On Unveiling a Cathedral

Then, I like there to be someone in the historia who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look...or points to some remarkable thing in the picture, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them.[1] [Alberti, On Painting]

 

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Dotted throughout the orange mats of the Macmillan Committee photos, these index spectators bear the disquieting property of an asterisk on a Borges page – who is the author of this pictorial narrative? What is his agenda, and what is it that, say, Private William Scollie of Chicago, is beckoning us to see? These spectators are a constant reminder that we are looking exclusively at the photos that have made it to the orange mats that were found suitable to pair with the press-release text, active and purposeful participants in the war over public opinion. In the Second World War, which was marked by the “area bombing” strategy and consequentially the heavy scarring of most Western European cities, the destruction of monuments was a central theme of both Allied and Axis propaganda efforts, with accusations of vandalism and barbarity exchanged over airwaves and headlines across the channel – and eventually the Ocean.

 

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It was the Americans who first conceived the model of a committee dedicated to the question of the wounded heritage sites, establishing the Roberts Commission in August 1943 [2]. The British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives, and other Material in Enemy Hands, known as the Macmillan Committee, was established nine months later in May 1944. Together they compiled lists of monuments worthy of preservation and recruited art scholars to serve as MFA&A – Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives – Officers and attached them to the liberating ground forces. These officers were initially in charge of minimizing damage to those listed priority monuments, a task that of course proved unrealistic. They were then entrusted with the mission of inspecting and recording the damage, and arranging emergency repairs whenever possible. Their mere visible presence was, as one scholar noted, somewhat effective in countering Axis accusations of vandalism [3]. Indeed, only twenty of them were assigned to the whole of Western Europe, and there were hardly enough resources at that early stage to undertake any practical measures, which meant that the record-keeping and propaganda efforts, preserved in these photographs at the Conway Library, represent the bulk of their activity [4].

 

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“It may be a crime to attack a cathedral, but it is only war to miss a train station”[5] was one commentator’s response to ‘Operation Millennium’, where over a 1,000 Royal Air Force aircrafts bombarded the city of Cologne for an hour and a half on the night of May 30th 1942.[6] Just to convey the scope of these “area bombing” raids, this was not the first, but the 107th air raid on Cologne, and this was even before the Americans actively joined in.[7] I do not know when this stock photo above was taken, or why it was mounted and circulated by an MFA & A Officer, but the image below it is a final aftermath, as it was the retreating Germans who detonated the bridge.

 

The Macmillan photo collection can, after a while, seem like an illustration of a narrative whose subtext and complexity culminate in the late photographs from Germany. There, the tension between gloating and mourning, satisfaction and remorse surfaces in every image. I do not wish here to analyse the moral validity of these sentiments, but rather to examine an interesting pattern I observed while surveying the Macmillan collection, which demonstrates how these mixed feelings – of the documenters and their audience alike – were expressed in one particular case.

 

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Medieval cathedrals, as an architectural type, are unsurprisingly somewhat at odds with the modern practice of photography. While current-day monumental building projects seem to be as conscious of the camera as much – if not more – as they are of the human eye (e.g. Guggenheim Bilbao), going through photos of cathedrals in the Conway boxes one can almost taste the photographer’s frustration. To obtain a “clean” or “complete” view was almost never possible. Here in Cologne we see that the best view is unavailable because of these buildings in the front.

 

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Looking at an image such as this, which one MFA&A Officer chose to mount and circulate we might wonder how this is a good view of the damage to the Cologne Cathedral. Any destruction presented is one of the “legitimate” kind, that is of a non-monument. The angle chosen, or the standpoint, is an opportunist one; made available very recently. This view in fact evokes an urge in the spectator to proceed and topple that last bit of what remains of that building occluding the view of the Cathedral – indeed, thank you, Eisenhower.

 

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This “blessed unveiling” is even more pronounced in this photo of the facade of Worms Cathedral. The photographer, likely one of these art-historian officers, again seizes this newly found standpoint opportunity.

 

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In Mainz the situation was even more dramatic; even in this 1803 print titled “Mayence Cathedral” the engraver cannot seem to grant the edifice its due centre-stage position. This Cathedral was virtually inaccessible. Once more, the “damage” presented is one inflicted on the buildings occluding the view.

 

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In Aachen we encounter a similar approach. The celebrated Romanesque Cathedral, housing the seat of Charlemagne, was once more at the centre of attention – of word and image alike. This photo from c.1900, reminds us, however, that the most important part of the building from a historical point of view, the Romanesque Octagon, was not to be found in photographs taken from the east. A quick comparison also reveals that although the spire in focus is graceful indeed, it is not actually the spire of the Aachen Cathedral. We then detect a pencil mark on the mat, re-identifying the tower as that of the St. Foillan Kirche in the same complex. This “unveiled” view – that is, “legitimate” destruction coupled with “correct” cultural sensibilities – seemed to have been pursued and preferred over general, informative overviews or actual details of damage – or survivals – , and in the case of Aachen, for otherwise no apparent reason, it was preferred over the edifice itself.

 

This pattern (and I have showed you just a fraction of the extant images) shows how a viewpoint, in the metaphoric sense – that is, that the destruction of historical monuments is ‘barbaric’, but that we won! – was translated into specific literal standpoints. This visual formulation of the idea of destruction that actually serves the historical monuments, clearing the rubble occluding the heritage, is not unlike the morally problematic but probably inevitable position the Allied forces had to assume in order to win this war: that people – their homes and livelihoods – are expendable in the battle over humanity.

 

© Noa Turel 2006


[1] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, Cecil Grayson, ed. The Latin Texts of De Pictura and De Statua. London: Phaidon, 1972, p. 42 (Book II).

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[2] All the historical background in this paragraph is derived from: Nicola Lambourne, War Damage in Western Europe: The Destruction of Historic Monuments During the Second World War, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p. 122.

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[3] Ibid.,p. 122.

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[4] Ibid., p. 123.

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[5] Ibid., p. 7.

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[6] Ibid., p. 55.

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[7] It was one of the first German cities in which measures were taken; the stained glass of Cologne Cathedral had been removed by August 1940. Lambourne, Op. cit. p. 41.

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