:28pm

@António Pires: Thanks, António! I was also feeling that the intended simplicity in that church was making way for plain emptiness. And it's true: while early Christians were always at risk of becoming martyrs, this is quite unlikely for Protestants in Düsseldorf. I still don't get it why they omit the crucifix, it's like dissociating from faith at the location where it takes place! But why should they do that?
The saints, well, they are admired but not adored, meaning to be inspiring examples in faith. Usually you learn this in religious education ;-) Even Protestants didn't 'abolish' the admiration of saints, but their depiction. But there's a strong iconography in Catholicism and I don't want to miss that. :-)
Many thanks for your thoughts!

Ronnie 2¢ from London, United Kingdom

I am not a churchgoer so cannot speak for those who are but the styling here offers only a safe continuity with the life we all know : there is no escape to a history or anything offering question or contrast that may better enable us to value our everyday lives. Must be like trying to comprehend Ikea without ever having visited a museum!

28 Jul 2008 7:06pm

@Ronnie 2¢: *lol* Now that you mention it...
HOLYG altar, 150.000,- €
LIKT sanctuary lamp, 850,- €

Linerberry from Christchurch, New Zealand

Well, you've certainly created a passionate discussion:-)). I love the shot, great compo. For me there is no feeling in this church. I can understand the reasoning behind the design but I think its just gone to far and this church appears to have no spiritual feeling or emotion. Its cold and uninviting. Thanks for the narrative and the interesting discussion.

28 Jul 2008 11:12pm

@Linerberry: My pleasure! I agree with you: simplicity (or, in this case: emptiness) isn't necessarily an indicator of spirituality. They have reduced the 'message' to an arbitrary statement. In the end, a church wouldn't be necessary any longer. But why do they think so?

akarui from Kagoshima, Japan

Simple and modern style. Not too much money involve. But beeing photographers we know that simplicity is often a key of good pictures...

29 Jul 2008 12:36am

@akarui: I think simplicity here is reduced to emptiness. Very critical for a religious building, because usually we aren't skilled in meditation techniques. A mass is a different thing...

~Kylie~ from Richmond, Australia

A very intersting and modern image, I love the colours!

29 Jul 2008 1:14am

@~Kylie~: Thanks, Kylie, much appreciated!

Lorraine from Gatineau, Canada

With No Love in your heart, doesn't really matter where you pray....If you know Love, doesn't really matter where you pray...of course from a 'photogenic' point a view as a photographer, i adore Old churches with the Magnificence of Jesus represented, but at the end, when all Is gone all that remains is Love, in the truest sense, in the spiritual sense...

29 Jul 2008 9:28am

@Lorraine: Just a few thoughts: 'Love' alone is not a surrogate nor an answer for every question you might have in your life. The idea of a loving God is quite new and came up with Christianity. But to reduce God alone to love isn't enough, just look how many possible answers there are to the old problem of evil. And you have to take into account that this is not a church made by laymen but by educated theologians; I would expect more theology in this church. Restricting religion to love and inwardness omits too many other important things in my opinion.

Twelvebit from Victoria, United States

Maybe it's because you're from Europe, 'cause Manichaeism is all the rage over here. In fact, it's the purported basis of US foreign policy. I kind of like the image myself.

30 Jul 2008 11:13pm

@Twelvebit: I've also read about 'Manichaeism' in the US, but it would be is a rather poor definition if it would be narrowed to a "good against evil" schema. The original Manichaeism contained imaginations about powers of light and darkness and that glowing altar reminded me of this. But I doubt that there is any theological message in the design of that altar.

Japanalia from Yokohama, Japan

I enjoyed reading your essay-like presentation to this post! Taking about the shot, I like the way you composed it.....a well captured corner in a museum, this is what it makes me think of!

4 Aug 2008 8:03am

@Japanalia: Sort of, yes :-) Maybe I was a bit unfair as I photographed this place with my Catholic eye (I've done a ceiling shot that looks like a slap in the face compared to my shots of churches in Rome), but I couldn't make photos of it and leave it uncommented. Thank you :-)

Laurent from Lyon, France

this may not be the most common church, and maybe isn't what you should expect from such a place, thus I find the picture very interesting.
The framing is very good, the colors are also great. A little smell of the 70's. I really enjoy the simplicity of the shot.

5 Aug 2008 11:03am

@Laurent: You're still in a majority but the community of people who don't like this design is growing though. :-)

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