Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Other Modern: St. Augustinus, Berlin

In our Other Modern series, today I'd like to share with you a church in my own city of Berlin: St. Augustine, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. The church was built in 1927/1928 in the late Expressionist style by architect Josef Bachem. The church was restored to its original, characteristic colour scheme a few years ago. This is how it looks today. The façade (overlooking rapid transit railway tracks and thus seen from a distance):

The interior:

Here is a description by the architect (translated from the commemorative publication for the consecration of the church):

In order to avoid the risk of bad side lighting for the interior of the church, which furthermore was only possible from one side, it was decided to have the actual day lighting by a skylight of a width of 3.75 meters in the center of the dome above the nave. This strong light source of the skylight, which was initially very controversial, made it possible to discount, as it were, the remaining side windows as additional light sources, and to make them so strongly coloured as to contribute considerably by their colours to the elevation of the atmospehere in the church. The isolation from the outside world thus achieved gives a special character to the house of God. The religious significance of the choir is emphasised especially by the abundance of light that shines from both sides by four windows each on the altar. As soon as you enter the church through the vestibule, you can survey the entire interior of the church. The eye is immediately drawn to the altar, to which eleven steps lead up, and which having a height of eight meters, has a bottom width of five meters. Above the altar mensa, covered with black marble, rises, in a framing of blue ceramic stepped sideways, a mosaic of 1.20 meters width and 5.50 meters height. From the mosaic image, whose lower part depicts the patron saint of the Church, St. Augustine, and his mother St. Monica, grows out plastically upwards a five-meter high Cross, which carries a plastic Body of Christ 2.40 meters high, carved masterfully by the sculptor Hitzberger. The idea guiding me, to put the suffering Christ in the centre of the church and have him shine forth to the believers as a constant reminder for interior contemplation, has found an excellent execution by the creative artists, sculptor Hitzberger and the company Puhl & Wagner in Berlin-Treptow. The overall effect of the altar is increased by the end wall of the presbytery which shines in silver gloss. The niches for the side altars and confessionals also shine in silver gloss and thus stand out from the light blue colour prevailing in the house of God, which is only broken by the choir pillars and wall pilasters executed in in red shell limestone.

The actual feel and colouring of the church is, as is often the case, only insufficiently captured by these photographs, but at least they give you an idea. A closer look at the choir and the high altar:

A view towards the back of the church:

Strangely, the silver colouring of the niches, which (as per the description given above) was the only element of the original colour scheme preserved until the renovation, was changed to gold. This is the church first in its original state and then as it was before the renovation:

As you can see, deplorably during the renovation an "altar island" was put in outside the communion rails (and removing the front pews), and the people's altar set up upon it. However, the interesting thing about this is that this people's altar was already commissioned in the 1930s by the parish priest who built the church (and was a follower of the Liturgical Movement), Rev. Carl Pelz, and used for versus populum celebration - which once again shows that the - misguided, as we have to note in hindsight - push for versus populum precedes by far the liturgical reforms after the II Vatican Council. Here is an image of a first Holy Commuion in 1942:

And a view from the pews, which shows both the original silver decoration of the back wall and the altar arrangement - which is none other than the one we have today come to term the "Benedictine arrangement":

(Images from the parish home page.)

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