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.
Senn, Gerhard. 2005. Künstler zwischen den Zeiten, Elisabeth Coester (Eitorf: Wissenschaftsverlag für Glasmalerei)
3 But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. 4Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7Therefore do not associate with them, 8for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light 9(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; 13but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. 14Therefore it is said,
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
and Christ shall give you light.”
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.