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Berlin Cathedral Nativity

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The altar screen of Berlin Cathedral frames a video of this glorious historic church, and features its beautiful stained glass window of The Nativity. [/I][/B]

Berlin Cathedral rises by the Altesmuseum in Berlin's Schlozzplatz.  
Museumsinsel, Museum Island — outlined by the Spree and one of its tributaries — lies a short walk from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and draws visitors like a magnet: to its world-famous temples of history and art (Bodemuseum, Pergamonmuseum, Altesmuseum), and to its glorious temple of faith, the historic Berlin Cathedral.

As my Berlin friend Sebastian Köpcke and I leave the tree-lined boulevard Unter Der Linden behind, the copper dome of Berlin Cathedral rises over 320 feet above the Schlossplatz, a sprawling square that, for over 500 years, was home to the ruling Hohenzollern family.

The dome, severely damaged by a bomb during World War II, may not be — after long and extensive restoration — as ornate or as high as the original. But it still majestically crowns the Cathedral, and it is still circled at its base by eight statues of angels playing musical instruments. The angel statues were created according to the written instructions of Kaiser Wilhem II, who, with his wife Viktoria, celebrated the consecration of Berlin Cathedral in 1905.

Over 7,000 pipes give voice to the Alte Dame, (Old Lady), as the Berlin Cathedral organ is affectionately known. 
As Sebastian and I enter the Cathedral our eyes are drawn up, towards the soaring dome outlined in gold. "I used to come here when I was young," Sebastian says. "And I remember seeing this huge hole in the dome."

All I can see are eight brilliant mosaics of the Beatitudes, and inscribed above, poetic words of the promise of heaven from the Sermon of the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Each mosaic is made up of about half a million tesserae, and thousands of these mosaic pieces came tumbling down when Berlin Cathedral was open to the elements.

Rain, ice, and snow poured in — for decades — because the Cathedral and East Berlin were behind the Iron Curtain. Religious symbols — no matter how historic — were not a priority in the German Democratic Republic.

For awhile there was talk of tearing down Berlin Cathedral altogether, but thankfully, the historic — if not necessarily the religious — significance of the Cathedral prevented its demolition, after all.

But it wasn't until 1975 — with the discreet financial help of the Protestant Church and the West German government — that extensive repairs restored Berlin Cathedral — and the mosaics of The Beatitudes — to their former glory.

At the very pinnacle of the dome, above The Beatitudes mosaics, a round field of blue stained glass — symbolizing the heavens — frames a white dove with outstretched wings, symbol of the Spirit of the Lord (see video, top of page).

A Berlin Cathedral dome gable shows the World War II bomb damage that caused the dome to partly cave in. 
The vast dome is supported by piers circled by white Corinthian columns, which support, as well, statues of Reformation figures. Martin Luther, holding the Bible that he translated into German, stands just to the left of the altar.

"Take a moment to step back from everyday life," suggests a sign at the Cathedral, "perhaps even taking a step back from yourself."

What a marvelously wonderful suggestion. But, even without prompting, visitors and faithful gravitate towards one of the long oak pews — The Cathedral sits over 1600 comfortably — and pause in contemplation.

The beauty of Berlin Cathedral is that the niches that are carved out of each pair of the piers — in whose apse mosaics depict the Four Evangelists — and the piers themselves create an asymmetrical octagon. This gives the illusion that the dome is not supported by the piers at all, but is miraculously suspended from heaven. Imagine unobstructed views from anywhere within the Cathedral and you get the idea of this magnificent space.

The niche to the left of the altar houses the elaborate pulpit. It features carved and gilt wood, wooden Corinthian columns, and a round canopy topped by a crown and cross.

To the left of the pulpit, a grand organ occupies the whole vast, arched, space between the two southern piers. It's silent just now, but I can only imagine this glorious church filled with music.

Luther die Bibel übersetzend (Luther Translating the Bible) by Johanness Götz, 1904; Berlin Cathedral. 
A look up at the organ loft hints at the sound: over 7,000 pipes give voice to the Alte Dame, (Old Lady), as the organ of the Berlin Cathedral is affectionately known.

(You'll enjoy listening to short segments of Berliner Dom organ and vocal music, courtesy of Berlin Cathedral CDs. CDs are available through the Berlin Cathedral Gift Shop.)

The organ is framed in rich wood, crowned by a gold statue of King David the Psalmist, and topped by a mosaic of Christ Seated in Judgement. This mosaic, like those of the Beatitudes, was designed by the then director of the Berlin Academy of Art, Anton von Werner.

He also designed the three beautiful stained glass windows — not to mention the eliptical ones above them — that glow among the terra cotta-colored columns and the gold relief ornamentation of the altar.

As I turn my eyes to the von Werner windows, I pause to admire the altar screen featuring gilt statues of the Twelve Apostles, an 19th century masterpiece by Cathedral architect, painter, and stage designer Karl Firedrich Schinkel (see video, top of page).

Just behind the Apostles screen, high above the semi-circular altar, von Werner's windows glow with Eastern light. To the right is The Resurrection, with the Risen Christ in red, flowing, robes ascending into heaven. Below, an empty tomb and Roman soldiers tumble to the ground.

In the center, in The Crucifixion, dark clouds envelop the Crucified Christ. The cross — that bears the I.N.R.I. inscription (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus Christ King of the Jews) — is surrounded by grieving desciples. A woman gives comfort to the Virgin Mary who is depicted lying on the ground, having succumbed witnessing Christ's Passion.

Anton von Weber's luminous painting on stained glass—Berlin Cathedral's "The Incarnation" stained glass window.  
The Incarnation of Our Lord — The Nativity stained glass window

Surrounded by a gilt ornamental flower reliefs, the von Werner Nativity — or, as it is officially known, "The Incarnation of our Lord" — unfolds in fifteen luminous rectangular glass panels in the window to the left.

On the top right and left, little angels, almost lost in the bright divine light, rejoice, and, in their midst, an angel with outstretched wings looks down holding a plume as if about to write "Glory to God in the Highest"—the Good News of Christ's birth—on an unseen banner.

In bottom left, center, and right panels, shepherds worship, including a young man holding his dog and looking up at the Mother and Child.

In the center panel the Virgin tenderly holds the Child in her arms, while Joseph, to the right, holds a lantern (see video, top of page, and image, left).

Von Werner's Nativity is so life-like and seems to pop-up out of its lead frame. One can only wonder how beautiful a paper crèche it would also make had the artist considered our beloved medium for his art.

All three stained glass windows were destroyed during the war, but his drawings — and glass fragments — remained, and his designs were re-created to shine, once again, in Berlin Cathedral, proclaiming Christ's Birth, Passion, and Resurrection.

I don't know quite how long I sat there looking at Anton von Werner's beautiful works of art, Handel's Messiah playing in my head, as it does in our video.


And, when in Berlin, after a stroll by the Spree, Unter der Linden and the Tiergarten; a visit to the Bundestag and all amazing museums, enter the Berliner Dom. Have a seat. Look around. Contemplate the beautiful art — feel the palpable faith.

If you're very lucky, the Cathedral organ will be playing…

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