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What happens to religious art from churches that have been closed?

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The church that is part of the former monastery “Schwestern zum Guten Hirten” (Sisters of the Good Shepherd) in the Lindenthal district in Cologne, western Germany, resembles a big, protective tent. “It was intended to be a kind of Noah’s Ark, a safe haven for what people used to call ‘fallen women’,” says Ruth Pauli, referring to a term that was still used in post-war Germany to describe young women frowned on by society, for instance, because of an unwanted pregnancy.

Read more: German churches overcoming coronavirus isolation

Pauli’s father, the artist Franz Pauli, designed the church’s glass windows that depict biblical stories in a stark and simple manner to make sure the girls would understand the meaning.

“There is such a mystical atmosphere in the church with the light coming in through this band of windows,” Pauli told DW. The Syrian Orthodox community has been using the church ever since the nuns left the convent 30 years ago.

Currently, the congregation is looking after Christian refugees from Syria. For the past five years, Pauli and her three sisters Gisela, Anne and Hedda have been fighting to prevent the demolition of the church. Designed by the famous German architect Fritz Schaller, the building has a special meaning to them.

A stained glass window by Franz Pauli that shows a figurine holding a banner that reads I had fun creating this (Patrick Führer)

‘I had fun creating this,’ the writing in Pauli’s stained glass window reads

Plenty of churches, not enough churchgoers

Membership in Germany’s two main Christian denominations, Catholic and Protestant, has been declining for years. In 2018, the situation took a dramatic turn when the Catholic Church alone recorded more than 216,000 people turning their back on the church — 29% more than the year before.

Even when the buildings are empty, the dioceses pay steep maintenance costs. Of the 800 churches in the Cologne Archdiocese, 28 have been relegated to secular purposes and seven have been torn down. Post-war churches built in the late 1950s and 1960s are particularly at risk.

“Post-war churches are in sparsely populated suburbs that are now dying out,” says archdiocesan master builder Martin Struck of the General Vicariate of the Archdiocese of Cologne, adding that the number of Catholics in those areas has sharply declined. The furnishings can often be saved and reused elsewhere, but artwork like mosaics, wall paintings and stained glass windows is difficult to remove and maintain. “Unfortunately, the works currently have no market value either, because there are no users,” according to Struck. “People simply lack the space for a windowpane that measures four by eight meters.”

Nature and technology

Stained glass window by Franz Pauli, an abstract cross with a large circle in the middle, blue , red and grey (Patrick Führer)

The shapes of minerals under the microscope at the center of this Pauli window in a church in Bad Driburg

Franz Pauli represented that post-war era. Born in 1927 in Upper Silesia in what is today the Polish city of Gleiwitz, he fled to the West at the end of the Second World War. He studied fine arts in Cologne and at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and earned a teaching degree in philosophy, art and biology.

Although Pauli only worked as an artist for 13 years before his death in 1970, he left behind an extensive body of figurative and abstract church windows, oil paintings and objects. His stained glass windows shine in about 120 churches in Germany, and in seven churches in the US.

read more:  Germany: Court rules anti-Semitic art can remain on church facade

His works, which characteristically focus on the bare essentials and leave out everything superfluous, are particularly appreciated by art historians. “In addition to nature and rocks, he also saw human inventions and technical innovations as a symbol of divine creative power, and he depicted them in his art,” says his daughter, Gisela Pauli Caldas. She cites an example: The windows in the collegiate church of the small town of Bad Münstereifel portray representations of microscopic enlargements of bacteria and minerals.

Unique glass art from the Rhineland

Many cities in the Rhineland region were badly destroyed during WWII. After the war, there was great demand for housing, and for new churches. Dioceses sought artists who would create innovative church windows. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is particularly rich in churches with modern windows, says Martin Struck, mentioning Franz Pauli and other glass artists such as Hubert Spierling, Jochem Poensgen and Maria Katzgrau.

Franz Pauli (Privat)

Franz Pauli at work

The Second Vatican Council also played a major role in church design. “In the 1960s, the Catholic Church rethought the details of its liturgy,” says Gisela Pauli Caldas. The pastor was no longer supposed to preach with his back to the congregation, but to face the faithful, so pews were often set up in open spaces around the altar.

Interested in modernism, Franz Pauli was fascinated by the contrast of man and machine, and by artificial intelligence. “He depicted circuits and hard drives as a symbol of electronics and computer technology,” says Gisela Pauli Caldas. His windows at the church in Bad Driburg reference the moon landing and the Vietnam War. “He placed world events in a religious or spiritual context,” his daughter says. ” With his window design, he brought people into the present.

Stained glass window by Franz Pauli, images of people in black and white (Patrick Führer)

Pauli depicted the agony of the Vietnam War

Who wants discarded German church art?

While churches are closing in Germany, congregations abroad are keen to rebuild their places of worship, in particular in areas destroyed by war. Benches and altars from demolished German churches have already benefited congregations in Poland and Bosnia. A church in Ukraine was pleased to receive an organ from Germany.

Read more: How Bauhaus came to an Eifel abbey

Transferring church windows, however, is difficult not just due to their dimensions, says master church builder Struck. “Polish congregations tell us they don’t know the saints depicted in the German windows,” he says, adding that other nations also have different ideas of what is pleasing to the eye. Where churches are concerned, people in Poland aren’t into modern art, he says. “That’s a big problem.”

Gisela Pauli Caldas, two artworks hang on the wall in the background (privat)

Gisela Pauli Caldas and two of her father’s works

Even many Germans wonder why modern church buildings seem to pare everything down to the essentials. “These clear and, from our point of view, bare forms were a reaction against ornaments and facades – and to Nazi lies,” explains Gisela Pauli Caldas.

Why documentation is important

With fewer churches and church art, a part of Germany’s Christian spiritual culture is disappearing, says her sister, Ruth. It is important to the Pauli sisters to preserve the religious structures and to document what was in them. “The dioceses are now taking measures to take an inventory,” says Gisela Pauli Caldas. Drones are used to take photographs of church interiors so that even if the building is torn down, people still have access to a three-dimensional “memory” of the interior spaces.

Ruth Pauli , church building in the background (Privat)

Ruth Pauli at the Cologne church in danger of being shut down

It is important that art scholars write about and research these works of art, adds Gisela Pauli Caldas: “If things are not documented, they are much more at risk no matter where they end up.” To that end, the Pauli family encourages students worldwide to take a scholarly approach to Germany’s post-war church artwork and its stained glass windows.

While the fate of the Church of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd is still up in the air, a platform for the exchange of church art and inquiries from abroad is in the works. Once the coronavirus crisis is over, it can be found at It could be the right venue to help find a new home for Franz Pauli’s windows too.

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