Berlin is not Constantinople, nor even is it Rome, but it is nonetheless a city of churches. There are of course a handful of prominent synagogues and even a few notable mosques; but, as with any northern European city that came of age in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, the ecclesial life of Berlin has been shaped primarily – for better or worse – by Lutheranism, Calvinism and Catholicism.
Yet the evolution of Berlin did not follow quite the same path as that of other cities. In the aftermath of the Reformation, as the borders of Europe continued to be drawn and redrawn along linguistic and religious lines, Berlin displayed an almost unusual level of tolerance. During the seventeenth century, the Electorate of Brandenburg welcomed tens of thousands of Huguenots fleeing the persecutions in France. Only half a century later, in the 1740s, the nominally protestant King Friedrich II ‘the Great’ of Prussia – in fact more an enlightenment sceptic – went so far as to include the catholic cathedral of St Hedwig’s as part of his urban expansion efforts.
The largely peaceful co-existence of Catholicism and two major protestant branches over several centuries has resulted in a city interwoven with a high number of different churches and church-related buildings. There are the former village churches that can be found anywhere beginning with ‘Alt’ (Alt-Tegel, Alt-Lankwitz, etc.), the imposing structures built into the nineteenth century street-plan, and many that toe the line of the city’s residential streets, offering a sudden monumental flourish amidst the rows of Altbauten.
Not all of Berlin’s churches announce their presence with words – the architectural style itself will often suffice – but for many buildings of a religious nature text is an essential ingredient. The name and denomination of a church will sometimes be advertised in bold letters on the front of the building, but will just as often appear discreetly as part of a glass case on or near the building.
But church typography is equally adept at the presentation of scriptural (or hymnal) quotations.
These bold spiritual statements – some carved in stone, some wrought of iron – are as much a fixture of the urban space as the cursive neon and inventive lightboxes to which this blog has shown so much affection; and due to the nature of their materials, these scriptural extracts seem destined to outlive the more ephemeral shop-front signs.
Religion, as with politics, is often viewed as a highly divisive topic; even within a single religion insoluble differences can arise leading to lasting schisms. But regardless of one’s attitude toward religions in particular or religion in general, we can all agree on one crucial truth: the presence of churches in Berlin has yielded some extraordinary specimens of urban typography.
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