Deep in the hypermodern heart of downtown Berlin lurks an unexpected classical jewel worth meditating upon in these days of post-Christian Europe: the museum of painting, or Gemaeldegalerie. Opened in 1998 following the reunification of some 1500 artistic masterpieces that had been dispersed East and West after World War II, it is one of the finest collections available of thirteenth to eighteenth century paintings – which is to say, one of the finest collections of paintings on earth.
So why – as several visits in balmy June demonstrated – is this airy, practically new, 72-room gallery that’s stuffed with masterworks so inexplicably empty? Unlike the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, or the Vatican galleries, the Gemaeldegalerie is practically free of human traffic. No noisy tour groups mar your enjoyment of Jan van Eyck’s famously exquisite Madonna in the Church, say, or your contemplation of Hieronymus Bosch’s astounding St. John on Patmos. About the only humans in possible oversupply are the museum guards, who in some rooms outnumber the paying public. (Perhaps as a consequence of their ubiquity, the gallery is not only as empty as most European churches, but also even quieter.)
This curious lack of curious humanity is not due to an absence of amenities. Housed in a building that like most modern oddities is far better experienced inside than out, the gallery is impeccably lit and even air-conditioned, with comfortable benches placed thoughtfully throughout. Its tony cafeteria, also (inexplicably) nearly empty, is both tasty and tastefully done. Even the gallery’s price tag beats the local competition. At eight euros per non-student head, it is two thirds the price of visiting the Checkpoint Charlie museum, slightly less than a visit to the top of the needle in Alexanderplatz, and considerably less than admission to Berlin’s gorgeous Zoo. And its location in the heart of downtown – right near the Philharmonic and the Sony Center, with its movies and outdoor restaurants and IMAX screens – could hardly be improved.
For these reasons and more, the Gemaeldegalerie appears if anything to be one of the most user-friendly artistic sites in Europe. So why – unlike other museums in cutting-edge Berlin – isn’t it crawling with culture vultures?
It’s hard to avoid the obvious here: given the centuries in question, the gallery’s collection is inevitably, ineradicably, inescapably Christian. Such is true not only of the majority of paintings, whose subjects are overtly Biblical or otherwise religious, but of many “non-religious” pieces too. Even the Dutch masterpieces by Steen, Brueghel, and others portraying “ordinary life,” for example, are often hortatory comments on the gaps between Christian morality and Christian practice. Similarly, one of the collection’s most outrageous signature pieces – Caravaggio’s Amor Victorious – does not so much overturn the known (Christian) universe as poke fun at people for thinking themselves in charge of it.
Might the overall Christian character of these artworks somehow account for the seeming lack of public interest? Earlier this year, also surveying contemporary Berlin, George Weigel reflected that “Europe’s collapse of faith in the God of the Bible may have made evocative public monuments impossible” (his reference is to the city’s frankly hideous “monument” to the murdered Jews of Europe). And surely that same growing religious illiteracy might help to explain something of the Gemaeldegalerie’s relative emptiness, too.
But I wonder if another, perhaps less obvious factor — the simultaneous disappearance of something known as the human family in the lives of many Europeans – may turn out to explain a lot, too. That’s one disappearing act at which the Germans, even more than any of their neighbors, have excelled. Almost a third of the German women born in 1960 have had no children. Only half as many children were born last year in Germany as in 1964 – and that’s even throwing in the Turks. And this empty cradle may be just the human backdrop against which the empty Gemaeldegalerie makes best if perverse sense.
After all: how do you explain the sublimity of Raphael’s Madonna with the Infant Jesus to someone who’s never held a baby? Or what’s so perfect about Botticelli’s adolescents in The Virgin and Child with Singing Angels to people who haven’t seen real teenagers up close for decades? How to convey what is throat-tightening about Grien’s Mourning of Christ to a fit, childless man or woman of any age who has never seen death?
In cutting-edge Germany as elsewhere in Western Europe, increasing numbers of people can no longer be assumed to have hands-on experience of any of these things. This familial illiteracy may yet turn out to be more connected to religious illiteracy than we’ve so far understood.