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Tag: art history

Outrageous – Leipzig’s Monument to the Battle of the Nations

There are places in Germany I am dying to see. I love discovering my own country, and there is more than enough to see that I haven’t seen yet, or that I haven’t seen enough of. Leipzig had for a long time been one of the places I felt a strange pull toward, and when I went there for the first time in September for a conference, I knew that it was a city that I would keep coming back to. If only for the famous Monument to the Battle of the Nations, which I hadn’t managed to see.

When my three girlfriends from grad school and I decided that our annual meet-up would be held in Leipzig this year, I claimed a visit to the Monument at once. I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit a place with such an impressive name? Especially being the history geek that I am. So my girls and I left our pretty airbnb apartment one morning for a nice one hour walk from the centre to the site.

Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI realize most non-Germans won’t have heard of the place, so let me give you some background. The Völkerschlachtdenkmal on the outskirts of Leipzig commemorates the Battle of the Nations which was fought in 1813 by Prussians, Austrians, Swedes and Russians against Napoleon. The very abridge version of history is that after the French revlution, Napoleon went a bit ahead of himself and started to try and conquer all of Europe. In the Battle of the Nations, he was beaten and in 1814 forced into exile on Elba. There was a comeback and another battle, at Waterloo, that broke his power for good in 1815. After this Europe was re-organized in the Congress of Vienna.

When walking up to the monument, one realizes at once that it is supposed to architecturally mirror the immense impact of the battle, which was to remain the greatest battle in history until World War I. The monument was opened in 1913, for the one hundredth anniversary of the battle, which explains its expressionistic style. It looks like a massive mausoleum, or, as my friend pointed out, an ancient temple of the Inka. Everything about it is huge. Materialized outrage.Relief at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe entrance is guarded by a relief of archangel Michael, and above his head the words „Gott mit uns“, God with us, are chiselled into the stone. To the sides, more elaborate carvings decorate the walls. Eagles, storming fighters, but also the fallen dead can be seen in the decor. Overly stylized, all the figures scream visions of power and victory. It is not exactly pretty. But it is impressive for sure. And that is the sole purpose of this kind of art.

Two of my friends stayed to enjoy the sun, while one of them came with me to enter the monument and climb to its top. Entrance is a whopping 6€ (4€ for students), but I just had to see the insides for myself.

Ruhmeshalle Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyThe first level you get to inside the monument is the Crypt. Eight guards of the dead stand watch here as the light falls through the glass stained windows and the cupola. The light only emphasises the expressionist character of the statues. They are massive. But when you look up to the next storey, you can already see that yet more outrageous figures await.

Bravery Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Bravery

Fertility Allegory at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility

The second storey is called the Hall of Fame, and the four statues here are 31 feet tall. They represent „Germanic virtues“ – bravery, fertility, sacrifice and faith.

My mum had told me about these, and she always mentioned that what most impressed her were the feet of the statues. When I saw for myself, I understood what she meant. Standing next to one of the statues, even just looking at a foot would make you feel dwarfed, minimized. It was strange for me to not be able to shake the feeling that it was so intentionally done. I did feel dwarfed, but at the same time my intellect wanted to push aside that feeling that was forced upon me. I could feel myself being manipulated into feeling awed.

Foot of Allegory of Sacrifice statue at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Feet of the statue representing Sacrifice. The second, smaller pair of feet belongs to the dead child the figure is cradling in their arms.

The glass stained windows gave the hall a church-like atmosphere. Granted, it was designed as a crypt, but it is still estranging to see battle intertwined with the sacral to this degree. In general the monument has a lot of elements that can later be seen in fascist architecture, which I have always had a weird thing for. It fascinates me how political ideology can be formed in stone, and all of this reminded me greatly of projects the Nazis did later. The common denominator is nationalism, of course. German virtues. German power. I shivered under the cold stone and at the notions that I saw represented here and that, knowing history, would turn out so desperately destructive and horrifying.

Windows at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyCloser and closer we got to the cupola which is lined with knights on horses, storming forward. They display ancient Germanic fighters, and the design is supposed to remind of runes from ancient civilizations. I must say it does the job. Yet again it sends a very clear ideological message: The German nation is ancient and traditional, and it has prevailed throughout history. Powerfully so. I think back on how design like this has been used to intimidate people since antiquity. I shiver again.

Cupola at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyFrom yet another balcony, the gallery of singers, you look down, and the massive figures look a lot less significant. Again this displays power structures. The more you lift yourself above things, the more empowered you feel. But is that a good thing? Shouldn’t power consist of recognition of other beings – not of decreasing their position?

View from Gallery of Singers at Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, Germany

Fertility is to the left, Faith to the right

Finally when we made it to the top, a view of Leipzig unfolded itself on this beautiful, but hazy Spring day. Looking over the lake in front, the Lake of Tears, symbolizing grief for the approximately 100,000 killed, wounded or missing soldiers of the battle, the modern, thriving and beautiful city shone in the distance. It was a world away.

View from Völkerschlachtdenkmal, Leipzig, GermanyI am glad I finally got to visit this site. It left me thoughtful, and more aware of how powerfully art can shape thought – visual arts including sculpture and architecture as much as literature or music. It also made me contemplate the concept of manipulation, of inducing awe or fear, and how easily it can be done and abused in the name of any ideology. I can only hope that as human beings, we all strive to be aware of these mechanisms and reflect them carefully before we fall victim to them.

Have you visited memorials or monuments that reflect an ideology? How did they make you feel? Would you still want to visit the Monument of the Battle of the Nations or did my description put you off?

Old Bridge in Heidelberg, Germany

This was a completely unexpected find in the mess that is my photo archive. I had completely forgotten about it.  Old Bridge, Heidelberg, GermanyAlmost two years ago, I went for an interview for a scholarship in Heidelberg. It was a bit of a crazy trip for just one day from Berlin, and I didn’t get to see much of the famous city with its romantic castle ruins and gorgeous old town – but I did go down to the Neckar river to see this beauty of a bridge.

Its official name is Karl-Theodor-Brücke, but it is most commonly referred to as Alte Brücke, the Old Bridge. It’s a baroque bridge, but it reminds me architecturally of the medieval Ottoman bridges in the Balkans, like the one in Visegrad in Bosnia and Hercegovina – only the material, the red sandstone found in the Neckar valley, makes it stand out. The barren trees reaching into this shot gave it an eerie feel that I remember quite liking, but I also would love to come back and see it in the summer when everything must be green and ever so much more picturesque. But Heidelberg in the warmer months is surely flooded with tourists, so this winter flair held its own charm for me.

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!

Hanseatic Beauty – Pearls Along the Baltic

On my blog I have repeatedly referred to the „hanseatic beauty“ of certain places. I have also frequently linked back my passion for this specific beauty with my home town of Hamburg and the stamp it has left forever on my soul. Now I don’t know how much anyone who is not acquainted with Northern Europe might be acquainted with what I mean by hanseatic, but I think everyone should be, because really, if a city is a Hanse city, in my book it is pretty much down as a must see travel destination.

Lübeck, Germany

Lübeck, Germany – the city called the Queen of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League, or Hanse, was a trade union in the Middle Ages that linked together different port cities mainly in the Baltic, but also in the North Sea. Between the cities that were part of it, there were beneficial trade regulations and diplomatic privileges. They formed a network of support all over Northern Europe. In some ways, through their mutual history, they still feel obliged and connected to one another today. There used to be very many of them. In Germany, seven cities carry the name Hansestadt, Hanse city, until today: Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald and Wismar. In other countries, well known cities that used to be part of the Hanse are Gdańsk, Toruń and Szczecin in Poland, Riga in Latvia, Tallinn in Estonia, Stockholm in Sweden, Antwerp in Belgium and Groningen in the Netherlands.

What all these cities share is that they have been places of trade, mainly sea trade, for centuries. That means one thing above all: They are all connected to the water. Every Hanse city is located either directly by the sea or at least by a river, and in every one of them water plays a great role when you look at the city’s general build-up.

Skyline, Tallinn, Estonia

View to Tallinn’s dowtown over the Tallinn Bay in the Gulf of Finland

Where there is water, there are certain other things. Like bridges!! Hamburg, they say, has more bridges than Venice. That might be due to the fact that Hamburg is just a lot bigger than Venice, but it only makes sense that Hanse cities should have a lot of bridges given that their key feature is being built close to water. I have written about some of them in this post on Riga and this post on Greifswald.

My second favourite symbol after the bridge may be the ship, signifying travel, movement, and freedom, and yes, of course there are lots of ships in Hanse cities. I love the port atmosphere of Hamburg’s huge and bustling port, the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam, with its cranes and its overall industrial charm, just as much as I love the cosy and cute museum port in Greifswald with its old sailing boats and wooden masts. Size doesn’t matter in this one, as long as the sound of seagulls is to be heard.

Port, Hamburg, Germany

View of the cranes in the port in Hamburg, Germany – from the ferris wheel at Hamburg’s funfair Hamburger Dom

Next to the water, there is usually another specific feature of a Hanse city – the granaries. Where there was trade, there had to be places where to store the goods. In Hamburg there is a whole district called Speicherstadt – granary city. Now, what could possibly be so interesting about a couple of old storage buildings? The architecture!! The typical hanseatic granary is built from red brick stone. It is my favourite material, above all because it looks different and equally beautiful in any weather. In sunshine it will glow fiery, and in grey and misty rain it will keep its earthy, honest feel.

Waterfront, Gdansk, Poland

Waterfront with granaries in Gdansk, Poland

Speicherstadt, Hamburg, Germany

Granary City – Speicherstadt – in Hamburg, with the brick stone granaries on the right

Not only the granaries feature red brick stone in Hanse cities. Most landmarks in any of the cities are made from this material. There is a style called Brick Gothic that is predominant along the Baltic Sea. This is of course because in this area, there were no natural stone ressources, but clay from which the bricks are burnt. Although this is not directly related to their hanseatic character, I love this style of architecture and it feels like home to me. Find a few iconic examples here:

Monastery ruins, Eldena / Greifswald, Germany

Monastery ruins of Eldena in Greifswald, Germany

House of Black Heads, Riga, Latvia

House of Black Heads in Riga, Latvia

Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany

Holstentor in Lübeck, Germany – Lübeck was called the Queen of the Hanse in the Middle Ages and the richest and most important city in the league

By these elements – water, ports, and red brick stone architecture – I would recognize a Hanse city at any given moment. But what also factors in my love for these places is the mentality of the people. We are talking about places here that have been connected to the world via trade for ages, and that have therefore acquired an international feel for an equally long time. The Hamburg coat of arms has a city gate on it – the Gate to the World, they say. The Bremen coat of arms holds the Key to this very Gate to the World. Hanseats take pride in being open, curious, and worldly. They are direct, engaging, honourable people who make their word count. Sometimes they come across as a little blunt or harsh, but the warmth they display given a little time is heartfelt and true. They will usually greet you with a handshake – but when they hug you roughly, you will know that they mean it. I know where I am at with Hanseats.

In my honest opinion, all of these cities that I have mentioned here are horribly underrated as travel destinations. Most of them are close to one or even several beautiful beaches that grant you delicious summer fun when you come at the right time of year and that won’t be as overcrowded as Mediterranean beaches. The cities all have a long and proud history and a rich cultural life, of course each in relation to its size. The people are generally friendly and curious for the world, used to visitors and open to whatever travellers have to contribute to city life. Personally, I may at times have trouble with German patriotism, and what I say now may go against all I have said about pride so far – but I am truly proud of being a Hanseat.

Have you been to any of these places? Do you think they make good travel destinations?

Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

This Bridge on Bridges on Sundays seemed to stretch out between different layers of time throughout history.

Tsarevets, Veliko Tarnovo, BulgariaThis is the bridge that leads to Tsarevets castle in Bulgaria’s proud medieval town Veliko Tarnovo. It may have well been my favorite place in Bulgaria – small and cozy, of great beauty, and the people there were extremely friendly. While in many other places in Bulgaria I found the people to take some getting used to, in Veliko Tarnovo they were a lot more open, they smiled much and were very helpful and welcoming. I was in Veliko Tarnovo in late June. Inland Bulgaria at this time of year is really hot, and by that I don’t mean 30 degrees, but more like 45 to 50. As beautiful as Veliko Tarnovo was, in my four days there I did have moments when I just lazily stuck around the hostel terrace in the shade, wanting to roar like a lioness at anyone who would dare to try and tear me out of my heat coma.

But I did go to explore the fortress. Veliko Tarnovo was the capitol of the medieval Bulgarian kingdom at a time when this country was a true power in Europe. The bridge leads the way over the moat to the beautiful fortress remains. The church on the castle hill is fully restored, and its insides are dominated by modern art paintings that I adored and that I looked at for a long time – partially also because inside the church it was nice and cool. The same way that the church bridged the gap between the middle ages and today with its medieval architecture and its contemporary wall paintings, the bridge in the picture seemed to overcome a time lapse between a modern lively student town and Bulgaria’s proud and long history as a kingdom. If only it hadn’t been this hot… the flickering air and the burning sun are a ver dominant part of my image of that truly beautiful place.

If you have read My Mission statement, you know why I love bridges. To me they are the most universal symbol of connection, of bringing people together and overcoming anything that may seperate us. I want to present to you pictures of bridges that I really love in places that I really love on my blog every Sunday. If you have a picture of a bridge that you would like to share with my readers as a guest post, feel free to contact me!