Young Christ by Elisabeth Coester

Elisabeth Coester

Young Christ, 1939, Stained glass, Whole window approx. 22 x 8 m, St Nikolai, Hamburg, Photo: © Hinrich Franck, courtesy of St Nikolai, Hamburg

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In Evil Days

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Johann Hinrich Claussen

This is a small segment of a huge stained glass window (22 x 8 metres) created in 1939 by Elisabeth Coester for the church of St Nikolai in Hamburg. It is one of only a few works by her that have survived.

Coester became famous for the gigantic stained glass walls (800 square meters!) she formed in 1928 for the avant-garde ‘Steel Church’ in Essen and a similar work for St Nikolai in Dortmund a year later. These two masterpieces of modern church architecture were destroyed or severely damaged during the Second World War.

Today Coester is almost forgotten, for several reasons: she was a modern artist who worked mainly for the Protestant church; she died early at just 41 (in 1941); her work consisted mostly of stained glass and was doomed in the war; and—last but not least—she was a woman.

In her window for St Nikolai, she combines traditional motifs with a modern aesthetic and a courageous message. Christ is not, as was common in German churches during the Nazi regime, portrayed as a heroic man or a powerful ruler, but a defenceless child. Centuries of Western images—from later medieval through to Renaissance times and beyond—have depicted this child as a newborn, naked infant sitting on his mother's lap. But here, he is preciously dressed, sitting upright, presenting himself as a paradoxical Lord of Peace. He—and not an emperor in Rome, or anywhere else—rules the world, and not with armies, but with his light.

In the large glass tableau, this segment high above is one of the brightest, thus illustrating the words from Ephesians 5: ‘Christ will shine on you’ (v.14; own translation). It reveals the religious core of the Christian talk of ‘children of light’. It is more than a mere catalogue of virtues and rules, but the appearance of a new image of man—in Christ.

This image of Christ does indeed originate in ‘evil days’ (v.16), created for one of the few liberal churches which in contrast to large parts of German Protestantism kept a distance from the Nazi dictatorship, proclaiming an anti-imperial faith.

 

References

Senn, Gerhard. 2005. Künstler zwischen den Zeiten, Elisabeth Coester (Eitorf: Wissenschaftsverlag für Glasmalerei)

<https://www.hauptkirche-stnikolai.de/kirche/kirche-am-klosterstern/kirche-und-ausstattung/>