Neugotik: Brick Gothic in Germany, England, and the United States

by Rolf Achilles, appearing in Volume 29

Gottfried Semper wrote in 1846: “The impression made on the masses by a building is partly founded on reminiscences.”1 This certainly holds true for the Gothic, a style that for the masses has always evoked the awe of Christian grandeur and mysticism, if only in its soaring interiors and steeples.

By extension, Semper’s words also apply to many intellectuals and architects of the nineteenth century, for whom the Gothic style of architecture conjured up the learning of the cloister, an orderly ahistorical world view, and a Christian sensibility not linked to a pagan past but to one that had toppled it.

The original desire to naturally build in forms of Opus Francigenum, later called Gothic, came about first in the early twelfth century in north central France. The new style then quickly spread throughout northern Europe and elsewhere in the course of the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. Other styles followed, but none were as tenacious and emotionally fulfilling for European Christianity as Opus Francigenum. The classical world appeared too pagan. The Renaissance was a yearning for a better past, but without a Christian soul. The Baroque and Rococo were theatrical, but lacked heart. The Gothic was both ornamental and complex yet emotional and intellectually satisfying. The Gothic had both soul for the emotions and heart for the faithful. The style in its various poses continues.

By the mid-eighteenth century, industrialization began not only to change the economic conditions and landscape of northern Europe but also to lay siege to its intellectual traditions. Solutions were sought in many venues. None seemed more sound and popular than the Gothic of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Yet the Gothic as it stood was old, often a patchwork of surviving structures in city centers or newly assessed rural, out-of-the-way locales steeped in lore and wishes that were seen as romantic—a reminder of a better, preindustrial devotion and a wayfinding instrument of pure form that would lead to true light through a tunnel of an ever more quickly changing world.

Adoption of medieval Gothic elements began in England around 1720 in new, almost exclusively secular construction. Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill (after 1749) was a conflation of Gothic elements, as was the English-inspired Nauener Tor in Potsdam from 1755, commissioned by Frederick the Great, who was an admirer of English secular use of the Gothic style for its allusion to the past. Consequently, Gotisches Haus in Wörlitz near Dessau was begun in 1773 and completed in 1813. Built mostly of brick, the Gotisches Haus has a façade inspired by the Gothic church of Santa Maria Dell’Oro in Venice with a new, Gothic-inspired interior.

Church of the Holy John the Baptist at the Tschesmensker Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1780. Photo:

Among the first sacred structures was the Neugotik (New Gothic) Tschesmensker Church in Saint Petersburg, Russia, from 1780. (The full name is Church of the Holy John the Baptist at the Tschesmensker Palace). Its architect, Georg Friedrich Veldten (1730–1801), court architect to Catherine the Great, did not revive a Gothic style, but seems to have thought Gothic as idiosyncratic as the exotic Turks whose defeat it commemorates. And therefore, it is not a Revival building.

A few years later, again in Wörlitz, Fürst Leopold Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau, who had traveled extensively in England and there admired Tudor-Gothic, had his architect, Baurat Hesekiel, convert Saint Peter’s Church (built about 1196–1201) into a Neugotik showpiece between 1804 and 1809. The Neugotik for church building was on its way.

Exterior, Friedrichswerdersche Church in Berlin by Friedrich Schinkel, 1830. Photo: friedricheswerdersche kirche,

Interior, Friedrichswerdersche Church. Photo:

The greatest German architect of the time, the great master of Neo-Classical architecture Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) also designed the Neugotik Friedrichswerdersche Church (1821–1830) in Berlin. His building expressed its Gothic forms in exposed brick. This was the first new church built with exposed brick since the Middle Ages. With its design and exposed brick, Schinkel’s Friedrichswerdersche Church influenced sacred architecture for several generations and paved a clear path all the way to the Bauhaus and beyond, especially in the United States.

Early in his life, Schinkel had recognized a connection between Gothic and nature. For him Gothic represented true belief, subject only to nature’s rules. Because it was not subject to human desires, nature appeared to be free. For Schinkel, nature and Gothic were one. In classical architecture, he saw order and necessity; in Gothic, he saw the natural and freedom.2

A year after Schinkel’s groundbreaking Friedrichswerdersche Church, the Mariahilfkirche in Munich broke ground. Designed by Joseph Daniel Ohlmüller and Georg Friedrich Ziebland, the Mariahilfkirche is now seen as the preeminent Neugotik church in southern Germany. It is built of unglazed bricks, inside and out.

The Mariahilfkirche in Munich, interior destroyed during World War II. Photo:

At the behest of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Ohlmüller had cleaned the Dom (cathedral) in Bamberg of its 1660s Baroque encrustation and returned it into something akin to its Ottonian-Romanesque original. The Dom in Bamberg became a model of what to do, but it was an Ottonian-Romanesque pile with not enough hints of Gothic to be a noteworthy model for Neugotik. For his commission of a parish church in Munich, Ohlmüller could not rely on local surviving Gothic churches, all of which had been altered or even replaced during the previous century’s go-for-Baroque mania. By placing his new parish church outside the traditional medieval market core of the city center, he took on city planning, leaving an open field around a building that looked like it had always been there. Ohlmüller created a rural pilgrimage site, a Romantic idyll, within an urban setting. He also could not find any one pure Gothic model, so he conflated several fine medieval examples of Gothic into one. His newly minted, three-aisled German hall church received a west façade in the style of French cathedrals, a ninety-three-meter-tall steeple modeled after the Minster in Freiburg, and a nave with ribbed vaulting of a type found in Saint Martin in Landshut. Bricks were the Neugotik’s building material of choice, light colored limestone or ochre terra-cotta its ornamentation. For lack of stone, brick had been the Gothic building material of choice in northern Germany, from Saint Petersburg along the Baltic to the North Sea into the Netherlands. This Gothic was called Backsteingotik (Brick Gothic), and most importantly, it had not fallen as hard under the French spell as the great central German cathedrals and churches of quarried ashlar had. With the completion of Mariahilfkirche, the Neugotik was established in both north and south Germany.

In England, too, there had been an urge championed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and others to revive the Gothic and Roman Catholicism for both ecclesiastical and political reasons. But with abundant stone available, the Neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival of England followed local traditions relegating clay to tiles and ornamentation, not to bricks for building.

Actual standing church buildings in northern Germany from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries inspired Germany’s Neugotik. The medieval buildings were bound to specific cultural and political attitudes that were closely related to a stern Catholicism, more akin to Lutheran Protestantism than to Italian-minded Catholicism. As pre-Lutheran Catholic churches, and as symbols of a great past that could be interpreted as enhancers of the present, Backsteingotik became a convenient and original model for Neugotik.

Neugotik was also a symbol of a religious cause, had emotional appeal, was steeped in antiquarianism in the face of industrialization, and was seen as an opportunity for significant artistic expression. Possibly most importantly, Gothic architecture and artistic expression was a bedrock of the larger phenomenon called Romanticism that in Germany and central Europe led to an architecture called Historicism. The appearance of Neugotik also occurred at a time when standing medieval monuments were first being investigated archaeologically and cleansed of their historic barnacles, the add-ons of various ages that were considered by a later generation not authentic to the original intent and function of the building.

This urge to cleanse was, of course, in part a reaction to the humiliations suffered by most Europeans east of the Rhine River at the hands of the French under Napoleon. Germans and other national groups sought out culturally significant elements—be they architecture or art—in their own national language spheres. Gothic built in brick, though French in origin, was a variant distinctly non-French and thus suited to German spiritual needs and political wants.

Neugotik was as much theology as politics. It was anti-industrial and proemotional. It was antirationalist, antiscientific, and probelief. Conversion to Roman Catholicism was a tipping point for many Romantic artists, poets, writers, and architects, who for a generation or two had been indifferent or disbelievers. Before their conversion they had lauded democracy and the French Revolution, praised Napoleon, despised Roman Catholicism, and despised its adherents.

At the height of Napoleonic persecution, in 1809, six students at the Vienna Academy coalesced into an artistic cooperative calling itself the Lukasbund (the Brotherhood of Saint Luke), in honor of the patron saint of medieval guilds of painters. Within a year, four of them had moved to Rome, where they lived communally in the abandoned monastery of San Isidoro. Mostly Lutheran and Jewish, they all converted to Roman Catholicism to reflect their belief and conviction in every thought and every activity. Called the Nazarener-Brüderschaft, a mocking reference to the popular image of the bearded and long-haired man from Nazareth, the Nazarener hoped to return art to its spiritual origins by embodying values of late medieval and early Renaissance practices.

By the 1820s, the Nazarener had established themselves as masters and then directors of the art academy in Munich, Frankfurt am Main, and Düsseldorf, where their painting style and techniques became the rule. They also introduced medieval and Renaissance techniques of fresco painting to nineteenth century Germany and Europe. Quickly their style and name became the byword for thought and art in German churches, civic buildings, and public and private art collections. By the 1840s, the Nazarener style and conviction had become Germany’s.

Among the first fresco paintings in Germany were those that were commissioned by King Ludwig I in 1846 for the Dom in Speyer from the artist Johann von Schraudolph (1808–1879). In the Cologne Cathedral, Franz Mayer of Munich introduced a type of painted stained-glass window called the Munich style. The Nazarene style of painting was joined at the hip with Neugotik and became the most popular and widespread style not only in Germany but also across Europe, England, and the United States.

Almost thirty years after the Nazarene-Brüderschaft ideals were first nurtured and cultivated in Rome and then harvested in Germany, they rooted in England with the germination of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Also profoundly influencing England were the writings of the German Friedrich Schlegel (Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel, born in 1772 in Hanover into a Lutheran pastor’s family and died in 1829), whose ideas on religious art and architecture were beginning to be known in the 1830s. In the 1790s, Schlegel was an atheist, a radical, and an individualist. In 1802, praising Napoleon, he arrived in Paris, and there in 1804, he published about Gothic architecture in his magazine Europe. Four years later, in 1808, in Cologne with his wife, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, moved to Vienna as imperial court secretary, and surrounded himself with monks and pious men of society while writing fiery proclamations against Napoleon. It was in Vienna and Budapest that Schlegel and others projected Austria as the spiritual leader of a new Germany, drawing her strength and inspiration from a romanticized view of medieval Catholic past.3 German Romanticism was in full flower and Neugotik was its architecture.

In England, Neugotik was known as the Gothic Revival, and its style was driven by an international Catholic surge for art and architecture that had first sprouted in England as non-Catholic, then found its soul in Rome, and was then harvested in Germany before taking root in England as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

By the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants from both England and Germany had brought Gothic Revival and Neugotik, respectively, to the United States. First along the East Coast and then ever more inland, the two strains of Gothic struggled for dominance. Whatever the calling, Gothic Revival or New Gothic, both had their ardent supporters. In the United States, countless small, Deutsche Evangelische Lutheranische Kirche (German Evangelical Lutheran) congregations tended to build in modest exposed brick with a single tower over the main entrance. The model was a variant of the Mariahilfkirche in Munich, but a north German Evangelical Lutheran, Protestant version. There were many German models to choose from.

While there are many superb examples of Catholic New Gothic churches in the United States, Saint Paul’s Church in Chicago is one that stands out. At 245 feet, its twin spires were the tallest man-made structure in Chicago at the time of its dedication on June 25, 1899.

Interior of Saint Paul’s Church, Chicago. Photo: Rolf Achilles

Modeled by Henry J. Schlacks (1868–1938)—a Chicago architect who called himself an Ecclesiologist—for a German congregation after Saint Elizabeth Church in Marburg, Saint Paul’s is a superb interpretation of Neugotik outside and inside. The exterior is of lightly glazed and unglazed light red to ochre-colored brick, with ornamentation of red-ochre terra-cotta. Inside, similar to the Friedrichwerden Church, Saint Paul’s is all brick, glazed in a graduated brown clear from the floor to the spring of the arch. Mosaics, completed in 1930, adorn the eastern walls and stained-glass windows by F.X. Zettler of Munich, Germany, narrate the story of Jesus and Saint Paul.

Is it correct to praise Saint Paul’s as inspired by the sublime French church at Chartres, as the literature claims, and not Saint Elizabeth in Marburg? Schlacks seems not to have left a written artist’s statement on the subject, but his love for this church, reflected in the lifetime of work he contributed to it, is statement enough that national pride may suggest an answer. The German-speaking immigrants in this part of Chicago, called Pilsen, came from east of the Rhine River. Many probably knew that the first pure Gothic church east of the Rhine was Saint Elizabeth in Marburg, built by the Order of the Teutonic Knights in honor of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, whose tomb is in the crypt. Construction of the sandstone Saint Elizabeth Church started in 1235 (the year Saint Elizabeth of Hungary was canonized), and it was consecrated in 1283. Its two towers were completed in 1340. The church was a very important pilgrimage destination throughout the later Middle Ages and again in the nineteenth century.4 The immigrants in Pilsen probably wanted a church building they recognized, in a style that was of their time and reflected the political and religious freedoms they had come to America for. Neugotik was their answer.