Barlach’s Hovering Angel
A rare example of a German war memorial: A mother figure, suspended horizontally about the baptistry in Gustrow Cathedral, facing west towards the killing fields of Flanders. No triumphant or heroic motive or imagery. Eyes closed in quiet reflection and sadness.
Despised by the Nazis, who were rising to power, the original was removed in 1937 and melted down in the 1940s ‘for the war effort’.
When it was removed it left a space for reflections ‘that go beyond words’. And each year a silent ceremony was held: Pastor Christian Hoser explains:
We meet to remember the removal of the angel and to consider how deeply our people erred and strayed. The depth of that error cannot be grasped through words.
In 1938 a copy (no 1) was made with the help of a man with suspiciously good relations with the Nazi’s. It was hidden in the village of Luneburg in north Germany. Notwithstanding the tensions of the post conflict Cold war, it was eventually given to the Antonite Church in Cologne where it still hangs; not over a baptistry but over a slab on which are etched the dates of the two world wars.
In 1952, rather than relocate the copy statue to its original location, a second copy was made and, in the year I was born, 1953, it was hung in the place of the original, back in Gustrow Cathedral.
In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the West Germany chancellor, in a move towards reconciliation, paid a visit to East Germany and asked if he and Eric Honeker, the GDR leader, might visit the Cathedral and stand beneath the Angel. Little did they know that within a decade the two countries would be re-united.
Since then the angel has been lent twice. On the 100th anniversary of Barlach’s birth, 1971, it went to Moscow and Leningrad, and in 1981 to Berlin for an exhibition of Barlach’s work.
Last December it came to the British Museum for the exhibition, Germany, Memories of a Nation. The final decision on whether the sculpture could travel to London was made by the congregation of Gustrow Cathedral. Pastor Hoser explained that when Helmut Schmidt and Eric Honeker met in 1981, the Angel seemed to be the catalyst for reconciliation. Given a similar need in Europe it seemed right to give the Angel to London now.
Whilst the Angel has been away the congregation decided not to install a replacement but to live with the void, paradoxically making them and the Cathedral part of the London exhibition. Its loan is costly – leaving a space. But that cost has the capacity to reward the giver. With a sense of . . . . what? Contributing to a good cause; the learning of others. Hazel and I benefitted from the loan, being able to stand beneath the Angel in London, in the last week of January 2015.
I invite you to think on these things. To make connections with the times when you benefit from another’s generosity or ‘loan’, or are given the opportunity to lend something of yourself. And to give thanks for people like Neil Macgregor who want to understand the motivations of others and to share that learning for the benefit of humankind.
To see an image of the angel and to hear Neil Macgregor speak about it: