When one visits the grand cathedrals of France in Paris, Strasbourg, Reims, Chartres, what is their first impression? The grandeur of the edifice? The History? The Religious significance and representation? While these are very important, how often is the Architect of the cathedral considered? The great German poet of the eighteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did consider Erwin von Steinbach, the German-born architect who designed and built the Gothic cathedral in Strasbourg, France, in his essay “On German Architecture” which is found in Essays on Art and Literature (1772).
While Goethe’s poems on nature, romance, science and his great novel Faust have long been available to the English-speaking audience, his writings on art and literature, as in Essays, are less familiar. Many of his writings have not ever been translated. One of the most recent translations of Goethe’s works is Essays on Art and Literature (1986) by Ellen von and Ernest Nardroff, Professor of German at the University of New York. I am very grateful for this translation in order to read Goethe’s reflections on the cathedral in Strasbourg and the man who had the vision for it, Erwin von Steinbach.
In his essay, “On German Architecture”, Goethe begins with a pilgrimage to the tombstone of Erwin von Steinbach who died in 1318. When he realized that the tombstone no longer existed, Goethe declares:
“Yet you need no memorial! You erected your own, a magnificent one. And though the throngs crawling about it like ants know nothing of your name, you are like the Great Architect who piled up mountains into the clouds” (Essays, 3).
In 2012, during a Graduate Internship in Paris, I visited Strasbourg for the first time to see the home of my ancestors. I too became one of those “ants crawling about” the Strasbourg Cathedral who neither knew nor contemplated the name of the ‘Great Architect’. My daughter Kalie and I spent much time admiring the architecture and took the 330 steps up the spiral staircase to the top for a breathtaking view of Strasbourg, The Vosges and the Black Forest of Germany (of Hansel and Gretel!).
I was also, as Goethe describes, “a feeble esthete “who will feel forever giddy in the presence of the colossus of the cathedral.
However, the newly designed cathedral that one marvels today was not the original. The first version was built around 1015 in a Romanesque style proposed by Bishop Werner von Habsburg. Most of this building was destroyed by fire. The renovation began at the end of the 12th century by Erwin von Steinbach and was constructed by the same stonemasons who had worked on the gothic cathedral in Chartres, France. The octagonal base of the spire was added in 1399 by Johannes Hultz from Koln and today is the symbol of Strasbourg.
Before Goethe had visited the cathedral, he had preconceived ideas of the Gothic style based upon what others had said about it. He fully expected to praise “the harmony of mass, the purity of form” but was to be confused by the “arbitrariness of Gothic adornment. In his mind, the edifices of the Gothic style were “indefinite, disorganized, unnatural, patched-together, tacked-on, overladen”. However, when he actually stood before the edifice, his “soul was suffused with a feeling of immense grandeur” in which he was able “to savor and enjoy, but by no means understand and explain” (5).
In his essay “On German Architecture”, Goethe reminds us that “Art is creative long before it is beautiful”. When is a man’s creative force most active? Goethe states that it is when he is free from worry and fear and restless from tranquility; then his spirit is inspired (8).
In 2019, I visited the cathedral for the second time. I brought my husband on this return trip to see this incredible city where my ancestors once lived and toured the interior this time. We marveled at the Astronomical clock, L’horloge de Trois Rois, built in 1350 which offers a view of different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. (Goethe does not include this in his essay). Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ. Their passage is punctuated by the beatings of wings and the song of a large rooster. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment.
Finally, in Goethe’s essay, he sensed the “genius of the builder…As in the works of eternal nature, down to the smallest fiber, all is form, all serves the whole…My soul is touched by the blissful calm of a spirit who can look down on such a creation and say, as did God, “It is good”(6)!
On my next visit, hopefully in the near future, I will see the Strasbourg cathedral in a different light; not through the eyes of a tourist, but through the lens which considers the great architect of the Strasbourg cathedral, Erwin von Steinbach, and I will heed Goethe’s words:
”No one will dislodge Erwin from his pedestal. His work stands before you. Approach it and experience the profoundest feeling of truth and beauty of proportion, sprung from a strong, rough-hewn German soul”(9).
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Gearey, John. (1986). Goethe Essays on Art and Literature. Translated by Ellen von and Ernest H. Nardroff. New York: Suhrkamp Publishers.