Stained Glass in Germany during the Second World War: Safeguarding, Salvage, Damage and Destruction

Dr Elena Kosina, Corpus Vitrearum Deutschland

Fig. 9. Cologne Cathedral, interior view 1943, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln (rba_056151)

Fig. 1. Cologne Cathedral, interior view 1943, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln (rba_056151)

The sad experience of the last three devastating wars in Europe, most recently the current war raging in Ukraine, is that works of art are only recognised when the greatest damage has already been done. This is particularly evident in the history of stained glass (Fig. 1).

In fact, at the beginning of the twentieth century, stained glass was still a largely unexplored field and a desideratum in art history.  Collecting stained glass had become an established hobby for connoisseurs of the upper classes and selected academics, whose knowledge and expertise of the objects were often based on drawings or hand-coloured engravings. Photographs of stained glass panels were initially very expensive and were only taken for special clients or publications. During and after the First World War, the situation changed radically: Photography was not only more readily available, but it also became the preferred medium for documenting reality.

In Germany, the pioneering role in the modern study of medieval stained glass was played by Paul Frankl (1878–1962). Supported by the German Association for Art History (Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft) Frankl planned a book about the Alsatian stained glass artist Peter Hemmel of Andlau, whose works were displayed in churches and museums in France, Austria and Germany. To this end, between 1932 and 1935, he ordered detailed, high quality photographs of all the existing windows from Peter Hemmel’s workshop.((Rainer Kahsnitz, Der Deutsche Verein für Kunstwissenschaft im Nationalsozialismus. Versuch einer Spurenlese, in: Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft 62, Berlin 2008, p. 164-166)). As a result of these activities, well over a thousand photographs of stained glass were recorded during the pre-war era alone.

One of his best students, Charlotte Giese (1893–194?), was encouraged in 1928 to write a four-volume book Stained Glass in Thuringia and Saxony up to 1500.  Also sponsored by the German Association for Art History, she carried out a huge photo campaign and produced a complete photographic documentation for the medieval stained glass windows in Naumburg, Merseburg, Halberstadt, Mühlhausen, Meißen and Erfurt.

However, after 1936, neither of these scholars had any chance of further academic employment in Germany because of their Jewish roots. Paul Frankl lost his professorship at the University of Halle and would leave the country at the last possible moment. He finally got an academic position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and remained in exile until the end of his life. Also of Jewish descent, Charlotte Giese stayed, and died in Berlin under unclear circumstances.((Kahsnitz, ibid., p. 165 footnote 398.))

Instead, the German Association for Art History invested all its energy and resources in so-called ‘Military Art Protection’, which had been officially carried out in the occupied territories of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy since 1940 (Fig. 2).((Esther Rahel Heyer, »Due to Artistic Value under Military Protection!«, in: »Als künstlerisch wertvoll unter militärischem Schutz«, Ein archivarisches Sachinventar zum militärischen Kunstschutz im Zweiten Weltkrieg, hrsg. von Magdalena Bushart / Christian Fuhrmeister, Köln 2022, p. 91–128)) Renowned professors and art historians, heritage curators and photographers such as Count Wolff von Metternich, Bernhard von Tieschowitz, Albert Stange, Gustav André, Adalbert von Stockhausen, Richard Hamman, and Prince von Sayn-Wittgenstein, in cooperation with the Departments of Art History of the Universities of Marburg and Bonn, were sent to the newly occupied areas in order to inventory their art monuments. At the height of its activity, some 54 well-paid and army-exempt persons worked on this commission.((Heyer, ibid., p. 103-104.)) Especially successful was the photo campaign led by Gustav André in France: Between 1942 and 1944, 16 well-paid photographers took 22,000 photos of art monuments focused on architecture and sculpture from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2. The Staff of Military Art Protection, Hotel Majestic, Paris, 1940 Photo: Bildarchiv Foto Marburg

Fig. 3. Richard Hamann during the photo campaign in Reims, The Military Art Protection in France, 1941, Photo: Bildarchiv Foto Marburg

At the same time, the bombing raids on German territory were intensifying, and the state government and local administrations had to take necessary measures to secure and evacuate German cultural heritage. In contrast to the perfectly organised and financed ‘art inventories’ in the occupied countries, the process of ‘art protection’ in Germany itself was astoundingly uncoordinated and complicated from a financial point of view.

Nonetheless, between 1940 and 1942, some of the most important historical stained glass windows, for example in Erfurt, Cologne, Brandenburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg, Oppenheim, Lautenbach, Lübeck, Meissen, Erfurt and Marburg, had been removed ‘for protective reasons’ and in some cases safely stored. This provided an unprecedented opportunity for academic research, because only the deinstalled glass panels could be observed, photographed and documented from both sides.

Fig. 4. Hans Wentzel, Deutsches Kunstarchiv, GNM Nürnberg, (DKA_NLWentzelHans_IA1-0003)

Hans Wentzel (1913–1975), a young, newly graduated art historian at the Technical University of Stuttgart was employed by the German Association for Art History to organise a photographic campaign of German stained glass (Fig 4). Between 1941 and 1942 he wrote hundreds of letters to local administrations, heritage departments, parish churches and museums, practically to everyone in Germany who owned or supervised historical stained glass. He enquired both as a representative of the German Association of Art History and on behalf of the Reich Ministry of Culture and National Education, about the safety, condition and current location of all of the historical stained glass windows. If the windows had already been removed and stored, he praised the owners and asked about the existence of photographic documentation, requesting copies for his archive. If the windows had not been removed, he insisted on quick intervention and on systematic photo-documentation.

Two art historian colleagues helped to coordinate the photo campaign full time, Elisabeth von Witzleben (1905–1992) and Elisabeth Schulze-Battman (1910–2001). Temporarily several other people also assisted him, but special mention should be made of two art historians: Dr Martin Kautzsch (1906–1945) and Dr Eberhard Wiegand (1908–1944).  Both were recalled from the front for this mission and both returned and died after the end of this contract. Also a Doctor of Art History, Dorothea Isserstedt (1914–2002) worked as a photographer on this project throughout its duration.

The photographic equipment included films, classified as system-relevant during the war, was supported by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). But in contrast to the ‘Military Art Protection’ staff in France, the photographers working for this mission were extremely poorly paid. Dr Dorothea Isserstedt, for example, got 6 to 7 Reichsmark per photo, whereas the regular prices for freelance photographers at that time were between 10 and 25 Reichsmark.((The bills 1941-1943 in the archive of the Corpus Viterarum Deutschland, Freiburg im Breisgau.))

In summary, between 1940 and 1943 Hans Wentzel and his team produced the photo documentation of almost 80 locations and of 18,643 panels.((Stephan Waetzold, Glasmalerei des Mittelalters. Ein Kapitel deutscher Wissenschaftsgeschichte, in: Vitrea Dedicata. Das Stifterbild in der deutschen Glasmalerei des Mittelalters, Berlin 1975, p. 15.)) They took 55,000 photographs, large images and colour slides, though not all survived the war.  A large proportion of the negatives and plates were placed in the Association’s storage in the ‘Neues Schloss’ in Berlin and were lost during the shelling of this building in 1945. Fortunately, all of the negatives, which were stored in the basement of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum survived intact. Some of the negatives remained in the possession of the local heritage offices or the stained glass owners. Finally 4500 negatives, 1120 pictures and 6700 colour slides from this photo campaign formed the basis of the image archive of the current Corpus Vitrearum Deutschland.(( Daniel Parello, Die Fotosammlung mittelalterlichen Glasmalereien am CVMA Deutschland/Freiburg im Breisgau (

Probably the most important result of the activities of Hans Wentzel and his team was the coordination, acceleration and, in some cases, initiation of practical measures for the protection and salvage of stained glass windows onsite.  In most cases, the historical windows were removed in time, safely stored and as a result, survived the war.  But very often, due to a lack of information, experience, money or personnel, it was not possible to store or keep the stained glass safely.

A tragic example provides the glazing of St Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) in Lübeck which counted among the most important masterpieces of German stained glass (Fig. 5).  In 1941, the windows had all been professionally deinstalled and stored in the Mayor’s Chapel, presumed the safest place in the church. In response to Wentzel’s appeal on the necessity of photo documentation, the state conservator, Dr Sauermann, said that the photographic recording of these fragile panels “would be better postponed until after the war”.((Correspondence between Hans Wentzel and E. Sauermann 18.02.- 03.03.1941, in the archive of the Corpus Viterarum Deutschland, Freiburg im Breisgau.)) Eight months later, during a bombing raid St Mary’s burnt down, with the Mayor’s Chapel becoming a furnace. After several hours, all of the glass panels and all of the city charters had been completely destroyed by the fire. Only two scenes from over 400 panels could be reconstructed from the fragments, found in the rubble and ashes (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5. Lübeck St Mary’s Church, choir glazing before the bombing raid on 29 March 1942, Photo: Franz Stoedner, Fotarchiv CVMA Freiburg

Fig. 6. The surviving fragment of the Legend of the Cross window from St Mary’s Church, St Anne’s Museum, Lübeck, Photo: Elena Kosina, CVMA Deutschland

The opposite of this happened in Oppenheim. In the summer of 1940, two of the largest and oldest local stained glass schemes located in St Catherine’s Church in Oppenheim and in the Castle Church in Ingelheim, had already been deinstalled, entirely photographed and stored vertically in wooden cases. Only some of the ‘less valuable’ windows of the nineteenth century were left in situ. The parish of Oppenheim was too poor to contribute to the measures but didn’t want to let the windows leave the town.  After a long bureaucratic correspondence with Mainz, the Oppenheim panels were stored in the ‘bomb-proof cellar’ of the local wine producer, which in fact was not a separate room, but a part of the large underground cellar labyrinth.((Regesten: Oppenheim Katherinenkirche, bearb. von Ivo Rauch, in: Falko Bornschein, Ulrike Brinkmann, Ivo Rauch, Erfurt. Köln. Oppenheim, Quellen und Studien zur Restaurierungsgeschichte mittelalterlichen Farbverglasungen (CVMA Deutschland Studien Band II), Berlin 1996, p. 271, Reg. 28‒32.))

In March 1945, when the government wanted to move the stained glass panels to an art bunker in Mainz or Darmstadt in view of the approaching allied forces, they found it was not possible.  As the local priest reported, all the neighbouring cellars and all the corridors below were so full of citizens, refugees, their luggage and furniture that any movement of the boxes of glass was completely hopeless.((Rauch, ibid., p. 272, Reg. 35.)) Finally, the Department of State Buildings in Mainz was destroyed along with the art bunker, archive and the photographic documentation, but the stained glass panels of Oppenheim actually survived in the ‘unsafe and overcrowded’ cellars of a winery.

The Cathedral of Cologne was a special case. As one of the icons of German art and history, it was used as a spectacular setting for the mass events of the Nazis in Cologne.  As a result, this building was extraordinarily well-protected. As early as 1937, the cathedral treasure was removed very discreetly and placed in an art bunker under the north tower.((Niklas Möhring, Der Kölner Dom im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Meisterwerke des Kölner Domes 10), hrsg. von Barbara Schock-Werner u.a., Köln 2011, p. 26))

Fig. 8. Cologne Cathedral, interior view with the protective cladding 1941, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln (rba_077857)

Fig. 7. Cologne Cathedral, interior view with the protective cladding 1941, Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv, Köln (rba_077857)

The protective measures for the visible part of the cathedral were not so attractive for the Nazi administration and they were delayed for quite a long time. The cathedral architect Güldenpfennig found the removing of stained glass windows completely unnecessary; on the contrary, he explained that during the First World War it was precisely this measure that caused the most damage to the windows. Finally, in the summer of 1939, he began to erect wooden panels on the inside and outside of the medieval stained glass windows only (Fig. 7). Moreover he calculated that if the nineteenth-century windows were blown out by bomb detonations, they would become a kind of ‘protective valve’ for the valuable old windows.((Möhring, ibid., p. 28.))

With all kinds of excuses, the cathedral architect blocked the recommendations of leading heritage institutions and experts and only understood the seriousness of the situation in the spring of 1940 during the repeated bombing raids of Cologne. Only in October 1940, was the deinstallation of the medieval windows completed with the help of all the cathedral’s staff and freelance glaziers of Cologne. At first, they were stored in the cellar of the archbishop’s palace, but after this building was destroyed, they were moved to a bunker south of the cathedral. During 1941, step by step, the most valuable nineteenth-century stained glass windows were also partially removed and the immovable works of art were protected with sandbags.

Five months later, during the great bombing night of Cologne, the cathedral was three quarters destroyed. Fortunately, the art bunker was preserved and in 1947 the medieval panels were reinstalled in the reconstructed window openings of Cologne Cathedral.

A contrasting story happened to the windows of St Mary’s Church in Frankfurt an der Oder (Fig. 8). As early as September 1941, they were carefully removed, examined, photographically documented on behalf of the German Research Foundation and stored in the cellar of a parish house. As the front line neared the city, the boxes of glass were transferred to the depot of the State Heritage Department in Potsdam and were found, together with many other art objects, by the Russian army a few months after the end of the war. In 1946, the well-packed boxes were loaded onto a special train and transported to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). One case of stained glass from Frankfurt ended up in the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts.((Ute Bednarz et al., Die Mittelalterlichen Glasmalereien in Berlin und Brandenburg (CVMA Deutschland XXII), Berlin 2010, vol. I, p. 413‒415.))

The other boxes were placed in the Hermitage’s special depot, opened, counted, closed again and kept secret for fifty years.((Frank Kaiser, Das Schicksal des gläsernen Schatzes, in: Der Gläserne Schatz. Die Bilderbibel der St. Marienkirche in Frankfurt (Oder), hrsg. von Frank Mangelsdorf, Berlin 22007, p. 154-155.)) In the inventory book of the Hermitage, the contents of these boxes were only listed as a summary: Cycle with the Temptation of St Anthony, without dating or indication of origin. Only in 1998 a Russian historian commented in the press about the “remarkable stained glass panels” in the Hermitage’s depot and made the matter public.((Interview by Andrey Vorobjev to the newspaper “Kommersant” on 30.06.2005: Fortunately German-Russian relations after the Gorbachev era were in a far better condition. And after only 5 years of negotiations and diplomatic efforts, a miracle happened, with the Russian government agreeing to the restitution of the St Mary’s windows to Frankfurt. To save face, the Hermitage quickly restored 15 of the 111 panels and organised a flash exhibition ‘The Windows of St. Mary’s Church’, but the matter was closed (Fig. 9).((Kaiser, ibid., p. 178f.))

Fig. 8. St Mary’s Church in Frankfurt an der Oder, photo Dr. Mertens &Cie, 1893, Photo: Stadtarchiv Frankfurt an der Oder (StAFF_3-300_FPC_158)

Fig. 9. Exhibition open for nine weeks, the glass windows of St Mary’s Church and their restorers, 2002, Photo: State Hermitage Museum

In fact nobody in Russia knew, cared or was interested in these stained glass windows for over fifty years, a fact which became absolutely evident during the later restoration in Frankfurt an der Oder. A separate story concerned the subsequent restitution of the 6 glass panels from Moscow.((Bednarz, ibid., p. 416.)) But in 2011, this story also had a happy ending thanks to Russian art historian and journalist Andrey Vorobjov, though he was to lose his job over this incident.

The story of the windows from Frankfurt is fascinating, but certainly not unique. To this day we do not know the location of the completely removed and well-packed windows from Polish Chojna (formerly Königsberg in Neumark) (Fig. 10).((Dobrosława Horzela, The idea of voluntary Poverty in a Stained-Glass Cycle in Königsberg in der Neumark (pesent-day Chojna,Western Pomerania), in Word and Image, Corpus Vitrearum, 27th International Colloquium, York 7‒11 Juli 2014, p. 47‒52.)) Neither do we know anything about over 60 panels from the brilliant stained glass collection of Gotha’s Castle, which were never seen again after the departure of the Russian army.((Cornelia Aman et al., Die mittelalterlichen Glasmalereien in Sachsen-Anhalt Süd ohne Halberstadt und Naumburg (CVMA Deutschland XIX,5), Berlin 2021, p. 169.))

Much serious damage was caused by unsuitable storage conditions, exemplified by the fate of the glazing of the Wiesenkirche in Soest (Fig. 11). Almost 500 panels from the early fifteenth and nineteenth centuries were removed in time and stored in the very deep cellar of a former brewery. In 1943 they were unpacked again to be photographically documented on behalf of Hans Wentzel. The photographer Dorothea Isserstedt noticed that the paper around the panels was soaked with water. The congregation and the pastor were worried and ordered that all the panels be repacked into dry straw. Nobody thought about the possibility that the safe cellar could be flooded in spring. As a result, all the glass panels from the Wiesenkirche stood in wet, rotten straw for months.((Report of the parish priest Dr Girkon of 24 February 1946, in the archive of the Corpus Viterarum Deutschland, Freiburg im Breisgau.))

Fig. 10. Formerly Chojna (Poland), Marienkirche, glazing missed after the Second World War, Photo: Fotoarchiv CVMA Freiburg

Fig.11. CVMA Archivnummer: A 02/2023/158 Digital Aufnahmedatum: 02/2023

Fig. 12. Wiesenkirche Soest, condition before and after humid storage, Photos: Dorothea Isserstedt / Andrea Gössel, CVMA Deutschland

When the local glazier of Hasper-Glaswerkstätten, opened the cellar after the end of the war to re-install the windows, he was in for a shock. All of the glass surfaces were covered with a yellow, biologically aggressive ‘slime’, the glass-paint was partly flaking and the leads extremely corroded and cracked. To avoid trouble with the church, they tried to remove this slime first with scalpel, but sometimes with acid (Fig 12). The consequences of these panic measures could not be repaired even during the three following conservations in recent times.((Documentation of conservation by Steffens & Köhler 1947, Oidtmann 1967, Oidtmann 1977, in the archive of the Corpus Viterarum Deutschland, Freiburg im Breisgau.))

A tragic example of the over-activity of stained glass restorers during the Second World War may be seen in the history of Naumburg Cathedral. As one of the oldest German church foundations, Naumburg was also an important symbol for the Nazis. As early as 1937, Naumburg Cathedral employed two famous artists, Josef Oberberger (1905-1994) und Walther Kohler (1903-1945) to reconstruct the missing parts of the medieval glazing and additionally from 1939 two restorers Zörn und Bauer for the conservation of the medieval glass (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Restorers Johann Zörn and Martin Bauer debonding the panels from the west choir of Naumburg Cathedral, ca. 1940, Photo: Stadtmuseum Naumburg

Both restorers were relatively young men who would normally have been expected to go to the front. Under instruction from Oberberger, the two men worked and tinkered for months and months. Their work included removing all of the presumed ‘unsafe’ original medieval leads and dismantling the glazing completely.((Guido Siebert, 17.1. Glasmalerei im Westchor, in: Heiko Brandl et al., Der Dom zu Naumburg. Ausstattung (Beiträge zur Denkmalkunde 13), Regensburg 2018, p. 1123–1125.))  They trialled the new Jacobi method of ‘sandwich’ plating, the cleaning of the medieval glass with Hexafluorosilicic acid and coating it with acrylate.((More about these exciting activities in the soon-to-be published report on the Choir glazing of the Naumburg Cathedrale by Sarah Jarron.))

Unfortunately, none of this titanic effort ultimately helped these two men.  At the end of 1942 the Reich Ministry decided that no more conservation measures would be permitted at Naumburg Cathedral. All of the panels were stored as separate fragments on wooden boards in the cathedral’s cellar.  Both restorers were sent to the front, never to return.

The last, incredibly painful example comes from the Cistercian monastery of Amelungsborn, whose pride and joy was the largest Great East Window of German stained glass history (Fig. 14). The monastery was located in the flat countryside of Lower Saxony, and the great window was neither removed, nor protected or documented because of the ‘minimal danger’. In April 1945, when the American army rolled in, a small farmer in the neighbourhood thought he had to defend his farm and his country and fired his gun towards the incoming troops. The Americans consequently thought the territory was unsafe and fired back with howitzers. As a result, the nave roof of the church was hit and collapsed, and all of the windows in the monastery were blown out. Today, three small depository windows in the church display the fragments that were collected from the rubble and left hanging in the lead frame (Fig. 15).

Fig. 14. Cistercian abbey church Amelungsborn, part of the Great East Window before the Second World War, Photo: Dorothea Isserstedt, Fotoarchiv CVMA Freiburg

Fig. 15. Cistercian abbey church Amelungsborn, the surviving remains of the Great East Window, Photo: Ulrich Engert, CVMA Deutschland

 One important result of all of these activities for stained glass protection during and after the war, was the network of stained glass scholars, which became the basis of the international institution of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi. The systematic photo documentation from the wartime is also an important resource, which is still used today in glass conservation and for academic research purposes. But the basic conclusion is not really optimistic: Only about three quarters of the stained glass heritage in Germany survived. Most of the windows and collections were removed and stored as safely as possible with an enormous personal and material effort. But as long as the war lasted, even the very best measures for the protection and safeguarding of art objects could only help temporarily. The only sure protection for stained glass in war is to stop the war.

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