Diary Note 29: The Religion of Art

Berlin, 27 December 2018

The somewhat sleepy aspects of the Bode Museum (like the nearly demented guardians you overburden by a single question) in the end made me feel at home. This was built in the faraway past, but it still is, a temple to the arts. It still is a truly hierarchical place, in contradiction to the egalitarian ethos of democracy. One can go further and think that it is a hieratical place, dedicated to the sacred, in contradiction to the ethos of accessibility.

The heart of the museum is a specially constructed basilica for the arts. By this heart we remember that in the basilica magistrates decided litigations in Roman times, and how later it became the basic church of Christianity, in which God has the last judgement. By giving the basilica this central role in secular times, the state and the academy of Prussia gave art a central position in modern life.

To make the building less stern and more inviting, the present successors of Dr. Bode, the high priest and first director of this museum of numismatic collections, and Byzantine art, and medieval church paintings and sculpture, and busts and portraits, have added a few touches of modernity like play rooms for children, a few educational spaces and even a public space to think for yourself. These feel disjointed and slightly American.

Modern curators have not taken over the whole building so far. We spent the day there from brunch to tea. The waiters recognized us after a while and even some wardens waved our wanderings through as old friends. The museum is vast and takes time. Notwithstanding the somewhat impenetrable floor-plan and the heavy wooden doors you have to open yourself, one seems in the end to have missed little and seen most.

Sculpture is raised here on an equal footing with painting. Painting and sculpture coming together creates a new, somehow third, dimension. It deepens the images. As one lingers among the loud portraits of unknowns one suddenly encounters the small portrait bust of Immanuel Kant. A beautifully sensitive and intelligent face. A believable Nicolas Poussin, a recognizable Erasmus of Rotterdam. Even the effigy of Johannes van Leiden is there, who after becoming the pope of the Anabaptists was executed in Munster. A golden coin of Alexander the Great, if authentic, still carries the image of his youthful destiny. There are hundreds of portraits of lesser personalities, who for a moment seem to be lifted from oblivion to speak to the present.

In the inserted bookshop, extraneous like the cafeteria, I bought a Reklam anthology of significant texts about death. I did not see JM’s edition of the Pre-Socratics there.


Even in this temple built for eternity, one is reminded of the dictator and his fearful grip on a decade of modern history. Hitler’s vicious anti-Semitism even reached inside the Bode Museum. As a great benefactor to German culture James Simon was more or less erased from memory by the Nazis. He hugely endowed the museum. He is now reinstated in a small side room by a portrait with some documents.

Instead of being grateful, the persecutors seemed to have been jealous, even vengeful. Shadows emerge wherever one looks.

It is all too hasty, but I should remember to return to the jealousy of Germans towards the Jews. For what the Jews gave to Germany. Owing something is an ambivalent art. Shakespeare created Shylock around envy.

A small item in this amalgam of dependency and gratitude and latent hate is the head of Nefertiti. This iconic museum piece came to be in Berlin, not this museum, by way of the same Jewish philanthropist James Simon. Who in the thirties was censored out of public conscience by the Nazis.

Many gifts newly enrich Berlin. I have recently visited the photo collection of Helmut Newton or the Paris modernists collection of Heinz Berggruen.

These gifts came after the war. As if to undo a lack of gratitude by even more gifts.