(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, April 15th, 2004.)
Thoughts of rebirth and resurrection were uppermost in many readers' minds this past [Easter] weekend, and one of those readers (who asked to remain anonymous) wrote us a heartfelt message.
She told us that she adores seeing paintings of full-figured goddesses from previous centuries, and that these images never fail to lift her spirits. However, she confessed that when she looks at the magazine covers that sit on every newsstand, where the dominance of the androgynous standard is still so apparent, she despairs that the timeless ideal will ever return. She fears that it may be gone forever.
But true ideals live on in the human heart, even when they are "in exile" from cultural prominence. And no matter how insistently a government, or a determined group of ideologues, ever attempt to extinguish such ideals, in time the ideals always reemerge. Their essence is imperishable.
We see vivid evidence of this process in many art forms today, but the following example of architectural restoration parallels the fate of timeless feminine beauty in a compelling way.* * *
In the maelstrom of World War II, firebombing annihilated many cities on both sides of the conflict, and no city was harder hit than the Saxon capital of Dresden.
Known as the "Florence of the North," Dresden once possessed the most harmonious Baroque cityscape in the world. The pride of the city was the centuries-old Frauenkirche, the "Church of Our Lady," one of the most beautiful Protestant cathedrals in the world:
Johann Sebastian Bach himself played the mighty organ of the Frauenkirche, and Richard Wagner was inspired to compose Parsifal by the sound of the church's bells resonating in its great dome.
But in the closing days of the war, a massive air raid reduced the Frauenkirche, and most of Dresden, to rubble.
After the war, the city was slowly rebuilt in a hodgepodge of architectural styles. But whether through lack of funds, or for ideological reasons (as ill-starred Dresden ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain), the East German government decided to leave the Frauenkirche in ruins.
For half a century, the pile of debris that once constituted the most revered Protestant church in Germany remained untouched. The site of the Frauenkirche resembled an enormous grave, with two wall fragments still standing upright, like giant tombstones.
As the years passed, the citizens of the city lost all hope that the cathedral would ever be rebuilt. It seemed to represent a lost ideal, one that could never be revived.
But then, the unthinkable happened. The Berlin Wall crumbled, and it became possible to dream again.
It became possible to dream that the Frauenkirche could be resurrected.
And lo and behold, in 1990, workers began excavating the Frauenkirche ruins. Stonemasons chiselled new blocks from precisely the same quarry that provided the sandstone for the original Frauenkirche, and then knit these new stones into the remaining fragments of the old church:
In time, these fresh stones will darken to match the weathered hue of the original stones, and the church will once again become a seamless whole, with the new stone indistinguishable from the old.
Today, the project is nearly finished. Only a few remnants of scaffolding remain, as the dome nears completion:
The parallel between the fate of the Frauenkirche, and the fate of timeless feminine beauty, is clear.
By the 1980s, the possibility of restoring the church seemed like little more than a pipe dream. The congregation had long since found different places of worship, and an entire generation of Dresdeners had grown up with no living memory of the Frauenkirche, and with no experience of any aesthetic beliefs other than those which their government espoused.
But the ideal of beauty that the church represented was simply too compelling, and its absence too painful, for it to be forsaken--not even after half a century.* * *
And thus, the Frauenkirche will soon dominate the Dresden skyline once again, as it did in centuries past.
To stroll through a great painting gallery is to step into the past, to enter a world in which what we now know as "plus-size beauty" was the unchallenged ideal of feminine loveliness. The goddess in Titian's Venus with Organist and Cupid (1548), below, symbolizes the power of beauty to inspire artistic creation and cultural vitality.
But then, to emerge into the modern world is to confront a culture that has been deprived of this natural ideal. And at times, it may seem as if this ideal is gone forever. Destroyed. Extinguished.
But it is not. The memory of it lives on--the memory of its enchantment, the reality of its loss, and the actuality of its suppression. But this suppression cannot last forever. The desire to see it return is too great.
And like the Frauenkirche, it will return to glorify our cultural landscape, and to lift our spirits, once more.* * *
The following is a link to a passionate and thought-provoking essay (although the translation is somewhat laboured) about the destruction and resurrection of many architectural masterpieces.
- The restoration of beauty