The Centenary of the Christuskirche in Rome

An online exhibition of the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History in cooperation with the Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeinde Rome


The Evangelical Lutheran Christuskirche was built between 1912 and 1922 according to the plans of Franz Schwechten (1841–1924). The neighborhood on the edge of the Pincio is also home to the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) that is closely linked with the history of the ecclesiastic community. Photo: Gabriele Fichera 1986, Bibliotheca Hertziana, Inv. U.Pl. ED 27588
The Evangelical Lutheran Chrisuskirche in Via Sicilia


The construction of the Protestant Christuskirche in Rome took place in the Rione Ludovisi, located northeast of the city centre, an area of about 25 hectares that was sold to the Comune di Roma in 1886 by the Boncompagni family, the heirs of the Ludovisi family, and subsequently developed as building land. Magnificent palaces such as Palazzo Margherita designed by Gaetano Koch (today’s United States Embassy on Via Veneto) were built, as well as church buildings, which include the neo-Renaissance Church of San Patrizio a Villa Ludovisi, the neo-Gothic Church of Santissimo Redentore e Santa Francesca Saverio Cabrini or the neo-Romanesque Christuskirche. Compared to the older churches, these sacred buildings have received little attention in the history of art in Rome, even though they are buildings of high quality in terms of both design and execution, and are also closely linked to the history of individual national communities or religious orders.
The Photographic Collection has taken the one hundredth anniversary of the consecration of the Christuskirche as the occasion for an online exhibition that traces the path from planning to completion. Several photographic campaigns have been carried out in the church over the past decades, the last comprehensive one in 2019 by the institute’s photographer Enrico Fontolan. The diverse references of the building and furnishings to early Christian and Romanesque models are illustrated by these photographs, as are the Wilhelminian-German components of the historicist church building.
The exhibition is supplemented and enriched by a video by Madelaine Merino, which conveys the interior of the church in cinematic description. The short contribution is in the tradition of filmic spatial visualisations that combine the factual and the atmospheric. One of the early examples is the 1936 short documentary film by the later Bibliotheca Hertziana fellow Carl Lamb “Raum im kreisenden Licht”, which was dedicated to the Wieskirche in Upper Bavaria.

Johannes Röll


The 100 years that the Christuskirche in Rome has existed are a short time compared to the history of other Roman churches. Historically, however, these 100 years are quite long. The construction of the church was planned and begun during the time when emperors and kings still ruled in Germany and Italy. The church was consecrated after the First World War – without the authorities who once planned it, and with a numerically decimated German Community that found itself in a completely changed political situation.
That the Community and the German church authorities managed to complete and consecrate the church building in the early 1920s despite the threat of recession and uncertainty is a remarkable achievement. The church was planned confidently and magnificently in times that assumed the security of the monarchy and Protestantism. It was consecrated in a phase of uncertainty and tentative reorientation.
This is one of the characteristics of the Christuskirche that has been particularly effective in its short history: it gives its community support and orientation in difficult times. It becomes a place of refuge and a point of reference when stability that was previously believed to be secure breaks down. One could say more pointedly: the Christuskirche was planned to represent (German) Protestantism glamorously and self-confidently; but its true effect unfolds in that it has offered a spiritual home to changing and unsettled people in difficult times. We look back on this with gratitude.

Michael Jonas

1 Planning and execution

The Evangelical Lutheran Christuskirche in Rome was consecrated on 5 November 1922. The building, uniformly designed in the neo-Romanesque style, does not show that its planning took more than thirty years and its construction more than ten years, while the First World War was taking place in Europe and the monarchy was coming to an end in Germany.
The German Protestant Community in Rome had been using a chapel on the ground floor of Palazzo Caffarelli on the Capitoline hill, the seat of the Prussian legation, for its services since 1823. The initiative to erect a new church building came from around 1890 from various groups in Germany dedicated to promoting the foreign diaspora. In 1899, a narrow plot of land was purchased in Via Toscana, not far from Via Veneto and the Aurelian Wall, which was to be developed with a building complex consisting of a church, parish and community hall. Since the Roman parish had been affiliated to the Prussian regional church since 1907, the German Protestant Church Committee, as the new owner, commissioned the Berlin senior architect Richard Schultze (1855–1923) with the designs.
Schultze conceived a church building traditionally aligned in an east-west direction which was rather short due to the narrow width of the plot, with a separate baptistery, which was enclosed centrally between the vicarage in the north (facing the Via Sardegna) and the parish hall in the south (facing the Via Sicilia) and accessible only via the latter.
This project seemed too unrepresentative to Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941), who as head of the Prussian state church followed the project closely, so in 1910 he commissioned his architect, the privy building councillor Franz Schwechten (1841–1924), with an alternative design. Schwechten had, among others, built the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin from 1891 to 1895 and the imperial residence palace in Posen from 1905 to 1913. He turned the orientation of the church by 90 degrees, so that a considerably larger three-nave nave building with a monumental façade facing Via Sicilia was created, adjoined to the north by the parish and community hall.
The foundation stone was laid on 2 June 1911, but construction work was interrupted by the war in 1914–1918. In 1915, all German property in Rome was expropriated, including Palazzo Caffarelli with the legation chapel, which were not restituted after the end of the war. The unfinished building project, however, was recovered and completed. Since the community was decimated in numbers after the end of the war, the new parish house was rented to the German Archaeological Institute, whose headquarters on the Capitoline Hill had also been expropriated.
Despite the interruptions, Schwechten’s design was realised almost unchanged, making the church one of the most important testimonies to Wilhelmine historicism, whose architectural language makes use of early Christian, Lombard and Staufer elements in a stylistically pluralistic manner, while employing local materials such as the travertine used for the exterior. [TB]

2 Interior and furnishings

The interior of the Christuskirche is extremely well preserved; even the arrangement of the furnishings planned by Franz Schwechten has remained unchanged to this day. The church, which appears as a longitudinal building on the outside, is physically shortened on the inside by the entrance hall and the vestibule behind it. This results in an almost square shape of the interior: narrow side aisles line a much wider three-bay central nave with a semicircular apse. The main axis leads to the raised chancel with the pulpit on the right. The choir is bordered on the right by a pulpit staircase beginning in the apse and framed on the left by a marble choir screen. Above the aisles and the vestibule are galleries supported by pillars and columns.
The large-scale mosaics in the domes, on the belt arches, as well as on the triumphal arch and in the apse are particularly impressive. The decoration of gold, mother-of-pearl and coloured glass tesserae adorns an area totalling 414 square metres. The Berlin company Puhl & Wagner was commissioned to carry out the work, using the indirect setting method. The mosaics were designed by the painters Ernst Pfannschmidt (1868–1949), who was responsible for the apse and triumphal arch, and Friedrich Schwarting (1883–1918), who produced the motifs for the ornamental bands at the edge of the vaulting. The mosaic on the front wall of the apse depicts Christ as Maiestas Domini: In the mandorla on the globe and rainbow, the ruler of the world is enthroned with his right hand raised in blessing, in his left he holds the open book with the words of the Revelation of John: “I am the Alpha and the Omega”. The choice of this motif as well as the use of mosaics for the church interior can be traced back to design and building policy preferences of Emperor Wilhelm II.
Early Christian, Norman-Sicilian and Romanesque buildings of the 12th and 13th centuries served as models. The ornaments surrounding Christ are based on the decorations of the Roman churches of San Clemente and Santa Maria Maggiore. In addition to a lily of the valley garland, a cross in a halo and two angels with martyrs’ crowns decorate the mosaic surfaces of the triumphal arch. Further figurative representations in the apse were dispensed with. At the highest point of the church, in the middle of the central hanging dome, there is a crux gemmata quadrata. The walls have a partly painted white and dark green marble incrustation in the style of late antiquity.
The liturgical furnishings, designed by Schwechten and later Gotthold Riegelmann (1864–1935), were donated by the Gustav Adolf Women’s Associations of the Luther towns of Eisleben, Mansfeld, Erfurt, and Magdeburg. In this way, the design and use of the altar, pulpit and baptismal font were intended to recall Luther’s places of activity. The pieces were made of Italian Bianco Avorio and Cipollino marble. In its decoration, the pulpit refers to 12th and 13th century works from Germany and southern Italy: the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul and the martyr Stephen on the pulpit basket are figures almost copied from from the choir screens of the Liebfrauenkirche in Halberstadt; the eagle lectern and the supporting columns refer to Staufer pulpits from Apulia. The altar and baptismal font are similar in type and execution to those in Schwechten’s church buildings in Germany. However, the Roman works are additionally decorated with marks of the places of their foundation. For example, the baptismal font bears the coats of arms of Luther and Melanchthon as well as those of the towns of Mansfeld and Rome.
As a result of the confiscation of the embassy chapel in the Palazzo Caffarelli, parts of its furnishings also found their way into the new church, such as the baptismal font by Bertel Thorvaldsen described below. [MM]

3 Bertel Thorvaldsen's baptismal font

The Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) came to Rome in 1797 with a scholarship from the Copenhagen Academy, and subsequently spent most of his life there. In 1804 he received a commission for a baptismal font for the castle church of Brahetrolleborg on Funen, the model of which had been completed in 1808 and the marble version in 1815. From 1822, several replicas were made in Thorvaldsen’s Roman studio, one of which was a marble version (1826–1827) for Reykjavík Cathedral (Thorvaldsen’s father was from Iceland). For this version, a model had been created in clay, which was sold to the Englishman Philipp Pusey after the completion of the marble version in April 1828. Pusey, who was also a friend of the Prussian envoy to the Holy See, Christian Karl Josias von Bunsen, gave the clay model of the baptismal font to the latter for the Protestant Community that had been established a few years earlier, where it was first installed in the legation chapel in the Palazzo Caffarelli on the Capitoline Hill and from 1930 in the newly built Christuskirche. The baptismal bowl was designed by Michael Knapp and manufactured by the bronze caster Wilhelm Hopfgarten on commission from Bunsen. Bunsen’s twins Theodor and Theodora were the first to be baptised in it on 19 February 1832.
Thorvaldsen changed the usual round shape of baptismal fonts to a square one, which corresponds to the basic shape of an ancient Roman altar. Four scenes decorate the sides: Christ’s baptism, Mary with Jesus and the young John, Christ blessing the children and three floating putti above the inscription. The baptismal scene, which combines elements of classicism with those of the Italian Renaissance, is typical of Thorvaldsen’s work in the first decade of the 19th century in the simple monumentality of the sublime relief style. [JR]

4 A Memorial Church in Rome? The designs for the "Reformation Memorial Hall"

Of all places, the Evangelical Lutheran Christuskirche lacks a likeness of the denomination’s founder. If it had been up to the architect Franz Schwechten and the Association of German Parish Associations, Luther would have been given a place of honour in the centre of the vestibule. From 1913 onwards, plans were made to equip the now smoothly plastered barrel vault of the church vestibule with a mosaic that would have shown portrait medallions and coats of arms between scrollwork. A series of drafts in the parish archives documents the space planned at that time and the contents of the medallions. The initiative for this decoration in the sense of a “Reformation Memorial Hall” came from the Federation of German Parish Associations, which in July 1913 also provided a list of the desired portraits – including Luther, of course. Now the architect drew on his experience from the Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche), where he had realised a similar cycle, and came up with a finished architectural model made of paper just two months later. The main purpose of this was to raise funds for the project throughout Germany.
According to the model, a total of 15 portrait medallions were to be executed, seven of them of reformers and eight of Protestant sovereigns. Although the most generous donor associations were to be represented by the coats of arms of their cities from the outset, the Anhalter Pfarrverein, for example, did not feel sufficiently appreciated and insisted on the addition of the portrait of its own sovereign Wolfgang, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Since the symmetry of the whole was now upset, another portrait had to be added – the cycle was extended to 17 tondi. Eleven of them can be traced back to direct models in the Berlin Gedächtniskirche; the original master cardboards by Hermann Schaper (today in the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover) therefore only had to be copied and – to adapt to the Roman proportions – reduced in size by about a quarter. Friedrich Schwarting, once a student of Schaper, who died in 1911, took on this task and also made the remaining six medallions. The holdings of the parish archives allow a rare insight into the work process: the existing models of the Memorial Church were photographed and printed onto cardboard in the desired scale. This new cardboard was pierced along the contours with a needle and these were transferred to another cardboard by dabbing on coal dust. The resulting dot pattern could now be rejoined to form a drawing, which in the following step could be coloured again in the colours of the original. Long before the invention of colour film, the cardboard could thus serve the mosaic artist directly as a model for his work. For the six medallions, for which no models from the Gedächtniskirche were available, Schwarting used historical portraits, especially copper engravings. For example, the portrait of the Swabian reformer Johannes Brenz was found in a collection of scholars’ portraits printed in Strasbourg in 1587. The portrait, probably by the hand of Tobias Stimmer, was also photographed, enlarged to the desired scale and the desired round section of the picture drawn in. Then the contours relevant for the transfer to the mosaic were traced onto transparent paper and the colours to be chosen were entered by hand.
Once united as a series, the collection of portraits of the most diverse origins could however hardly create the harmonious impression of compositional uniformity: According to Schwechten’s original plan, in the series of seven Reformers, two would have appeared in profile and three-quarter profile, the others in half-profile; three would have been turned to the left, four to the right. In the centre, Luther would have looked away from Zwingli, who was facing him directly, in the direction of Calvin, who was facing away from him. Schwarting as the executing artist had clearly recognised the problem and wanted to rearrange the order of the medallions accordingly. Until today, it remained unclear whether this came about due to the turmoil of the First World War. The sequence of numbers on the sheets in the church archive answers this last question: it gives an optimised disposition of the tondi and provides the basis for the reconstruction attempt made here. [OL]

5 Film as description: The Christuskirche in Rome

The short contribution explores the architecture of the Christuskirche with the help of moving pictures. In addition to illustrating spatial contexts, the montage used makes it possible to interweave the progressive visual – and also acoustic – development of the structural design with the everyday gestures and action sequences inside the church. In the motion picture, spatial proportions and functional interrelationships are illustrated at the same time. Predominantly natural light illuminates the interior through the milky panes of the church windows, which are reminiscent of early Christian alabaster windows, while the urban sounds of the exterior shots contrast with the subdued silence of the interior. [MM]

Play Video

Selected Bibliography

  • Nina Bewerunge, Die Christuskirche in Rom, Lindenberg 2016.
  • Vera Frowein-Ziroff, Die Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. Entstehung und Bedeutung, Berlin 1982.
  • Stefano Grandesso, Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770–1844), with catalogue by Laila Skjøthaug, Cinisello Balsamo 2015.
  • Jürgen Krüger, Evangelisch-Lutherische Christuskirche Rom, Werl 1988.
  • Jürgen Krüger, Rom und Jerusalem. Kirchenbauvorstellungen der Hohenzollern im 19. Jahrhundert, Berlin 1995.
  • Jürgen Krüger, »Wilhelminische Baupolitik im Ausland, die deutsche evangelische Kirche in Rom«, Römische historische Mitteilungen, 39 (1997), pp. 375–394.
  • Jürgen Krüger, Evangelisch-Lutherische Christuskirche Rom, Regensburg 1999.
  • Jürgen Krüger, »Luther-Erinnerung in Rom«, in: Reformation und Bildnis. Bildpropaganda im Zeitalter der Glaubensstreitigkeiten, ed. Günter Frank and Maria Lucia Weigel, Regensburg 2018, pp. 179–195.
  • Jürgen Krüger, »Gegen den Strich gebürstet. Episoden aus der Gemeindegeschichte«, in: Ökumene in Rom. Erfahrungen, Begegnungen und Perspektiven der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirchengemeinde Rom, ed. Jürgen Krüger and Jens-Martin Kruse, Karlsruhe 2010, pp. 20–33.
  • Jürgen Krüger, »Eine Lutherkirche in Rom? Deutsch-evangelisch in Rom zwischen 1817 und 2017«, in: Päpstlichkeit und Patriotismus: Der Campo Santo Teutonico – Ort der Deutschen in Rom 1870-1918, ed. Stefan Heid and Karl-Joseph Hummel, Freiburg im Breisgau 2018, pp. 140–160.
  • Golo Maurer, Preußen am Tarpejischen Felsen. Chronik eines absehbaren Sturzes. Die Geschichte des Deutschen Kapitols 1817–1918, Regensburg 2005.
  • Andreas Puchta, Die deutsche evangelische Kirche in Rom. Planung, Baugeschichte, Ausstattung, Bamberg 1997.
  • Ernst Schubert, Geschichte der deutschen evangelischen Gemeinde in Rom. 1819 bis 1928, Leipzig 1930.
  • Peer Zietz, Franz Heinrich Schwechten. Ein Architekt zwischen Historismus und Moderne, Stuttgart et al. 1999.


Project Tatjana Bartsch, Michael Jonas, Madelaine Merino
Photographs Gabriele Fichera, Enrico Fontolan
Video Madelaine Merino
Texts Tatjana Bartsch [TB], Michael Jonas, Oliver Lenz [OL], Madelaine Merino [MM], Johannes Röll [JR]
Captions Regina Deckers
Translations Francesca Denora (IT), Regina Deckers (EN)
Realisation Tatjana Bartsch
Assistance Madelaine Merino

Special thanks to Oliver Lenz, Lorenzo Civiero, Enrico Fontolan, Marion Schulz, and Gertrud Widmer for their manifold assistance in providing, documenting, examining and reconstructing the previously unpublished drafts for the “Reformation Memorial Hall”.

Link to the website of the Evangelical Lutheran Community of Rome

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November 1, 2022

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