Illa Thompson
Mercury Column 106
May 2017
I suppose everyone has a special place: a place where you feel safe, happy, welcome and calm. A place where the very walls seems to enfold you, where on entering you feel your soul exhale, where time slows down and allows you be still.
For surfers, this place could be an awesome stretch of beach, for thespians it could be a theatre with memories and promise, for the rest of us it could be where we first fell in love, went on holiday, played a childhood game of soccer or have nostalgic memories of fond times in our past.
As the world gets increasingly busy, noisy, overwhelming, dark and complicated, the quest for quiet time in special places is an important psychological de-stress and emotional refuge.
Like most, I have a series of special places. I was lucky enough to visit a string of them last week during my annual visit to a small traditional town in East Germany, Gardelegen. Every May my sisters and I take turns to accompany my Mum to the place of her birth, for her annual school reunion. This year a dozen or so school mates gathered from many corners of the world. It is quite an ask, as the average age of the friends this year is 90! Their common connection is school …and war: they were school mates as youngsters, but more significantly, they all survived World War 2. Many of their classmates and fellow townsfolk weren’t so lucky, and part of the purpose of the gathering every year is to help archive history with their personal memories and first-hand anecdotes.
My maternal grandfather was a parish priest during the war. His church was bombed and remains in ruins to this day – the exterior walls, lady-chapel and bell-tower remain more or less intact. The interior was irreparably shattered. The roof is the sky and what is left of the church is now carpeted with deep green moss and tenacious ferns; the burnt brick walls still stand testimony to the angry flames. Every year we marvel at the fastidious, slow restoration process –unearthing ancient frescos of saints on the walls, or re-painting the high ceiling of the side-chapel.
I understand that my presence in Gardelegen when visiting this now quaint olde-worlde mediaeval East German town is of course influenced by my family’s traumatic experiences, and my trying to make sense of the stories while finding my own personal connection to this distressing history.
But increasingly I realise that in searching for my special place among the old buildings, my response is made more poignant by the incredible art housed within.
Typically I spend quiet time in our old broken family church and the other church in town which survived the war and houses a myriad historical sacred icons and art works – both its own as well as those salvaged from our family church after the bombing.
But I have discovered another special place in the German Altmark – the Pfarrkirche Osterwohle. A tiny intimate almost nondescript brick exterior in an unassuming neighbouring town reveals a breathtaking interior: a veritable treasure-trove of sacred-art: hundreds of ruler-height immensely-detailed wooden figurines, icons, saints and angels – from the glorious to the grotesque, some exuding immense grace and pathos, others gargoyle-like in their parody. Their garments are almost diaphanous, the hair is doll-like – looking more like wax effigies than wooden statues. The impact of the art on the visitor is startling. Zapiro may call it “a sharp intake of breath.”
Of course the conversation around sacred art is a big one – perhaps for another column. I only know that my projected emotion in its layered complexity finds solace in the presence of these astonishing wooden saints and angels, with their borer scarred features, and cob-webbed eyes.
Again I found my special place among the sacred art in churches that despite bombs, hatred and the passing of the centuries, still can evoke a sense of tranquillity, refuge and bliss. I try my best to hold onto that calm as I return to the madness of being back home and allow myself, at least in my dreams, to take shelter in those remarkable places.