A reflection on the Stalingrad Madonna

Kurt Reuber was an army doctor with the invading German army at Stalingrad. He was also an artist and a Lutheran priest. He had no paper and no drawing instruments, but on Christmas 1942 he drew what has become known as the Stalingrad Madonna with charcoal on the back of a Russian map.

On the left he wrote ‘1942 Christmas in the cauldron/siege. Fortress Stalingrad’.
On the right he wrote, ‘Light, Life, Love’.

He drew a second Madonna and child a year later (the Prisoner’s Madonna), Christmas 1943, after the defeat of the German army by the Russians, when he was taken as a prisoner of war to a camp in Yelabuga. He died from Typhus on 20 January 1944

Many of us will have seen films or read of Stalingrad, and those of us who have lived in Russia will know how the German invasion and the battle for Stalingrad has, like the 900 day siege of Leningrad, been etched onto the Russian soul. But unless we were there, or been in similar situations, I doubt we can even begin to imagine the horror of what people – aggressor or defender – went through.

And yet, out of hell, this image emerges.

It speaks of Light (Licht).
Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world’.
The shadows in this image fall in such a way as to show that the source of light is somewhere out to the right.
That is different from many icons where often the only source of light is the image of Christ himself.
But here the light falls on the head of Christ and on the face of Mary. What would have been to us just darkness, shapelessness, meaninglessness, takes on a new significance in the light.
As the light of Christ shines in those places where at first there only seems to be darkness, when it shines in the utter darkness of our Stalingrads, we begin to glimpse that among the evil and the horror there is some hope

It speaks of Life (Leben).
The image was drawn at Christmas and quotes three descriptions that are given of Jesus – light, life and love. We are, of course, meant to understand this as being an image of Mary with the child.
But what we first see here is a mother and a new-born baby. This is the first hope. In the midst of death, of the ‘cauldron of fortress Stalingrad’, we see new life.
There is something womb-like about the centre of the image. It is like an X ray of a child in a womb: Augustine describes the womb of Mary as the bridal chamber where divinity and humanity embrace.
It is very different to Orthodox icons of Mary and the Christ-child, where Christ is in control, whether gazing with love at Mary or seated on her arm and blessing.
This Christ child is vulnerable. He is not even able to look at Mary. And in seeing the vulnerability of Christ, we see the dignity and the freedom that God has given to us. We are given dignity because the Son of God has become like us in our fragility; and we are given freedom because in becoming so vulnerable, humanity has been given a real choice: either to trample on him or to adore him.

It speaks of Love (Liebe)
Not initially of divine love for us, but of human love for the divine.
Mary gazes in absorption, in delight, at the child.
She holds him and protects him with her hand; although because the proportions seem so wrong, one is not completely sure whether it is her hand. Maybe there is, with her, another hand which holds the child?  
But it does also speak of divine love for us: not just in the coming of the Son of God into this world, but in the sense that the one who protects, is herself protected by the cover – which is almost wing like – and which wraps around her and embraces her. Maybe I am seeing things, but it does appear that the cover around her and his head seems to form the shape of a heart.
He holds us in love so that we can hold others in love.

The Stalingrad Madonna has become a symbol of reconciliation. It unites three cities that were devastated in the Second World War. The original was given by Kurt Reuber’s family to the Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, but there is a copy in Coventry Cathedral in the UK and in the Kazan Cathedral in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).

In our darkness, even in the hell of our personal 'cauldrons', there is one who whispers words of love and delight, who holds us, who gives us freedom and dignity and who, as we look at things in his light, gives us hope.


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