More than homage – sacred art in the 20th-century

It is sometimes said that we live in a post-Christian era.  I wonder about that.  One of the things that makes me wonder is contemporary sacred art, something that my Protestant childhood didn’t really tell me about.

The modern artist in sacred art is pressured as never before in circumstances that change at a bewildering pace.  S/he creates from anguish.  Perhaps the images of Christ from this anguish are enigmatic and strange.

This image of Christ is by the Mexican artist Sequericos.  I find it powerful though the visage has sadness.

This image of the meal at Emmaus is by the Polish artist Yugolski.  I find it quite expressionist with stylized figures.  The radiance draws the eye.

This relief image of the Last Supper done by a Greek artist in 1960 verges on abstract expression.  I find the movement prompted by the forms restless around the central figure of Christ which stands tall above the swirling lines.

Paul Klee, the Swiss-German artist, did this image of Christ the king in 1926.  I find the features delicate and the eyes, unrealistic as they are, hypnotic.

Bernard Buffet did a number of sacred images and this crucifixion scene in 1970.  It is said that the figure on the right is a self-portrait.

This image of the cricifixion by Italian artist Boudini is upsetting for me and he would probably feel, So it should be.  The traditional crucifixion scenes have held emotion.  This one screams in agony.

This delicate, even fragile image of the crucifixion is found on the altar in the chapel at Vence, in the South of France, designed by Henri Matisse.

This image of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali intrigues me in that the body of Christ is transparent and in the background you see the landscape that Dali knew as a child.

This image was also painted by Dali.  It seems to me that the lighting is electrical, judging from the shadow of the arm.  The hairstyle of the Christ figure is contemporary.  The agony of the back is for me unparalleled in the history of art.

Epstein produced this sculpture of Christ in bondage in the 1950s and it is set in the ruins of cathedral at Coventry that was bombed in the Second World War.  It is a departure from traditional images of Christ.  There is for me an ancient primitive force here, reminding me of images from central America and Africa.  I spent time looking at this figure and the experience has inspired me to do this blog.

(c) Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

March, 2019



Some of these images come from a book named “He had a face”, though I do not have the book with me at present and will add in the details at a future date.

I have had other images before computers became public and have lost the sources.


The artist is Wimmer, a German.  The year is 1951.  I find this image haunting in that, if the body is tortured, the face stands the pain.


Bernward’s Doors, Hildesheim

At Hildesheim, Lower Saxony, I was privileged to see the well-known Bernward’s Doors at the St Michael’s Church.  I must be honest, I remember almost nothing about the interior of the Church except its Romanesque arches.  It was the figures on the Doors that absorbed me and remain with me.  They are dated at 1015 a.d.

The panels on the left depict scenes from the Old Testament; the panels on the right, scenes from the New Testament.  These doors, remarkably, were cast in gunmetal with copper and lead, amongst others.  The style is said to be between Ottonian art and early Romanesque.

Adam and Eve at the Tree


Adam and Eve expelled

This art, these figures, seem removed from the Greco-Roman world and are distinct from the styles produced by Byzantine art five hundred years before.  In its context it is a new art, the art of rising Europe, with the naïvité of the world of a child.  Yet there are subtle features — the heads of these figures are disproportionate to the bodies and the eyes are large.  The latter feature would remain influential in art until Barlach in the 20th-century.

Abel with offering


God as judge



And there is drama.  Very few of these panels are, as with  later Romanesque, static portraits.  There are scenes of action —  Cain killing Abel; God expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise.  They are busy, these figures.

The Annunciation


Joseph the Child and Mary

The sacred art of the centuries to come, Gothic in particular, would become static and solemn.  But Romanesque art, where it features, intrigues us with its youthful vitality.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

March, 2019



Wikipedia Bernward’s Doors



Doors – wikipedia

Adam and Eve – prezi

Adam and Eve’s shame – source lost

Annunciation –  flickr

Joseph, Mary and Child – Kahn Academy

God in judgement – hippostcard

Madonna and Child – mariendom Hildesheim





German Baroque – two cathedrals

Coming from a Protestant tradition, I found the interiors of European baroque cathedrals overwhelming.  I was ambivalent about it at first and this also came from seeing this highly ornate style through the lens of modernism, known for its relentless pilgrimage to the essence, stripped of clutter.  But I have mellowed and my access to baroque cathedrals in Nice has changed me.  I share my experience of two German cathedrals.

Vierzehnheiligen Cathedral, near Bamberg

This pilgrimage cathedral, designed by Balthasar Neumann and built between 1743 and 1772, is a place of supplication for healing.  It takes its name from the Fourteen Holy Helpers of the Black Death in the 1440s.  The characteristics of baroque in contrast with gothic are there:  the prolific ornamentation, the architectural emphasis on light and the broader nave.  I remember at the time I felt more impressed by the exterior aspect of the cathedral.

Vierzehnheiligen, exterior

It was perhaps the day itself that enhanced my visit to Wies in Bavaria.  Patches of snow lay by the countryside roads and the Swiss Alps under a fresh blanket of snow rose in the background.  The Church itself, far from any city, town or even hamlet, had cows grazing by the majestic doors.

As always, the interior was spectacular, with much gold decoration.  I remember the grand old pews, huge, handcarved and worn smooth by the centuries.  It was designed by the Zimmerman brothers and built between 1745 and 1754.

My clearest memory was of a choir of young people in jeans and t-shirts assembled for rehearsal in front of the pews under the centuries-old splendour.  I’m sure what they sang and how they sang it must have made angels envious.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

December, 2018



Wikipedia Vierzehnheiligen and Wies




Kenneth Clark: Civilization




Ernst Barlach

Ernst Barlach (1870 – 1938) was a German sculptor during the Modernist period.  He was regarded as an expressionist and it was probably this that brought him into disfavour with the Nazi leaders from 1933.   The First World War had changed the way he saw the world.  When he was appointed to do sculpture about the war, authorities were dissatisfied by what he did — the figures carried the tragedy of the war.  What they had wanted was images of heroism.

I saw work by Barlach in Lübeck, but did not have a camera with me.  I have always thought that his work has echoes of the style of Romanesque in the Middle ages of Europe.



As with other artists after the war, well-deserved recognition of Barlach’s work was reinstated.  Today there is critical opinion that regards him as the greatest pre-war sculptor in Germany.


 © Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

December, 2018



Wikipedia:  Ernst Barlach



Head – source lost




















Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

There are probably few places on earth as woven into pivotal history as the Brandenburg Gate.  I visited it when it was darkly shrouded by the Berlin Wall.  For me it was a depressing experience.  Years later West Berliners with hammers and banners would clamber over it and chisel out their freedom.

Dark and dusty

Here the Nazi leadership was saluted as the river of uniform steel helmets marched through the Gate.  When Berlin was razed to the ground by bombing, the Gate, mercifully, survived.

Up to May, 1961, traffic through the Gate moved freely.  Then, overnight, the Wall was erected.  The Quadriga (the four bronze steeds on the Gate) were reversed to face eastwards.  Different from the way the architect Langhans and sculptor Schadow had planned it in the late-18th-century.

Not far from here, in 1961, John Kennedy delivered his historical speech “Ich bin ein Berliner”, support for the divided country.  In the seriousness of the moment — possible military confrontation with the Soviet Union — he made a grammar mistake that West Berliners would tolerantly have smiled at:  “ein Berliner” refers to a typical Berlin pastry, a cookie.  Correct, it would have been “Ich bin Berliner”.  Someone has also said that it was a good thing Kennedy didn’t make this speech in Hamburg.

Germany has been reunited for almost 30 years.  The Gate was restored at great expense.  The Quadriga again faces west.  The Brandenburg Gate is again the centre point of Berlin.  After two hundred and twenty years of tumultuous history, the Berliners and the Germans as a whole feel that the Gate can now be a symbol of peace.


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2018



Brandenburg Tor – postcard

Quadriga –

Gate with soldier –

Gate with West Berliners  –

Gate with sun –



In some bizarrely indirect way, the Gate … as well as the proto-Prussian Magraviate of Brandenburg … also has bearing of sorts on South Africa’s own violently induced historical ‘make-up’ … Originally erected as the Friedenstor by the House of Orange-descended Friedrich Wilhelm, following the fragile peace established by the so-called Batavian Revolution which led to the Cape of Good Hope being ‘restored’ to a revolutionary, reconfigured ‘new’ Dutch Republic … Orange-Hohenzollen collaboration meant that many folk from a Huguenot-bolstered Brandenburg emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope … with its own Huguenot diaspora … one man in particular is most deserving of remembrance … Joachim Nikolaus von Dessin (1704-1761) … once page and later gentleman-in-waiting of the margrave Albrecht Friedrich of Brandenburg … who with the bequest of his wonderful library … laid the foundations of what has become South Africa;s National Library  –      Mansell Upham



Autumn poplars and a chapel

It was in West Berlin that I discovered autumn.  Perhaps not so much discovered as amplified my experience of it, coming, as I do, from a two-season country.  The camp site where we stayed was lined with poplar trees.  The road leading to the camp site was lined with poplars, as were the footpaths leading into the country side.  I left my fellow-travellers and took a late-afternoon stroll in the blood-gold of the large poplar leaves.  Autumn and spring had been things you read about in books.

On the way, by a field, I saw a chapel.  The door was open.  I ventured in.  Probably Lutheran.  I don’t have a clear memory of the interior, but what remains with me was the marble plaques on the wall, with a date over them – 1939-1945.  Yes, we’ve all seen them in our own world … those names … the ones that keep coming.  Somehow though, this was different.  I was a young man.  My new wife was a German-speaking South African.  Gradually, my stereotypes of Germans, the easy judgements about the war, had faded.  The process came to an end in that chapel.

There were, as I remember, about 150 names.  I couldn’t help wondering how many of these had fallen in the surrender of Berlin itself, a time of hell beyond any imagining.  How many of them had fallen further afield?  Who was this Hans?  This Klaus?  Somebody’s son, somebody’s father,  brother, cousin, friend … The easy judgements were gone.  These had been human beings like me.  Yes, they had fought my father in North Africa, at Montecassino in Italy.  Fate had placed them in that history, to use such language.  How many who had known them had sat on those worn pews in that chapel and wept?

I left.  The late-afternoon sun was fading on the reddish gold of the leaves.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

November, 2018


My drawings




Little Erna jokes

My years in a German community brought me into contact with a joke genre called the Klein Erna Witze.  Most cultures have jokes of this type — either someone arrogantly stupid like Van der Merwe in South Africa, or the Polak jokes in the USA, the Little Lulu jokes in England, the Dupont- Durand  jokes in France or the Schutz jokes in Germany.

Innocent versions for children

The Klein Erna jokes are characteristically risqué, sometimes outrageously so.  They are associated with Hamburg where they originated, based, as sources have it, on the life of a real person, and then morphing by the 1920s  into a distinctive form of risqué naïvity.  The jokes have been refined by the acidic or even dark humour of Berlin.  In the film Downfall, the first German-produced film of Hitler’s last days in the bunker, a man tells a joke, referring to the bombed city, a joke which skillfully renders in English the spirit of Berlin humour:   “Berlin is a warehouse!  Where is your house?  Where is my house?”

Cultural patrimony


The internet offers examples and I share three:

Granny is preparing to go somewhere in the car.  Little Erna says, “Where are you going to, Granny?”

“Just to the cemetery, my child.”

Little Erna ponders this. “But who will bring back the car?”

A media portrayal of Klein Erna

A second:

Little Erna asks her mother, “Is it true that storks bring babies?”

“Yes,” says her mother, “it is true.”

Little Erna ponders this.  “But who bonks the storks?”

A third, in true Berlin vein, and in my opinion, darkly cathartic:

After the war, friends come urgently to Little Erna.  “Is it true that the Russians raped you, little Erna?”

“Yes,” little Erna says. “Nineteen times.”

“But that is shocking.  It’s terrible.  And your sister?”

“Nah,” little Erna says, “she didn’t want to.”


© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

October, 2017



The Flockemann family

Wikipedia: Klein Erna Witze

Klein Erna Witze



A media image of Klein Erna








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