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© SHF/Stephan Falk
Surviving decorative figures from the Berlin Palace. © SHF/ Stephan Falk

August 20, 2018

Sculptures tell their stories

by Bertold Just

Over the centuries, imposing sculptures were mounted on the facades and gates of the Berlin Palace. Deciphering their stories and riddles reveals political and art historical aesthetic agendas.

Like the entire Berlin Palace building, its sculptures also reflect the stylistic transformations and thematic concerns of the various epochs. Early and high Baroque sculptures from the Schlüter workshop stood before the gates alongside late classical and Neo-Baroque figures on the freestanding columns.

As parts of the facades and portals, these sculptures crowned the architecture and reflected the aspirations of the palace owners. And so it was that a veritable who’s who of Olympians posed on the columns of portal VI on a level with the first floor in the former Residence Courtyard, the so-called Schlüter Courtyard: Apollo, Jupiter, Antinous, Meleager, Heracles, and Hermes framed by the figures of Pax and Borussia, the patroness of Prussia.

Four female figures dating from the eighteenth century stood on each of the side gates I and V. To this day, art historians are at odds as to their significance. As the current reconstruction progresses, they are increasingly of the opinion that it was simply a kind of outdoor museum for the classical sculptures then en vogue. We see, for example, Flora from the Farnese Collection in Naples or François Duquesnoy’s Saint Susanna from Rome’s Santa Maria di Loreto church. The Borussia is a nearly identical copy of Bernini’s Matilda of Tuscany from Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

Bertold Just © SHF/Rolf Schulten
Surviving decorative figures from the Berlin Palace. © SHF/ Stephan Falk

In 1886 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, sculptures were mounted on the western facade, or, more precisely, on top of the columns of Gate III. At the outer portal stood the sovereign virtues of Strength, Moderation, Justice and Wisdom; at the Courtyard Gate the Christian virtues of Love, Faith, Hope and Prayer. As early as 1848, under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the figures of Moses and Elias were erected on both corners of the fascia, while eight figures of the prophets were mounted on the cupola drum.

On the outer gates on the facades facing the Lustgarten to the north and Schlossplatz to the south, Baroque sculptures were removed and partially replaced with sculptures in the Neo-Baroque style in 1861. So there was clearly no unified and continuous aesthetic agenda at the Berlin Palace. Instead, under each ruler other sculptures were added in line with contemporary tastes or political orientation.

The identity of the sculptor of the Baroque figures from the Schlüter Courtyard has not been established. We do know, however, that Sapovius, Schlüter’s former teacher in Danzig (now Gdansk), worked on them. The later nineteenth-century sculptures were fashioned by Wilhelm Stürmer, Albert Wolf, Carl Schüler and Hermann Schievelbein, among others. It is safe to say that the best available artists were employed at the Palace throughout the years. The same is true of today’s reconstruction.

No less important than the artistic talent is the close study of the few original sculptural fragments that have survived. These are books about the history of the time for those who know how to read them. Marks on the surfaces provide clues as to the tools and techniques used: joint surfaces, leaded iron anchors and casting channels indicate how the sculptures were constructed and fixed. The sculptors working in today’s Palace Workshop look to the overall composition as well as the details of the surviving originals, such as the portrait reliefs of the Roman kings Romulus and Numa on Gate V in the Schlüter Courtyard. These pieces were preserved in their original condition and illustrate the virtuosity of Baroque artists in their handling of geometric rigour. As of 2019, these two pieces as well as ten of the surviving colossal sculptures will be on display in the Humboldt Forum’s Sculpture Hall.

Bertold Just † was head of the Palace Workshop at Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss. Founded in summer 2011, the Palace Workshop is where model-builders and sculptors make models and sculpt the decorative elements of the Baroque facades in sandstone using the traditional pointing method.
This article was published in the Humboldt Forum newspaper N°3 (August 2018).

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