Looking at the map for places to break the journey on our way back to Berlin after a few days on the Baltic Coast, the name Güstrow was like an itch in the back of my mind. What was it about this town of around 30,000 people that rang a bell? Eventually it struck me. I’d just finished reading Neil MacGregor’s history, Germany: Memories of a Nation, and Güstrow gets an honorable mention. Not for its 800 years of history, and not even for the 16th century Schloss Güstrow with its lovely formal gardens.
MacGregor’s book is the history of Germany told through its literature, architecture and arts. Güstrow earned its place because the sculptor Ernst Barlach lived and worked here between 1910 and 1938, and it is where one of Barlach’s greatest works can be found. The Floating Angel (Der Schwebende) in Güstrow Cathedral is an epic memorial to Germany’s dead in the First World War. It is a tragic and enigmatic reflection of the horrors of a conflict he himself experienced.
No glorification of war here, just a female angel floating in the empty space of the cathedral, silently facing westwards towards the battlefields of France. It is sombre, reflective, the horror internalised. Just one of the many reasons Barlach was despised by the Nazis, for whom the idea that the First World War was anything other than a heroic undertaking for a righteous cause, was sacrilege. Like all Barlach’s works, the original Der Schwebende was condemned as degenerate art.
It was removed from the church in 1937 and later melted down for the Nazi war effort. That might have been the end of this sublime piece, but luckily the original mold had been saved and a second bronze was cast. That was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, so the mesmerizing angel seen today in the cathedral is the third to be cast. It’s a wonderful and strangely uplifting sculpture.
Barlach’s angel is said to be unintentionally modelled on another sculptor and anti-war contemporary, Käthe Kollwitz. Her beautiful sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, takes pride of place in the Neue Wache on Berlin’s Unter den Linden. Der Schwebende would make the journey to Güstrow worthwhile in and of itself, but this is a town with other attractions. Dating back to the 12th century, Güstrow was the seat of the Dukes of Mecklenburg between the 16th and 18th centuries.
It is their Renaissance palace with its delightful gardens that dominates the southern part of the historic old town. Sadly, the construction work we could see taking place outside the palace meant that it was closed to visitors. We mooched through the grounds with bright floral displays in the shape of hearts, took shade from a fierce sun in the pergola, and then headed into town to explore its pleasant cobbled streets.
First things first, we had breakfast at a cafe in the main square overlooking the birthday cake-pink town hall and the massive red brick Gothic St. Mary’s Church – also not open when we were there. Working out from the centre, the compact old town doesn’t take long to explore; and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the green outside the hulking mass of Güstrow’s 14th century cathedral, and our reason for coming: The Floating Angel.
Leaving the cathedral behind, we walked through some lovely cobbled streets lined with historic houses, and mused on the improbable likelihood of Barlach’s sculpture surviving the Nazis and then the war. These thoughts were interrupted as we walked into an open square, home to a more traditíonal sculpture glorifying a different war. It couldn’t have offered a greater contrast to Barlach’s angel.