The call from the deep

It is an object of worship and a work of art at the same time: the altar in the lower church. A bone of contention, also for questions about its origin, function and message.

by Grit Jandura

When visitors enter the lower church, their gaze is quickly drawn to the black and gray monolith in the center of the room. It clearly stands out from the otherwise predominant sandstone tone of the floor, walls and vault. The altar stone stands exactly where the four arms of the Greek cross form of the lower church meet, directly below the apex of the cross vault.

The unevenly hewn ashlar appears massive, yet it is approachable. People are not afraid to approach it and trace its message. It is by no means obvious; and that is desired. "I like the idea that things are not what they seem at first," says Anish Kapoor, one of the world's most respected artists of our time. He created the stone in 1996.

Born in Mumbai in 1954 to an Indian Hindu father and an Iraqi Jewish mother, he grew up among cultures and religions, drawing inspiration and strength from them. He turned to art as a teenager and, after a few years on an Israeli kibbutz, went to England to study. He has lived there ever since. In his multiple award-winning works, he addresses the great themes of existence, working with contrasts: garish colors or the deepest black, mirror-like reflections or light-consuming surfaces. By accepting the commission for an altar stone for the Lower Church, Anish Kapoor was the first artist with Jewish roots to create an altar for a German church since 1945.

Intensive discussions

That there should be an altar in the former crypt rooms of the Frauenkirche, which were to be converted into a lower church, was already clear at the beginning of the reconstruction. However, the implementation was preceded by numerous discussions because it involved a new interpretation of a historical site. "With the modern design of an altar, which had never existed at this location, we wanted to set a sign from the time when the Frauenkirche was reconstructed true to the original," explains retired state conservator Prof. Gerhard Glaser. He won Anish Kapoor for the project. With him, as well as with those responsible for the foundation, architects, monument conservators and church representatives, many questions had to be clarified. Where should the altar be placed and what should it be made of? Should it show references to the Bähr room or be a point of contrast?

There was quickly agreement on the location in the center of the room, which radiates out in all directions. The importance of the liturgical function made the argument that a central stone would be disadvantageous for the concert use of the lower church recede. The concealment of Bähr's historic perpendicular, which had been found in the foundations, was also accepted. Material and form were discussed more controversially. In order to be recognizable as an independent new element, Anish Kapoor proposed limestone. This natural stone from Kilkenny, Ireland, is dull gray and coarse in its unprocessed, natural form, but can also appear polished and jet black through special processing. For the altar of the lower church, Kapoor finally combined both. He designed the altar mensa as a smooth surface with a distinctive funnel-shaped depression. He left the sides naturally rough.

The rough stone arrived at the construction site in May 1996. Shortly before the main vault of the lower church was closed, the 11-ton block was lowered by crane. Then, in July, Anish Kapoor began the artistic work. The altar was put into service on August 21, 1996, with the consecration of the lower church. In his sermon, Bishop Volker Kreß also addressed the ambiguity of the monolith, which was still unfinished at that time. He said that it provokes reflection, but clarifies what belongs to the depth of our faith. It can be understood as an ear placed to the earth, "in search of heart sounds in a heartless time". Or, conversely, as an "amplifier that wants to bring the calls from the depths to God's ear." All visitors are free to add their own interpretation.